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How one local news organization approaches the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion day in and day out

The work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) happens in the small decisions made in the day-to-day. At EdNC, we approach the work intentionally through four dimensions: intrapersonal (this is the “I” work), organizational (this is the “we” work), community presence (this is “our walk”), and systems change (this is “the way” forward).

Under the leadership of Rochelle Ford, the dean of the school of communication at Elon University, and Melanie Sill, interim director of the NC Local News Workshop, EdNC is joining with other outlets to launch the NC Media Equity Project. This article is an update to the cohort, to our board of directors, to our funders, and to our audience.

Intrapersonal development

The “I” work is the hard work we all have to do personally and professionally. This dimension is about our people, the EdNC team.

Knowing that our people need to be physically and mentally healthy to sustain this work, we have committed to supporting their wellness. Team members have access to $150 a month for personal investments in wellness. We also realized that vacation days are often used by our team to connect with family and/or adventure, and while we love and support play, their vacations often don’t provide respite and time to recharge and renew. We offer them time to pause twice a year around July 4th and then over the Christmas and New Years holidays.

We provide access to research and literature about DEI. What does your DEI “shelfie” look like?

We offer our team access to an equity coach for one-on-one, private coaching. At first, I (the white leader) thought I was going to pick one coach for the team, but I quickly realized our team needed to be able to pick their own coach, so we came up with a list of approved consultants. My personal thanks to Tracey Greene-Washington (who serves on our executive committee), James Ford (who worked with us for three years as he built CREED), and Tara Kenchen for their countless hours of advice and counsel.

We provide racial equity training for our team and our board. These aren’t one and done trainings. Tune ups happen as our team transitions, as we bump into pain points, or in response to team requests.

We work with our team to balance their role as reporters and their own personal right to free speech on issues they care deeply about.

With the regular pressure of reporting compounded by COVID-19 and physical and mental health issues, I thought we might lose one of our reporters, Rupen Fofaria. What can we do, we had to ask ourselves, to support and retain our team during hard times?

Rupen shared his story with the EdNC team at our annual EdCamp — internal professional development we custom design each year relative to our organizational development. His story as a child and a student. His story as a parent and reporter. “I was Brown, so I couldn’t play Luke Skywalker,” he said. “I had to play Chewbacca.” His story required us to consider what it means to belong to family, to school, to an organization.

Rupen’s sabbatical:

When COVID-19 started occupying daily graphic space across all media, my primary concern became keeping my kids safe and secure. The primary focus at work became figuring out how schools will handle and adjust to the novel virus — a time-consuming task that didn’t respect work hours or work days. I felt pulled in two directions, never quite reaching the destination on either end. 

When our editor-in-chief called me with the news that we’d gotten a Facebook grant and that I could have two months’ sabbatical, it was bittersweet. I care about education in North Carolina and wanted to report the story. But my kids needed me home — they needed help navigating the reality of the story, learning from home and finding normalcy in the tumult that grounded all of us in the house. 

The experience of sabbatical proved life changing and spirit-resetting. Over eight weeks, my two sons and I travelled the state — hiking in the mountains and smelling the ocean air from the beach. We talked to people about how the virus disrupted their lifestyles. We talked to parents who shared worries about their kids’ health and education. We saw how the disruption of in-person instruction impacted some of our friends harder than others. After the killing of George Floyd, we watched news of nightly protests for racial justice and helped clean downtown Raleigh some mornings. 

We did all of that while also figuring out how to make remote instruction work for us — in a way to both keep them learning and get me working. Together, we learned, we bonded and we reconnected with the truly important things in life. As a result, I returned to work with peace of mind, fresh perspective and renewed energy — ready to devote myself to covering the changing landscape of the future of our state. 

Rupen and his two boys

Rupen designs his own EdNC swag, including his now famous hoodie. The intrapersonal work of DEI requires us to attend to the culture of place so belonging is possible.

Organizational development

This is the “we work.” This dimension is about our organization and our purpose.

Here is EdNC’s statement on equity:

Being in healthy, positive, and equitable relationships with residents, leaders, organizations, and communities is critical for impactful partnerships and to support systems level change. It requires hard conversations about difficult issues, creation of intentional space, interrupting false narratives, choosing to not be complicit in issues or practices that perpetuate inequities, good intent without a hidden agenda, and the resistance to render individuals invisible or villains when issues get uncomfortable and hard.

We consider the diversity of our team, our leadership, and our board. We consider the pipelines we rely on and whether our bylaws and policies are aligned to our DEI commitment.

Here is a snapshot of our diversity today:

On the leadership team of EdNC, 4 of 6 are women, 1 of 6 identifies as Latinx. On the full-time team of EdNC, in addition to leadership, 4 of 8 are women, 1 of 8 identifies as Hispanic, and 1 of 8 identifies as a person of color.

On the executive committee of EdNC, 2 of 8 are women, 1 of 8 are people of color. On the board of EdNC, 6 of 16 are women, 8 of 16 are people of color.

James Ford reminds me, “this is not good enough.” Most critically, we need to recruit Black journalists.

In 2019, when we were seeking to hire four new team members, we posted jobs on Indeed, Journalism Jobs, the National Association of Black Journalists job board, the Online News Association job board, Facebook, and Twitter. Of the 147 applicants, 33% were people of color.

But too often, if positions open up unexpectedly, we call our go-to source of young reporters, The Daily Tar Heel. We need to build similar relationships with journalism schools at HBCUs.

Our consideration of diversity includes lines of difference beyond gender, race, and ethnicity, and lines of inclusion — for instance, substance abuse.

Derick Stephenson, a former teacher in Edgecombe County Public Schools and former EdNC EdAmbassador, serves as our equity editor. Stephenson reviews all of our content, from social cards to newsletters to articles, and he gives us constructive feedback.

Sometimes we proactively ask him to review articles prior to publication. For example, we asked him to review an article on preschool suspensions. Here’s some of the feedback he provided that informed edits to the article:

“Part of the issue is that the perception of behavior can be subjective. What one sees as challenging may be non-challenging for another. Was there no challenging behavior, or did observers witness the same behavior being perceived differently based on the child’s racial identity? If the latter is true, then I think that would clarify the point being made in the section. Otherwise, how do we measure what behavior is challenging?”

EdNC invests in professional development for our equity editor, for instance INN’s “Racial Equity in Journalism: How is nonprofit news meeting the moment?”

From who our vendors are to working with our funders to make sure they understand the importance of DEI in journalism, an organizational commitment to DEI requires constant consideration of how you invest and align resources.

Community presence

This is “our walk.” This dimension is about our presence and how our work shows up in the lives of the people and the places we serve.

Every word matters in this work. After some vigorous debates about how we identify people who show up in our stories, and about AP style and our commitment to DEI, Eric Frederick asked, “Why don’t we just ask them how they want to be identified?” Now we do that.

We worry a lot about who is and isn’t in our audience and built Reach NC Voices to connect deeply in communities across North Carolina.

We don’t have any grants that support our commitment to publish perspectives, but access to our platform and our audience has been a team commitment since day one of EdNC. This is our architecture of participation, and that is why you see contributors posted on our voices page.

James Ford worked with the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research for three years, conducting research that led to the establishment of CREED, including a journalist equity fellow.

This year, we’ve had to wrestle with how to best support the creation of Latinx content. Carol Bono on our team led an initiative called Comunidad. But it was clear in conversations with education advocates and philanthropists that this content needed to be Latinx led, Latinx edited, Latinx reported, and Latinx distributed. We are in the beginning stages of partnering with LatinxEd to build capacity for Latinx education content that we hope will be distributed statewide and not just by EdNC.

We commit organizational resources to support diverse leaders and the creation of content we believe furthers the work of DEI in our schools. For instance, this podcast, The Hummingbird Stories. Take a listen…

We cover DRIVE, the initiative across North Carolina for Developing a Representative & Inclusive Vision for Education and other important conversations about DEI.

We lift up diverse leadership. Note the trust block on how our white animator worked with Superintendent Anthony Jackson on the images in this video:

And we show you how and why this work is messy. Note the very long trust block at the end of this article:

Expanding our coverage to community colleges diversified our content and our audience, and going forward, we are excited to announce that we will be expanding our coverage to HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities.

Systems change

This is “our way” forward. This dimension requires us to wrestle with whether our people, our purpose, and our presence are aligned toward the point of all of this work — real structural changes in our schools and our communities, in our state and across our nation.

We examine dominant culture practices, we evaluate journalistic practices that perpetuate racism, and especially in our partnerships, we try to see, name, and interrupt extractive approaches. In other words, we try to give more than we take.

This fall, an intern, a team member, and a board member of EdNC all attended together the Aspen Institute’s seminar on DEI in the workplace.

Nation Hahn is part of the API Table Stakes cohort of coaches nationally. Through this work, he has had the opportunity to learn from the Maynard Institute about fault lines in journalism and bring his learnings to EdNC and other news organizations around the country.

If we approach this work across the four dimensions and through collaboration like the NC Media Equity Project, I believe more and more news outlets will look like URL Media, which launched this week thanks to the leadership of our colleague, Sara Lomax-Reese.

In the meantime, our work continues. Here are our next steps in the journey:

Intrapersonal: Deeper work around our personal capacity for free speech, reporting out on work with coaches and analyzing what we need to unlearn and relearn in our personal leadership, and attention to microaggressions in virtual environments

Organization: Rewriting our bylaws, co-creating job pipelines for Black students and other students of color

Community: Partnership with LatinxEd, expansion of coverage to HBCUs

Systems: NC Media Equity Project

We will make mistakes. When we do, you will continue to see us issue trust blocks on our stories as we learn how better to do this work. And we will continue to hold space for reflective practice to review lessons learned and build toward best practices.

My thanks to all of you who take the time to give us feedback on our DEI work.

And many thanks to our funders, but most especially the Facebook Journalism Project, for supporting our team and our commitment to DEI in our work and in the world.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.