When 23-year-old Sean Bell was killed by a storm of 50 police bullets outside a club in New York City’s Jamaica, Queens neighborhood in November 2006, James Williams grabbed a microphone and went to the scene. Trained by the People’s Production House in radio production and media advocacy, Williams, a grassroots community organizer, was one of only a few Black journalists in the horde that followed.
Deepa Fernandes, executive director and founder of the People’s Production House, said it was Williams’s unique perspective as a local resident and person of color that gave him the insight to ask such good, probing questions that major news networks carried his interviews. “He affected mainstream coverage,” she said.
Unlike so-called diversity programs that train journalists of color and plunk them into mostly white, male newsrooms, the People’s Production House trains community members as professional reporters so they can write about their own realities. “Programs that will prioritize people of color are still functioning within the elite journalism system,” she said. “We are also fighting for capacity to be able to control the outlets and means of communication and the rules that govern our industry.”
Fernandes is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation and Mother Jones. She is also the host of “Wakeup Call,” the morning news show–WBAI 99.5 FM, and the author of Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration. Fernandes has helped build the People’s Production House into a comprehensive media justice organization serving New York City, Washington D.C., and the Gulf Coast. The organization has three major projects: Radio Rootz, for public schools; Community News Production Institute, a media training effort that partners with community organizing groups; and the Digital Expansion Initiative, which mobilizes New Yorkers about broadband issues.
“We look at communication as a fundamental human right,” said Fernandes, who was born in India, grew up in Sydney and has spent the past 10 years in New York City. “We don’t want our communities to be written about; we want to be the protagonists.”
Fernandes found the experience of being a professional journalist liberating because of the power to have her voice heard. However, she said, that power is diminished when mainstream outlets restrict when, what and how much of a story can be told. The situation drove Fernandes to community radio, where in the United States, she found a vibrant tradition unlike anyplace else. “When I get really down, I just remember, this is amazing; literally millions around the country can come together and keep the radio on the airways.”
Fernandes said she shies away from the idea that she’s an innovator, instead pointing to the group of people who train, work and support the organization. “The people around me are the ones who are the innovators. Together, we build this dream.”