On the last day of my week in Phoenix for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project, I was talking to a fellow student about going back home. I was heading back to San Francisco, and she was heading back to Philly. “We’re going back to reality,” she said. We both agreed that Next Gen felt like something of a mecca.
For some of us, reality was a lot different from this mecca. That’s because returning to reality meant returning to newsrooms that weren’t as uniquely diverse as the Next Gen newsroom, which felt like it had its arms wrapped around the world.
The diversity of the stories that came out of this project are a reflection of the diversity in the room. Travis did a story on Rodrigue Wasanga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo finding refuge at a cafe in Phoenix. Maggie did a story on Jose Cortez, the bodyguard of labor rights activist Cesar Chavez. Abby talked with a Syrian family resettling in Arizona. Trenae visited inmates at a correctional facility tasked with training horses. And I talked with a Chinese transracial adoptee to white parents.
Doug Mitchell, Next Gen’s founder, would later remind us that these stories were hiding in plain sight before we’d arrived. And it begs the question- why? “In looking over their work, it’s like they said, ‘See what you can find when you don’t follow the rules?’” Doug wrote. And by the rules, I think he means the status quo.
When Doug asked me about the biggest thing I learned during the project, my answer came easy to me. Before I arrived I felt that I’d already understood the benefits of a diverse newsroom. But what I learned from Next Gen was the power of that diversity. It went beyond the material production of a variety of untold stories. It was also this feeling you get when you walk into the newsroom and see people who look like the neighbors who grew up on the same street as you. It felt like home. It felt like you could be the best person and reporter you could be in this newsroom. And it all felt magical and effortless. We fed off of each other and encouraged one another. We questioned the status quo. Why did this feel so easy? So simple to do? But so seemingly difficult to accomplish beyond the walls of this room?
When I stood in front of the newsroom for the last time to present my story, I saw the country and the world in front of me. This was the kind of newsroom I wanted to exist in. This is my standard. But who else’s?
The problem is that for some, reality and mecca are still too far apart. Mecca felt like mecca and mecca alone– a goal, and something we aspire to, rather than something that already exists.