Our Body Politic

Making the Most of College, Books that Educate and Empower, and Two New Models of Community-based Journalism

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with Dr. Angel Pérez of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling about how students can access the resources they need for a successful college experience. Luvvie Ajayi Jones shares lessons from her book on facing your fears. Latinx author Carmen Maria Machado addresses criticism of her memoir from a school district in Texas, and why it matters to share her story. Social media maven Omehabiba Khan tells the origin story of her successful Instagram dating site for Muslims, Rishta Live. And on the weekly roundtable Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai Chideya talks about what accountable, community-based journalism can look like with two founders of local news organizations based in New York: Mazin Sidahmed of Documented, and S. Mitra Kalita of Epicenter-NYC.


00:35 Dr. Angel Pérez gives advice for college students and their families approaching the new year

13:01 Luvvie Ajayi Jones on facing fear, which she calls “the everlasting hater”

22:02 Author Carmen Maria Machado on moral panic and her book “In the Dream House”

27:07 Omehabiba Khan on her online dating platform for Muslims

31:30 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Farai Chideya and journalists S. Mitra Kalita of Epicenter-NYC and Mazin Sidahmed of Documented talk about local journalism

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As we grow and evolve our show, we need lots of input from listeners like you. So I want to ask you a small favor, after you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much. 

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. For so many students, this month is going to be life-changing. My goddaughter is going to college as a freshmen. I am so excited for her and so excited that she gets to go in-person not on Zoom School. The calculus to even go to college is getting harder and harder each year for so many families. My next guest is here to tell us all about the changing pros and cons of higher education. Dr. Angel Pérez is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling or NACAC. He's been working in higher education for over two decades. His organization represents admissions and counseling professionals. Welcome back to Our Body Politic Angel.

Dr. Angel Pérez: It's good to see you again.

Chideya: How do you view the return on investment of higher education today? I'm asking because you wrote in The Atlantic, "It's harder than ever for lower income students to afford college." What's the state of play for college accessibility and affordability?

Pérez: So I think the first thing to acknowledge is that college is certainly expensive. And actually the rate of college tuition keeps going up at a much faster rate than inflation. But the reality of the matter is college education is still one of the best investments that any student can make in their lifetime. All of the data shows to the point that if you get a college education, you have a much higher possibility of gaining more employment over time, you will make more money over a lifetime. So while it is expensive, it certainly is still a very good investment.

Chideya: So what are the best solutions? Is it about making college less expensive, about increasing scholarships and financial aid, about some people not going to college? Where are the solutions coming from?

Pérez: The solutions are going to come from a lot of different places. One, college administrators need to start thinking about how to cut costs so that students can actually afford their education a little bit more. But the other piece is we have a real serious reckoning to do in this country around how higher education is funded. In most other countries, higher education is much more affordable and sometimes free. And so changing our model, thinking about the way that our government invest in higher education is actually really important, but also we have to invest in more financial aid for students. Actually, my association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling just put out in partnership with a bunch of other organizations, a campaign for the Biden administration to double the Pell Grant for the lowest income students in the United States. And so it's initiatives like that, that are going to help move the needle. But I do want to say, cause I think it's really important. It is very dangerous to say to young people today do not go to college because if you look at the predictions about all of the future of work, the majority of jobs are actually going to require a college education and no one wants to be left behind.

Chideya: There was a survey over this summer on education.org that said that four years after graduation, nearly half of black students owed 12.5% more than they borrowed, so interest. And in the same period, 83% of white students owed 12% less than they borrowed. That's a huge difference in how people are able to manage educational debt. With the Pell Grant, if that change happened, it would affect people coming into college. Do you think there's any remediation possible for people who already have graduated?

Pérez: The other thing that we're working on at the National Association is loan forgiveness with the Biden administration as well. So I think a lot of the initiatives that are happening right now are not just about students who are going to go into college in the future, but also about helping those that have already taken on a lot of debt. One thing that's important to note is on a national average, those numbers look very, very scary, but actually if you look at student loan debt, a lot of it comes from graduate students. And a lot of it also comes from for-profit colleges, which unfortunately disproportionately impacts low-income students and students of color. And so we also have a lot of work to do there to make sure that our lowest income students understand what all of their choices are, as opposed to just considering, for example, some of the for-profit colleges where they end up with such an extraordinary amount of debt.

Chideya: Maybe explain a little bit of what the differences seem to be between the for-profit colleges and not, and knowing that everyone is going to have their own set of decisions.

Pérez: I think the first thing I'll say is it's really important for people to do their research when they are considering colleges and universities and ask the question whether they are a for-profit institution or whether they are a nonprofit institution, because nonprofit institutions function under different regulations, they also function under different missions. The title says it all right, these institutions are for profit and the other institutions are not in it to make a profit and have a very, very different mission. And so one of the things that is really important for students and particularly low income first generation and students of color, who often don't have mentors to walk them through what some of those differences are, is to ask those questions also because at a lot of the for-profit institution, the majority of the way that most students will be able to afford the education is through loans. Whereas at a lot of nonprofit organizations, you can take the federal and the local loans that you have with you, but those colleges and universities will also help you by subsidizing your education and giving you some of their loans as well. Those are few and far between in the for-profit sector, which is one of the reasons why so many of those students end up in an extraordinary amount of debt.

Chideya: So let's turn to something else that you have addressed. You did a piece in The Atlantic that also touched on the unintended consequences of the Supreme Court decision to allow for student athletes to be compensated. It's a really fascinating topic. I mean, a lot of people have thought, "Well, look some universities are building huge, huge, huge revenue streams on student athletes, but the athletes aren't getting much," but what are the possible unintended consequences of this?

Pérez: It's long overdue that we made room for students who are athletically talented and working for these institutions through athletics, that they received some sort of compensation. And so in many respects of those of us in higher education are applauding that move. But at the same time, it really opens the door for some serious unintended consequences. The fact that most colleges and universities have very limited resources. The American public tends to think about the big schools, the ones that you see on television, because they have football contracts, those schools are going to be okay. But the reality of the matter is the NCAA has over 1100 institutions that are members and the majority of those schools have to make very difficult choices around finances. And so if we've now opened the door to incentivizing athletes, those financial resources, they have to come from somewhere. And one of the fears that we have in higher education is that those resources might be taken away from financial aid or student services or other kinds of services that help students directly.

Chideya: You also co-authored a piece about virtual advising. Tell us why you wrote about virtual advising and why it's so interesting to you.

Pérez: I see this as actually a tremendous opportunity. The fact that there are organizations like CollegePoint, which their director is the one that I co-wrote the article with, who are actually delivering individualized college counseling for students all over the United States online. And so this could actually be one of the ways that we can begin to close the counseling gap. I worry a lot about the fact that in a state like Arizona, there are 900 students to one high school counselor. We know that that is not a recipe for success in terms of trying to get all those students through the college pipeline. And so perhaps this kind of virtual advising could be one of the ways that we can reach out to more students throughout the country and provide them with the individual counseling that they deserve.

Chideya: One thing that comes to mind for me too, is that even when there are advisors, some people I know who are other women of color had extremely poor relationships with high school guidance counselors who kind of tracked them into spaces that not really designed for their success. And they could either take that advice or leave it, but they were kind of underestimated by some of the in-house counselors. Is that something that you think about and how might we address it as a society?

Pérez: I have a lot of empathy for that experience because as a young Latinx low-income student, myself many, many years ago I was actually told that I was not college material and certainly was not sitting down with someone who could predict that here I am sitting with a PhD, but I do think there are so many wonderful counselors out there that are willing to help. I think a big part of this is if a student doesn't connect with a particular counselor or maybe doesn't have that relationship reaching out to another counselor at the school or looking at some of these virtual advising programs, there's a lot now through CollegePoint, through College Advising Corps, which is another amazing organization that's begun to do this virtual advising. And so the resources are out there. So students, if you don't feel like you're connecting with your counselor, raise your hand and begin to look for another one. And virtual might be a great option.

Chideya: Let's talk as we wrap up about this fall, there's a lot of stress about how to reenter both the social space that that college represents, whether you're on or off campus and the educational space. How are you thinking from the perspective of what students need and also what advisors and professors need about this pivotal time?

Pérez: I was just on a call with a cohort of college presidents and something that they were all discussing was the fact that this year institutions have to pay attention to the fact that they actually have two cohorts of incoming students. Yes, you might have the first year students who were just admitted, but you also have the other students who are in their second year, but have not actually stepped foot on campus. And so what we have really been talking about is making sure that those students, the first year, as well as the second year cohorts, they both get a first year experience orientation. And what I would say to students who are navigating this process, if an institution isn't necessarily providing that for you, you have every right to ask for those kinds of services. If you have questions, that is what colleges are there for. So seek out a counselor, seek out an advisor, a student affairs professional, they are there to navigate you through that process and ensure your success.

Chideya: What about parents? Any advice on this interesting transitional time?

Pérez: I would say be involved, but also at the same time, give your child a little bit of room. Your child will be going through a tremendous life transition. And one of the things that I noticed when I was on a college campus is that sometimes the parents actually were too involved. For example, texting all day long with their child or FaceTiming all day long. What ended up happening was that the student ended up having a much harder transition and it took longer for them to adjust and feel a sense of place. And the last piece of advice I would always give is every student has a doubt within the first month as to whether or not they should have gone to that school as to whether or not they should come home. Do not let your children come home. If you let the student come home, it's often harder to have them complete their first semester. So when they call you and say, "Mom, I want to come home." You say, "Stick with it for a little while longer, you're going to be okay."

Chideya: Dr. Pérez, thank you so much for joining us.

Pérez: Thanks for having me.

Chideya: That was Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Here on Our Body Politic, we don't just want to feed your news and politics jones, we also want to bring you people who inspire us on a more personal level. My next guest does that in all her platforms. Blog, podcast, public speaking and books. Luvvie Ajayi Jones is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Professional Troublemaker, all about tackling what she calls the everlasting hater, fear. Luvvie, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Luvvie Ajayi Jo...: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: Let's start out with some grandmother stories. You say in the book that your grandmother was an alpha woman in every way, sounds like she has begun a inter-generational alpha women. But tell us about her first.

Ajayi Jones: My grandmother was... I call her the Chairwoman of Team No Chill Enterprises, because we all know an older woman who just moves with this dope energy who you can't really tell her she's not enough when she's in the room. My grandmother used to take up space without apology. She used to allow herself to be celebrated. And I think her life gave me permission to be this amazing woman, to be this woman who walks into a room and doesn't apologize for her presence.

Chideya: One of the things that I found really refreshing about this book is that you talk about fear of success. So let's start there. What is fear of success and why did you write about it?

Ajayi Jones: Fear of success is thinking, "What if the plan does go right? What are the structures around me that will break as a result? What ways do I see that who I am right now might not serve who I need to be?" Or when do I realize that, "Oh, snap, there's certain things are going to have to change like my boundaries." And so we are sometimes afraid of what these dreams are that we have when they come true, because things come with them. Our problems don't end when we are successful, our problems just shift.

Chideya: And you talk about holding yourself to standards of who you used to be at the time that you were evolving. Things like access. You can't be everything to everyone, but I'm sure people ask you. How do you give a respectful no to a respectful request? And not every request is respectful.

Ajayi Jones: Most no's are actually not, "No, get out of my face." It's, "No, I can't do it right now." It's, "No, this is not aligned with where I am right now or where I want to go." And I think we are afraid of saying the no because we don't want to hurt feelings, we don't want to rock the boat, but your no is not hateful. It is really tough, especially for women to say no, because we do want to be of service. We do want to say yes to as many people as possible, but then after a while you start doing self betrayal when you say too many yeses, when you don't say enough nos. So, and I think other people need to actually start receiving no more gracefully.

Chideya: You also have things that you say no to that are a firm no. Which is for example, disrespectful or hateful content in the online communities that you are running. Tell us more about that.

Ajayi Jones: So I always let people know on my platforms, just because United States government says you have freedom of speech does not mean I need to give you access and freedom to come at me with hate. I will delete, I will block, I will report a spam because I don't have to receive people's trash. I don't have to be a willing receptacle for people's trash. So that's an important for us to feel because don't feel like you have to now receive everybody's things because it doesn't belong to you. So I think that's a really important boundary for me. And I'm actually encouraging others to not be ashamed of controlling the spaces, especially the online spaces that we're trying to curate.

Chideya: And this is a book about fighting fear. What are some things that you learned to deal with in a good way in terms of your fear to get to who you are?

Ajayi Jones: I learned to deal with that moment right before you're about to do something scary where your heart is beating all fast and you're just like, "Ah, I want to run back and not do it." I learned to push past those moments truly by just being like, "Okay, I feel my chest beating fast, but this is only temporary. What I need to do on the other side of it, actually my chest might, well actually probably slow back down. My heartbeat will slow back down once I get it done, it's the worry of what might come." And I think when we're able to go past those moments is when we're really doing something.

Chideya: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now in your Ted Talk in 2017, you said, "Comfort is overrated because being quiet is comfortable, keeping things the way they've been is comfortable and all comfort has done is maintain the status quo." How has the pandemic helped you understand your own words and new ways? It's certainly comfort, not so easy these days.

Ajayi Jones: What writing this book in the pandemic did is really show me that fear kept us safe last year when we had to wear masks. So we wouldn't catch this virus and kept us from actually doing what was not going to be safe for us physically. But that same thing is what keeps us from asking for the raise, having the tough conversation. It keeps us from pursuing the thing that feels too big. So it was a gift to have to write this in the pandemic because that perspective deepened because of it.

Chideya: So many Nigerians are now prominent in public life in America and throughout the world. What does it mean to you to be someone of Nigerian descent?

Ajayi Jones: Yeah. To be of Nigerian descent is to have my feet in two continents at the same time. I grew up in Nigeria and left when I was nine, but Chicago's home. So I am somebody who sees the world and sees how deeply connected we are because being somebody who travels a lot, traveled before COVID I always find something about any place that I'm at that reminds me of home. I feel obligated to the world in a way where it's because I see us as connected. And that's another thing that COVID has done, is that if this does not show us how connected we all are, I'm not sure what will. The fact that one person's action can harm a whole community. And to be a Nigerian is in everything that I do. Even how I write, how I speak, how my jokes come out, how I show up with this bravado is very specifically Nigeria and it's in everything that I do. And then my Chicagoness shows up in a lot of things too. People are like, "Yo," when I started roasting people, sometimes they're like, "Oh yeah, you are from Chicago." So yeah.

Chideya: I love it. I remember this great session it was at... I think it was South by Southwest. And you were on with April Reign.

Ajayi Jones: April and W. Kamau Bell.

Chideya: Yes, exactly. And it was just so loose and so funny and so on point. And you get to do this for a living. So where I'm going to leave it is where do you see yourself evolving from here? You've already created an empire.

Ajayi Jones: There's more for me to do. I always commit myself to just continuing to do the thing that feels interesting. And I want to see where it'll take me. So I don't have a grand plan of like, "I'm going to do this thing and then this thing will happen." I'm just like, "I want to keep creating work that's going to make people feel joy, make them think critically and compel them to take action that leaves this world better than they found it." And that's especially why I wrote Professional Troublemaker because back then I didn't have the worst as she put it in that succinct way. It epitomizes the type of work that I want to continue to do. Work that will loan people courage and let them know that like, "Yes, this world can be a complete dumpster fire, but we can do our part in ensuring that we are not staying in the boxes that people build around us. Even though we might have arrows pointing at us still, we will stand." Like Maya Angelou said, "Still we rise." So in her legacy, Toni Morrison's legacy of just black women who take up space, who center the black experience, who affirm black women is the legacy that I hope I carry on with my presence, with my work, with my books.

Chideya: Luvvie, thank you so much.

Ajayi Jones: Thank you so much for having me Farai.

Chideya: That was Luvvie Ajayi Jones author of Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual. Public schools in Texas are getting lots of national attention as lawmakers debate bans on teaching critical race theory. And that's not the only controversy. Earlier this year, a high school's recommended reading list made headlines when a parent complained about one book's sexually explicit content.

LISD Parent: This is what we're asking our children to read.

Chideya: The parent speaking at the Leander Independent School District meeting pulled a pink dildo out and dropped it on the podium. She was referring to a sex scene between two women in the book, In the Dream House by our next guest, Carmen Maria Machado, a queer Latina author.

Carmen Maria Ma...: I am a writer and also a teacher of writing at the University of Pennsylvania. I first learned about this incident in Texas when I actually got an Instagram message from a reader, sort of out of the blue. And I was having breakfast with my partners and everybody was just sort of hanging out and drinking coffee and chatting. And I looked at Instagram and I was like, "Oh my God."

Chideya: Her memoir published in 2019 is a powerful retelling of an abusive relationship Machado was in when she was younger with another woman. She says her book was one of several that were singled out by unhappy parents.

Machado: The view, at first, it was very funny. I mean, because I feel like I grew up practically living in a library and I loved Banned Books Week. So I was sort of laughing and then she pulled the dildo out or the strap-on and it was super funny and I was just cracking up. But then as it kept going, it was really messed up. It sort of went from being hilarious in its silliness and sort of short-sightedness and pearl-clutchingness, that part was sort of funny, but then it kind of got really dark at the end.

Chideya: That parent reportedly argued that letting a student read Machado's book could be considered child abuse. Machado responded with an opinion piece for the New York Times saying her book could actually help educate teenagers about abusive, romantic relationships. That's something schools don't often teach their students.

Machado: Professional educators put my book on these lists. People whose entire job is to develop curriculum for certain groups. And I think my book was an easy target for this particular group, this very conservative group, because it's about difficult subject matter. It does not shy away from things like sex and speaks very frankly about certain topics.

Chideya: The easy scapegoating was obvious to her and to many people who question the local furor over the book.

Machado: And like all moral panics when you say, "What about the children?" You can get away with a whole lot. And so to frame the book in the context of, "Won't someone think about our children who are being groomed by reading a gay memoir about domestic violence?" They sort of become able to manipulate the conversation on their terms. I mean, it's deeply disingenuous.

Chideya: For Machado, talking about domestic violence in the queer community was one of the reasons for writing the memoir.

Machado: When I wrote the memoir, I was really expecting to be having conversations about, "What does it mean to air dirty laundry of a community, and talk about a topic that because of respectability politics and because of the sort of public negotiation of rights that is happening with various groups that there's this desire for a single story that's like very digestible and uniform to the majority, right?"

Chideya: The district ended up pulling six books from these recommended reading lists, including a graphic novel based on The Handmaid's Tale. Machado's book stayed, they suspended book clubs students formed around these lists and tasked a group of staff, parents, students, and community members to vet all the books selected by the day the district.

Machado: Also, it is not a coincidence that often the books that sort of fall into these nets of this kind of censorship that's happening on this level, they're often gay books or trans books or books about people of color. It's all of the best and most interesting work that's getting written is just getting caught up in this system. I mean, ultimately when this was going on, I kept thinking about people are always saying weird things like, "Oh, Red States who cares?" But there are gay people in Texas, there are young gay people in Texas who this could be helpful for them or like this issue affects them. I want young gay students in Texas to be able to read my book, have access to my book through their school, if they want to. And that's really important to me.

Chideya: Machado says she wrote In the Dream House for herself, but it found a wider audience than she anticipated.

Machado: Certain groups of people, I think my work speaks to them particularly. I think women respond to my work, queer folks really respond to my work. I do think that there are sub segments of the population that feel drawn to the kinds of stories I want to tell.

Chideya: Carmen Maria Machado is author of the memoir In the Dream House and of the short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties. My next guest has a story about the emotional impact of the pandemic, specifically, how she dealt with dating and love in quarantine.

Omehabiba Khan: My name is Omehabiba. I also go by Ome, and I am the creator and the host of RISHTA LIVE.

Chideya: RISHTA LIVE started out as a way for Ome Khan to express her frustrations with dating as a Muslim woman during the pandemic.

Khan: Initially what I was doing was I was taking my horror stories from dating on TikTOK and I called them Mender Memoirs because it was the Tinder for Muslims. I was like, "All right, I cannot be the only girl going through this who's Muslim, who's Pakistani, who's looking for love." And then on top of that we get this pressure from our families that, "Oh you have to complete half of your religion." So for Muslims, completing half of your religion is to get married.

Chideya: So she launched an interactive dating experience over Instagram Live. The rishta from Rishta Live means relationship.

Khan: Dating in the Muslim community technically is not supposed to exist. So in our culture, when somebody sends you a rishta, that means that this guy likes you and he's interested in you. So he sent a rishta to your family to ask for your hand, and that's how things used to get done. And to be honest until this day, it's still a thing. If you're talking to somebody and he's like, "Hey, listen, let's take this to the next level," the girl would be like, "Okay, well then send a rishta to my family."

Chideya: Khan plays matchmaker, leaving viewers to make their own connections in the comment section. Some people have met and dated through Rishta Live. It also became a space for deeper conversations.

Khan: We start talking about all of these issues that we were having in our community like colorism is a huge thing. That was one of the first topics where I was struggling because it was during BLM and in our culture, it's so normal to be like, "Oh light skin is more beautiful and this is what we prefer. She should be lighter than her husband." These are things that are still here today in our conversations. So I was like, "How are we going to make changes if we don't have these uncomfortable conversations?"

Chideya: So how are efforts like Khan's changing the course of dating as we know it?

Khan: So what I think this is doing that's different than the traditional dating that's happening right now on dating apps is that it's taking away the objectifying and looking at another human being as this edited picture, this edited paragraph, this filtered human being. And you're looking at this person, literally, they come on sometimes without makeup, with their hair not done, just raw and they just talk about themselves and they talk about what they want so real and so honestly that when another individual is watching, they're connecting with them. So I think what is added now is that trust factor, right? Is you get to see this person as a real person. It forces you to learn the person for who they are mentally and spiritually and emotionally.

Chideya: And one of the biggest success stories for Rishta Live? Ome Khan herself.

Khan: Quarantine, I believe made people want love more because they're like, "Man, I'm sitting at home, I ain't got no cuddle buddy. I got no one to eat with, what is this?" So then one of the happening I was noticing is that it was just the surge of like, "I just want love." And then guess what happened? Your home girl, the host got wifed up.

Chideya: That was Ome Khan. You can find her @O-M-E on all social media platforms. And if you or someone you know wants to be on Rishta Live, you can sign up for free on Instagram at Rishta, R-I-S-H-T-A.live.

Chideya: You're listening to Our Body Politic. Each week on the show, we bring you around table called Sippin' the Political Tea. Joining me this week are two special guests, S. Mitra Kalita is founder and publisher of Epicenter-NYC, which is also part of a network she launched and serves as CEO of URL Media. Hi Mitra.

S. Mitra Kalita: Hi, Farai. Great to be here.

Chideya: And we've also got Mazin Sidahmed, Co-Executive Director of Documented. Welcome Mazin.

Mazin Sidahmed: Hey, great to be here.

Chideya: So both of you are amazing journalists with interesting histories and backstories who just decided to do your own thing. And now those things that you're doing are becoming more established and more prominent in journalism. And before we get into what you're doing now, just briefly Mitra, what did you do before and why did you decide to change?

Kalita: Oh goodness. Well, I've worked everywhere, so I'll try to be brief in my past. My first job after dutifully doing internships in college and working on the college newspaper at Rutgers University, I went on to work at the Associated Press. I worked at Newsday, The Washington Post. I left The Washington Post to launch Mint, a business newspaper in India. I came back to run coverage of the great recession for The Wall Street Journal as the Deputy Economics Editor. I launched the Greater New York section for The Wall Street Journal. I was a page one writer for a while, and then I launched Quartz as probably the best title I've ever had as the ideas editor I'd launched Quartz India and Quartz Africa. And then I was the Managing Editor at the L.A Times. And most recently I was at CNN as Senior Vice President of Breaking News, National News, Programming, Features, Opinion. I'm sure there was a few other things in there.

Chideya: Why did you decide to do something different?

Kalita: So I think one of the themes of my career, the names I just rattled off while one common theme is that I would start initiatives within them, which means that you're still beholden to policies of those large media companies. And the other elephant in the room is ownership of these outlets. And so I joke that anytime you want a company to be acquired, just hire me because I've been a part of probably four or five big acquisitions in my career between Tribune Trunk and Rupert Murdoch, AT&T buying CNN. And I would say the other big moment of 2020 was COVID and the death of George Floyd. It really became a moment where those of us who've been working within mainstream institutions could have continued on that path of helping them realize what we have always known or been pushing for, or we could strike out on our own, have faith in our own ideas of the way the world and journalism covering that world should look. And that's essentially what I ended up doing.

Chideya: So we're going to get more into your work in a second, but Mazin, what kind of reporter were you and why did you decide to build your own institution?

Sidahmed: Yeah, it's also roundabout journey to where I am today. I was originally a good immigrant boy and went to software engineering for my undergraduate and worked as a software engineer for a little bit when I was just coming out of university, but it was miserable and hated it and ended up moving to Beirut to pursue journalism. I became fully immersed in the Syrian refugee crisis and my own background as an asylum seeker. I'm from Sudan originally, meant that I really gravitated towards that issue. And that's really what was my entry point into journalism and kind of shaped what I would do as a reporter moving forward after that. I moved to New York or to political New York came back to the immigration beat when I was working at The Guardian US. Around 2017 was when me and my co-founder Max really started talking about what became Documented. So there was this intense focus on the border and on DC and how policy shifts were happening there. But the places that were most affected first were obviously these big US cities that have huge immigrant populations. So we thought, "Why don't we take this idea and turn it into a sustained newsroom, providing local immigration coverage?" We wanted to make sure that the people who are most affected by the stories were also the people reading the stories.

Chideya: Yeah. I didn't know that you had a background in software engineering and a part of what you do with Documented is really look at delivery mechanisms in different formats, including SMS. So tell us how you think about actually getting them the news that they need.

Sidahmed: So we initially thought, we want to reach undocumented immigrants of all backgrounds of New York city. And that's going to be super easy. Boom. We do a story, we translate it into the respect of language, Spanish, Arabic. We tweet it, we put it in our newsletter. Fantastic, no problem. But we quickly realized that a lot of people in media were clapping their hands and saying, "Oh, good job." But when we looked at the analytics, nobody was actually reading those stories. So we started from a bottom up approach and really actually started serving and reaching out to communities and asking people, "How do you get your news? Where do you get your news from? What kind of information would be useful to you? What's the best way to get that information into your hands?" And we found A, most people were getting their information via WhatsApp, B people really didn't like the tone and portrayal of immigrants in mainstream media as often either as victims themselves or as criminals, it was one or the other. And the thing that people were most interested in receiving was resources and information about how to navigate government bureaucracy. So with that in mind, we built a product called Documented Seminar, which was initially just a weekly newsletter that we sent out via WhatsApp in Spanish with the hopes of reaching this community. And we started out doing just super grassroots campaigns where we'd got a block parties or citizenship drive events, or what have you, and just hand out flyers with this phone number to try and get people to sign up. But it really exploded during the pandemic when a lot of people found this phone number and started reaching out to us for help. And over time, it's become a community space that has been the groundswell of the initiation of some really impactful investigative and accountability journalism where people are sending us tips or letting us know about issues that they're having that we then go and report out.

Chideya: And so Mitra going to you, Mazin just said that the pandemic accelerated the impact of Documented's work, and the Epicenter also seems to have grown in some ways out of the pandemic. Is that fair to say and tell us more about it?

Kalita: Absolutely. So it's not just our name which kind of tells you our origin story, but I live in Jackson Heights, Queens. We were one of the hardest hit communities by COVID. And so people started organically turning to me and my husband with different questions around PPP loans, or, "I have a relative who is on a ventilator in Elmhurst Hospital. They don't have any childcare, is there any way to help?" So we started getting these questions. And so, because we were turning to the same people over and over to get help, we thought, "Well, maybe we should just launch an email newsletter with hopes of reaching more people." It was a very, very organic creation of Epicenter. So much of what Mazin was saying really resonates because we wanted to reach our community, but we also didn't want to just cover our community as the victim. We also didn't want to create any sense of journalism as the savior complex. One group that's media and another group that's giving. I think the big turning point for us comes beyond tone and in delivery. Exactly as Mazin described the challenge of writing about people, as opposed to for people came to a head, as we tried to help our community get vaccines. We'd been relying till then largely on email newsletters as our main delivery and we have a website. It became clear to us that the communities that we were most trying to target were not necessarily reading our newsletter, nor does an article about how hard it is to get a vaccine, actually help anybody. For restaurant workers, we started to put together letters that they could hand their boss to say, "Indeed, I am a restaurant worker. I qualify for a vaccine." We started to put those in a public drive, essentially in a Google folder and make them available on our website, but also texting people, calling people, letting them know this exists. We used QR codes on flyers that would take you to a form or a phone number, depending on which one you wanted to get help to get your vaccine scheduled. Eventually this effort kind of grew and people approached us and said, "How can we help?" And so we had a fleet of volunteers that would go to community colleges and we chose community colleges because community colleges are often the first person in a family to go to college. They might be the link to kind of official services and other benefits people can get, especially in immigrant families. We would hand out flyers at food banks. And so you start to see the delivery of journalism is not just a video or an article if you're actually trying to help the people who are at the core of your journalism.

Chideya: It all sounds high impact, but also hard and expensive.

Kalita: Yes it is. And so Epicenter, we actually formed as a for-profit company really important to us was not to only treat our communities of interest as charity. I believe that if you create something of value for your community, they will pay you for it or another community and constituency, we regard very much as our own as the world of business and small business in New York city. And so we just sensed a lot of potential there. And we said, we're going to incorporate it as a for-profit company. Our model is still resting partly on philanthropy. We have membership and our final one is indeed advertising, but I do believe that diversifying where our money comes from is a pretty important part of getting this right.

Chideya: Yeah. And Mazin, kind of in brief, how are you thinking about the cost benefit ratio of how you're approaching this work. And again, I really wanted to talk to both of you because as a longtime journalist myself, I have been really concerned that a lot of people just don't have any relationship to the news. And frankly, why should they, if as one of you said, "People are portrayed as either villains or victims, it's not super exciting to plug into the news." But how do you think about the cost benefit analysis of how you run your shop Mazin?

Sidahmed: How we fund this work is something that I'm entirely devoted to thinking about now. I agree Farai that it's when I think about the average news consumer, I love asking people that I meet that aren't connected to this industry. What do they read? What do they pay for? And just the lack of awareness or understanding about this crisis of funding that we have in media from the general population is really alarming. It is really troubling. We've gone the philanthropy route, but we're also trying to think of creative ways that we can leverage people that have more resources that are interested in our work. So there are a lot of immigration lawyers, academics, people who work in policy, they're super interested in the kind of information that we have and would pay for it. But finding funders that actually want to support that type of sustainability is really hard because the nonprofit journalism space, people have these very set ideas about how you build a sustainable nonprofit news outlet and the type of work, the kind of creative, innovative work that we're trying to do, doesn't really fit into those buckets so that's the thing that I'm trying to crack right now.

Chideya: Mazin, we're in a full-on crisis of American democracy, at least in my opinion. Many different things going on, both positive and difficult. How do you see your work relating to the overall health of our society?

Sidahmed: It's been really difficult to go on this journey with Documented. So I came into Documented as a very traditional reporter. Worked the traditional news publications. And it was kind of radicalized, I could say by this engagement journalism movement, when I was just trying to solve what I thought was a simple question of, "How do we reach the people who are at the center of the stories that we're writing and actually make news that's of interest to them?" And I think that it's made me realize there's a huge opportunity for mainstream publications to actually start trying to reach people who they just see those people as the people they cover. And the news is actually produced the audience that they're actually targeting is a completely separate, more affluent, typically white audience. And it's a huge opportunity the kind of crises that we've been talking about around the threats to democracy, around the collapse of news organizations, around the funding of news organizations, the consolidation by hedge funds of small newspapers. A lot of these issues could be addressed by actually embracing the fact that the country is far more diverse, that the people that are being reached or were being reached by newspapers in the '90s when they were thriving, could actually be the solution to a lot of the problems that we're facing. But when we try and talk about that and when we try and bring those conversations or present our work and really traditional journalism spaces, we're labeled as advocates or we're not taken seriously, and that's been really disheartening for me.

Chideya: Mitra, can you just give us a quick read perhaps through the lens of URL and explain what URL is another one of your projects.

Kalita: One of the other hats I wear I've I co-founded URL Media, which is a network of black and brown news and information outlets around the country. Both Epicenter and Documented are members of that as well. And our belief is that we're much stronger together, but that we shouldn't have to sacrifice the trust, authenticity and intimacy that all of us have in service to our audiences in order to be quite bluntly successful on the internet. You're lucky if you surface in Google search results, Facebook algorithms might not find you. It's not just a vanity play for us, but it's actually dangerous to those seekers of information to not be getting information that at the end of the day is intended to serve our communities. I do see the mainstream media as a partner in this and URL Media works with mainstream outlets. So I'll give you an example when Haiti's president was assassinated within minutes of that news breaking URL media was able to get the publisher of The Haitian Times, Garry Pierre-Pierre and the managing editor Macollvie Neel on pretty much every major media outlet to tell the story from the perspective of Haitians, who who've been contending with political instability for centuries. And I think that's just invaluable that we can allow authentic rooted information to surface in that way, because otherwise mainstream news outlets are going to their correspondent in Miami to tell that story, which is fine. But if you can get The Haitian Times to explain why Haiti's president was just assassinated and provide context to the news of the moment that just makes it so much more powerful.

Chideya: Well, thank you both so very much Mitra and Mazin. Appreciate your time and cheering on your work.

Sidahmed: Thank you Farai.

Kalita: Thank you Farai.

Chideya: That was S. Mitra Kalita founder, and publisher of Epicenter-NYC, and CEO of URL Media and Mazin Sidahmed Co-executive Director and Senior Reporter of Documented.

Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistants from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano and Veda Chand. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, the Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Making the Most of College, Books that Educate and Empower, and Two New Models of Community-based Journalism.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. August 6, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/