In its third year of a three-year grant funded program, the International Examiner concluded its Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program in June 2020. No one could foresee this occurring during a pandemic and statewide stay-at-home order. And although it created challenges and kept the fellows who had come to look forward to their weekly time together socially distant from one another, they continued the curriculum by meeting online and crossing international time zones to keep the program going strong.
The IE thanks the Seattle Foundation for funding this invaluable program and seeks to secure funding in the future to continue it. The following are final reflections by the four IE fellows who participated in the program in 2019-2020.
When I first heard about this Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program, I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me: storytelling, which is something that I have always loved doing, for the Taiwanese community that I am part of and proud of.
However, during our interview, Bif – our amazing mentor – had told me that there was another candidate for the Taiwanese community, and asked if I would be open to writing for another community – the API queer community. I said yes, but then told him my concerns of how I wouldn’t be able to represent this community as this wasn’t a community that I was familiar with. His response to that was simple: as long as I remain compassionate and open-minded, he was sure that I could tell their stories just as I would for any community.
After the final selections were made, I finally got to meet my wonderful peers and other members from the previous cohort. It was so inspiring to hear everyone’s experiences and passions, but one thing that Jarett from the second year fellowship corhort said stuck with me: “Every time you meet someone, you leave your glass empty and let them fill the glass for you. That is how you tell their story.”
This became my goal, and over the past seven months, I have emptied my glass time and time again, letting people in the API queer community educate me about the work that they do and share their stories. From artists to community organizers, the people that I have sat down with either in person or face to face through a screen were all so willing to share their walks of life with me, which motivated me both in terms of doing their story justice when I write and trying to learn from different people’s stories.
During the span of this program, we have all gone through so much along with the rest of the world. Because of the pandemic, both Isabel (Wang, also a fellow) and I had bought a plane ticket home to Taiwan, not knowing when we will be able to return. To accommodate, Bif moved the time of our sessions so that we could all get together virtually. And just like that, our journey with the advocacy journalism program ended over one last call. It was quite bittersweet, waving goodbye to my fellow peers and mentors through a camera and not being able to give them each a big hug. But I knew in my heart that I will see them again one day and tell them in person just how grateful I am that I met each and every one of them.
I genuinely miss it: my Friday morning commutes to the Chinatown International District and our weekly sessions with thought-provoking topics, amazing speakers from the API community, the conversations that we’d have… I will remember and cherish all of it, the events and the people that were part of our journey. Other than having Bif and Jill – our most dedicated editor – patiently guide the way, bonding with the other girls in my cohort was also the most pleasant surprise. Together, we’ve laughed over fun incidents, cried over heavy conversations, and really trusted each other in this process of growth. This program not only helped us grow as advocacy journalists, it also encouraged us to find our own voices as community advocates, storytellers, and servant leaders that can help push forward the kind of changes that our communities need.
Through this program, I have learned how to become a better reporter, a better writer (hopefully), and most importantly, a better listener. As I sat there each time, listening to the person I interviewed talk about how they want to empower, to inspire, and to support others in the community, I felt as if their fire was lighting my torch, and that I was responsible for passing it on to give more light to the community. Perhaps this is how all the greatest leaders were formed: they listened. Whether it’s listening to the people’s needs or listening to their hearts, they listened and went out into the world, taking actions with courage. Seeing these leaders in action and making the world a better place gives me so much hope. I only hope that I can continue to listen, to tell stories that need to be told, and to spark positive changes wherever I go.
Last summer I was freshly graduated from college, working downtown at an engineering firm but wondering about my next steps. I was feeling unmotivated and wondered what it meant that I had just spent four years of my life studying a discipline I began to feel uncertain about. I needed to take a breath away from my work. I decided to walk to the CID one day, taking it slow, spending time walking along the blocks.
I felt so curious as I walked around. I was homesick for familiarity, after feeling so lost for a while. I picked up a random paper at the Panama Hotel Cafe, and perused the pages on the steps of the Danny Woo Community Garden. Luckily, it was the International Examiner — the 2019 Fellowship Reflection Edition. As I read the reflections of the last fellows — something clicked. I had to apply to this program. I had no journalism experience, but I wanted to learn about storytelling. I wanted to feel creative again. I wanted to use my voice to be an advocate.
Fast forward a few moments: I was accepted into the program. And now, as quickly it has come, has arrived the end. In this fellowship year I was assigned to the South Asian Indian community; I had just returned from a university quarter spent in Bangalore, India, and was curious about the diaspora that immigrated here. I was wondering about the regions of India represented in the Puget Sound, as well as the different religions, class, colorism, casteism. My initial goal was to find and write stories on all these topics and from these different regions, wanting to expand my understanding of these topics I had only grazed the surface of when I was in Bangalore.
I realized quickly this was a lofty goal. To encompass the diversity and breadth of experience of every single immigrant from India to the PNW would take years, not six months. I discovered that there had been scholars working on this, like Dr.Nalini Iyer and Deepa Banerjee, who were gracious enough to meet with me in the beginning to help guide my course of action. They cautioned me of the barriers I might run into because I am not Indian-American, but also encouraged me to explore how I can use my outside perspective in a unique way.
With their advice I began. I was drawn to stories about people. People and their identities. People who advocate and organize. Creative people, different people, passionate people.
I covered a movement and protest in Bellevue that condemned the controversial Indian CAA law. I spoke with protesters, but also supporters, and learned it was critical for me to hear the side I did not agree with. I visited an organic farm owned and operated by an Indian-American family — one of the few in the Pacific Northwest. I learned to use my leverage as a journalist to find and share stories that inspired me, and write them in a way that they could inspire others, like my story on Degh Tegh Community Kitchen. To my surprise, the Seattle Times published their own story three weeks later with the same premise. The similarities between the two initiated a conversation within our program about plagiarism, the experiences of BIPOC journalists, and the local journalism ecosystem.
When the pandemic hit Seattle, the nature of the fellowship transitioned into 100% remote work. I found that the aspects of journalism I was most curious about were suddenly taken away. There were no community events to attend, or businesses to visit, or people to spontaneously interview. I told myself from the beginning I was going to put my all in this work, to put myself in the community and do my absolute best to share stories that were untold. But there were a few moments where I definitely let myself down — weeks where I was feeling hopeless, without creative energy, or the will to write. The first half of this year, filled to the brim with an unprecedented pandemic and historic civil rights demonstrations, required me to take pauses.
The people within this program made this experience all the more special. Meeting with my group of fellows every Friday and sharing thoughtful discussions before grabbing lunch in the CID was the highlight of my weeks. It was empowering to be part of a fabulous group of five women from different backgrounds, and to have this space to lean into our vulnerabilities. Our program manager, Bif, was an incredible mentor and guide. He paved the way for us to grow into storytellers, and gave us the reins to shape this program. Jill, our editor, helped us become better writers, and showed us how to be leaders for an incredible nonprofit.
Although I have arrived at the end of the fellowship with unfinished stories and story ideas I am still pursuing, I am not done writing. I am only beginning my journey with storytelling. This program has flipped a switch in me: my ears are more alert and my eyes are more observant for stories I believe need telling and voices that need to be heard. Most significantly, I have learned how to use my voice, my words. I’ve realized that my words are powerful and that they can be used to advocate, to educate, and to create. Also, I really do like writing.
I’ll end this reflection with a quote from Vu Le, a prolific speaker the fellows’ and I heard on our last in-person field trip together. This quote struck us all, and encompasses everything I feel this program was and everything I want my storytelling to be.
“Write with the audacity of the majority but with the humility of the minority.”
My experience in the International Examiner Fellowship program helped me grow as a journalist, community member and inspired me. As a Health Studies Major at the University of Washington Bothell I saw this opportunity as a learning experience outside of my studies. However within a few months I began to see the overlap between the power of journalism and health. I learned about systems of oppression and historical injustices, how to advocate for Cham voices and what advocacy journalism meant.
There is power in storytelling, it’s a tool to bring awareness to issues. It is a way to signify the importance of one’s experience. Furthermore, this experience enriched my understanding of Cham history and equipped me with the tools to become a better journalist. I learned about the matrix of oppression, smartphone photography, imposter syndrome, the history of the International District – Chinatown, and tools to become a community journalist.
From the first meeting, I felt that the Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program (AJFP) provided a safe space for underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander voices. It was a delightful surprise to see that the fellows this year were all women which provided a sense of sisterhood. As I read pieces written by Angel, Alexa, Carmen and Isabel I learned more about who they were, what they cared about and the unique perspectives they shared. Growing up, I learned early on that older white male voices dominated the many forms of media. That men are often the spokesperson for communities or at least the loudest in the room. However, the AJFP created a space to focus on amplifying my voice.
The International Examiner is a valuable resource for the AAPI community in the Puget Sound area. I am thankful to Bif, Jill, Auriza, Chetanya and to supporters of the International Examiner.
There is still much to be done towards uplifting historically underrepresented communities. This is the beginning of a larger conversation: How do I continue to listen and amplify the voices of the oppressed? How am I using my voice to speak on issues of injustice?
I know it might sound cliché, but being one of the five selected fellows for the International Examiner Advocacy Journalism Fellowship for the past eight months has been the most precious journalistic experience I have ever had.
I used to work in a news agency back in Taiwan as the digital news and international news editor. I was trained to only do fact-based and objective reporting and let readers have their own opinions. Advocacy journalism, on the other hand, is a different story. It is a genre of journalism that adopts a more empathetic lens. Throughout the Fellowship, I was assigned to engage with and write about the Taiwanese community in the greater Seattle Area. Therefore, in this reflection piece, I would like to share five takeaways I have learned about advocacy journalism.
1. Think of who is not at the table
In the first training session, the IE’s fellowship’s program manager Bif Brigman told us the importance of thinking of who is “not sitting at the table.” Traditional media outlets often favor male voices because they are considered to be more trustworthy.
As an advocacy journalist, being able to find the voices of the underrepresented group is an important task. With that in mind, my first article took a look back into the history of Taiwanese immigrants in the United States and found that most of the news about Taiwan covered in the local news agencies was political or historical related. Therefore, my goal throughout the fellowship has been to find the missing voices in those reports. Questions I’ve been asking include: Who supported the family to blend into American society? Who faced tougher situations trying to adapt to new lives? How did the Taiwanese immigrants reshape their community in a foreign country?
This takeaway should be included but not limited to the journalism industry. It is also a useful tactic that could be applied to the corporate world. Since I started the Communication Leadership Program at the University of Washington last August, the concept of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)” has been brought up in class frequently. American society has a diverse cultural landscape, which makes the need to build greater DEI a mandatory gesture.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
An important part that makes advocacy journalism work successful is one should not hesitate to ask for help from the community. In our weekly training sessions, every fellow will be asked to share potential story ideas related to the community we each cover. As I was new to Seattle and knew nothing about the Taiwanese community, I had no idea about what to write about and felt afraid to ask for suggestions.
As the saying goes, “When there is a will, there is a way.” I came to realize that the entire universe awaited to help. For instance, every community guest speaker invited to our training sessions could be a great source; the International Examiner staff might know someone in the community with material to share; other fellows could also refer me to their connections. I started to put out the help I needed and reached out to people in my community. I was surprised to find out the great support I received from them to provide everything I needed to finish the stories. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
3. How to make your story impactful
How to use my articles to create impact and amplify the voices featured in those stories is what I have been struggling with throughout the fellowship. In my experience, traditional media is most likely to favor stories that would attract eyeballs. It does not matter if it is good journalism or not. Advocacy articles often feature people that are being neglected in the mainstream media. Therefore, finding a story angle that answers readers’ questions like, “Why should I care?” or “What can I get out of it?” is a great starting point.
In another article I wrote during the fellowship, I interviewed Kin On and Asian Senior Concerns Foundation (ASCF). They’ve both serve the Asian community in Seattle for decades. In the article, the hook was that aging is something we all face, but the ability to age well relies on our efforts. Another great way to make your story impactful is through the power of sharing on social media. The organization you are affiliated with, your family, and friends can be great sources to spread the stories.
4. Be a good listener
Advocating for a missing voice in the community through writing means to create a safe space for its members to share their stories. When I interviewed members in the Taiwanese community, most of them were more comfortable and opened up if they could se Mandarin. Advocacy journalists shoulder the responsibility to be attentive listeners and a good messengers. The interviewees would know if you are pretending to listen out of generosity or truly out of curiosity, which would affect their willingness to share.
I would always have an agenda in mind before the interview happened. It is for the sake of better preparation, but it should also be somewhat flexible when it comes down to the actual interview. If I was too eager to stick to my agenda, the interviewee might feel discouraged and uncomfortable to talk. Therefore, leave the room for the informant to guide you into their world and ask more questions based on what they shared with you, so they can provide you with the unvarnished truth.
5. Being empathetic goes a long way
I couldn’t agree more with what Ambassador Samantha Power once said about advocacy that “All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.”
Empathy is being stressed a lot since the pandemic started because we are all weathering the crisis, and cultivating a little more patience toward others becomes a thoughtful gesture. Besides attentive listening, knowing how to report with care may lead you to find the stories behind the stories. But we should also consider the importance of how to empathize with sources without compromising the journalistic values. That is why I think a well-balanced story could never go wrong.
Some ways to write a balanced story include asking another colleague to read your draft and give you feedback, as well as thinking again of the answer to the question of “who is not at the table.”