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Molly Parker is a reporter at The Southern Illinoisan who’s been covering the housing and economic crisis in Cairo, in southern Illinois, for the past two-and-a-half years. She is one of seven reporters selected to join ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, a yearlong initiative that aims to boost local, investigative reporting by partnering with and paying the salaries of journalists in cities with populations below 1 million. This week, ProPublica Illinois engagement reporter Logan Jaffe interviewed Parker. Below is a lightly edited version of what Parker told Jaffe in their conversation.

Courtesy of Molly Parker

I grew up in a town called Simpson. It’s a little bitty town in Johnson County. I think the sign says “Population: 60” but I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration. Our house was right outside the city limits, on a gravel road. I always tell people we had more cows than people.

There were people in my classes growing up that I knew had some pretty harsh economic conditions right outside my doorstep. It didn’t strike me as something that was dramatic. People know their economic situation. People can also be very resilient and provide very happy upbringings for their children. But it’s always been troubling.

After college, I left and was gone for 10 years. I worked at newspapers in North and South Carolina and Mississippi. They were closing my bureau in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I had a “Come to Jesus” moment and I thought, “I wonder if my local newspaper would have an opening?” [The Southern Illinoisan] brought me back here eventually.

It took me a good year to reimagine reporting here and start to see what the issues were. I definitely saw it with different eyes than I did growing up. Over the last few years covering politics and elections and just getting out and talking to people, I feel that economic angst is increasing.

We’ve had prison closures. The deep southern Illinois counties have continued to suffer from when I was a kid and continue to get worse. There’s never been anything to come in and replace the mineral extraction and fluorspar mining [industries]. They closed the Tamms Correctional Center. And now we’re seeing the evaporation of government and employment centers in southern Illinois.

I came [back] here thinking it would be easier to report in a smaller area — but I have never been so busy in my life! I think that’s a product of a high-need area. There are lots of things people are anxious to have attention on. We have five reporters and we just can’t get to everything. All five of us will tell you we could work 24/7, 365 days, and never be out of stories or ideas. I mean, people have our cell phone numbers.

We always try to remember that, despite all the needs, people want to celebrate their communities. There’s a lot of beauty. You can go out and report on something bad and difficult every day. But it’s not all gloom and doom here.

The housing crisis is what brought us [to Cairo, Illinois]. While reporting there, people would stop me and ask, “Hey, would you do something on our violin program? It’s awesome!” And so we would make the time to do that. And I think that’s why we were able to establish relationships, or else we wouldn’t have been able to report the stories that we have.

In Cairo, I was really touched by the people I met and the love they have for their community. And so I wanted to understand how [its housing crisis] happened at a local level, a state level and a federal level, and see how it all fit together. And I think once you know something, once you see something, you’re obligated to try to help address it.