If you visit a place over time, you can watch it change. The changes may be subtle in some ways and loud in other ways. Good or bad is relative, but the change is real.
In the summer of 2020, five people from the Star Tribune newsroom, including me, gathered under a gazebo at Boom Island in Minneapolis. The sun felt warm, and a light breeze made the grass and leaves wiggle. It was lovely to be out, to be physically present in a peaceful setting, because peace was not what any of us felt.
After George Floyd’s murder, our newsroom was reeling. Collectively, we were exhausted from the constant witnessing of our community in distress physically, emotionally and spiritually. In moments like these, humans tend to examine and question their purpose and their role in the insanity that has unfolded in front of them. Many journalists of color saw this as an opportunity to demand change in our newsroom and across our industry.
Journalism is no different than any other industry that’s more than 100 years old. The very foundation is built with the bricks of systemic racism just as we know water, sand and rock make up the Mississippi River.
Those journalists of color who have decided to work in this business know who has been historically considered a credible source. Those who are extroverted, able-bodied, middle class, straight white males have few impediments to their ideas, their advancement, their voices. For those of us who don’t fit that description, the sting of being silenced and overlooked has a cumulative effect that made Floyd’s murder the final straw. A worldwide racial reckoning followed — and the Star Tribune needed to take a long look in the mirror.
Oh hey. I’m Kyndell Harkness. During this time, I was a photo editor, sitting at home in my bedroom working on a TV tray. My life is pretty glamorous. I’m one of those people in an office that everyone comes to, so I was hearing a lot of distress from all corners of the newsroom. I wasn’t alone. Allie Shah, a deputy metro editor, and Tom Horgen, an online editor, were hearing from their circles too. A lot of people, including the white voices in the room, were sharing their concerns about our news organization and how it reflects or doesn’t reflect the growing diversity in Minnesota.
Allie, Tom and I met with the newsroom’s top editors, Rene Sanchez and Suki Dardarian, at that lovely spot on Boom Island not feeling so lovely. I was nervous. The three of us weren’t known for having the big, brash, booming voices. We were the regular people in our office whom co-workers came to when they needed help.
With the voices of the newsroom with us, we had to be painfully honest with our leadership. As an organization, we needed to re-examine our hiring practices, our coverage and how we treated our journalists of color. The three of ushad gathered anecdotes of microaggressions from inside and outside the Star Tribune that staff members had experienced. With those experiences in mind, we compiled a list of solutions. We had found a way forward for our newspaper, but at that moment, I was unsure if we would be heard. We took our places, 6 feet apart. We talked and they listened. Then together we had to figure out what came next.
The five of us looked at the list of solutions and tried to develop a plan to change our newsroom culture. One of the solutions was creating a new role: assistant managing editor of diversity and community. With the newsroom busy with their own to-do lists, it’s easy to slide back into what feels comfortable, familiar. We needed a person to help remind people of our goals and aspirations. That job went to me, a visual journalist and 20-year veteran of the Star Tribune.
Why me? I’m an empathetic listener, which is useful in this role. I love the people I work with. They are a weird bunch but endearing as hell. They are a solid group of humans with tons of potential if moved in the right direction. I also love this place we call Minnesota. It’s a quirky, beautiful spot in our country, freezing weather and all. I got this job because I believe in the power of us. If we have good, open conversations in which we all listen deeply with the possibility of being changed by what we hear, then there’s nothing we can’t do.
Stepping into this new role, I knew the task ahead wasn’t going to be easy. In some ways our news organization had been eating with the wrong end of the fork for 155 years. What was encouraging was the palpable desire for change among so many people. We knew we had to dismantle old behaviors and build foundations around new ones. The goal for me was to create structures that allow for space to talk, listen and be changed.
This culture-shifting work has been a series of hair-pulling frustrations and fist-pumping elations. What I’ve learned is that talking things through and out in the open helps create greater understanding. Making those safe spaces has allowed people to bring up concerns they’ve had or ideas they’ve been dying to share.
Through these open conversations, we looked at our process as a news organization and our behaviors to see if they were matching our values. When they didn’t, we started building structures that helped us move in that direction. We created committees to help us work through changes in our stylebook, approaches to hiring and reimagining our crime coverage.
We were practicing the art of listening with each other but also with Minnesota. Informally, many on staff shared concerns from communities who felt unseen by the Star Tribune so that we could to discuss and debate those concerns. Formally, editors met with a diverse group of regular people with powerful voices who represented those communities. Over several months, we listened to their unfiltered opinions of our coverage choices and blind spots.
This kind of work is slow with a capital S if it’s being built to last. Some days, you wonder if anything has changed. Especially at these early stages, it can be hard to see. Concrete changes include this stat: half of the new hires in the newsroom are journalists of color. But I see change mostly in the quality and the depth of the questions newsroom leaders are asking. There is a willingness to be more vulnerable, to not have all of the answers, to be fallible. That feels like progress.
Now I want to take you back to Boom Island on another summer day. A year has passed. The setting looked the same but things were definitely different. I had my friends with me, but this time they were Suki and Rene, and I was in management. Sitting on the other side of the gazebo, 6 feet apart, were Winston Smith’s family and loved ones. Smith was the young man who was shot and killed by law enforcement officers on a rooftop of a parking garage in Uptown.
The Star Tribune had made a big mistake. We had labelled Winston Smith something he was not by misrepresenting his criminal record. It wasn’t just important to correct the error in this case, it was important to apologize to the ones most affected: his family. So, we met, we said we were sorry and then we let the family lead the discussion. This moment was theirs and theirs alone.
In witnessing and participating in this moment, I finally felt like we had grown a bit. This meeting would never have happened without the work of this year. The constant discussions with each other and with community members led to this opening up, this chance at authenticity. Were we authentic, humble and gracious in that moment? That is not for us to decide. Our job was to listen, to learn and to be better. To be better for ourselves and the state that we serve.
Have we changed? That is certain. How people view that change is not up to us. What hasn’t changed for me is hope. My hope is that our news organization can help seed state-wide empathy and deep listening so that a 16-year-old in Bagley can see herself in a story about a 32-year-old in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. My hope is that our commonalities are more commonplace, and our differences are enjoyed and embraced.
A little extra love and kindness sprinkled on everyone’s day is what’s needed. It’s what I always try to bring to whatever seat I happen to be sitting in. I’ll see what another year in this particular seat will bring.