In the age of Trump, reporting on marginalized communities more important than ever

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, my childhood memories revolve around canning tomatoes to make fresh salsa in the winter and running out to our backyard garden to pick cilantro and greens for my mother to cook. Pretty much everything we ate was made from scratch.  
 
But one of the things I remember most was my mother's love of tea. She knew how to mix herbs to make remedies for a variety of ailments; knowledge that was passed down from the women in her family in Los Altos, in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico.
 
She knew that chamomile soothes the stomach and relieves bloating and indigestion, that dried Hibiscus flowers can lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system. Boiling tea leaves grown from our garden to soothe our maladies was commonplace in our home.  
 
As we grew up, my mom mixed less and began to buy boxed teas. Bewitched by media advertising from big tea companies, she slowly succumbed to the structural racism wrapped around consumerism. And in losing her connection to tea-making, our family, and our community, lost something more.
 
“Cultural identity is the currency that allows for self-determination," says Michelle Martinez, Executive Director of Third Horizon Consulting. “When self-determination is taken away through food, you begin to internalize oppression.”
 
Martinez is a third-year cohort member in the Detroit Equity Action Lab (DEAL) at the Damon J Keith Center for Civil Rights, at Wayne State University Law School, where I am honored to serve as the program's first Race and Justice Journalism Fellow. The fellowship allows me to write about race and justice for one year while learning about the city's most pressing equity issues from experts who are in the trenches dealing with these matters daily.
 
The DEAL program was created by former W.K. Kellogg Foundation Program Officer Sharnita C. Johnson, whose work centered around equity and community, and Peter Hammer, Wayne State law professor and Director of the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights.
 
Hammer felt that groups fighting for education, transportation, health disparities and food access in Detroit were not making the progress they desired and wanted to bring together some of the brightest minds in Southeast Michigan to create new ways of dismantling structural racism. He felt that the political establishment wasn’t doing their job when it came mass inequity.
 
I began to seriously focus on race, justice, and the media while working as a journalist during Detroit’s bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.  The bankruptcy led to the appointment of an emergency manager and usurped control of local elected officials in a primarily black city, disenfranchising voters and violating a deeply valued tenet of American democracy-- local representation.  
 
While there was a lot of local and national coverage of the bankruptcy, there was an omission of coverage of the voices of Detroit's people during the insolvency. This deeply concerned me, as did the stories that did come out, which helped to pit the pensioners against art, water, and public safety.
 
Around the same time as the bankruptcy, a controversial land sale involving a millionaire investment banker took place, the Detroit Future City Plan was rolled out, and the mass water shutoffs began. These important events lacked proper coverage from the perspective of how land and public infrastructure privatization would impact Detroiters.
 
Protests of these events by African Americans have drawn harsh comments from the establishment. I’ve heard non-profit leaders call members of the community “obstructionists.” I’ve heard journalists call activists “grape throwers," sighing with a "here they go again" attitude in response to news that protesters disrupted city council meetings. I also saw Detroit citizens referred to as “CAVE people” or, “Citizens Against Virtually Everything” in the Detroit Future City Plan.
 
These remarks are disparaging, veiled in racism, and rooted in economic elitism.
 
Local media failed to ask one simple question. Why? Why are these issues so upsetting to such a large group of people? How would these events impact Detroit’s communities? What were the economic ramifications to people living here? Why did so many people leave their jobs, organize in their neighborhoods and step away from the demands of everyday life to protest what was happening?
 
I wanted to know why. So I went to the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights to get some insight. That is when I first met Peter Hammer and DEAL Director, Eliza Perez-Olin. Both had a broad understanding of current and past events, and they were able to shed light on what was happening in the city. 
 
My commitment to learning became so important that I decided to take time away from my career in public radio to focus exclusively on race and justice in Detroit. I wanted to not only report but to contribute to the conversation on dismantling racism.
 
My fellowship has allowed me to be in on conversations with community leaders.  They gathered recently at Detroit’s Historical Museum to address how structural racism impacts the food we eat, the food system, and how we see our bodies.

“We are intentional about getting to know one another and supporting individual members as a collective,” says Lisa Leverette, DEAL Fellow and Program Director of Community Connections Grant Program.
 
Food and race are big issues in Detroit. What we eat and how we access food is directly linked to inequality. Large agri-business controls over 83 percent of all foods in the marketplace, dictating our consumption because of what is available in grocery stores. 
 
The group discussed how the erasure of cultural food traditions and structural racism are inextricably linked—and that the boxed tea that my mom began to buy reinforced the idea that “white” culture is better.  
 
Elevating these voices from the grassroots is essential to creating a new narrative around social justice—and to identifying new and authentic solutions.
 
“We’ve created in Detroit an echo chamber where a lot of larger political nonprofits, the media, and the state think they know the answers,” says Hammer. “They’re trying to think about the problems of the city without any understanding of its history, without any understanding of the root causes of the tremendous inequality that surrounds us.”
 
Through DEAL I've been able to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. I’ve met nationally recognized partners from the urban farming community who told me they struggle to sell their organic goods to Detroit’s new bustling restaurant scene. Partners in the legal sector informed me of their work in getting drivers licenses for the homeless, which is needed when applying for jobs, housing, public assistance, and social security. Suspended drivers' licenses are a national problem for the poor, driving thousands into an inescapable cycle of poverty each year.  
 
These personal stories massively inform my work. And I'm exposed to highly educated, skilled activists who back up what’s happening in their communities with data and facts.
 
Take, for example, We the People of Detroit, a grassroots organization founded in 2008 by DEAL fellow Monica-Lewis Patrick. The group set out over 18 months to document, house by house, block by block, which homes in Detroit had had their water shut off. They then cross-referenced their discovery with foreclosures and published their findings in a book called Mapping the Water Crisis. 
 
Communities of color have for decades protested to politicians and the press that coverage of their issues was paramount to understanding marginalized people. But to cover these matters well, journalists must have access to local knowledge. It's crucial for anyone who wants to report with both accuracy and humanity.
 
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Nicholas Kristof wrote that “we in the mainstream media are out of touch with working-class America; we spend too much time chatting up senators, and not enough visiting unemployed steel workers."
 
News media who are not reporting on the struggles of marginalized people in their neighborhoods are not doing their job. Without in-depth information from people on the ground, you can't know what is happening in communities related to transportation, immigration, education and economics of globalization.
 
These issues play out every day, in real time, in our poorest neighborhoods. Covering communities is not about money; it’s not about how many reporter are in a newsroom. “It’s about having the commitment to cover communities as a core value,” says Michelle Srbinovich, General Manager of WDET, where I worked in public radio  

This idea must become a pillar of all media institutions.
 
The 2016 presidential election was lost by Hillary Clinton in significant part because she and her team didn’t understand what was happening in communities (both rural and urban) that she needed votes from to win.The alarm to commit to covering marginalized communities should sound off like a bullhorn in newsrooms across America. 
 
Only in this way can we be more truthful—not neutral—reporters and begin to chip away at the white bias that has led to dysfunctional journalism. Maybe then we'll also start changing the intense media culture that led my mom to give up boiling her own tea leaves. 
 
Award-winning journalist Martina Guzman is the Race and Justice Journalism Fellow at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.

Masthead: Portrait of Judge Damon J. Keith. All photos by Cybelle Codish.

This piece is part of a solutions journalism series on Metro Detroit's regional issues, conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and guided by our Emerging Leaders Board.

 
This work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. You can view other pieces in this series here.
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