Social Journalists as Community Weavers
Lessons from the “Weave the People” gathering in DC
In mid-May, a diverse group of community “weavers” from a variety of different professions and passions came from across the United States to Washington, DC to talk about the ways in which they bring people together to solve problems and build meaningful relationships.
Supported by The Aspen Institute and led by New York Times columnist David Brooks, Weave: The Social Fabric Project aims to tackle the widespread isolation and division in America that has contributed to a 30 percent increase in suicide rates in the past decade and a half, among other social ills.
Let me say before going forward that I was…a little skeptical…about this effort when I first got the invitation. I have, er, not agreed with all of Brooks’ punditry over the years, and also, do we really, in the year 2019, need an older white guy to be leading this charge?
But so much of this gathering and its aims spoke to what we try to do in the social journalism curriculum that I direct at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. For nearly five years, my colleagues, students and I have been trying to join and help build a movement to refocus journalism on listening to, serving, and engaging communities in new ways. We call it “social journalism;” it is also known as engaged or participatory journalism. We believe that journalists’ role is not constrained to storytelling alone; we can also bring people together in dialogue and meet information needs in a variety of creative ways. We also know there is much to learn about listening and community building from people outside journalism — community organizers, political activists, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. — exactly the kinds of folks that attended Weave The People.
Also, the graphic below was good to see. While there is always room for improvement(!), this gathering was better on diversity than many I’ve been part of in the past (that may not be saying much, but still, progress.) And I will give Brooks credit where credit is due, because when you have a spotlight as big and powerful as the New York Times, using it using it to bring together and highlight people who are doing the hard work of community building is laudable— especially given that any group like this that aims to generate conversation and learning across different regions, racial/ethnic/gender/class backgrounds, professions, and political parties is going to have many uncomfortable moments and flaws.
There was a lot to learn for the journalists in the room, and I wanted to share some of the things I hope to incorporate into our curriculum and other aspects of my work. This post is a bit meandering because I’m still trying to think through what it all means.
The biggest, most fundamental takeaway for me was that community building is, in the end, about emotion and mutual vulnerability.
This is, to put it mildly, challenging, especially for journalists and educators who think of ourselves as primarily in the business of information or knowledge transfer.
Emotions are complicated and can be messy. Shared vulnerability is a minefield; it can’t be forced, and the less privilege you have, the more risk it carries. Willingness to share our feelings and traumas with others can and should vary widely among individuals and places and contexts and cultural norms. Indeed, after the Weave the People gathering, many participants reported that hearing about others’ traumas was triggering and that they wished the organizers had offered more opportunities to get support.
But over and over again, this group of some of the nation’s most impressive and experienced community builders showed that “just the facts” isn’t how we connect, not to mention that if the facts seem to go against our deeply-held beliefs or experiences, it’s not even how we learn.
As Brooks put it, “At most conferences people lead with their bios, but at this gathering people led with their pain.” We heard many heartbreaking stories of loss and struggle that had become catalysts for people to not only help others, but to build meaningful relationships of *mutual* aid. It was their authenticity and their courage to talk about their darkest times that helped them draw together with others, even those very different than themselves.
If we are going to journalism *with* communities, instead of just *for* them, this is something we also need to grapple with.
I’ve danced around the edges of this concept in my teaching for years. In my courses and the talks I give about social journalism, I have a standard spiel about how I think engaged journalism has two key, overarching elements: Listening and sharing. I spend more time focusing on all the different techniques journalists can use to do a better job of listening to people’s needs and concerns; we have a host of practical tools and best practices for doing that.
But then I talk about how the best engaged journalists I know are also incredibly generous about what they share. Not just hawking links to their own work for clicks, but being open about themselves, their passions, their work process, their doubts, the things they *don’t* yet know, the beautiful or funny or sad things they’ve seen and heard along the way. They respond to others, they answer questions, they even promote the work of competitors at times as relevant.
I have struggled to articulate clearly why I thought this was so vital. When Andy Carvin, who is now working with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, said “generosity is the currency of social media” at an Online News Association conference a few years ago, I immediately added the quote to a slide deck — whoo hooo, somebody else on the same page as me! Often, as a matter of practicality, this kind of sharing does take place on social media for journalists, although it isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to Twitter and Facebook et. al.
I think of it as a kind of reverse narcissism. It may seem like I’m advocating yet another way to say say “look at me!” in our selfie-obsessed culture. But sharing isn’t about constructing a perfect image of yourself, as the Weave the People participants showed in talking about such heartbreaking things as a child’s suicide or a solider’s post-war PTSD. It can be about both helping and connecting with others in a genuine way, in a way just burping out the headlines to your stories or videos can simply never do.
The “Weaver” gathering helped me to understand better why sharing matters so much if journalists want to build trust and stronger relationships in communities. Shared vulnerability and conversations, not lectures and soliloquies, are what establishes our common humanity, and helps us bridge differences and stop seeing “others” as bad or apart. Researchers like Dr.Marsha Welch of Columbia shared with us that emotional connection is a biological imperative for human well-being; others told us that the key to any relationship is not “fixing” others’ problems, but listening to them and disclosing our own to establish channels for mutual aid and respect.
Most importantly, we talked about the importance of understanding and acknowledging the power differences in any conversation we are entering, and making space for discomfort around those differences. I thought the “Weaver” gathering did a pretty good job of acknowledging the centrality of race in this work, although as many people of color who attended pointed out, it was still not enough. “I worry about the weave concept because I don’t see myself in the thread,” one activist, who is black, told the group.
Indeed, throughout our three days together, I kept thinking about all the work white people in particular need to do in order ***to stay in the damn room*** when conversations or sharing gets difficult or uncomfortable; having recently read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Networked News, Racial Divides: How Power and Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Communities by Sue Robinson, this was top of mind for me; both books shaped my thinking in profound ways. The more privilege you have, the less likely it is that you’ve had to feel uncomfortable in public spaces, and thereby the more likely it is that you shut down or get defensive if others challenge you. I’ve done this myself, and although now I at least recognize it, I still have work to do. This is crucial for white journalists who want to do better at reporting on and with communities who have long been marginalized in major news outlets.
As journalists, when we ask people to share their darkest secrets, their hidden pain, their worst moments with us — as we routinely do, it’s part of the job — in a sense, we preserve power inequity when we do not disclose our own.
I can already see how this line of thinking could be taken the wrong way or to extremes, but I think it that at the very least offers some food for thought. No, I don’t think it’s always or maybe even often appropriate for journalists to spill their guts in front of every interview subject or to be firing off personal essays about their feelings on a weekly basis. I’m also not talking here about sharing political opinions, which I think is a different, if somewhat related, subject. But what are some of the ways in which we *can* be more vulnerable or open in ways that build mutual trust? What can we learn from the best community builders?
Another big caveat to ponder: one reason journalists are often uncomfortable with any sharing beyond “the facts” is that we are often punching up, charged with holding governments, corporations and other large institutions that have considerable power and resources accountable. While relatively few of us attain celebrity status, we are still in the public eye, under scrutiny and subject to all manner of trolls and jerks, especially those of us who are members of historically marginalized groups. Our norms evolved as they did for a reason: to protect us from those with the power and means to silence us, to withhold documents, to deny that they ever said such a thing, etc.
But at the same time, the ways in which we report on those with *less* privilege has often caused harm, even if it was unintentional. Yes, we “give voice to the voiceless,” but we also do things like breeding fear by hype-reporting on crime (looking at you, local TV news) or parachuting in to write about places we don’t really understand to write stories with false narratives that limit the potential for solutions. Journalists still hold tremendous power over all the ways our culture sees and understands — or doesn’t — itself. Although social/digital media has reduced the power of journalists as gatekeepers, what we choose to amplify still has a significant impact on politics, culture, and major institutions.
Hopefully we will pay more attention to all of this because it is the right thing to do, but given that we are in a crisis of trust and increasingly dependent on subscriptions or memberships that value loyalty over clicks, this is key to sustainability, too.
A few more specific ideas on community building from the Weave the People organizers, lightly paraphrased:
- Engage in conversations — dialogue, not monologue
- Listen with kindness and curiosity. Assume good intentions and seek out understanding. Use “active listening” e.g. take notes on post-its, one idea per note, and repeat back what you heard to your partner.
- Speak from hearts and minds. Draw on your own personal experiences and make room for others.
- Growth is uncomfortable. Accept discomfort as a pathway to understanding.
- Embrace our brokenness. We’re here to support one another, not to save one another.
Others specific community building ideas that were discussed include:
- When leading a group or teaching, acknowledge that you don’t know if it is a safe space, because you don’t know what that safety means to each individual, and there are always going to be some things you can’t control about the environment. This can be a catalyst for further discussion.
- People have to be understood and validated before specific plans for action can be made.
- As appropriate, try the four Ss discussion…asking everyone in a group: “What is your spark, your strength, your struggle, your supports?” Spark is not just a hobby — it’s something you lose track of time doing.
- For journalists, reporting on solutions to problems in addition to exposing them can be a powerful way to make people feel less hopeless and disempowered. Luckily the Solutions Journalism Network has tons of resources and case studies to help with this.
- Weaving is often brutally intense work. We talked a lot about the importance of self-care. Factors to consider include are physical wellness, environmental connection, financial wellbeing, intellectual inquiry, emotional resilience, professional development, social wellness, and spiritual awareness.