This engagement project was spearheaded by Black women with a generational legacy inextricably connected to Texas’s beginnings. We are not only witnesses to but share the historical brunt of a state predicated on white supremacy and the silencing of oppressed people.
The purpose of this project was to take a rehabilitative approach toward this history of oppression. We wanted to develop a replicable model the Texas Observer and other outlets across the state could use as a foundation for coverage of historically overlooked communities, especially in rural areas of the state. We also wanted to empower exploited residents and grassroots leaders by putting the tools of journalism into their hands while we gained insight into coverage needs. We focused on Nacogdoches County and the City of Nacogdoches; Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley region; Native American communities statewide with a focus on reservations and communities in Houston and Dallas; and Bastrop County and the cities of Bastrop, Smithville, and Elgin.
We collected information through town hall events, vigils, media trainings, aimed canvases, social media campaigns, and more. Graduate students in social work with Huston-Tillotson University helped us develop survey questions and dissemination methodologies as well as draw conclusions from the information we collected.
It’s important to note that this work is informed first by history. Since its genesis, journalism in the Lone Star State has spread propaganda that aided the violent removal and dehumanization of Indigenous tribes; encouraged lynchings, burnings, and the persecution of Black chattel; and justified unfathomable anti-Mexican violence along the border across the state. The atrocities mentioned here are only a fraction of past and present afflictions that journalists in this state must work to expose and remedy.
For the reasons cited above, much of this work is galvanized by the principles of Movement Journalism as defined by movement journalism organization Press On:
Movement journalism is journalism in service to liberation. This does not mean turning journalists into soapboxes for activists, but fostering collaboration between journalists and grassroots movements, and supporting journalism created by oppressed and marginalized people.
It’s an approach with an array of practitioners and strategies but has been practiced historically by oppressed communities—specifically Black Southerners. In the context of this project, we want to point to the foundational readings that inspired our approach. The first is a report titled, “Out of Struggle: Strengthening and Expanding Movement Journalism in the U.S. South,” which was released by the movement-building organization Project South and co-authored by Anna Simonton, who is now interim development director at the Appeal: “If robust journalism which centers the interests of marginalized communities has the potential to push the government and society toward justice, then that push has got to come from the South.”
This report later helped lead to the founding of Press On, a movement journalism organization. This collective—along with several other organizations like Free Press, The Listening Collective, and The Southern Movement Assembly—inspired the framework for this project.
Throughout this work, we have seen the consequences for communities when leaders are not held accountable for their actions by the press. It is evident that this type of journalism is essential, even beyond this project’s targeted areas.
We want to make it clear that this project has not been, and is not, a perfect solution for issues we’re seeing in misrepresented and overlooked communities across the state. We are all actively learning how to disinvest and unlearn white supremacist thought and ideology, whether personally or as a community-engagement team.
We also understand that newsrooms across the state are working to find the balance between catering to overlooked communities, rectifying a lack of staff diversity, transforming organizational structures that fall short, and maintaining revenue to keep publications afloat. But in order to alleviate these challenges, it’s important that underrepresented journalists with vision and innovative strategies are respected and fully supported—to their standards, not those who have traditionally held and continue to hold power in journalism organizations—in order to help birth solutions enriched by the very communities most affected.
As the state of Texas sees a shift in demographics, ideology, economy, environment, and healthcare, we can no longer content ourselves with awards and “increased” diversity, followed by exhaustion and untimely turnover. We need to move beyond traditional and passive journalism. Our hope for existing legacy organizations and those on the horizon is that this report helps invigorate a journalism that’s quite the opposite.
We believe this project provides a framework for newsrooms looking to repair relationships with overlooked communities across the state, regionally, or on the hyper-local level. In no way are we saying that our survey methods and approaches are the only answer for issues in coverage. Also, the feedback we collected does not represent all of the thoughts and feelings of residents of color in targeted areas. But this information can be used to help guide newsrooms or organizations toward better strategies for connecting with folks on the ground and getting them engaged with relevant news.
We’re excited to share the results of our findings from the last year. You can read the full report here.
— DaLyah Jones and Zacharia Washington