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But there is still a long history of disinvestment and harm that newsrooms must address to repair their relationships with Latino/a/x, Black and Indigenous communities.

Here in Colorado, that history has found new light in recent weeks. Journalist Lori Lizarraga reported in a column that over the past year, TV station 9News let go three Latina reporters, including herself, and the management ignored the concerns of Latino/a/x journalists. Meanwhile, Denver Post employees made public calls to action for their newsroom to improve its policies and interactions concerning marginalized communities. These public instances of organizing and radical truth-telling are not isolated instances, anomalies or confined to one or two newsrooms. These events exist in a long history of Latino/a/x Coloradans struggling and resisting against media institutions that did not allow them to be portrayed in their wholeness.

That’s why on April 9, News Voices: Colorado, Colorado Media Project and the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) hosted Latinx Voices: The Past as Prologue. It was a conversation moderated by Tina Griego, editor, reporter and coach with COLab, with guests Polly Baca — COLab board member, Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame inductee, media champion and first woman of color elected to the Colorado State Senate — and Nita Gonzales, a nationally recognized activist, educator and civil-rights leader.

Nita and Polly shared stories and examples of the harms of caricature, demonization and erasure, resistance to those harms and what still needs to change. Here’s what we learned from our distinguished guests and small-group breakout sessions.

5 takeaways:

1. This struggle is not new. 

2. People are weary and frustrated. 

3. These systems are not built for people of color to succeed. 

4. Connecting with communities is critical to creating authentic and reflective coverage. 

5. There is power where there are people. We need sustained movement and action to see the changes we want.

Read on to learn more about these insights:

1. This struggle is not new.

Organizers, journalists and community members have long been calling on newsrooms to address their role in perpetuating racism and racist tropes. Griego started our conversation by likening the fight for antiracist journalism to an EKG. Like an EKG reading, there have been spikes and lulls that demonstrate how moments like these — where journalists and community members alike are calling out journalism for its racist history — are part of a longer struggle. A struggle that can only be understood in context with everything that has occurred up until this point.

Nita and Polly, leaders who have seen the ebb and flow of many campaigns fighting for more representative journalism, helped contextualize this struggle. Polly shared ways that local-news stations have used their platforms to “demean and divide” Latino/a/x communities. She discussed the intentional use of language to characterize people as “good” or “bad”: “If you did something well you were Spanish. If you had a negative encounter, you were Mexican.”

Nita shared that, “If you were an activist marching in the streets against injustice and discrimination [you] were demonized. People lost jobs because we stood up. We saw media as a part of the oppressive system, as part of the colonization of our people.”

Both Polly and Nita reminded us that there has been a long history of resistance to these harmful practices. Nita remembers boycotting The Rocky Mountain News because of its negative portrayals of Latino/a/x communities.

Nita’s father, Chicano movement leader and Crusade for Justice founder Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, started El Gallo newspaper. He was moved to do so because, as Nita said, “we didn’t enjoy a relationship with media that told the story from our lens and our history” and he didn’t want racist local coverage to “have the last say on who and what we are.”

And it is within those stories of resistance that we can find pathways and blueprints to the future.

2. People are tired, weary and frustrated.

Community members and journalists alike said they are tired of gathering energy and community around spike periods that are often met with opposition, stalling and unfulfilled promises that facilitate periods of “lull” or “backsliding.” Or as Nita described it: “two steps forward, one step back.”

This emotional labor of sharing your personal and communal experiences with harm — combined with the personal labor that is required to rally people around one shared vision, on top of the labor of engaging with institutions that sometimes actively hurt you and your community — has the potential to leave even the most dedicated person tired and burned out. That’s especially the case when that labor isn’t met with tangible change in newsrooms.

Brenda Vargas, a student leader at UNC Greeley, said: “I want to see the realities of my people and our lived experiences portrayed accurately. I’m tired of negative portrayals.”

3. These systems are not built for people of color to succeed. 

As long as the power to decide whose voices are valuable resides in the hands of white managers and editors, the center of gravity, narrative and newsworthiness will always be whiteness.

“I have succeeded in a system that wasn't built for me,” said Erika Martinez, a communications and marketing professional.

The structure of legacy media and newspapers — like the structure of other institutions and bureaucracies — facilitates an endless cycle of momentum and stalling, she said.

Her breakout group zeroed in on the role that management plays in either facilitating or inhibiting positive change within a newsroom. Her group pondered how we could see any substantive change without seeing change in who gets to make decisions at all levels of an organization. She noted that throughout all these ebbs and flows in newsrooms, one thing has stayed the same: management positions are held largely by white men.

Melissa Davis is the vice president of strategic communications & informed communities for the Gates Family Foundation and the director of the Colorado Media Project. She and her group said that young journalists are feeling the weight of this system as unsupportive newsrooms and unclear pathways to leadership within organizations often leave staffers disillusioned.

A system centered in whiteness leaves community members wondering how it can be possible for people to “show up as their authentic selves.” If journalists and employees of color cannot show up authentically, how is it possible for communities of color to see themselves reflected in coverage in an authentic way?

4. Connecting with community is critical to creating authentic and reflective coverage.

Polly said it best: “The media has a responsibility to reflect and respond to our community. And a growing part of our democracy is communities of color ... The media needs to be a part of including those communities as part of our future — as part of the valid voices in our democracy.”

Communities can help shape news coverage to make it more just and equitable. Community members can provide tips on stories, act as experts and help share other possible sources. Furthermore, they can help share information produced by newsrooms and provide feedback on coverage. Which communities a newsroom prioritizes building relationships with can have a large impact on who is reflected in the narratives they tell.

When newsrooms prioritize building reciprocal rather than transactional relationships with communities — particularly communities that they have previously harmed or neglected — it can help create stronger, more authentic coverage and help increase civic engagement.

5. There is power where there are people. We need sustained movement and action to see the changes we want.

We need community members, journalists and newsroom leaders who are invested and committed to working toward long-term change. And power comes from the people: We need them to be able to sustain the spikes and lulls.

Nita reminded us that it was because Chicano movement leaders in the 1960s and ’70s focused on media that inaccurately portrayed their communities that we saw changes in media programming and staffing. It helped to get us more Latino/a/x journalists and more Latino/a/x programming.

Nita said that she never would have never imagined that in her lifetime that she would see mainstream media acknowledging that there’s systemic racism within the United States. That recognition came in part because the Movement for Black Lives joined people together to shift culture. Media then had to reflect that shift.

The future that Nita and Polly discussed — where Latino/a/x Coloradans are respected in the media, they’re understood and their stories are told by people who look like them — is possible.

With each other, many of the things we never imagined to see shift in local news are within reach.

And as News Voices: Colorado, Colorado Media Project and the Colorado News Collaborative continue to build power with journalists and communities, stay tuned to hear recommendations and calls to actions from our Black and Latinx Voices working groups. Our groups include community leaders, organizers, students, journalists and philanthropists who are working to identify structural changes, necessary steps to repair and potential projects that can lead local newsrooms to center the stories, experiences and news-and-information needs of Black and Latino/a/x Coloradans.

Thank you to all of our participants — and a special thanks to Polly Baca, Nita Gonzales and Tina Griego.

Did you enjoy the event? Share feedback with us here!

Watch “Latinx Voices: The Past as Prologue” below:

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