Youth Voices and a New Community Newspaper for Boyle Heights

Published on
February 16, 2011

Boyle Heights is a neighborhood populated by restless souls. Its small houses, windows barred more often than not, hold within them stories of journeys and reinvention; these days, it's Spanglish and café de olla served at a Formica table covered in flowered oilcloth. Before that, the kitchen conversation was sprinkled with Yiddish or Japanese, as earlier generations of immigrants made their mark on these streets.

But who captures the stories in these days of diminished newsroom resources of this working class neighborhood? Who shares the yarns that help people feel, as one teenager told us recently, that "No estamos solos," that we are not alone?

In a few months, we will have a chance to see what stories emerge from this Latino immigrant neighborhood of about 100,000, located a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles. And we will learn how the community responds to journalism written, not by outsiders, but by local youth writing "por la comunidad y para la comunidad "– for the community and by the community -- as Pedro Rojas, the executive editor of La Opinión, put it as we planned this venture in community journalism together.

All of this is a way of saying that we are starting a newspaper in Boyle Heights. The "we" being first and foremost a team of 19 youth reporters who come from four local high schools. Those helping to support them include journalists from our program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and editors who come from the leadership ranks of La Opinión, the Spanish-language daily of Los Angeles, including Rojas and Gabriel Lerner.

But that's not all, this start-up has already proved to be an exercise in community building: among its many supporters, we are joined weekly by two East Los Angeles Community College journalism students, local bloggers, teachers who join us on weekends and evenings, a high school principal, and the director of the Boyle Heights Technology Center, who provides a home base.

This new enterprise is supported by The California Endowment. The foundation aims to transform health within local California communities. It adopts creative approaches, investing in civic infrastructure, including media. Its Media Program Manager, Mary Lou Fulton, has funded a host of new youth media efforts across the state as part of that effort.

The strategy has a logic that appeals to the young Boyle Heights reporters: "Not only will I get to write, but also inform the community about itself and that is the key to a better community," one of our youth reporters told us when applying to join the news staff.

Tonight, the news team settles on a name for the publication: In the Heights/Noticias del Barrio. We've spent hours bouncing around story ideas. As their voices emerge so do the circumstances confronting these young journalists. There's the young woman who proposes a story on the apartment complex where she lives, slated to be razed to make way for a multimillion dollar redevelopment project. Another teenager, who proposes reporting on the Boyle Heights economy, casually mentions that she may soon be homeless as her family home is in foreclosure. They speak about how to get to college without legal papers and make plans to interview fellow students who can only count on school meals for nourishment.

Serious-minded and idealistic, these young journalists are eager to paint a positive picture of a community that has seen more than its share of hardship. When urged, they also are quick to come up with the fun stuff: stories on a rich art scene, culture, underground bands that have made a name for themselves. We have a cartoonist and eight poets in the group.

"I want to make a difference in what happens in our community," says one member of the news team." I want to interact with people, see what they see, how they think. Maybe by doing this it is possible for Boyle Heights to get a better reputation."

From time to time, I'll share more of what we learn from them.

To see the column published today in La Opinión by Gabriel Lerner, our partner in this project, please click here.