50 Women Can

On media gatekeepers and what I owe 2019 journalism grads

2018 grad (CODNewsroom/Flickr)

2018 grad (CODNewsroom/Flickr)

Day 2 in a series of “reflections” after participating in Take the Lead’s #50WomenCan 4-month leadership program to achieve gender parity in specific industries. With 49 women from across the U.S., I belong to the first journalism cohort.

This February, we 50 first met by forming a large circle and introducing ourselves by a number--how powerful we felt on a scale from 1-10--and why. It was nerve-wracking. Only the night before, I’d received everyone’s bios and ‘impostor syndrome’ was having a laugh at my expense. I couldn’t believe the company I was in, and I was ever so grateful when another woman confessed to having impostor syndrome, too. Others nodded, and other women didn’t and easily claimed 8, 9 or 10 as their numbers--and that’s why my cohort is so damn dope. From the start, there was no one way to be a woman who leads.

I called out, “6,” when the mic came to me. It felt honest. I’d been having a hard time finding full-time work, so at first, I thought, 3? But feelings aren’t facts, and being forced to introduce myself to (other) accomplished strangers by my Power number also forced me to assess myself more fairly and separate circumstance from self-esteem. One has nothing to do with the other, Christina Tapper, in her gentle and self-assured way, later reminded me. Sometimes, even if your rational self knows what’s up, you still need to hear the words.

The #50WomenCan program teaches 9 Power Tools, each of which are chances to sit still with yourself and reflect deeply, a.k.a.,The Work. It’s because of Power Tool #2, Define Your Own Terms (i.e., set the agenda before others do), that I found myself replaying the many race, gender and class biases that I experienced in the industry as a cub reporter. How could I reframe those incidents as deep wells of information from which to draw Power, instead of keeping them in the basement as storage jars of anger, disappointment or resignation?

One minor memory surfaced. It made me think about the truths that I owe to new journalists who graduate this year.

The incident

The class assignment was to profile an entrepreneur in New York City. I was in journalism school, covering outer-borough neighborhoods for about a year and in an office-hours meeting, I pitched a story about one of their many entrepreneurs. Nearly all were immigrants.

After I stopped talking, my professor snorted. He was a pompous and overly-emotional man, which was fine with me. What I cared about was that he was also a recognized authority with decades of experience at powerful mainstream outlets. “But they don’t have any money! That’s ridiculous!” he said.

“Entrepreneurship is a behavior, so anyone can be an entrepreneur,” I said, taken aback. “It’s not defined by having access to capital.”

Unbeknownst to him, because I code-switch my accents, I'm an immigrant. I didn't feel slighted, though. I felt disappointed.

Me, in J-School, circa 2009 (Walter Smith-Randolph)

Me, in J-School, circa 2009 (Walter Smith-Randolph)

We lived in New York City, a majority-minority city where more than one-third of the population is foreign-born--the vast majority, people of color--and he was a media gatekeeper.

He snorted again, but this time, on the inside. My professor had shown bias that had everything to do with solipsism and nothing to do with journalism, and he knew that I saw the difference. It’s a problem I noticed early on: mainstream reporters’ tendency to cloak solipsism as ‘objectivity’ and the power of their perch allowing them to get away with it. I didn’t say all of that to my professor, though.

We did what’s done in these moments: quickly papered over the awkward silence instead of discussing it. I went on to produce my story. But I never forgot that silence. An entire schoolhouse of words, to use a Mary Oliver-ism, was communicated--not least, the distance between us.

The Reframe

Now I wondered: could I have used Power Tool #2 and left that student-professor exchange feeling like a “10”? I argued my position, sure. I didn’t challenge the silence, though, and call his reasoning what it was--bias--or better yet, lead him in a smart, calm conversation about it. I could do that, now, as an experienced mid-career professional. But that level of awareness, not only of self but politics and context, is an unreasonable ask of any newbie.

Which brings me to my responsibility to all the working class journos and journos of color who just graduated. I owe them my truth, because odds are J-Schools won’t discuss it: that journalism is, perhaps, intentionally bad at diversity. Many “shiny” initiatives target new grads at the start of the pipeline, but anecdotally, those entrants peel off by mid-career and up. Between pipeline attrition, layoffs and buyouts, I wouldn’t be surprised if journalism doesn’t annually lose more journos of color, for example, than it replaces.

By design then, cub reporters of color bear the burden of ‘managing up’ and ‘leaning into the uncomfortable silence’ in, say, a majority white newsroom in a segregated midwestern or northern city. Not only is this morally wrong and alienating, as a strategy, it will never inspire more representative newsrooms.

I have plenty of ideas for inclusive solutions, and just one, I share here: media gatekeepers, lead by leaning into the silence that your institutions create. For example, stop the practice of enlisting cub reporters of color as your company’s diversity recruiters. Stop asking them to pull double duty as reporters and your human resources professionals. New journos of color, politely decline these invitations; it is not “extra credit”. Your only job, like your white peers, is to gain experience, clips and contacts and identify a mentor who will help you to find toeholds up the flat side of a mountain.

Coming out of #50WomenCan, I felt more strongly than ever that one of my responsibilities to the profession is to be the voice I wish I’d heard as a cub reporter.

Little did I know we 50 women would form a second Power circle before graduating this May. This time, I yelled out, “8”.


Read Day 1 in my series. I invite students and new grads to connect with me: do J-Schools address industry issues--like diversity, the business of journalism, or the gutting of local news ecosystems--in the classroom? Or is your education about covering the public, only?

50 Women Can

A journalist, also an immigrant, on the power of personal storytelling in journalism


Day 1 in a series of “reflections” after participating in Take the Lead’s #50WomenCan 4-month leadership program to achieve gender parity in specific industries. Along with 49 women from across the U.S., I belong to the first journalism cohort. We graduated on May 10th.

The thing I’ve struggled with most as a storyteller is knowing and telling my own story. I could apply craft, technique, framing and big-picture thinking to everyone and everything else but myself. This was a mighty problem.

A personal Web site is the standard calling card of any media worker, for example, whether scrambling along the cliff-side of the gig economy or safely nooked into a staff position. Mine had always been a hybrid of the usual “what I do” with, to my mind, a stock-photo version of “who I am.” It told true facts validated by working professionals: born here, schooled there, live here, won that. But those details didn’t communicate the information I valued: the journey I’d traveled just to get into (and remain in) journalism. That journey was the source of my power, motivation, expertise, vision, and forward direction. I didn’t put that all together, though, not till Take the Lead’s #50WomenCan Change the World in Journalism leadership program this February. It was my first such professional development in a nearly decade-long career.

What surprised me most, then and now, was the program’s emphasis on knowing your personal history because it is your source of power and therefore, key to leading within your industry. A 3-minute video broadcasting our personal “Power To” stories was required for graduation. So we 50 spent a lengthy session, for example, sketching our histories on Post-It wall pads to share in a public gallery walk. For a professional setting, some of us got pretty personal. I thought, these details would never surface during after-work drinks at the local pub.

Sharing the life events that shaped me, with colleagues, was new. My journey to professional journalism belonged to ‘home,’ not work--and I had learned as a child watching my own single, working mother to separate the two. Curious, though, I sketched my journey on my Post-It. And whatever went down on that Post-It is what #50WomenCan saw as key to my professional advancement. Reframing my journey was a major shift for me--and one I still see as risky for two reasons.

One, I wouldn’t describe my industry as inclusive of experiences/ways of seeing the world that differ from its norm: white, comfortably middle-class or wealthy. My identity--immigrant, first-generation college, black woman, poor/working-class from a rural family--makes my journey to journalism distinct from my professional peers. I’m typically the only one with my background in the room. Folks like me appear as subjects of news stories, but rarely are we the storytellers, i.e. reporters, opinion writers or newsroom leadership. In a way, I am “out of my proper place”.

Two, according to the informal whisper network among immigrants and black professionals, assimilation and code-switching, respectively, are standard survival tactics in corporate America. Sharing yourself and your culture at work, where managers warm to and groom the ‘familiar’, isn’t advised. Given the reasons above, chances are high that highlighting your difference might invite blowback.

I decided, though, that while I’m uncomfortable with the risk, I’m taking it anyway. That’s what leaders do, right? My voice shook as I shot my 3-minute video, telling my personal story aloud for the first time in front of a watchful and supportive audience of women. But, I did it. That’s what counts. Turns out, I had the building blocks of my story all along, and #50WomenCan helped me to actualize it. I have a new Web site, now, which I’m still tweaking. And it seems counter-intuitive, but it takes effort to know your own story. It took me 4 months, 2 coaching calls, 2 group video chats, an intense 12-question leadership plan, brainstorming sessions and feedback from my #50WomenCan cohort to come up with mine. Talking aloud to myself while riding the train became a regular thing.

Your personal story is the source of your power. As Gloria Feldt, the program’s founder, might say, never leave your power on the table.


I invite readers to connect with me as I share #50WomenCan reflections over the next couple of weeks. I’m curious: do you also hesitate to share your personal stories with work colleagues? How can we create workplaces that are inclusive? That welcome, but don’t fetishize, difference? Talk to me.