Student Experience: Civil Rights Act Capstone taught me to dig deeper

In June, my family visited Chicago. While driving through the Back of the Yards, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, my eight-year-old niece read a sign out loud, “Building a new Chicago.”

“They’re building a new Chicago?” Giselle asked.

After I attempted to explain the mayor’s efforts to rebrand the beleaguered South and West sides, but really only scraping the surface, Giselle looked out the window and said, “They need to build a new Desert Hot Springs.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked, interested to hear her take on the gang violence and drug problems my hometown had seen over the last few decades. In a 2006 article, the Los Angeles Times described Desert Hot Springs, California, as one of “the most dangerous cities among those with populations less than 100,000” in the region.

“Because of all the drugs, shootings, people dying from the shootings,” she said. “It’s always on the news.”

A lump formed in my throat at the thought of an eight-year-old child aware of these problems and, to a certain degree, jaded by the bombardment of media coverage and their incomplete pieces of reality.

Two days later I sat in the first meeting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Reporting Project with my niece’s words still weighing heavy on my mind.  The project brought together six students in Chicago and three in Washington D.C. to look at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Deborah Douglas, adjunct professor and co-director of the project, urged my peers and I to take daily news coverage and put them in context as we launched into our reporting projects.  

What are the larger structural issues that these day-to-day problems stem from? What is the impact of the Civil Rights Act? How far have we come? What’s unfinished?

Listening to Douglas in the newsroom that day, I thought of how rare this type of reporting is in the shrinking print media landscape, and the need for more like it to move conversations beyond the reductive explanations typically offered.

After thinking about my niece’s words, the importance of in-depth reporting resonated with me. I knew the news coverage I’d been exposed to as a child is virtually the same as what my niece is seeing now; nothing has changed in the last 20 years. No context, just one instance of violence after another.

Naturally, the same stereotypes and assumptions I heard about people from my hometown, like the assumptions I’ve heard about the South and West sides of Chicago, remain unchanged. I couldn’t help but think of the role the media had in shaping these assumptions over the years by failing to give a voice to the voiceless.

This capstone was designed to tell these untold stories, focusing on housing, employment and digital discrimination, while framing these issues around the historical act. In addition to guest speakers but unlike other capstones, the project allowed for traveling for interviews to give insight and anchor the various stories produced by my peers and me.

Throughout the course of 10 weeks, the capstone provided my peers and I an outlet to peel back the layers and write pieces that are more comprehensive on larger social issues still unresolved by the act. From deconstructing the 50-year-old act to delving into its impact and addressing persisting and emerging problems affecting protected groups, the class discussions provided further guidance on how to proceed with my reporting.

Given my experience working with at-risk and incarcerated youth, I gravitated toward work place discrimination for people with criminal records. I concentrated on the collateral impact these arrests and convictions have on the community where these individuals reside when they are locked out of the work force. I spoke with people who expressed their frustration of not being able to move on with their lives because of the stigma of an arrest or conviction branding them a criminal forever.

 In the process, I learned to hold myself accountable as journalist, not just with accuracy and balance, but also with contextualizing stories to provide depth to the issues our communities face.  Along with holding myself accountable as a journalist, I learned to hold our public officials accountable to the promises they make so that an eight-year old will not have to be disillusioned by unfulfilled promises or by incomplete stories. And we can say with conviction that we are building a new Chicago.