Giving a voice to West Oakland residents – Tribune – 2.9.2010

Oakland Tribune, The (CA) – Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Author: Tammerlin Drummond Oakland Tribune Columnist

If there were a contest to determine which neighborhood best epitomizes “how bad Oakland is,” I suspect West and East Oakland would be neck and neck.

Both neighborhoods are so often portrayed as dangerous, violent places, I’m sure a lot of people would be shocked to learn anything other than street killings ever occurs.

The people who live in East and West Oakland don’t need anyone to tell us that violence is a big problem in our neighborhoods. But we also know that there are honest, hardworking people trying to improve the community. The frustrating thing is, we hear so much about the hoodlums running down everything, but so little about the folks who are working to improve access to decent health care. Going out of their way to mentor children whose own parents are missing in action. Fighting to reduce toxic emissions from trucks and factories.

The Oakland Tribune has just launched a community news project, Oakland Voices , which we believe will help us get some of these previously underreported stories into the newspaper.

Oakland Voices will begin in West Oakland . The plan is to expand to East Oakland .

The six-month program will train West Oakland residents as citizen journalists, empowering them to report through their own eyes what is going on in their communities. Oakland Voices is a partnership between the Tribune, the California Endowment, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and the Oakland Public Library.

The idea is to use West Oakland residents to help our news organization produce more nuanced coverage of West Oakland that doesn’t turn a blind eye to dysfunction, but that also captures the vibrancy and rich culture of the neighborhood.

The community newsroom will be housed at the West Oakland branch library, where the community members who are chosen for the program will team up with veteran reporters. The Tribune will publish select articles in the newspaper and on our Web site.

Tribune Editor Martin G. Reynolds sees the project as a way for the newspaper to give back to the community by giving residents a platform for telling their stories. It’s also a way in these tough times of shrinking budgets and cutbacks for the Tribune to grow its newsroom by tapping community members to help round out our coverage.

“We’re looking for people with compelling life stories,” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to hear the voices that are not being heard.”

Reynolds said he got the idea for the project after attending a journalism conference in St. Louis in 2006. West Oakland community activist Azalea Blalock spoke about a “new news ecology” that would create a partnership between community members and journalists.

Her feeling was that residents would learn to trust reporters. They would also feel like equals instead of assuming that the news was “above them.”

Through this partnership, ideas for stories would occur organically rather than reporters periodically parachuting in to report on the latest disaster.

The citizen journalists will receive a $1,000 program stipend.

The California Endowment, which has supported media initiatives to improve health reporting, gave the project a $60,000 grant.

The program will be run by Christopher Johnson , a former National Public Radio editor and producer. Originally from Washington, D.C., Johnson now lives in Oakland and said he sees parallels between the two cities.

The training curriculum will be devised by the Maynard Institute, which is run by Dori Maynard, daughter of the late Tribune Publisher Robert Maynard.

Dori Maynard lives in West Oakland . She’s sick and tired of the bad rap about her neighborhood.

Her hope is that Oakland Voices will help to dispel a distorted portrait of West Oakland .

“One of the things I hope people see is that life in West Oakland is normal,” Maynard said. “Everything in the news is about something horrible happening but that’s really not what life is like in this community.”

The deadline to apply for the Oakland Voices program is March 12. Applicants must be West Oakland residents. For details, e-mail Johnson at

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Contact her at or follow her at Twitter/Tammerlin.

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