Grandchildren of Brown
When I was in high school, then-Propublica reporter Nikole Hannah Jones was working on a piece about school segregation in Tuscaloosa. She came to my newsroom, as well as Central High School's, and enlisted our help. We were to shoot photos of race relations in our schools, which were later displayed in a local exhibit and on the New York Times' LENS blog. From there, I and a team of students from both schools founded the system's first intra-city exchange program, in which we would create a publication detailing our experience at each other's schools. This project took months, and several pleas to the school board, to finally get approval, but it was what essentially kickstarted my career in journalism and my commitment to writing stories – local stories – about race and education.
At the University of Alabama, I've continued to tell the story of segregation in Tuscaloosa through my studies in critical race theory and historical analysis. I wanted to amplify the voices of students in the first piece, so I conducted a literature review that worked to identify and document student protest at Central High School. The aim was to show that, despite negative priming from local news articles, Black students in Tuscaloosa were not powerless or merely victims of segregation; they were fighting against it this whole time. The second piece brings in several pieces of literature, as well as my own experience, to tell another story about racial identity in 'de-segregated' schools like Northridge High School. This piece critiqued rational educational theory and employed examples from memoirs, films, and student testimonies in media, to identify the effects of Whiteness in educational power structures, such as academic tracking and bias in enforcing discipline policies. You can read both below:
More recently, I've been working to tell stories of education equity in places that aren't home, like Memphis and Sumter County. I've also spent some time looking at the long history of Black education in Alabama, which you can read about below.
As part of UFE's Black Belt Experience, I and three classmates designed a travel brochure, along with five historical markers to be displayed in Marion, Alabama's town square. The project, which you can learn more about here, aimed to promote tourism and foster healthy discussion about points of pride and legacy within the community. For my part, I conducted interviews with living members of the Lincolnite Society, who helped form Lincoln Normal, one of Alabama's premiere Black high schools that later died by poorly enforced integration measures.
Now, Francis Marion has felt the full effects of white flight, as the school has essentially become re-segregated. Meanwhile, white students attend Marion's small private school, or they trek outside the county to schools in Greensboro or Selma – schools that don't perform much better than FMHS. These segregation academies are long-standing symbols of how a widespread problem can become concentrated in rural areas such as the Black Belt. The work I do now aims to document how this state and this region will navigate possible "solutions" to this problem, especially as Alabama joins a nationwide push for school choice.
In the spring of 2018, I worked with ProPublica and NYTimes reporter Derek Willis on a project he cofounded called OpenElections. Willis, an elections junkie, and his partner Serdar Tumgoren identified a major problem for journalists in search of election data: While election results are technically public records, they are often difficult to retrieve. OpenElections seeks to do that work for them and publish hard-to-get results in a machine-readable format for anyone to access. This project, funded by the Knight Foundation among many other data giants, realizes American news media’s role in protecting democracy, and it’s designed in a way that is accessible to the public – especially volunteers.
When I started, I knew nothing about data collection other than through a few social media tools. I also didn’t know that much about elections – and especially not about how we classify and sort election data. The curriculum we made required me to learn basic manual data entry, but it also introduced me to the GitHub community, taught me basic commands, and allowed me to write some code on my own. Willis and Tumgoren also gave me a lot of ownership in their project, allowing me to communicate with other users and re-envision their site.
Installed and learned how to use Terminal, GitHub, Tabula, Homebrew, xpdf, TextWrangler, SSH key, Google Groups, Slack, HelloFax, OpenElections Tracker, and Python
Used Excel to reformat parsed NY county .pdf results into .csv files (Total = 4)
Called AL, WV, and TX county clerks to retrieve election data (Total = at least 30)
Followed up with emailed or faxed requests (Total = 19)
Wrote FOIA requests when no response (Total = 9)
Pushed cleaned data to GitHub repositories (Total = 4)
Pushed source files to GitHub repositories (Total = 17)
Completed python assignments to clean data (Total = 2)
Became a NICAR (National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting) member
Attended national CAR conference and took notes on sessions (Total = 14)
Met professional reporters, including the two OpenElections cofounders
Drafted questions and was active on Slack to gauge user needs for potential website re-design
Worldviews is the final class a Blount student has to take, and it involves a senior project accompanied by weekly readings, which add on to our foundational texts and explore things like the role of language, nationhood, structure of feeling, and some foundations of cultural theory. For my project, I wanted to use my data journalism skills to create a more intimate, longitudinal visualization of gentrification in Tuscaloosa. My project was one of four that was picked to be presented at Convocation, where I spoke in front of about 100 freshmen.
My presentation, titled "The Poetics of Geospatial Microdata," was a play on a foundational text (Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space) and in it, I explored different definitions of home, spanning from Bachelard's domestic dwelling place, to more critical counter-poetics of a transient home, as well as a more abstract example from the Talmud, in which the world essentially becomes a graveyard after the great Flood. That last definition is what inspired my project, which was to try to visualize change over a small space, but over a long period of time. This was a more artistic move made to invoke questions of space and memory, specifically, but it was also something that I see as a solution to a problem – a problem of limiting discourses of displacement to larger cities. To gather the data, I transcribed tax maps by hand, used Ancestry.com and archival sites to identify race and gender of the owners, and loaded that data in a GeoJSON format using Mapbox GL JS. This took me well over 80 hours, but it allowed me to locate what could be considered a sort of structure of feeling. By that, I mean I was able to interact with the primary source in a way that helped to fill some negative spaces and silences, such as female ownership and how marriage may facilitate or deter from that, as well as stories of Black renters and workers that may not otherwise be named. From there, I proposed this data to be used as a stepping stone for historians and journalists interested in space, and I used some of my own work (coming soon) to make the argument that storing data in this way can be extremely powerful – and personal.
In the fall of 2018, I took a Blount course by Dr. Hilary Green about the history of slavery on the University of Alabama's campus. For our final project, our class conducted research on Family, Education, and Politics during Reconstruction, which culminated in a pop-up exhibit on campus called "After Slavery." You can read more about the event below, as well as the cover story I wrote for MOSAIC Magazine's winter edition about Dr. Green's research on William, an enslaved carpenter.