I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked, “So Lolla, what do you do?” since I started working for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Just last week, I was asked that question on two different occasions.
I don’t blame people who don’t totally get what my title Community Engagement Editor means. I remember when I first started the job and was asked to do outreach to all Twin Cities underrepresented communities, I thought to myself, “All underrepresented communities?! Well, how does that work?” I wasn’t sure if we were talking about communities of color? Faith communities? New immigrant communities? People engaged in the (non-mainstream) arts? The LGBT community? All of the above?
Clearly, there is a lot that can happen and a lot that can be covered. My priorities have been to focus on outreach to communities of color and new immigrant communities, while looking at intersectionalities within these groups. These are also communities the Daily Planet would love to have increased readership and contributing writers from.
But, that doesn’t just magically happen. Community engagement, especially to underrepresented communities, isn’t always easy. There are many challenges and roadblocks to getting stories.
Oftentimes, there is a lack of trust, because members of underrepresented communities feel journalists work with power to silence marginalized voices. There is righteous indignation: “Why should I talk to you/your reporter during a time of conflict? Where were you when we had a positive story?” There is also fear: fear of being misrepresented, of the unknown, of cooperating with the Big, Bad Media. Being on both sides of this, I totally get it.
On the strategy front, I am finding some things I do in community engagement are working, and some aren’t. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to community engagement, and a lot of it is done by trial and error. When I first started my position, I put most of my effort into building the Our Stories section by adding short, first-person video interviews of diverse individuals making an impact in their community. The idea behind it is if you empower passionate people to speak in their own words about social change, diverse readership should slowly increase, right?
Maybe. In reality, some Our Stories have been total hits, and some have been misses. I learned quickly that viewers are more interested when Our Stories features individuals who have a goal they are trying to work toward and need community support to accomplish (e.g. a campaign).
I am also learning that it is hard to measure the impact of community engagement. The neat metrics and statistics we’d love to have like How many hits are we getting? Did our readership increase? How many people did we “engage”? are not easy to answer.
As a journalist very passionate about community work and organizing, and who is very rooted in my community, I find it is more meaningful when I talk about community engagement through the lens of relationship-building: What kind of relationships did I create or nurture this week? How am I going to continue to build and nurture them? Statistics can’t really answer that.
Metrics can’t tell you much about the impact of your presence at community meetings to put a human face on The Media many communities distrust. Numbers can’t tell you everything about the impact of your one-on-one conversations with individuals who offer a unique, fresh perspective, but who often aren’t given attention by mainstream journalists. Statistics can’t always measure the usefulness of the hours upon hours you spend on social media trying to figure out where the conversations are happening, and the time you spend asking (read: begging) friends to reconfigure their social media posts into Community Voices pieces.
Long story short: Community engagement is a multi-pronged process. It takes a lot of time, effort, multi-tasking, follow-up and patience. Sometimes, it has concrete results (e.g. a story, more hits, a source), and sometimes it produces nothing concrete at all. But, at the very least, you have created a relationship. The value of this relationship may not be measurable, but the increased trust, communication, and human face of what it means to do journalism hold value. I think this is important, yet often overlooked. This is why I love to do what I do.
One priority for me this fall is to engage more community members through one-on-one conversations. Recently, Bruce Johansen (our Community Engagement Programs Manager) and I had a one-on-one with Kao Kalia Yang, a columnist for Opine Season and an advocate for the Hmong community. We met to follow up after a semi-private community conversation earlier this summer, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio and the Wilder Foundation, about the Radio Lab/Yellow Rain controversy (Yang has written an eloquent piece about it here).
I thought it was a productive coffee meeting. We brainstormed story ideas about the Hmong community and discussed narratives ignored by mainstream media. We also discussed proactive ways the Daily Planet can better engage the Hmong community in our coverage.
Yang imparted so much wisdom and fresh ideas on how we can do better. I left that particular conversation feeling excited and knowledgeable about issues I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. To be clear, I didn’t approach Yang as the sole Hmong voice or authority. But my conversation with her is part of a larger, ongoing process of getting to know various communities better, and of holding myself as an editor accountable to the voices I say I am representing.
So, with that said, I have a request of my readers. I am looking for your feedback: What are other ways you could see me and the Daily Planet team doing outreach to underrepresented communities? There is a LOT that we already do, and there is a lot of capacity that we do not have as a small nonprofit run by an all part-time staff. But, we are always discussing ideas and we are open to trying new things.
Are there are specific individuals—artists, writers, thought leaders, entrepreneurs—in your community whose brains I should be picking? What are the stories we should be covering? Where are the conversations happening? What narratives are we missing? What do you think about the state of our local mainstream, ethnic, and alternative media. Is the best way to gauge all of this by hosting open discussions or forums with various community members?
Again, please let me know your ideas on how we at the Daily Planet can continue to cultivate relationships with marginalized communities and voices and what community engagement means to you. Feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.