Heart of the World: Community Journalism

Dianne Heimer

Dianne Heimer

When I was asked to speak today about community journalism, I was honored. I have a lot of respect for the Maynard Institute and its goals to bring diversity to journalism.

And I’m so proud to see former students as a part of this important program: Marianna, Totty, Courtny and Ricardo. I thought about what I would speak about today. I thought I could lecture on the history of community journalism, which has been around since the beginning of the nation we now know. I thought I could speak on journalistic techniques and skills to help equip you. In other words, I could get all “professorial” on you. But then I thought you might need some motivation at this crucial time. You’re halfway through your time with Sacramento Voices. You might be feeling fatigued, maybe a little burned out. That’s typical when someone meets the halfway mark of a journey. So I thought I’d give you a motivational speech to inspire you. Let me start with a personal story.

Several years ago, I got to travel to Turkey and see how people live there. In Istanbul, I went on a boat ride down the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is a sea channel that separates Europe from Asia. It connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The channel also divides the city of Istanbul in half. So on the west bank of the Bosphorus is Europe. You make a half turn and look at the side. That’s Asia. You can easily see both shores because the Bosphorus is only about a mile wide. I can still see the surface of the water sparkling like diamonds on that sunny day on the boat, 14 hours and almost 7,000 miles from Sacramento. My point is that it’s a long way from here.

But my point is not really about the Bosphorus. My point is about what happened while I was on that boat in Istanbul floating down the Bosphorus. I began talking to a young American college student who was sitting next to me on the deck of the boat. While we were talking, she mentioned she lived in New Jersey, and that she was Dominican-American. Her parents had come from the Dominican Republic years before. “Oh,” I said. “I don’t know much about Dominican culture, but I have read Junot Diaz’s stories. I love him. Have you ever heard of ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’”?

The woman changed in an instance. All the sudden she became alive, animated. She began talking excitedly about how reading Diaz’s stories had changed her life. He was the first author, she said, who told honest and truthful stories of what life in her family was like. What life in her New Jersey neighborhood was like. The foods, the smells, the values, the struggles. She talked about the cultural tug between two countries, two cultures, which hyphenated Americans always feels. Why did Junot Diaz mean so much to her? Because she had never read “real” accounts about people like herself in print. One literary reviewer put it this way:

Dominican-American writers do not figure prominently in the fictions produced by peoples of color in the United States, their representation is limited largely to Julia Alvarez (who wrote in the 1980s) and Junot Díaz.

What Junot Diaz is doing, as a Dominican-American, besides winning a Pulitzer Prize for that novel, is telling stories about Dominican-Americans that rarely make it to the mainstream, and rarely into news media.

There are many reasons why. In the U.S., Dominican-Americans are not large in population, only .5 percent. Not much power, not much clout. Only a few Dominican-Americans have distinguished themselves in a way that gains them entry into the American zeitgeist. Do you know who A-Rod is? A Dominican-American. The designer Oscar de la Renta? A Dominican-American. They are the exceptions. In other words, mainstream news doesn’t have much interest in regular Dominican-Americans. Still, 1.7 million people in the U.S. are Dominicans. Who tells their stories? Junot Diaz does. And he has to tell their truth through fiction. So a few years ago, a world away on a boat in Turkey, I realized the impact on someone who sees a reflection of herself, of her culture, of her struggle in the written word.

***

So that leads me to our town. To South Sacramento. Who tells the stories of the ignored people in our city? You do. You are telling the stories of South Sacramento, a place that seems as distant as the Dominican Republic to many people who live in this town. Unless, of course, a crime happens. Then people read about South Sac. And that’s what most people think — in fact that’s all some people think.

“Oh, South Sac. That’s the place with all the crime.” We know that’s B.S. We know you can’t condense a place to a single phrase like “the place with all the crime.” You can’t dehumanize people like that, not these people who live and work and raise their families in South Sac. You can’t sum them up in a single dismissive statement. You know that, because you live there. You know the people. You know their stories. But many people don’t. Because 99 percent of the stories they read in the newspaper and see on TV news and read on their smart phones about South Sac have to do with crime.

They hear those often-repeated crime stories, and that’s all they think.

But all of you? You’re changing that. You’re telling the story of a place. Of a people. Of their worth, their contributions, their lives. That is powerful. Because if you don’t tell their stories, who will? Who will? Not the mainstream press. If you don’t tell people the true facts about the community, who will?

Not Junot Diaz. He has his own story to tell about his own place. You will tell stories about your place. South Sacramento. Like Audreyell Anderson did when she wrote about her Grandma Alice. Audreyell told her family’s story of a strong woman from South Sac—her grandmother–who looked her granddaughter in the eye when she was 15 and told Audreyell she was going to become a lawyer. And Audreyell did.

You will tell people about South Sac when you tell the stories about your neighbors, like Courtny Thomas did when she wrote about Ray Newman and his Tahoe Park barbershop, Cali Fadez. Like Eugene Willis did when he wrote about hunger in Oak Park, and the 5,000 turkeys the Sacramento Food Bank gave out at Thanksgiving.

I had a student last semester who stood in that same line for one of those turkeys Eugene wrote about. She’s raising five children, and she asked to be excused from class that day so she could get up early and stand in that line – all morning if necessary – to get a turkey so she could make holiday dinner for her family. Story after story on your Sacramento Voices website tells about people and places and things that are happening in South Sac that wouldn’t be told anywhere else. Because if you don’t, who will?

You’re speaking truths that rarely get told. After all, that is what we journalists are after: the truth. And the truth is always powerful. I don’t want you to forget the power of those truths.

When you get frustrated because you think, you suck at taking notes, don’t forget that power. When you’re struggling to find the words late at night to tell someone’s story, don’t forget that power. Those are simply skills; journalistic skills you’ll get better at the more you do them. What I want you to remember is the truth and power of what you’re really doing. Telling people’s stories. Telling stories about a place – South Sac – and the people who live there because their stories rarely get told.

That’s community journalism in a nutshell. And it’s dying. The little neighborhood newspapers are dying out. The Neighbors section of the Bee is long gone. The Sacramento Observer still survives after 60 years. And it’s done a great job for African-Americans. But we need an Observer for all the ignored people groups in South Sacramento.

You can be that voice. You can bring attention to all the challenges and all the triumphs South Sacramentans face so the rest of the people in Sacramento will know what’s really going on in this community. This year you’re focusing on health issues in South Sac. Tell the rest of Sacramento your stories, the stories of the people around you. You know them best. You care the most. Make others care.

***

In the 20th century, Time magazine had the highest circulation of just about any news magazine around. The man who started Time magazine in the 1920s was named Henry Luce. He also started a few other magazines in his time, like Life and Sports Illustrated. He was a missionary’s kid, and he said he found his “calling” in journalism. Here’s something else he said about the importance of journalism: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” I hope, like Henry Luce, you’ll see your time at Sacramento Voices as a calling. If you treat your work here as a calling, you will come as close as possible to the heart of the world. Your world has a heartbeat. Your world is South Sacramento. Let it be your calling.

Dianne Heimer is a Professor of Journalism at Sacramento City College

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