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.
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.
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.
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.
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.