Reporting on Race With Context and Empathy

‘Respect people’s humanity and resilience when you use their life to illustrate a problem,’ says Adeshina Emmanuel.

Long before Adeshina Emmanuel wrote a story that went viral about a teenager’s literacy struggle, the Chicago-based reporter was part of a small, teary-eyed audience listening to one woman speak.

The woman, Katrina Falkner, recounted stepping up to take care of her nephew, Javion Grayer, after the teen’s mother died in 2016. Falkner described the realization that, at 16 years old, Javion was reading at a second-grade level.

Her big question: How does someone get through the public school system like that? That conundrum resonated with Emmanuel, who covers education for Chalkbeat Chicago.

“So many forces, so many institutional failures, so many individual failures. So much has to converge on a kid, you know, to have that outcome,” said Emmanuel, who discussed the story during a recent interview with EWA.

On Dec. 11, Chalkbeat published Emmanuel’s article, “How it feels to be Javion: 16 and struggling to read in Chicago Public Schools.” The story detailed Javion’s struggle and determination to master reading along with other challenges of his tumultuous young life.

Emmanuel also wove together a parallel narrative of the institutions that have failed the teen and students like him, providing the context of generational poverty, housing segregation, and other obstacles tied to institutional racism.

Adeshina Emmanuel, Chalkbeat Chicago

Connecting the dots in that manner makes sense for Emmanuel, a reporter whose main focus is writing about issues of race, class, and equity in education. Emmanuel, who joined Chalkbeat in May 2018, has covered those issues throughout his eight-year journalism career, addressing the topics of policing, criminal justice, economic development as well as the “fight for racial equity in a country and a city that has a long-troubled history with those things.”

Turning an eye toward Chicago schools was “a progression,” Emmanuel said. It was an opportunity to home in on one institution. And after hearing Falkner last year at a Chalkbeat-sponsored forum for families of children with disabilities, Emmanuel knew he had heard an important story.

The story “had a lot to do with how we teach kids how to read and what happens in that K-3 time span that can set a kid off in the right direction,” Emmanuel said.

Resilience vs. Deficits

Reading is not Javion’s only struggle, as Emmanuel learned in his reporting. There was his mother’s sudden death from pneumonia in 2016. Javion survived a shooting — one his aunt said was not directed at him — in 2017. His 15-year-old cousin was shot to death three months later.

Q&A with Chalkbeat Chicago Reporter Adeshina Emmanuel 

What tips do you have for covering issues of race and equity in education — particularly when journalists are writing about unfamiliar communities, cultures, etc.?

Pay close attention to history and place. Every community has a particular relationship with its school district, and with its schools. The less you know about that historical relationship, the harder it will be to understand or convey a meaningful story. Don’t view schools in a vacuum, because you have to understand the institutional arrangements in a community and consider how issues in education overlap with issues in housing, policing, courts, the economy and other parts of society. Respect people’s humanity and resilience when you use their life to illustrate a problem. They’re more than case studies and worth more than just their deficits.

When writing about Javion Grayer, a teenager working to strengthen his literacy skills, you wove in context about segregation, disinvestment, intergenerational poverty, and other aspects of systemic racism. Why is that context important, particularly when it comes to covering education? Are there resources that you would recommend journalists check out in order to better understand those issues?

So many forces outside schools land in the classroom. I don’t think my story would have meant much if I had avoided those connections. As far as resources, there are some books I’d recommend.

  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing
  • Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect
  • Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education
  • Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side
  • A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s

What do you think helped make this story resonate with so many people, and why is that important?

Chicago isn’t the only city failing people like Javion. The literacy crisis is real, even if we don’t read about it every day or see it on TV every night. It’s a national issue. And many of us who have gone to public schools have lived it or seen it ourselves, wherever we live.

“It’s was just baffling that we’re expecting this kid to make all these gains and meet all these challenges when he’s still reeling from the loss of his mother,” Emmanuel said.

Over his academic career, Javion flitted from low-performing school to low-performing school and experienced what Emmanuel described as a “scattershot approach to literacy instruction” in Chicago schools.

Even with those challenges, Emmanuel said, he observed and wrote about Javion and Falkner from a perspective of resilience and not of deficits. He didn’t want to take a clichéd approach to that story. Emmanuel fleshed out the written portrait of Javion, describing a teenager who was also humble, determined and popular.

Some areas of Javion’s life echo Emmanuel’s own experiences, the reporter said. Emmanuel also grew up in Chicago and attended the city’s public schools, for example.

“I sat in classes with Javions,” Emmanuel said. “I knew other black boys who went through turmoil in their lives and who struggled in the classroom.”

Emmanuel said his own mother had a Section 8 housing voucher and his family lived in public housing. His grandmother was a sharecropper in the South before moving north during the Great Migration.

“She understood oppression and racism and how these forces converged,” he said.

That’s also true of Javion and his aunt, Emmanuel said. They weren’t just people waiting to be saved.

Emmanuel’s father died last August. He interviewed Javion and his family before leaving to spend a month in Nigeria to bury his own father. When Emmanuel returned to Chicago and his work, he had a new context for the news story he had started.

The perspective Emmanuel brings as a young black man in America (he’s 30 years old) likely differs from that of a typical journalist. In the U.S., 77 percent of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic whites, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center of U.S. Census data. That lack of racial and ethnic diversity in newsrooms has come up in recent discussions about how the mainstream media broaches topics of race and class, such as an aversion to classifying things as racist.

But you don’t have to be black, male, or experience poverty to tell a story like Javion’s in a nuanced way, Emmanuel said. There are “some basic tenets of humanity and respect and empathy that every reporter should have.”

At the same time, it’s also a challenge, he said, for some reporters to not make a subject like Javion “exotic.”

“He wasn’t exotic to me. He wasn’t some case study,” Emmanuel said. “I was very sensitive about it, that I didn’t want to present him as just a case study. … I was worried about him becoming just some sob story.”

Emmanuel said he also took care to avoid making the story about the failures of Chicago schools or black families. He didn’t want to portray Javion as a victim who needed to be saved.

“I just wanted to give people a window into his experience,” Emmanuel said.

Bigger Than Local

The approach seemed to resonate.

A few hundred readers interacted with Emmanuel on Twitter about his article on Javion since it was published in December, with many thanking him for writing the story and asking how they might help Javion. An hour after the article was published, Chicago Public Schools announced plans to create a centralized reading curriculum, Emmanuel reported in a follow-up article.

Reflecting on the story, Emmanuel said the experience also serves as a reminder that local news coverage can tell a more universal story.

“This is kind of a rebuttal to the idea that local news can’t be big enough,” Emmanuel said. “It had meaning beyond Chicago.”

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