By Laura Onyeneho
It was almost a year ago when I decided to pack my bags to embark on the next chapter of my journalism career as an education reporter for the Defender Network covering one of the largest school systems in the country.
For a long time, I had positioned my career around covering issues that impacted Black people and other marginalized communities, and I was ready to take on the challenge of learning about Houston’s public school system and providing coverage that matters to the area.
As I continue to develop connections within the community, I realized the importance of showing up and being present in these spaces. I’m not here to be a parachute journalist, jumping into a community and then heading out when I’ve completed my assignment. I’ve had to build trust as an outsider looking in.
To be honest with you, the Southern hospitality is strong.
Apart from my work as an education reporter, I’m also a Report for America (RFA) corps member. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.
There is a crisis in local journalism today. Many news organizations have had to cut jobs, pull back circulation, or reduce coverage altogether. Millions of Americans are left without a vital source of local news. These outlets play an important role in informing the community about local government, elections, and other civic events.
Denise Tejada, RFA service project manager, continues to work diligently with corps members nationwide providing us with the resources and guidance we need to accomplish our project.
“These service projects allow corps members to connect with their community in a different way, Tejada said. “Immersing yourself in the neighborhoods you report in only enhances your experience. The people won’t feel a disconnect and the community will have exposure to a platform and journalists who care about their voices and needs.”
One of my responsibilities as a corps member is to volunteer my time on a youth media project to help young students produce stories about the world around them. This year, I collaborated with iconic Jack Yates High School photography teacher Ray Carrington III and his students on a project titled The Essence of Black Houston Photo Essay Project.
Carrington is a beloved educator — and former Defender photographer — who has been teaching at the high school for almost 30 years. I remembered the first time I entered his classroom and was in awe about the quality of work his students produced. The idea made perfect sense to me because with his wealth of experience, along with the talent of his students, these young folk will have the opportunity to get a front row seat to witness the contributions of generations of Black Houstonians. We owe it to our youth to carry that spirit into the future.
I worked with a few of Carrington’s brightest photography students focusing on telling stories of three key neighborhoods in the city through pictures: Third Ward, Fourth Ward and Fifth Ward.
“As a teacher, I try to teach the kids things that…I needed and got at an early age that they may not have gotten yet,” Carrington said. “My students are understanding the power and value of a photograph. These photos will be a direct link to our past. The kids might not see that now, but they will years down the line.”
We took the students on a trip where they will apply all their photojournalism techniques in the field. We visited historical landmarks such as Emancipation Park, the African American Library, and the DeLuxe Theatre. They had the opportunity to speak with locals and learn about the developments and changes happening in the city.
“I like how I’m learning about new stuff while I’m taking pictures,” said freshman photography student Josiah Hughes. “All my life, [I’ve] just been in Houston or Third Ward. I’ve never really been to Fifth Ward before or any of these places. I’ve learned a lot about the type of history Black people have that I never knew about.”
It never dawned on me that there are young people in the community who never considered exploring outside of their neighborhoods. The students lit up in excitement as we traveled into various parts of the city.
Alejandro Flores is a sophomore at Yates. He was raised in El Salvador and enjoyed learning about a culture he wasn’t too familiar with.
“My experience has been pretty great because before I used to take pictures and pictures for me made no sense,” Flores said. “I learned about how to write good impressions [photo descriptions] and how to express my feelings through a [picture].
Overall, this was a great experience, and I look forward to when Black Houston will see the hard work of these dedicated students.
Laura Onyeneho covers the city’s education system as it relates to Black children for the Defender Network as a Report For America Corps member. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org