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Remembering Kevan Carter

Remembering Kevan Carter

Picture of Michelle Levander

It is a terrible irony that journalist Kevan Carter died so young - of a massive stroke at age 55 - after writing so sweetly about good food, soul food and the disproportionate toll that heart disease and stroke exact on African Americans.

I met Kevan -- charming, talented and good humored --when he became a California Health Journalism Fellow at our USC Annenberg program in 2008. For his Fellowship project, he set out to write an indepth feature about what's been dubbed "Neo-Soul Food" - or as one of his sources put it, ""S-is for seasonal, O-is for organic, U-is for unprocessed and L-is for locally grown."

He wasn't a food writer, even though he clearly was a foodie, with a secret yen for old-fashioned soul food - be it ribs, greens and ham hocks, or cornbread smothered in gravy: "I.. agree that [Neo Soul] Chef Gator is on the right track (health)," he wrote me, "even though I do prefer Mama Soul's hot links to Glen's Alligator burgers and Caesar salads."

Kevan had his serious side as well. Through his fellowship project on food, he saw a way to educate his African American readers about health risks and health disparities. He would quote David Satcher's study on health disparities and morbidity in the black community in one breath and then invoke the civil rights movement in the next. He felt race had a lot to do with it. And he had done the research to show it, speaking knowledgeably about the origin of the black American diet as survival food during slavery.

Kevan and I stayed in touch after he finished the Fellowship seminars, as he soldiered through reporting challenges, unemployment and ultimately success in ushering his project into print - two years after his reporting began and just a few months before his death last month.

His challenges were so formidable - and his quiet persistence so impressive - that I recently had asked him to write up something for ReportingonHealth about his travails and the financial challenges of the Observer, a newspaper serving Sacramento's African American community. Planning to touch base, I went to the Sacramento Observer Website today to re-read his Soul Food article. The newspaper's obituary of Kevan popped up at the top of the Website.

I immediately contacted the Sacramento Bee's Steve Magagnini, who had become friends with Kevan after working intensively with him as his mentor and "senior fellow." Steve, a reporter at the Sacramento Bee, told me today that he had been meaning to take Kevan to lunch to celebrate publication of his feature. He owed Kevan and Kevan affectionately told me and Steve that he planned to collect on the debt.

And now he's gone.

"Kevan Carter had a special gift for connecting with all kinds of people across race, ethnicity and generations," Steve told me today. "He put people at ease, drew them out and found the common ground.

So I'll do my best to tell the story of his project - as he told it to me and to Steve, in many emails and conversations - in the hopes that it inspires you as much as it inspires us.

When I met Kevan, he was executive director of the Sacramento Observer's Media Institute as well as an editor and writer. He had held many roles at this African American newspaper over the years. At earlier stages of his career, he had also held jobs as a city college business instructor, director of the Children's Faith initiative in San Francisco and as director of communications at the Family Service Agency of San Francisco.

"Things are going well so hold on I think a great story is emerging," he wrote in September 2008. It would take a year and a half after he sent that note for the story he had completed much earlier to appear. A month later he wrote to me to say that the Observer had been forced to lay off most of its staff due to a steep loss in advertising revenue. "My wages there were cut back so much that I could not afford the cost of gas that it takes for me to drive to Sacramento from [his home outside] San Francisco. Regretfully, I had to step down."

A year later, he was out of work again, returning and then leaving the Observer after what he described as another sweeping staff layoff. "It's been tough staying afloat in this economy," he wrote me in December 2009.

There were emotional upsets as well:

Hey Steve and Michelle

Last week was very tough. One of the people that I interviewed for the Soul Food article had a stroke and is left brain dead (Jewel Parker); I went by Pacific Medical Center to see her only to find her hanging on for her life by life support systems--it was really a sad thing to see. I had just spoken with her during my marathon train trip to the workshops.

This surely emphasizes the importance of the health journalism work we are doing.

And another source he connected with also would die before the story was published.

"The story of Soul Food actually begins once the story was completed," Kevan told me in reflecting on the challenges in ushering it into print. "The good news at the end was that the Observer recovered from its financial downfall by having a tremendous Black Expo in Sacramento this February. The sad news was that two of the prominent people I interviewed passed away before the story was completed."

Kevan went on to write other health stories tied to African American health and to environmental justice and race issues. "Your program brought to the attention of journalists the influence of race and socio-economic status on health," he wrote. "I thought it was courageous and enlightening.

As for his story, it stands as a testament to his commitment to improving health for African Americans. It was carefully burnished, reported extensively and honed after many drafts:

"This story is very special to me because I put a lot of time into writing it and also because two of the people I interviewed have passed since I started the project last fall," he wrote.

"I've had many conversations with colleagues and friends about the story and some of the things I've touched on extend beyond race and culture as we dealt with the impact of women entering the workforce in the 70's and its impact on family life including preparing meals and the rise of in popularity of fast foods."

I hope that Kevan's words inspire you as much as they inspire me - especially during tough times for journalists and other storytellers with a vision to do good.


Picture of Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou

When I saw your email, I thought, not that Kevan! This is really sad. I didn't know him that well, but during the fellowship, he was friendly and fun to talk to. I'd been wondering about what happened to his story. I remember he said it was becoming like a book! He also helped me with my project, referring me to a similar situation in Northern California that I could also take a look at. He was inspiring to talk to. My heart goes out to his friends and family.

Picture of Stephen  Magagnini

Kevan Carter was a rare soul  - warm, kind, generous of spirit, a  true renaissance man who brought out the best in everyone  he came into contact with. He will be missed, and his passing's a reminder that we can't wait to honor our friends and make time for them. 

Picture of Liliana Sunn

I still can't believe that Kevan is gone. I strongly agree with what Steve mention. I remember Kevan very well, he share words of wisdom, hope and faith during one of the sessions which particularly help me before doing my proyect. I was very happy and surprise when he gave me a copy of his CD "Sunrise in New York" . I really enjoy listening to it, he sure was very talented. Thank you Kevan!


Picture of

I didn't know Kevan. But after reading this I see what I missed. A lovely tribute to one gone too soon. That he would have joined two of his sources is sadly ironic and that the voice of a rare African-American journalist writing about health would be stilled so young is just plain sad.

Picture of

What A Wonderful "Footprint" You've Left For Us All My 'Brother in the Arts' save a "seat" for me in the cosmos' Friend!, "X-factor".


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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