The slight of the great contraction

I’m a Cook County kid. I can think of no other region in this nation where the social, economic, and political significance of a place matters like it does here. I’m also the founder and sole reporter at the Harvey World Herald, a Black-owned digital newsroom in Harvey, Illinois.

Last year, at 24 years old, I quit my job in New York City and moved home to jumpstart the HWH. The local papers collapsed a few decades ago, and the HWH is the only newsroom in a town of 20,000 people.

I’m a product of 152nd and Loomis. A global pandemic forever changed life as we know it. And my block was still riddled with abandoned buildings, burnouts, and homes caving in on themselves.

Nearly one-third of residents live at or below the poverty line, so grant money is critical to build a sustainable business model. In conversations with Chicago philanthropy and foundations, some representatives have told me that funds are typically geared toward larger newsrooms or big cities like Chicago.

It’s beyond annoying.

In 2023, more newsrooms in suburban and rural communities are likely to scale back or shut down operations if philanthropy and the foundation world don’t change their arbitrary funding habits. These are already some of the most starved places — of grocery stores, hospitals, visibility.

In “Strength to Love,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about the paradox of philanthropy. It’s “commendable,” he wrote, “but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Philanthropy has to remedy the very economic inequities that it can’t exist without. But adding insult to injury are the ways in which philanthropy stresses local journalism, which is intrinsically tied to the economic conditions of the community served.

In Harvey, I cover four school districts. Then there’s the library and park districts. And city council meetings. Now we’re in election season: municipal, two school board races, and a library board seat.

The only newsroom in town only has one reporter to cover it all. It’s not sustainable. The future of news is collaborative.

That’s one of many things I learned through City Bureau, where I began as a Documenter in its network. The Chicago Independent Media Alliance, which the HWH is part of, stresses collaboration to elevate storytelling across the Chicago area.

Media ecosystems don’t exist in vacuums. They’re created by engendering environments that view the public as a partner rather than an “other,” reject egoism, and promote collaboration across newsrooms and zip codes.

City-exclusive funding practices undermine all of this. It’s short-sighted and bound to backfire.

Let’s say you’re a Chicago-based newsroom that wants to support journalism in the metropolitan area. You don’t want to parachute, so you plan to start by engaging newsrooms already on the ground in those areas doing the work.

But they don’t exist. Now you’re tasked with doing more with less, fueling burnout. This is also encouraging superficial coverage of race, economics, and politics in suburban and rural places. In 2021, we got more images of white suburbanite parents protesting mask mandates in schools than we did Black and Brown suburbanite parents fighting tooth and nail for stringent COVID-19 health protocols.

A few Chicago-based newsrooms have already expressed interest in collaborating with the HWH. That’s not going to happen if we don’t have the financial support to grow.

Political figures are often wary of taxing more affluent residents to fund social services out of fear that folks will “vote with their feet.” Suburbanization of the late 1960s is tied to racially diversifying enclaves in big cities.

According to census records, Harvey’s Black population in the 1960s was ballooning at a faster rate than that of Chicago’s. Blacks, relegated to slums and poor housing conditions in the Black Belt, sought economic opportunity in what was once dubbed “the Gateway to the South Suburbs” — Harvey.

Or like my grandparents in the late second wave of the Great Migration, they moved from the Deep South to Chicago’s South Side and eventually into the suburbs. They were the first Black family to live at 152nd and Loomis. White flight followed thereafter.

People — and the very issues journalists observe, report on, and are ourselves impacted by — know no border.

I’m often told philanthropy and the foundation world move slowly. For rural and suburban communities, they clearly don’t move at all. Funders won’t catch up anytime soon.

But there’s so much we can learn from Harvey. From Attala County or Holmes County, Mississippi. Lake Charles, Louisiana. All where my ancestral roots are. Or even Waterloo, Iowa, where most of my mother’s family lives. Where my siblings and I lived for six years.

These places challenge the racial and economic politics of how we have defined the American suburb or rural space. Those who sacrifice and those with the means to do so are often not the same people.

Small communities don’t want pity. Pity is where narcissism goes to vacation. They want — and require — capital.

Amethyst J. Davis is the founder of and sole reporter at the Harvey World Herald.

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