A Tale of Two Conferences

I have been away from home more than I have been at home so far this month (I am not complaining), because I have attended two different journalism conferences. Both gave me different views on issues facing our field and our nation, and I have recapped my experiences below.

EDUCATION WRITERS ASSOCIATION NATIONAL SEMINAR

The first conference I attended was the Education Writers Association National Seminar, which was held in D.C. May 31-June 2. The EWA is made up mostly of education beat reporters from newspapers, websites, trade publications, and radio stations across the country, as well as people who work in higher education communications and those who contract with schools to provide services. I attended the conference because my day job is at a university and I wanted to get a high-level view of the issues facing our education system, and I left knowing so much more than I knew before. There are more education reporters than I thought, and they are doing everything from attending school board meetings to interviewing parents and teachers about the education experiences students are having in their community. I was particularly impressed by The Seattle Times Ignite Education Lab, where they hosted a TED Talk-like event with educators, parents, and students giving fast talks on their experiences in Seattle Public Schools.

I was also impressed by a session called “Top 10 Higher Ed Stories of 2017” where the editor of Inside HigherEd gave a rundown of stories that he believes every higher education reporter should cover. Based on his talk, it looks like our nation’s liberal arts colleges are in trouble. Many of them are selling off land, discounting tuition, and eliminating tenured faculty positions in order to keep the doors open. The reason why is because with pushes toward STEM, students are afraid of getting a liberal arts education. They are afraid that the end won’t justify the means. To me, this is a dangerous attitude. I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts education for anything, and I am still clothed, fed, and able to go on vacations. We have elevated STEM at the expense of the arts and humanities, and we will pay for it in the future. Art is the cornerstone of innovation and the liberal arts emphasize empathy, which is something we can sure use a heavy dose of today. I hope that we can reverse this trend in order to create more opportunities for students to do what they love and know that money will always follow hard work.

I also must say that it was astonishing to me that in last year’s election, and even right now, education does not seem to be a priority for anyone. But, we have school systems in Detroit and Chicago– two essential American cities– that could barely finish the school year because they were so broke. We know that a good education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, and therefore the school-to-prison pipeline and teen pregnancy, so why have we spent all of our time scrutinizing Betsy DeVos instead of demanding that she do the job she has been appointed to do? Secretary DeVos is the first sitting secretary of education to not speak to the EWA in the seminar’s 70-year history, though the seminar happened just after the Bethune-Cookman incident where Class of 2017 graduates booed during her speech and turned their backs to her in protest. When we talk about holding our politicians accountable, we must do more than criticize them, and instead challenge them to act. Make them earn those six-figure paychecks by working on our behalf. The leaders of tomorrow need you!

AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE

A week and a half after I attended EWA, I flew to San Francisco for the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) Conference.  ATCA is made up of theater critics across the country, both retired and actively working. I have been a freelance arts journalist and theater critic for the past six years, and I entered the field at the height of the doom and gloom. Full-time critics and arts reporter jobs have been disappearing from newsrooms at an alarming rate for the past decade, and most freelance gigs pay between nothing and $200 for a review. My two favorite sessions at this conference were the sessions on reviewing Shakespeare and on how to include design elements (light, sound, set, props, costumes, etc) into reviews. I found both really helpful, especially since lighting design is, to me, the hardest thing to describe. I also got to see five shows in the Bay Area, which is always a treat: Grandeur (Magic Theater), As You Like It (California Shakespeare), Brownsville Song: b-side for Tray (Shotgun Players), The Roommate (San Francisco Playhouse), and You Mean To Do Me Harm (San Francisco Playhouse). There are more than 20 professional theaters in the Bay Area and only two full-time professional theater critics (who work for two different newspapers). That is more than one person can handle and they constantly have to fight to justify their jobs.

I know some people may say that if their beat does not get as much attention from readers as sports, world news, or education, then shouldn’t we take that as a sign that no one cares about theater? To me, the answer to that question is no. I remember in J-school one of my professors said of photojournalism “When the camera is pointed toward something, it is pointed away from something else.” News outlets are masters of directing attention, and if people’s attentions were directed to art more than the antics of celebrities, they would think it matters. When we talk about bringing jobs back home and economic growth, we would be remiss to not think about the way the arts positively affect both of these things. The arts employ a lot of people, because in art people cannot be replaced by machines. From customer service agents to marketing professionals to the artist themselves, the arts are an economic catalyst. Plus, arts patrons typically support local restaurants and boutiques while they are attending arts events.

The other thing that stood out to me at this conference is diversity (or the lack thereof). Most of the critics in the organization, and those who attended the conference, are white men over the age of 50. I might be the only African American woman theater critic in the country and I believe Karen D’Souza is the only Latina theater critic in the country. This is a huge issue, because it means that there is much work to do to bring communities of color into the theater, so that we can start grooming critics of color. I’m not for the extreme notion that you have to share the same ethnic background as the artist in order to review their work, but I know that our lived experiences affect the way we view a work of art. In order to provide fair and balanced criticism, we must have multitude of voices.

I feel more committed than ever to moving the needle any way that I can. I won’t stop documenting the work of the people who are holding up mirrors to our souls so that 100 years from now people will know that we did more than take pictures of our food for the glory of the internet. Journalism ain’t easy, especially because everyone thinks they can do it, but for my fellow storytellers out there, I encourage you to keep on keepin’ on!

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