The image above captures one of my favorite moments from Free Movement 2018, a social justice conference Free Press recently took part in Wilmington, North Carolina.
At right is Beryl Lipton, a reporter with the open government group MuckRock, leading a workshop on accessing public records. On the left is Zachary Beauchemin, a journalist who started his own local news outlet in Wilmington called Dub City Heartbeat, and in the middle is Rev. Tami Forte Logan, a faith leader and community organizer in Asheville who wants to compare policies around police use of force, traffic stops and access to bodycam footage.
To me, this photo reflects the vision Free Press had when our friends at the Wilmington-based nonprofit Working Narratives asked if we wanted to help organize a track on journalism and social justice in the South at the two-day conference.
Their vision for Free Movement is less a conference than a gathering to build community and grassroots power among folks who want to make a better South. Our vision for News Voices is to center community, through a racial-justice lens, in the conversation about the local news and information people need.
To that end, we’ve been having conversations about journalism outside traditional journalism spaces like newsrooms and media conferences. We’ve been inviting reporters and media people into community spaces to share their perspectives and learn what folks outside their world are thinking. And we’ve been giving people doing great work in their communities training and support to use the powerful tools of journalism.
It thrilled me to see Beryl and Mike Morisey, MuckRock's founder, draw a room full of people, from professional reporters to college students to community advocates. When organizer Patrice Funderburg said she'd come to the workshop hoping to learn how to find public records about private prisons in Charlotte, Lipton’s eyes lit up – she's been working for years on a project to dig into private prisons, and she knows what sort of documents are out there and how to get them.
“People need access”
I was also thrilled to meet Tamara Jeffries, a professor of journalism at Bennett College, and her star student Azuree Bateman, who presented a thoughtful and practical workshop on citizen journalism, focusing on how to write a persuasive, fact-based opinion piece and get it published.
“It's really important for people who are doing community work to understand how to communicate that out,” Jeffries said, “and I think that's one of the challenges that organizations have . They're so busy doing their great work that thinking about how to communicate that well goes to the back burner. This was an opportunity for us to bring that to the front burner and give people some tools for figuring out how to do that in as easy a way as possible.”
Morning #Wilmington! Pretty happy with my last minute decision to book it over here for the Free Movement Conference. So far I've learned about #publicrecords, writing an #oped and asserting your expertise and it's not even noon. #fmcon2018 pic.twitter.com/B1B6qOcHvN— Laura Pellicer (@LauraPLive) March 24, 2018
Our workshops also offered help in navigating information. North Carolina journalist Kirk Ross has a lot of experience covering the state legislature, a tough beat that requires knowing how to parse dense legaleze while also reading between the lines of cryptic public statements. Ross shared his know-how to reporters who want to know, for instance, how to read a 430+ page state budget bill quickly to find stuff that matters, and to non-journalists who want to track the goings-on in our capitol to hold their lawmakers accountable.
Logan, the Asheville-based organizer pictured with Lipton, said the workshops on public records and the state legislature helped orient her to navigate policy solutions to police accountability. “Access to information is really powerful,” she said. “When you don't do this all the time and you think, I need to access public records or look at legislation, it seems huge, and it's daunting. The way it was broken down was like, OK, I can do this. I just need a starting point. And the resource list was really helpful. It's accessible, and that's what people need, is access.”
Free Press' Alicia Bell led "Who Is Your Media Strategy?" a workshop offering straight talk and creative thinking for community members, advocates and nonprofit leaders about how to approach local media in a relational rather than transactional way.
Alicia Bell of #NewsVoices full of powerful insight & strategies to form meaningful connections & build trust w/ journalists. “Show up for each other,” “share stories” not press releases, hold folks accountable. We’ve got to be committed to this culture change work. #FMcon18 pic.twitter.com/TfERnCyXSE— Shannon Ritchie (@shannon_ritchie) March 24, 2018
Alicia Bell just made excellent point that journalists that don’t have relationships with marginalized communities they cover DO have relationships with someone...govt officials, police, neighborhoods they live in @freepress #FMCon18— Lewis Wallace (@LewisPants) March 24, 2018
We also invited allies, both local and national, to host some forceful conversations. Kyle Dacuyan of PEN America, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, put together a roundtable session on media narratives and transgender justice with Scalawag editor Lewis Wallace, writer Gabrielle Bellot, and Charlotte-based Rev. Debra Hopkins.
Melanie Sill of Democracy Fund led a session on the Wilmington water crisis with StarNews reporter Adam Wagner and N.C. Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg. They were joined by environmental advocate Dana Sargent, who spoke to how news and information feeds the work of advocating for accountability.
My Free Press colleague Joe Torres, co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, had an open conversation with NCCU journalism instructor and broadcast journalist Brett Chambers on the legacy of Black media in North Carolina. The conversation touched on the Wilmington riots of 1898, the Kerner Commission report and the recent sale of Shaw University's radio station to a religious broadcaster, and it spanned topics of media ownership and Net Neutrality.
Building a future, in community
The journalism workshops Free Press helped organize were only one part of Free Movement. There were tracks on ending mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, working for health equity and harm reduction. Steven Thrasher’s keynote kicking off the conference was titled “Black Liberation Is Impossible Without Ending AIDS.” More than 300 people from all corners of North Carolina and neighboring states made connections that will strengthen their campaigns and drive collaborative, creative actions across issues and communities.
In its second year, Free Movement’s growth exceeded organizers' expectations. "The main thing that I see is that this platform is needed," said Martha Foye, Working Narratives’ managing director. "We started this idea with eight workshops, and we have over 30. That alone says we need these spaces to exist and we should maybe think about doing this on a more regular basis."