Changing the Media

Yesterday I did an “Ask Me Anything” with the site Wiselike and got a lot of interesting questions. One of them, on problems with the US media, was widely circulated yesterday but requires a log-in today, so I’m reposting it here:

If you could change how media is done in the States, what would you change?

Hi Sarah thanks for doing this AMA and I noticed that you write about media. I wanted to know what you thought about how media coverage is done because whatever media is covering- those are the issues people care about.

Oh man. Thanks for the question. This answer may go on for awhile. To start:

1) Publish less and pay writers more. We are drowning in a sea of crap. That is nothing new. The media was a sea of crap in the 1990s, but what is unique about our era is that it is aggregrated, plagiarized, repackaged crap churned out by underpaid writers riding the hamster wheel to hell. Listicles are not good journalism. Dropping random tweets into an article is not good journalism. My tweets sometimes end up in articles and I’m like “Why is anything I had to say on this relevant?” I had a tweet that was like “David Bowie died, how sad, here’s his last video” put in a Newsweek article. Newsweek, which was a major publication twenty years ago. I am not a music critic, I had nothing of value to say, yet there I was. Why? If Twitter dies, it would probably be good for journalism, because reporters would have to talk to human beings again.

The Bowie thing is a mundane example. It’s more dangerous to see this level of laziness – which I suspect is not true laziness or lack of ability, but panic rooted in the desire to hit a quota of articles and get paid – applied to serious political topics. There is little originality, just seeing what’s popular and blindly emulating it – sometimes even taking a few paragraphs someone else wrote and then adding a line or two and your own byline. There are huge factual errors that ruin people’s lives – misidentifying terrorist suspects, for example — and they get reprinted by click-chasers who don’t fact-check. This is the idiot side of the attention economy. The most meaningless currency in journalism is RTs. The second most meaningless currency is currency, because journalists are not getting it. Few outlets are investing hard cash in good writers to do good work that may take a long time to complete.

This does not mean that good work is not being published. A lot of great work still gets out there. But I know so many writers who are either suffering or who have had to leave, because they cannot economically survive in this industry. I’ve turned down probably 20 media jobs in the last three years because I simply couldn’t afford to take them. Media is becoming an industry of elites who pay tens of thousands for journalism school, get paid nothing as unpaid interns, and churn out thinkpieces that perish in a day or lazy listicles that linger too long. If they got more money, and wrote less, they’d likely do a better job. If the journalism school requirement was dropped, and internships paid well, outlets would get more diverse and potentially more talented writers.

And we might not have Donald Trump.

2) Diversify staff – not just at the reporter level, but at the highest levels. Non-white journalists are still excluded from mainstream media, especially in leadership positions. Women are still disproportionately excluded from op-eds, financial reporting, or foreign affairs coverage. There have been many times where I am the only woman on an op-ed page, or covering a particular topic. And it’s not because there aren’t good female writers out there. It’s because serious topics are still thought of as “male”.

The biggest problem in terms of media diversity, however, is race – or more precisely, anti-blackness, particularly as issues of anti-black discrimination become more widely covered. For example, one major outlet contacted me to get the “inside view” and provide my personal perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement. I was like, they couldn’t find a black reporter to do this? When there are tons of underemployed black writers who would have something personal and insightful to say?

In case you didn’t know, Kendzior is Polish for “Find a black reporter to share the black experience, you racist.”

So I turned that down.

This attitude sometimes carries over into the reporting itself. I’ve done feature stories where I’ve interviewed a lot of black folks and found that the white editor wants to delete all the direct quotes from black citizens. They cannot stand hearing anything not filtered through a white voice. I had to kill my own story once – “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back” — and lose a lot of money self-publishing it because I wouldn’t play along.

The attitude also carries over into who gets interviewed on TV. When the Mizzou protests happened, MSNBC tried to get me to go on Chris Hayes to talk about it because black protesters refused to talk to the media. I was like “You know why no one wants to talk to you? Because you think it’s fine to let a white woman who has never been to Mizzou speak for them.” So I turned that down too.

I don’t care who I alienate, I will not participate.

3) Finally (for now) — we need to focus on content, not brands. I have seen so many places go out of business since I entered journalism 15 years ago. I was happiest writing for Al Jazeera English under its original editor, who founded the op-ed section, brought in a truly diverse array of writers from all over the world, and encouraged us to express our ideas even if they were on topics that didn’t seem to have mass appeal. (The articles often had mass appeal anyway, which shows how good writing travels even if the topic is not in vogue.)

A lot has been written about the demise of Al Jazeera America, and I feel badly for all the reporters, editors and producers who lost their jobs. I hope they all find work soon. But AJAM also hurt AJE. It sent Al Jazeera into internal disarray over its “brand”, which they obsessed about instead of relying on the strength of their content. After my editor left in frustration, I had four editors in an eight-month period. I didn’t witness what went on behind the scenes, but others from AJE have written about the turmoil, which was rooted in needless concerns over “brand”.

AJE’s video content, which had been so vital during the Arab uprisings, was blocked from the US web so that AJAM would seem more palatable to US audiences – even though that content was what drew Americans to Al Jazeera in the first place. Conservativism and fear harmed both sites, and ultimately killed AJAM. The lesson is that if you concentrate on doing good and honest work, and not appeasing imagined audiences or consultants, you can build a loyal readership. Sometimes outlets fail because they have too much confidence in themselves – they get sloppy. AJ failed because it didn’t have enough confidence to be what it was and capitalize on what it already had. And that’s a shame.

I could go on all day, but that’s enough for now.

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Top 10 of 2015

In 2015 I wrote on a wide variety of issues for a wide variety of outlets. I switched mostly to features from op-ed, since my op-eds on exploitation, corruption and decay from previous years tend to resonate to the unfortunate degree that people think they’re new. Nothing changes. I keep getting vindicated when I’d rather be wrong. Here’s to going out of style in 2016.

These are my top ten articles from 2015, based not on traffic or outlet but on how much I liked them:

  1. Ferguson in Focus– The Common Reader — (10/30/15)
  2. ‘We Are Not Afraid’– Foreign Policy — (7/14/15)
  3. Ferguson, Inc. – Politico — (3/4/15)
  4. The US payday loans crisis: borrow $100 to make ends meet, owe 36 times that sum – The Guardian — (5/9/15)
  5. Ferguson’s radical knitters– The Guardian — (8/6/15)
  6. Uzbekistan’s Forgotten Massacre– The New York Times — (5/13/15)
  7. ‘We’re surrounded by murders’: a day in St Louis’s most dangerous neighborhood– The Guardian — (8/19/15)
  8. Academia’s One Percent– The Chronicle of Higher Education — (3/6/15)
  9. The Jewish and Palestinian Activists of the Ferguson Movement– Medium –(9/17/15)
  10. Generations Left Behind– The Brooklyn Quarterly — (10/27/15)
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Ferguson: A retrospective

For the Common Reader, I wrote a long piece on the legacy of Ferguson and how the St. Louis region and its people were left behind as the town became the symbol of a national movement. Though “Ferguson in Focus” was published last week, I wrote it in the spring, when the wounds were still fresh. I am depressed by how well it holds up now:

Ferguson has become a buzzword, a brand name, but on the streets of St. Louis the same desperate pleas continue: when are things going to get better? When are things really going to change? Who cares what happens to the people who live here, who experience the region’s tension and tragedy every day? Who seeks to serve instead of using the region as a stepping stone?

Drive through the St. Louis metro area, through the scarred suburbs and blighted city and you will find a legacy of abandonment: buildings without bricks because people stole them and sold them for money for food, hallowed out factories of a long dead economy, houses left behind by waves of white flight. This is Ferguson’s inheritance, St. Louis’s inheritance.

What will be the region’s future is hard to say. One cannot invest in a flashpoint. It glimmers, it burns, sometimes so brightly it eclipses the pain of day-to-day living. A vigil became a protest became a movement. But the lingua franca of Ferguson was always grief.

Read the whole thing at the Common Reader.


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Unequal opportunity and limited futures

My latest for the Brooklyn Quarterly is on opportunity hoarding, inherited wealth, and what it means for the future of our kids:

The gulf separating the current generation of younger adults – born in the 1970s or later – and their baby boomer predecessors is well documented. Memes of “Old Economy Steve” describe a baby boomer dreamland of $400 college tuitions, minimum wage jobs that paid enough to buy a house, and minimal student loan debt. This is the long-gone fantasy that David Brooks and other baby boomer pundits espousing the virtues of American meritocracy inhabited as youth. This was an era when it made little difference where you came from because access to cheap and good education made it easier to get where you were going – whether to get an affordable college education or a well-paying job that did not require one. The fate of the next generation, however, relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.

Their offspring are the first generation of Americans to be born into an entrenched meritocracy, one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.” In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.

There is no room, in this scenario, for those who cannot pay the price to educational entry. Broadly speaking, there is no room, period. Opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on “merit,” and “merit” redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education.

Read the whole thing, Generations Left Behind, at the Brooklyn Quarterly.

Speaking of Brooklyn, I’ll be there November 14-15 giving a talk at the Creative Time Summit on debt, wages, and lost opportunity in the creative economy.

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The rise of suburban homelessness

For the Guardian, I profiled a woman who went from living in a suburban house and making $60,000 per year to living in a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis. Suburban poverty and homelessness are both on the rise — and homeless shelters are under attack:

Reverend Larry Rice, who has run the shelter since it opened in 1972, sees a two-fold problem. St Louis County’s refusal to build a shelter has brought the suburban homeless to his door, as New Life is the only walk-in shelter in the region. At the same time, wealthy suburbanites have begun moving to his neighborhood, and they are determined to put New Life out of business. Tactics used to hurt New Life include banning porta-potties, thus making a homeless person more likely to be arrested for public urination, and requiring Rice to build a barrier around the building.

“The irony is that the homeless were here first,” Rice says. “People from the suburbs have started coming into the city to buy cheap property. But they want the homeless out of sight and out of mind. Don’t forget ‘gentrification’ is rooted in the word ‘gentry’. St Louis’s gentry, rich suburbanites, move their problems to our backyard and then they want to destroy our yard because they don’t like the people living in it. They’re hateful, vindictive, and vicious. They’re all white people, and they like to think of themselves as white progressives. But all problems have to be in someone else’s backyard. It’s a very racist issue.”

Rice, who says about 50% of New Life residents come from the suburbs, is fighting closure through demonstrations and the courts, which he claims are violating a Missouri law that says every county is obligated to provide a shelter. He says responsibility for the homeless has fallen to the police, who are unequipped to handle the rapid rise in suburban poverty.

Read the full article, Suburbanites are becoming the new face of homelessness in America, at the Guardian.

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Freedom House report on Uzbekistan

My annual report on human rights violations in Uzbekistan was published by Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit” section. The report highlights top-level and low-level corruption as well as police brutality, media censorship, imprisonment and torture of dissidents, and abuse of migrant laborers. Here is an excerpt on one of the most pernicious aspects of life in Uzbekistan – forced labor in the cotton industry:

The use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has long been the target of domestic and international human rights campaigns. Local officials in Uzbekistan are tasked with ensuring that enough residents work in cotton fields to meet government-set production targets. Children and teenagers are forced to pick cotton and told it is their patriotic duty. In October 2014, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev boasted that Uzbekistan expected to earn $1.2 billion from exporting cotton and textiles that year.[50]

Following years of international criticism, the Uzbek government finally let the International Labor Organization (ILO) deploy teams to Uzbekistan to monitor the cotton harvest in 2013.[51] Their report on the use of forced child and adult labor prompted the United States Department of Labor to condemn the practice in fall 2014. On 18 September, the ILO resumed its monitoring for the fall 2014 harvest season, along with representatives of the World Bank.[52]

Despite the presence of monitors, the cotton harvest continued to structure the lives of ordinary Uzbeks in the same detrimental ways it has in the past. In August, officials banned citizens in Jizzakh province from marrying during the harvest, and forced citizens throughout the country to register as “volunteer” pickers.[53] In September 2014, the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition to end forced labor in Uzbekistan, reported that “officials again imposed production quotas on farmers, forced citizens to weed and prepare the cotton fields, ordered teachers to sign up to work the harvest or resign, and required parents to sign statements that their children would pick cotton or be expelled from high school.”[54]

By mid-October, Ezgulik, an Uzbek human rights organization, had reported fifteen deaths related to cotton picking—mechanical accidents, heart attacks due to strenuous labor, children dying in a fire while left unsupervised by their parents who were forced to work in the fields, and suicides.[55] On social media, Uzbeks reported on fellow citizens injured or killed during the harvest due to unsafe labor conditions and the use of citizens too young or infirm to withstand the harsh labor conditions.[56]

The state cotton industry exploits local officials’ fears of disobeying state laws and citizens’ fears of government retribution. At the same time, some local officials take advantage of the harvest to further their personal ambitions. In May, Uzbek senator (hokim) Saifiddin Sheraliev was arrested for embezzlement and forcing cotton workers to build him a “presidential cottage” while using a deed in his wife’s name.[57]

Disputes between local officials and residents continued outside the cotton industry as well. In Jizzah, a farmer who had a dispute with a local official over a construction project was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital in June. The farmer believes that the local hokim persecuted him on the orders of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzieyev, and pointed to coercion of local officials by national forces.[58] In August, Jizzakh resident Ruhia Bajitova was beaten after complaining to local police about shortages in her residential water supply.[59] Later in the month, she discovered a court case had been started against her for an unspecified crime. She found out about her trial the day before it was held.[60] In September, the court ruled that Bajitova must pay the equivalent of two months salary in fines for “slander” and “affronting the state.”[61]

There has been some confusion on my role at Freedom House. I am not, and have never been, an employee of Freedom House. Freedom House is located in DC. I live in St. Louis. I have yet to set foot in the Freedom House building. I do exactly one thing for Freedom House, which is write a long, meticulously detailed and well-researched report documenting human rights infractions in Uzbekistan. I do this once a year.

It is important that reports like this be written because Uzbekistan’s rights violations are often underplayed and undocumented. It is difficult to find people who have the Uzbek and Russian language skills and research background to document them. Though I am not paid much for my efforts, I am happy to do my part. There are dozens of other freelance researchers putting their language skills and regional knowledge to use to document human rights infractions in other states, and I encourage you to read their reports as well. I hope their families and children are not threatened for their efforts, as mine have been – not by the Karimov regime, but by American regime sympathizers.

Two years ago, I served as an expert witness in an asylum case involving a young Uzbek girl who was in danger of being sent back to Uzbekistan, where due to her father’s political activism she would have faced likely imprisonment and torture. My Freedom House report for that year was included as part of the evidence the judge reviewed to make his decision. He decided to grant her asylum, and told me my report on Uzbekistan – a country about which he knew little — was a key factor in educating him about the country’s political climate and informing his decision. I was pleased that this young woman was spared a cruel and undeserving fate.

I do not feel bad for writing research reports about human rights violations in Uzbekistan. But it is misleading to claim I work at Freedom House since my annual Uzbekistan report is my sole contribution to that organization. I work or have worked for a number of places – Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Foreign Policy and Politico, to name a few – with far greater regularity, yet am not said to be “employed” by any of them. My annual report for Freedom House is one of the many things I write as a freelance writer and scholar of Central Asia. My coverage of Uzbekistan, whether for Freedom House or for the New York Times, has been consistent for the past decade.

There is a faction of the American left that strongly resists documentation of the Karimov regime’s crimes. I’m not particularly interested in their rationale for bleating about my report for Freedom House – this is the same crowd that upon hearing I moderated a one-hour panel on internet freedom at the Clinton Global Initiative, a conference which included hundreds of attendees ranging from Matthew Perry to Muhammad Yunus – said I worked for CGI, then extended this statement to say I also worked for Hillary Clinton, the CIA, and numerous other parties. Logic and facts are not this crowd’s strong suit. But they are mine.

I’m pleased that my report has made people more aware of the brutal conditions of Uzbekistan and helped provide the documentation needed for those unfamiliar with the country to make fair and just decisions as to the fate of its people. When police terrorize citizens, children are compelled to do forced labor, and corruption is endemic to daily life, it is important that the world know. That is why I write this report, despite continued threats to my safety. What I have to contend with is small compared to the threats faced by the Uzbeks whose conditions I document.

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Jewish and Palestinian activists fighting for black liberation

I wrote an assigned feature article on the Jewish and Palestinian activists who have been involved in the Ferguson movement and more generally in the struggle for black rights and liberation. Everyone who knew I was writing this article, including the people I interviewed, warned me the article would get killed because the topic was too hot — and they were right. This the the second article I’ve had killed in my career. The first was a feature on black low-wage workers and their struggle for rights and dignity, which I killed myself after the editor wanted to delete all the quotes from black workers describing their own experiences.

It’s always upsetting to have an article which took hours of interviews and research to write get killed because the editors decided, at the last minute, that the topic wasn’t for them. But it’s an important story, one that needs to be out there, so I published it myself:

“Here was this massive moment happening in history, and it was happening right here in St. Louis. I thought, ‘Jews have something to say about this,’” says Rori Picker Neiss, the Director of Programming, Education and Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis.

“I don’t want to draw equivalencies between the Jewish and black experience. But I think as Jews we could understand what it’s like to have people assume negative things about you because of how you were born, and to treat you differently because of who you are, to let things happen to you. The idea that here are a group of people asking for help and saying that they’ve been subject to terrible injustices — for the Jewish community that story rings in our ears and we think ‘We’ve heard this story before.’”

Since the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, Ferguson has been a tale told largely in black and white. The continued protests against police brutality and exploitation have been led by black activists fed up with decades of discrimination and a white leadership that has been, at best, apathetic, and at worst, overtly hostile.

But St. Louis’s other ethnic minorities have also been drawn into the regional conflict. From the summer 2014 days when rabbis marched in the street to cries for black liberation to the present when a “Black Lives Matter” sign campaign is spearheaded by a concerned Jewish citizen, Jews have played a role in the Ferguson protests. It has been a controversial role, one that has caused debate within St. Louis’s diverse Jewish communities as well as hardship for those who participate.

Neiss is one such example. On August 10, she was one of 57 protesters charged with “blocking an entryway” of the St. Louis federal courthouse during a protest commemorating the one-year anniversary of Brown’s killing. As an Orthodox Jew, Neiss wears a head covering, which she was asked to remove before being placed in a holding cell. She asked the officers who arrested her for a private space to remove it, which they allowed. That was when she realized yet again that she lived in a city where fairness, like everything else, was unevenly allocated.

This not a story of Jewish-Palestinian animosity, but rather an article that highlights Jews and Palestinians, in their own words, discussing their participation in a movement for black liberation in a segregated city. Sometimes stories that show mutual, peaceful struggle against white supremacy are the most controversial of all. They shouldn’t be.

Read the article, The Jewish and Palestinian Activists of the Ferguson Movement, here.


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Syrians in St. Louis

For the Guardian, I wrote about the movement to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in St Louis:

“Syria, Syria, you’re not alone! Call St Louis your new home!”

On 13 September, hundreds of St Louis-area residents converged in a parking lot in the suburb of University City to demand that the US government raise the cap on the number of Syrian refugees allowed in the country – and settle at least 60,000 of them in St Louis.

The rally, which included speeches from religious leaders, Muslim activists and Syrians, culminated in a march through a University City’s business district, where the streets echoed with a recurrent cry: “Bring them here! Bring them here!”

“One of the things that makes this march so amazing is that this march is for Syrians, but not by Syrians,” said Faizan Syed, the organizer of the march. “It’s done by people of all different races, backgrounds and religions. All of them are coming together because they are witnessing the image of tragedy overseas. And when they witness that, they want to make sure they can do something about it.”

St Louis currently boasts a very small number of Syrian refugees. Since February 2015, St Louis’s International Institute, a refugee resettlement service, has sponsored 29 Syrians and says that approximately 20 more are expected in the coming months. Activists in St Louis are hoping this will change, and soon.

The outpouring of support for Syrian resettlement has come not only from St Louis’s Arab and Muslim communities, but from residents all over the area – a mass humanitarian initiative in a region known for violence and racial strife.

“I’ve had people ask: ‘If you’re not Syrian, why are you doing this march?’” says Syed, who is Pakistani American. “And I think that says a lot about the world we live in today. It is completely normal for someone from another ethnicity or background to hate you because they’re different than you. But when people love you because you are different, then people question that. This movement is something all of St Louis should be proud of.”

I also wrote an op-ed for Quartz about the discrepancy between the outpouring of support for Syrian refugees and the apathy shown toward St. Louis’s long-suffering impoverished black communities:

Drive further down Delmar Boulevard, and a different crisis becomes visible. This is the site of St. Louis’s “Delmar Divide“—separating rich from poor, and white from black. The area on the poor side of the divide is full of abandoned homes with no windows or roofs and people with no money or jobs. This is where St. Louis’s entrenched black underclass lives, in desperate conditions that have demanded attention—but received little—for decades. Drive further into the city and you will find the New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter deemed a “nuisance” by city officials, which may face closure. As St. Louis citizens vow to help Syrian refugees, many of their own neighbors remain without shelter and struggle to survive.

Yet these conditions are not considered a crisis. In St. Louis, they’re life.

The question is not whether St. Louis should help Syrian refugees or help its current residents. The question is how it can best help both, and why such a discrepancy exists between the compassion and generosity shown toward Syrian refugees and the continued neglect of St. Louis’s impoverished black communities, many of which have struggled to survive in this region for decades.

Read the full-oped, Why does St. Louis care more about Syrian refugees than its black population? at Quartz.

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Some interviews

I was interviewed about a variety of subjects recently, ranging from Ferguson to ethics in journalism to state oppression and activism in Central Asia to my new book. Here you go:

Here and There with Dave Marash, hour-long interview on Central Asian politics (9/1/15)

St. Louis Public Radio, “Sarah Kendzior shows the U.S. ‘The View from Flyover Country’” (8/18/15)

NPR, “On the Media”, “A Never-Ending Nightmare in Ferguson” (8/14/15/)

Poynter, “Freelance writer Sarah Kendzior: ‘Geography is essential to understanding Ferguson’” (8/12/15)

This is Hell, “Journalist Sarah Kendzior explains how Uzbeks turned a hashtag against a dictatorship” (7/25/15)

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A day in the life of St. Louis’s most dangerous neighborhood

Last week my colleague Umar Lee and I spent some time in College Hill, known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in St. Louis, and talked to people about their lives. For the Guardian:

“We Googled the worst place in America to live, and St Louis came up,” says Johnel Langerston, the president of Urban Born, a nonprofit youth organization. “So we expanded our program to College Hill almost three years ago.”

Located in St Louis’s impoverished north side, the neighborhood of College Hill is known as the most dangerous in the city. Shootings and homicides are a regular occurrence. In a year that has seen homicides in St Louis rise nearly 60%, College Hill was declared a crime “hot spot”, prompting an influx of 80 extra police officers in February – most of whom have since departed.

In College Hill, houses without roofs or windows stand next to long-boarded businesses and churches. Piles of bricks lie on the sidewalks, sold by desperate residents for a small profit. Teddy bears lie in rows outside abandoned homes, marking the sites of slayings.

Ninety-two per cent of College Hill’s roughly 1,800 residents are black. But the people of College Hill are tired of being treated as statistics. As the murder rate climbs, residents are struggling to find ways to protect the neighborhood’s youth and create opportunity in a region left to rot.

“We’re surrounded by murders,” says Langerston. “We hear gunshots going off all the time. That’s normal here. The children of the people being murdered are in our program, so we deal with it a little more intimately than the average nonprofit.”

Read the whole article at the Guardian

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