My experience covering a community meeting with youth media mentees

As a part of our collaboration with Free Spirit Media, reporting fellows from City Bureau partner with student journalists to cover public meetings. Mike, Sterling and I chose to attend a community meeting this spring about the impact of the Obama Presidential Library, hosted by 1Woodlawn at Apostolic Church of Christ, a mere two blocks away from City Bureau’s office.

The group sponsoring the meeting, the Network of Woodlawn, often pops up on my Facebook feed, likely because of my community engagement work for StoryCorps and because I’m a nearby resident.

We arrived early to discuss how we would approach the meeting to accomplish our individual and collective reporting goals. Mike and Sterling needed to generate some story ideas; I needed to make sure they achieved that while also balancing my personal interest in the topic at hand. In addition, Mike was documenting the meeting as a part of our Documenters program.

I pulled out my laptop to show a video clip of Dr. Bryon T. Brazier, the church’s pastor and chairman of the Network of Woodlawn, discussing the meeting earlier that week on Fox32. Years prior to the Obama Presidential Library announcement, community stakeholders began meeting to build a community plan for “education, safety, economic development and health and human services.” The focus this night would be on displacement and gentrification, community benefits agreements and the Woodlawn Community Master Plan.

Pastor Bryon T. Brazier addresses the 1Woodlawn community meeting, April 20th, 2017.

We found it interesting that a community-led organization would invite development. It was downright impressive for 400 to 500 people to show up committed to the same idea. As a nearby resident, I had my own thoughts and questions about the course development could take; however, my job as a journalist was to understand why the community organized itself, which stakeholders had a seat at the table and what the concerns were for the vision of Woodlawn from the diverse perspectives in the room.

With an unexpected half-hour pushback in start time, the students and I sat and talked with people at the banquet tables. We began with an open-ended line of questioning, “So, why did you come to tonight?” When we introduced ourselves and why we were there, most people were eager to talk to us.

I approached this event differently from a standard interview, instead trying to facilitate a dialogue among the community members, Mike, Sterling and I. If I had knowledge of what they are talking about, I would give an honest observation; if not, I’d probe for more nuance. It was in that manner that I found out that the Apostolic Church of Christ had been redeveloping Woodlawn since the 1980s under the leadership of the late Reverend Brazier, father of the current pastor. That little detail was of tremendous value. It helped us understand why the community meeting was held at this particular church, alluding to its authority — tangible and symbolic — in the neighborhood. When Mike introduced himself, he made a point of saying he wasn’t coming in with a predetermined angle but wanted to report on what what he observed. Sterling covered the meeting on social media and also queried attendees. When Reverend Brazier and his management consultant Jada Russell made their rounds, they spoke with Mike and Sterling longer than other attendees because of their unique status as youth and press, two demographics they are looking to further include as their plans unfold.

I made a point to talk to the people around me — not just the ones formally recognized on the agenda. Many of these folks bore their own stakes and responsibilities as residents, block club members, community gardeners, parents and educators. These are faces of the impacted, too. Presenting myself as someone curious enough and humble enough to value their voices is a major part of connecting to the heart the matter, too.

Daweed Scully, an urban planner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, introduced the master plan with the recognition that for black and brown neighborhoods, development is often equivalent to displacement and gentrification. The room murmured in agreement. This master plan was to be different, he said. It was to be “a Woodlawn plan built on your ideas.”

1Woodlawn is set to release their completed master plan at community meeting this July. Residents are encouraged to return and share their hopes and fears then.