A core goal of journalism is to lift up underheard voices. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to give those voices a stage and a microphone — and then get out of the way.

Sami Edge

Sami Edge is a reporter for Idaho Education News.

That’s what happened at the culmination of a yearlong effort between Idaho Education News, a nonprofit news site, and the Idaho Statesman, a daily newspaper based in Boise, to engage Latino students and their families.

Idaho Education News reporter Sami Edge, a 2019-20 Community Listening Fellow with API, wanted to examine education inequities experienced by Latino students in the state. But she wanted to base her reporting on extensive input from the students themselves.

Edge joined forces with Nicole Foy, an investigative reporter with the Idaho Statesman who covers Latino affairs and had already built relationships with Latino communities across the state. Together and with support from API and the Education Writers Association, they launched the Latino Listening Project. Using a number of creative ways to reach students and families, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic put an end to in-person meetings in spring 2020, they heard directly from the affected groups and allowed their insights to guide their reporting. Perhaps the most meaningful part of the project was the virtual event at which students spoke directly with Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

Nicole Foy is an investigative reporter for the Idaho Statesman.

We asked Sami and Nicole to tell us more about how their project came together.

Q: The Latino Listening Project is a collaborative effort between Idaho Education News and the Idaho Statesman. Tell us about each of your roles and how you worked together.

A: Our collaboration was actually sparked by the American Press Institute. When listening fellows were first selected, one of the lessons we learned from API mentors was to consider if our projects were filling a need or duplicating existing efforts. Sami, an API fellow from Idaho Education News, recognized that Idaho Statesman reporter Nicole Foy had already been writing about the experiences of Idaho’s Latino students. Sami asked Nicole to join her in expanding that coverage across the state, and the Latino Listening Project was born.

We essentially split every aspect of the project, from hosting events to writing stories. Sharing responsibilities took a lot of communication but made our efforts stronger. Co-writing can always be a bit of a challenge, but our stories benefited from our ability to complement and edit one another. Collaborating across outlets gave us twice the manpower to devote to this coverage and expanded the reach of our stories.

We hosted multiple in-person listening events in six communities before COVID-19 halted our plans for more, then pivoted to outreach via text, using Reach and GroundSource. We posted flyers advertising the number at restaurants and stores around southwest Idaho and broadcast it across social media. In the first year or so we published six stories; hosted four Facebook Live Q&A sessions for Spanish-speaking parents about online learning, school board meetings and the coronavirus; launched a Spanish-language text service for parents with questions about school reopening; and hosted a panel discussion between the governor and Latino students. This was the first time any news outlet in Idaho had focused extensively on Latino students, yet we’ve still barely scratched the surface. We plan to continue publishing stories on the topic.

Q: What were your goals for the project?

A: Our goal was to publish a series of stories about education that were driven by the voices and experiences of Idaho’s Latino families. We want this work to move Idaho’s education leaders to discuss and fix uneven access to educational opportunities for students of color.

It was equally important to us that we could be useful to Latino families, instead of simply using their stories for editorial gain. When COVID-19 hit we hosted Facebook Live discussions with educators who answered questions from Latino families, and we started a Spanish-language text service to answer parents’ individual questions about how their schools were responding to the pandemic.

Q: The success of the event with Governor Little depended largely on you building relationships with Latino students and understanding their challenges. How did you do that over the year leading up to the event?

A: In the early days of this project we tried to reach as many Latino families as possible to ask for their thoughts on Idaho’s education system. Before the pandemic we hosted a number of in-person discussions where we asked Latino students, parents and educators about their experiences in Idaho’s education system. Each time we spoke with Latino youth, we were absolutely blown away by their powerful feedback.

We wanted to invite these students to share their stories with a large audience and to connect them with the state leaders responsible for their education. The pandemic forced us to think about this as a virtual event and allowed us to gather youth from across the state for a panel discussion with the governor. We collected questions from students across the state and selected speakers to address questions we knew resonated with the many students who spoke with us.

We found many of these students through listening events, previous reporting or by way of relationships with Latinx advocacy groups Nicole had already established while covering Latino affairs around the state. Sami called students individually to help them brainstorm what they wanted to say, hosted group practices, and tried to make sure each youth felt prepared and confident going into the discussion with the governor. The students knocked it out of the park.

Ultimately, we approached this event with the intention of giving space for students to tell their own stories and advocate for their own communities. We think the students’ eagerness to plead the cases of their friends, families and communities to the governor is what made the event so meaningful — and impressed the governor, too.

Q: What expectations did you have for Governor Little’s participation? How did you get him on board?

A: We weren’t sure if the governor would participate in our event, but all it took was an invitation from the Idaho Education News editor. We pitched the event as a way for the governor to share his platform on education and to speak directly to the Latino youth who make up nearly 20 percent of Idaho schools.

During the event, Gov. Brad Little said he wanted to help bolster confidence in government. He told students he wanted them to feel that the state’s government is fair and responsive and that political activism is rewarded.

Q: What advice do you have for other news organizations that want to plan events for state and local leaders to hear directly from specific groups?

We pulled this project together in about six weeks, which was not the ideal timeframe. Definitely start planning at least a few months in advance. If you expect to get on a state leader’s calendar, ask at least 45 days ahead of time.

Recognize that if you’re asking people to participate in an event, it’s on you to make sure that they have everything they need to be successful. Walk through internet connections, dress code, transportation, schedule, and help them get anything they need for the event to go smoothly.

For authentic conversations, prepare everyone involved for success and then do your best to get out of the way. Resist the urge to over-mediate or to speak on behalf of participants, especially if they’re from historically marginalized communities. A crucial throughline in our planning of this event was to empower the students to tell their own stories without outside filters.

Finally, practice. We asked our students to write down what they’d like to say, mostly to make sure that presentations didn’t wander indefinitely, as unplanned conversations often do. Then we set a time limit for the questions and practiced reading them aloud. Those read-throughs were invaluable.

Q: What did you learn from working with Ashley Alvarado, your adviser throughout the fellowship?

A: We were so lucky to work with Ashley on this project. She’s amazing.

One lesson that will stick with us is the idea of creating a sort of feedback loop with engagement outreach. If one group had a concern, question or story idea, she suggested we float that by another group to see if that idea truly resonated broadly. Asking a community to suggest reporting topics, help rank priorities and critique ideas creates a unique and collaborative dynamic.

Another of Ashley’s wonderful suggestions was to ask the question: “What keeps you up at night?” The answer to that question is often revealing and insightful.

Q: Do you plan to use this approach for other beats or reporting projects, or to engage with other audience groups?

A: Absolutely. Most reporters probably do their best to make sure the stories they write genuinely reflect the community they’re writing about. But reporters hardly ever have time to start a new beat by listening, with no agenda other than to understand. Taking the time to start a new beat with humility, and to show everyday people that you value their expertise, helps reporters build positive relationships and learn things they never would have thought to ask about.

Editor’s Note: Read about how Liliana López Ruelas, another one of API’s 2019-20 Community Listening Fellows, used listening to inform her reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Tucson, Arizona; and how listening fellow Mazin Sidahmed used WhatsApp to communicate with Spanish speakers during the early stages of the pandemic in New York City. To follow API’s ongoing work in this area, sign up here.

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