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When I decided to take my career to Madison, I had no idea what the next years of my life would look like. I was a California girl, by way of Michigan, and decided to take a chance on a city I had once heard was one of the most livable cities in America. I thought, sure, I can live in a place between two lakes, plenty of trails and places to hike, which are some of my favorite things. I didn’t know much else about Wisconsin except that it was the cheese lovers’ state and Wisconsinites really liked football.
This is why it was a big shock for me when the “Race to Equity” report was released in the fall of 2013, a few months before I moved to my new home. The report showed that African Americans were nearly 5.5 times more likely to be unemployed in Dane County, half of black high school students were not graduating on time compared to 15 percent of white children and black kids were six times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles. Report after report came out naming Wisconsin as one of the worst states in the nation for racial disparities. They outlined disparities in unemployment, income, education and startlingly disproportionate rates of incarceration among the black community.
I grew up in the diverse state of California; however, I did not grow up around a lot of people who looked like me. I went to schools where I was the only person of color, or one of a few people of color. I didn’t think twice about coming to a state that’s 83 percent white and only 8 percent black. Coming from a multicultural background with Irish, Native American and African-American blood, I didn’t always feel welcomed. When I went to college, I was never “black enough” for the black students or “white enough” for the white students. In my early adult years, I found it hard to find my voice as an African-American woman, even more so in the workplace. Even so, as the only black reporter on staff at WISC-TV in March 2014, and one of three on-air in Madison among local stations, I was the only reporter of color who covered the “Race to Equity” story.
Reporting on issues of racial inequality and disparities became my new beat. While I didn’t share this with my managers at the time, covering these stories put me in an uncomfortable position. I was constantly asking myself: Was my reporting fair and accurate? Did I explain the issues plaguing the community with context and compassion? What if viewers thought I wasn’t “black enough?” Would I disappoint the community in the way I represented them? Would there be concern about bias because of my skin color? I love my people and culture, but I didn’t want to be deemed the “black reporter” who could only tell stories centered on race. At the same time, I didn’t want another reporter to cover the story and not do justice to it. It’s an issue I struggled with for years.
I faced the same concerns in March 2015 when Tony Robinson, an unarmed, 19-year-old biracial man, was shot and killed by a Madison police officer. There had been numerous reports of deaths of unarmed black men across the nation at the hands of police, but this time the issue had come to my front door. The pressure to cover the story accurately and fairly, while not appearing to be biased, was overwhelming. Was I being fair to both sides? Would the black community look to me to take a side? Would law enforcement think I was being biased, just because of my skin color?
Throughout my four years at WISC-TV, I was given the privilege to cover some of the most impactful stories in our community — and yes, a lot of them involved race relations. But it was through these stories, and listening to how people from diverse communities received and appreciated my coverage, that my perspective changed. By being involved in the community and hearing feedback, I realize those stories and others like them need to be told. Looking back, I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell them. I realize that living in a state with one of the worst racial disparities means that disparities reach every corner, even in the newsroom. Whether the story is covering racial disparities, the first and highest ranking African-American woman in the U.S. Army, or a community group that is helping disadvantaged students graduate, every story matters and plays a part in how this community moves forward.
While I will always ask some of the same questions when covering racial issues and wonder if I’m properly representing myself as a journalist and a person of color, I won’t stop trying. Through my work, I found my voice to tell stories that hopefully help bridge the gap to understanding and provide a window into different perspectives.
Disparities and inequalities only have the power we give them. To combat the statistics, we as a community need to find ways to move forward, create change and develop solutions. It’s not something that happens overnight, but with every story told and untold it moves us one step closer.
Velena Jones is a former reporter at WISC-TV, which is owned by Morgan Murphy Media, the parent company of Madison Magazine. She is now a reporter for KOIN-TV, a CBS-affiliate in Portland, Oregon.
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