As newspapers continue to ax more reporters, producing ever larger gaps in local news coverage, various groups are attempting to move into the breech.
The latest such venture launches tonight. It is a joint endeavor called “Intersections: the South LA Reporting Project,” in which a bunch of USC graduate students in journalism are working with a bunch of Crenshaw High School students in order to produce news stories about the South LA community.
The first round of results is online in the form of audio slideshows, radio commentaries and blogs on such topics as how teachers are impacted by a tough economy, how Crenshaw honor roll students managed their achievements, and how and why various LA immigrants made the choice to come to the U.S.
Admittedly, Intersections* is still in its beginning stages, but it just received a vote of confidence in the form of a $25,000 grant from Knight Foundation to help with it’s next phase.
Emily Henry is one of the talented grad students who has been involved with the project since its inception in August 2008. Here’s what she said about the goals she and faculty directors, Bill Celis and Willa Seidenberg, originally had in mind:
“It would be a community forum and a hyper-local news website, focused on the areas of Los Angeles that usually fall short of media attention, unless the stories involve a body count: From Inglewood to Watts, Compton to the Crenshaw District, Intersections would serve the zipcodes that form the new incarnation of the old “South Central.” Residents, community leaders and high school students would become a solid base for citizen reporting, while USC’s own journalism students would be broaching their comfort zones and pounding the pavements, learning ethnically and culturally diverse reporting.”
It sounded great on paper, but when Emily and her grad school colleagues actually got to the high school, although the Crenshaw kids were eager and willing, the USC group found themselves faced with a series of vexing obstacles. For instance, many of the school’s available computers had missing keys, the students were hampered in their classwork by text books that were woefully out of date (and some didn’t have their own text books), one of the project’s extremely devoted teachers was likely one of those who would soon be laid off by LAUSD, and several of the students had problematic lives outside school that stood in the way of their achievement.
With these and other issues in mind, I asked Emily to write about her experiences at Crenshaw High School, what those experiences told her about the state of LA’s public education, and how the Crenshaw students managed to transcend the difficulties that blocked their journalistic progress.
Her first chapter is below: (And another related essay by Emily is here.)
*(It should be noted that Intersections/South LA Project has the same name as Daniel Herandez’s longtime and wonderful blog Intersections.)
Intersections: Chapter One
By Emily Henry
Surrounded by a chain-link fence with heavy duty locks on its gates, a group of five teenagers leaned against a car in the parking lot of Crenshaw High School. It was almost 10am on a humid Monday morning. A cloud of smoke was rising above their heads, a hidden joint fanning a smell like skunk road kill out into the clear blue day. When the bell rang, the teenagers grabbed their backpacks and trudged around the corner, through the line of cars, past the vacant cop car on the other side of the metal perimeter, and into the side door of the building.
I followed close behind, stopping to sign in at the portable desk and to slap a “visitor” badge on my shirt for the first time, while more students trickled through the door. A tapestry of signs, hand-written in black permanent marker, was pasted above their heads: “No hoodies,” “No electronic devices,” “Tardy fines start at $250.”
I was here working for “Intersections: The South Los Angeles Reporting Project,” to begin the task of building a journalism mentoring program for the third period, senior seminar class. I was one of a group of USC journalism graduate students teaming up with the Social Justice and Law Academy to teach 35 pupils how to report on their community.
From the outside, Crenshaw High School seemed ominous. Segregated from the busy streets of the Crenshaw District by a quiet residential area, the building was partially obscured shuttered by an 8-foot high chain-link fence. At least one LAPD patrol car sat outside at all times during school hours. Usually, by 3pm, there were two or three. The school’s reputation was also unpromising. I knew Crenshaw had a 50 percent drop-out rate — the fourth highest in the LAUSD — and a reputedly troubling level of student disengagement. Coupled with the police presence and the rumors of on-going racial tension between the 70-30 Black-Hispanic student body, there seemed cause to feel nervous. I imagined metal detectors and security searches, guns in lockers and kids throwing gang signs at one another. But I left those stereotypes at the door that day, as soon as I stepped through and felt the vibrant atmosphere inside.
The hallways were full with voices and echoes, the sound of rubber soles on squeaky linoleum, laughter and chatter, as students slowly filed from one side of campus to the other for third period classes. I walked with a group of two girls and three guys who said they were heading to the same classroom as me. Every few steps we seemed to pass notes of inspiration painted on the walls: “Do what’s in your heart” read large, blue letters at one end of the hallway. At the other, a more discreet manta was on display: “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” A security guard in a black vest greeted the passing teenagers with a friendly smile. “How you doing today?” he said, extending his arm to touch fists with one of the taller boys. “Good,” the boy replied, and bowed his head as he drifted through the open door to room 102.
As I made my way inside the classroom, three other USC journalism mentors were already standing against the whiteboard. The room was a wall of noise. A third of the kids had earphones in their ears, listening to an invisible beat while leaning lazily across their individual desks. The others were passing papers, laughing and taunting one another in clusters, or composing text messages on cell phones in their laps. On each wall was a poster with a question written in colored marker at the top: “Who leads the country?” The students had penned-in various answers below, from “the President” to “the people.” Frederick Douglass surveyed the room from the front wall, and on the lockers at the back, a sign showing a sad child leaning on his arms read “Stop the budget cuts.”
Alex Caputo-Pearl, aka “Mr. C.P.,” the goateed classroom teacher, called for silence by raising a clenched fist in the air. “Solidarity, everyone” he said. “Solidarity.” The noise sank to a low murmur. “What is the definition of â€˜social justice’?” he asked. A voice burst from the back of the room, “human rights!” Another said “freedom!,” and a third called out “civic responsibility!” A girl in the second row put her hand up and said softly, “it means being able to be who you want to be.”
“That’s right,” said Mr.C.P. “And a big part of being who you want to be, of being free and exercising your rights as an individual, is having a voice.”
The plan for this session, he explained after introducing the USC guests, was to brainstorm with the class about potential topics for their first assignment as reporters. Eventually, the 35 students, ages 17 and 18, would be split into groups of four to produce multimedia stories on topics that they felt mattered most to their community. Within half an hour, I was walking between desks explaining what would happen over the next few months. They would be researching, conducting interviews, taking pictures and shooting video. They would be taught how to edit audio, compose a photograph and use slideshow software. Most importantly, their work would not stay in the classroom. It would not be pinned to the walls or showcased only to parents and teachers. It would be posted online for anyone to see. “So,” I said. “What are the most important stories to cover?”
Soon, we were discussing immigration, teenage pregnancy, education spending, racial profiling and drop-out rates. I walked from group to group, asking the class what questions they wanted to find answers to.
“Why aren’t there any parks around here?” asked a girl with a lip piercing. “Where are kids supposed to play?”
“Why do people drop out of school?” discussed inquired the louder girls in the corner.
“What effect is Obama’s presidency going to have on the relationship between Blacks and Hispanics?” asked a group of three Hispanic boys and an African-American girl.
“Why doesn’t Arnold spend more money on education and less on prisons?” said a boy still wearing earphones.
When the bell rang for the end of third period and the students waved goodbye, I realized, for the first time and definitely not the last, that in a city where everyone is so afraid of each other, these kids were fearless. They knew what was wrong with their world and weren’t afraid to talk about it. Convincing them, however, that their words had weight beyond the school’s sunshine-filled hallways was going to be the hardest task. “People see Crenshaw as being the lowest of the lowest because of reputation, because of what they think students are here” one of the seniors, Nataly, would later explain. “They don’t see more than the way we dress, the way we talk, where we come from. Maybe we haven’t been raised the best way ever, but I think that’s why they put us down.”
(photos by Emily Henry)