Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

Takeaways From Our Urbana-Champaign Free Street Theater Journalism Workshop

1. More participation from people of all ages. 2. ‘Chambana’ isn’t a thing. 3. It’s way more than a college town.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

Last weekend, we took our partnership with Free Street Theater and Illinois Humanities on the road, hosting theater-journalism workshops in Urbana-Champaign and Carbondale. As we did with our first event in Chicago, we hoped to get people talking about their community’s relationship to the news. And they did.

This was particularly true for the workshop we held at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, entitled “Who’s In? Who’s out? Driving Our Own Stories.” We decided to focus on people’s perceptions of whose stories the media tells — and what gets left out. Here are some of our takeaways and photos.

1. We should explicitly encourage multigenerational participation.

Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois

The event drew a group of about 20 people, diverse in age, race, ethnicity and life experiences. A family with grade-school children attended, and another mother brought her months-old baby. We hadn’t previously made it a point to promote the workshop as multigenerational, but the participation from children added depth and energy. In the future, we will emphasize in our outreach that these workshops can and should include people of all ages.

2. Chambana? No one who lives there actually calls it that.

Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois

If you don’t know, Chambana is a shorthand mashup of Champaign-Urbana. Most people agreed that it was a term usually used by leasing companies or outsiders but definitely not locals. When workshop facilitator and Free Street Theater Artistic Director Coya Paz said the nickname out loud, though, people burst into laughter. It was a good reminder that people can meaningfully engage in conversations even when it’s not about the heavy stuff. They like to laugh during community dialogues, too.

3. There is definitely no consensus on the role the university plays.

Coya asked people to line up on a spectrum of 1 to 10 with how strongly they agreed with this statement: “Without the university, there would be nothing in Champaign-Urbana.” It didn’t take long to see how divisive the University of Illinois’ role in the community is. People stood on opposite sides, with some saying that the university is a huge economic driver and others saying that it sucks up all the local resources. Across the board, though, people seemed to agree that the university attracts the most media attention in town, leaving other issues relatively uncovered. Note to other journalists: if you’re going to Champaign-Urbana, it’s not just a college town.

4. Issues people want more or different news coverage of.

Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois

One of the most telling exercises asked participants to write down the important stories from their communities that often go untold. People came up with a long list: mental health crises among immigrants, police reform activism, inequities in educational experiences, local environmental issues. When everyone broke into small groups to continue the conversation, they talked about why these stories aren’t getting written and what needs to change.

5. Tension can be healthy.

Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois

There were a number of local journalists from various news outlets who attended the workshop. At times, conversations brought out tension between community members and reporters — and among the reporters themselves. While we didn’t explicitly set out in our collaboration with Free Street Theater to help other newsrooms in Illinois engage with the communities they cover, it may be an unintended and welcome outcome — at least with our Urbana workshop. In the room, local reporters listened as people expressed how they felt some stories had misrepresented their communities. To have that kind of honest and uncomfortable conversation face-to-face is rare and valuable.

At the end, we sat in a circle and reflected on what we can do to work toward building the narrative we want to see in our communities. For some participants, that meant getting more involved in local oral history projects. And for some journalists in the room, that meant having more face-to-face conversations with people who live in the communities they cover. We agree.

Protect Independent Journalism

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers. We hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that hold people in power to account and produce real change.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded over 10 years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: Newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models are failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. More than a decade (and six Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built the largest investigative newsroom in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

Your donation today will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work. From COVID-19, to our elected officials, to racial and criminal justice and much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Portrait of Natalie Escobar

Natalie Escobar

Natalie Escobar is a ProPublica Emerging Reporter for 2017-18. A senior majoring in journalism and Latino Studies at Northwestern University, she is interested in covering education and race.

More from ProPublica

Current site Current page