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Feb. 1, 2017, 12:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Lolly Bowean: When we tell our communities’ stories, we show people how to relate to one another

“I’m here to remind you today that great journalism can also find ordinary, regular people and find the extraordinary in what they do.”

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, some very smart and accomplished people from the world of media gathered in a packed Sanders Theater to discuss the role of journalism in what some, at least, label a “post-truth” era. Today we’re publishing transcripts of their talks and conversations.

Here, Lolly Bowean, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune and a current Nieman Fellow at Harvard, reminds us why journalism matters through retelling the impact of a single story — and describing a vision of journalism as a force for cultural unity, not division. You can find transcripts of all the speakers and our other coverage of the event here.

You know, it may look glamorous, but being a working journalist has its high moments and some challenging moments. There are times such as this one:

(a recording of Lolly trying to get a quote from Rahm Emanuel)

Yes, that is me trying to get a comment from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And yes, that is me getting the door slammed in my face. You know, practicing journalism is difficult, and readers don’t even know how many times we face obstacles, or how hard we have to hustle and get our jobs done. There are times when we get doors slammed in our face — literally, like you heard. There are times when public officials send us boxes of paperwork, because they don’t think that we’re going to read through every single page until we can find that news gem. There are other times when we are deliberately sent to the wrong address, so that people will think we won’t find just what we’re looking for.

When you’re faced with those kind of daily obstacles, it’s really easy to become cynical. You can feel despondent; you may even feel a little powerless as a journalist. But then there are other fantastic and fabulous moments being a journalist. Like this one time when I received a random fax in the office telling me about the work of LoQuator Dinkins, a woman on the south side of Chicago. I read the fax, and just like any curious journalist, I immediately jumped in my car and drove to her address. After I spent a little bit of time with LoQuator, I did some more research and I came back to the office and wrote these words:

Most of the people who lined up inside LoQuator Dinkins’ small food pantry in Hazel Crest on a recent afternoon didn’t even notice the lights were off.

They were too worried about their own troubles, consumed with the day-to-day hustle of stretching a budget and feeding their families. It’s their needs, after all, that bring them to this small warehouse, where Dinkins listens to their troubles and offers them free food, clothing and furniture — along with hugs and encouragement.

“Sometimes you listen to other people’s problems and realize you don’t have any at all,” Dinkins said.

For much of the 20 years Dinkins has been running her pantry and handing out clothing and furniture to the needy, keeping the operation going has been a struggle. She has many of the problems her clients complain to her about. The bills pile up, utilities are cut off, debt is incurred. Dinkins’ most recent trouble is a $3,500 electric bill that has left the pantry in the dark.

Her pantry is unusual because while most food giveaways are run by churches, social agencies or formal organizations, the Hazel Crest effort is operated by a 65-year-old African-American woman and a few volunteers who collect donations, organize the goods and hand them out.

The story went on from there. This story ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, and the day that it ran, I was flooded with emails and I got a number of phone calls. But I didn’t hear a word back from LoQuator Dinkins, the subject of the story.

After a couple days when I didn’t hear from her, I got in my car and I drove to check in on her. You see, initially LoQuator was a little shy about sharing her story with me. She didn’t want to make it seem that she was bragging about her efforts to help other people.

She was also a little reluctant to tell her story because she didn’t want people to know that she was struggling to get her work done. So I wanted to drive to see her, to make sure that she didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed in any way.

When I pulled up to the food pantry, I was greeted with this chaotic scene. There were dozens of residents out there. They had bags of food and bags of clothing and household items that they were ready to donate. And there, in the center, of it all was LoQuator Dinkins, handing out orders to her volunteers and chatting with her new donors. It was amazing to see — there were people from different races and different ethnicities. There were people with different religious backgrounds, who had all come because they’d read this story and they wanted to help save her food pantry.

When I walked up to LoQuator, she was chatting with a man who had driven several hours from a wealthy posh suburb to make a donation large enough that would cover that $3,500 electric bill. She told that man he had been sent to her by God. He said: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in good people.” The scene that I saw that day was so compelling and so inspiring and moving to me, it reminded me of the power of journalism. I went back to the office and I wrote about it too.

You see, it’s those types of moments that keep me from becoming cynical. It’s those moments that help remind me that as journalists, we have the power to empower.

Now, I need to tell you that when I was growing up, I didn’t see reporters in my neighborhood unless there was something tragic or something violent that happened. So, in my own work, I’ve tried to make sure that I pay attention to communities and neighborhoods and try to highlight people like LoQuator Dinkins, who are doing the best that they can with the resources that they have. You see, when I’m when I write about someone like LoQuator Dinkins, a regular, ordinary, everyday person who is finding the best in themselves, I’m reminded of how great we are as people.

Now, we all know that the best journalism highlights historic inequalities and systemic inequities. We know that the best journalism pushes back against the power structure, and that it can hold public officials accountable, that it separates the truth from the alternative facts.

But I’m here to remind you today that great journalism can also find ordinary, regular people and find the extraordinary in what they do. And by doing that, we inspire our audience and our readers to dig down deep and find their own generosity, and find their own passions in their own ways that they can change and contribute to this world.

You see, I think that when we tell those types of stories, we show people how to relate to each other — we help ourselves like each other a little bit more. And I truly believe that when we learn about those stories and when we share those stories, that is the path to bridging the division and helping us find true solidarity.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2017, 12:11 p.m.
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