This community faces a huge housing problem. A journalist brought them together to talk about it.
(Photo by Kurt Bresswein | For lehighvalleylive.com)
The line of people snaked down the hall. Staff from the community college scrambled to find extra chairs in closets to accommodate the crowd.
And I stood in disbelief as I watched dozens of people who were passionate about their neighborhood of South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, flow into the meeting room.
I had spent weeks worrying about whether there would be robust turnout for this community meeting on the future of this oft-neglected part of the city. Would anyone come? Would our outreach succeed in engaging new residents?
The morning of the forum we had more than 70 people pre-registered, however many of them were affiliated with social services agencies.
The event was born in response to the desire of residents to come together and speak up about the issues and in a place away from the stuffy confines of Bethlehem’s Town Hall, with its adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order, which does not encourage open and free dialogue. Bethlehem’s elected officials were invited to the forum and to come and listen to residents, flipping the usual power dynamic.
But it only worked if residents showed up.
The morning of the forum, a community organizer cautioned me to expect only 30% of the people who were pre-registered to show. This panicked me enough that an hour before setup I found myself on the Greenway — a rail-to-trails park bisecting the neighborhood — handing out fliers to residents.
They all had stories to tell about how skyrocketing housing prices were affecting their families. A single dad said he was paying twice the price of a mortgage on rent due to the housing shortages. A Lehigh University employee told me his son had spent more than a year trying to buy his first home in Southside before giving up and buying elsewhere.
Their experiences echoed all of the things I’d been hearing for months while reporting on the community.
The standing-room only crowd validated the eight months of reporting and more than 50 interviews I conducted. It told me I’d achieved my ultimate goal: to get the community deeply involved and invested in our reporting project on their changing community. By writing stories reflecting the daily challenges facing residents, I built interest and trust in a community we often overlooked in our daily news coverage.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took lots of time, humility and thoughtful choices. I found trusted community figures willing to vouch for me. I spoke to many, many people who never ended up in my stories. I flooded mailboxes, inboxes and social feeds with information about my efforts.
My USC Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship project explored how the coronavirus pandemic heated up a booming real estate market in a modest neighborhood of Bethlehem, a city of 75,000 with a rich industrial heritage. Bethlehem’s location between Philadelphia and New York, on prime rail lines and highways, has long made it a center for commerce. First it was anchored by Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the textile industry. Today, the former Steel land is home to warehouses, a casino and an arts and entertainment complex.
Owning one of the tidy rowhomes carved into the side of South Mountain has catapulted generations of Southsiders into the middle class. But a development boom paired with a pandemic that has accelerated the demand for housing leaves the community at a critical tipping point.
I’ve spent years covering the flurry of urban infill projects, which have pumped more than 700 market-rate apartments into South Bethlehem in recent years. Yet, in this community with a median household income just shy of $40,000 a year, many can no longer afford to live here and they’re being edged out.
But it wasn’t until I embarked on this project I truly understood all of the forces at work and the nuance of residents’ experiences. The response to the series was unlike anything I’ve seen in nearly 16 years as a professional journalist. The emails, phone calls, texts and social media callouts came flowing in. The stories resonated with people across our coverage area and beyond, because these problems are occurring in communities across America.
I couldn’t have told these stories or packed that February forum without community buy-in. I was not an engagement grant recipient, so my company graciously hired an engagement senior fellow to mentor me.
The skills I learned enriched many of my existing reporting practices while blowing up some of my long-held ideas of how journalists should conduct themselves.
Here’s how you can replicate this level of community engagement:
Listen, listen, listen. I didn’t go into South Bethlehem with preconceived notions about my stories. I wanted to explore the pandemic’s fallout, Lehigh University’s influence on the real estate market and how all these things affected housing affordability. But I didn’t know what that would look like. I pumped my usual sources for new people to talk to help me broaden my coverage. I asked every single person I spoke with the same three questions about the community to find through lines.
At the end of every interview I asked: Who else should I talk to? Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think I should know about?
I found some of my best sources this way and often got the most salient quotes with these questions. I also spent hours with people who never appear in the series, but they provided me context and history that allowed me to write about the community authentically.
Reach people where they are. I knew I was reporting on a community where many did not rely on us for their news. I used Google form surveys, social media callouts and old-fashioned neighborhood canvassing to connect with residents. We went door to door with fliers explaining the project in the early evening and weekends, surveying willing participants who answered. We left fliers when no one answered and people did call me. The local schools sent my information out through Class Dojo, a parent communication cell phone app.
I conducted two off-the-record community listening sessions to learn residents' top concerns. We provided dinner for residents and offered participants gift cards. Through my engagement mentoring, I learned this is increasingly an accepted practice, especially when reporting in underserved communities. I wasn’t paying them for information. I was recognizing how valuable, and limited their free time is. Journalism so often can feel extractive, and it went a long way in building trust in a community skeptical of my news source.
Explain your process. Many of the people I encountered had no experience with the media. I didn’t want to exploit anyone, so I was very transparent about how I planned to use what they said and what would be included. We went over things like what it means for something to be on and off the record, and the reach of our publication.
Find the trusted community organizers and social services agencies working with residents and earn their trust. They understand the community’s issues intimately. I did face skepticism, but I helped overcome this by admitting our coverage of the Southside Latino community has often fallen short. I explained I wanted this project to be the first step in changing that. I regularly checked in with reporting updates that demonstrated my commitment.
I hired a Southside resident to help me with Spanish translation and engagement work.
She was invaluable in helping me recognize potential cultural blind spots and all that goes into translation work. We brainstormed about inclusive language — opting to call our event a community meeting instead of a forum in promotional meetings — and got creative in our outreach. We hired another person to translate the series into Spanish.
And I didn’t just stop with those community gatekeepers. I made a concerted effort to find residents who could share their hopes, worries and experiences.
A new part of my series dropped each week and after the first story there was a marked shift in support from these community groups. They were thrilled to help us promote the forum and recruit clients to attend. They saw the Southside authentically represented in my coverage.
With their help, we flooded people’s inboxes and social media feeds with promotion from the school system, the city and social services agencies. I knew it was working when I stopped to drop fliers at a food pantry and the woman taking them exclaimed, “Oh, I just read about this on Facebook!”
Keep feeding the connection. Forum participants expressed a real thirst for more engagement. We kept hearing they wanted “more of this.”
So far, we’ve followed up with a post-event survey and sent the community meeting report to those who requested it. Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley is eager to continue the conversation and we’re looking for grant funding to do that.
Authentic engagement work takes time, humility, relationships, source building and money. When done well, it offers news organizations a way to accurately cover communities historically overlooked in mainstream news coverage. It makes for richer storytelling that reflects the challenges facing residents in the communities we serve.