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Want to ‘Give voice to the voiceless?’ Five lessons from Portland’s housing crisis

Craft: Lessons From The Field

Want to ‘Give voice to the voiceless?’ Five lessons from Portland’s housing crisis

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Photo: Beth Nakamu/The Oregonian
Photo: Beth Nakamu/The Oregonian

Journalists often say they strive to “give voice to the voiceless.” This can sound trite, clichéd, even patronizing.

Still, it is important.

I cover education at The Oregonian. On the schools beat, there are parents who have time to show up to board meetings, parents who organize on social media, parents who call reporters.

These are the most visible parents, the most empowered parents, and they’re the families whose stories are easiest to tell.

But not all families are similarly equipped to insist their stories be told. And, it would be an injustice if my coverage was skewed to show only those who are. It’s on journalists to seek out the stories of those who otherwise would be left out of the public record. If we aim “to give voice to the voiceless,” it requires more than asking for sound-bite quotes. It means listening to their story.

But that is easier said than done.

For my project “Reading, Writing, Evicted,” I wanted to look at Portland’s housing crisis from the standpoint of affected children. I knew the shortage of affordable housing was an education story and that my community needed to hear from the teachers, parents and children living that story.

Here are five lessons I learned during the reporting process:

1. Make a time investment.

If newsrooms want coverage to be diverse, newsrooms must back up that aim with an investment of time.

It took time to get the data that showed school churn — students transferring in and out of schools — across the city. I didn’t just put in a records request. I asked to meet the people who handle the data so I could explain to them in person what we needed and why. They gave us the data for free and exactly the way we needed it, something I suspect wouldn’t have happened had I not put in that effort at the beginning.

It took time to find the right families to feature in “Reading, Writing, Evicted.” It took time to build trust with those families. It took time to find teachers who could speak about what they were seeing in classrooms. And it took time, once I gained the trust of teachers and families, to observe their experiences so that I could write about their lives with depth and nuance.

I’m lucky. I had a fellowship to do this work. But I still had obligations as a beat reporter on a busy beat. During the project, my newsroom went through what, sadly, many newsrooms are going through: layoffs and a reorganization. The pressures on newsrooms aren’t going away. We are often doing less with less. That means reporters and their editors must find ways, despite cutbacks, to put in the time it takes to tell stories about communities that are harder to reach.

2. Be persistent, but maybe not in the way you’re used to.

There are only so many times you can text a teenager to ask why he isn’t texting you back without being creepy.

These families and teachers didn’t owe me their stories. They weren’t public officials who had to answer for how they managed taxpayer dollars. They had every right to tell me to take a hike.

It took a different type of persistence to get these stories.

As is often true, showing up saves time and gets you the answers you need. One mother never answered when I called. If I’d assumed she didn’t want to talk to me, I would have been wrong. I looked up her address, went to her apartment and knocked on the door.

“I haven’t paid my phone bill yet!” she laughed as she welcomed me into her home and introduced me to her daughters.

That boy who wouldn’t text me back? I gently kept texting him, pacing out my reminders so I wouldn’t come off as demanding. Eventually, he did text back. He also hadn’t paid his phone bill. Had I assumed he didn’t want to talk to me anymore, I’d have been wrong.

I read a great Investigative Reporters and Editors tip sheet years ago by Eric Nalder that I often reread. In it, he advises reporters to interview people about their fears. People I spoke to had all kinds for fears and it would have been impossible for me to anticipate them.

I found if I acknowledged that it was weird to talk to a reporter, especially about such personal details, we could often work past these fears and everyone felt more at ease. Sometimes the fears were as simple as not wanting a child on camera before his haircut.

School officials had fears, too. I was told I couldn’t go into a classroom. It wasn’t clear who, exactly, was telling me no. But I kept asking. I didn’t demand to be there. I didn’t say the school officials’ fears about having a reporter in the room were invalid. I just kept explaining why I felt it was important to show this issue in context and said I wanted to know more about their concerns. That worked. I got in.

3. Look for action.

I had the privilege of hearing Katherine Boo talk in Portland a few years ago. One thing she said has stuck with me ever since. She spoke about how there are too many stories that paint poverty as passive when, in fact, being poor is often very active. I tried to look for the action in these stories, which, as any student of narrative knows, is good to do regardless of your topic.

There was a lot of action. Parents knocked on doors with “For Rent” signs in an attempt to keep their child in the same school. Teachers made adjustments to welcome new kids. Teens embarked on epic commutes to stay at their schools. Parents went to court and haggled with collection agencies. Moms and dads marched to protest rent hikes. Children held bullhorns in their hands.

Families and teachers were not throwing themselves a pity party and it was important my stories reflected that. I looked for action and centered my stories on those actions.

4. Ask the same question several times, with increasing specificity.

A brilliant friend and journalist, Casey Parks, gave me great advice during this project. I was nervous about interviewing children for this project. Casey loves writing about children, so I asked her for help.  She told me to ask the same question in several different ways and to be specific. She told me about a story she’d been assigned about a child who’d won a tournament.

When she asked the boy how it felt to win, he said, “Boring!”

However, when she asked what he did with the trophy he told her that he kept it in a safe. Every night, he said, he took the trophy out of the safe to sleep with it.

This advice blew my mind. It also worked. And it worked not just with children. It worked with adults.

I asked a track coach if she knew of any children who had to leave a school because of housing and she said she didn’t. But when I asked if she’d lost any great runners on her track team over the years, she lit up. She told me about the Serrano boys.  They’d been a great presence on the team — until a rent hike forced them to move in with their grandmother.

One middle school boy quickly told me he was “accustomed” to his new school. This, I knew, was not true. His mother had told me he talked constantly about his old school.

Still, he wasn’t lying. He was doing what we all do. No matter how I’m feeling, if someone asks me “How are you?” Out of habit I will say, “I’m fine.” I would probably do this even if I had a visible, grievous injury.

The barrier to the truth in this case wasn’t red tape or corruption. It was the societal convention of small talk.

So, I asked him to tell me how he figured out where to sit at lunch on his first day at the new school. I asked how he got the courage to talk to other kids. I asked him if he was in chess, which I knew he loved.

He said no, he wasn’t in chess. I asked why he hadn’t joined chess.

The answer? He was too nervous. He told me he hoped one day that would change, but right now he felt he wasn’t ready to be the new kid in chess.

That was the real story. To get it, I needed to ask better questions, be patient and listen.  

5. Shut up

At the end of the day, listen. If you really want to “give voice to the voiceless,” you need to shut up, quiet your own assumptions and hear what they have to say.


Read Bethany Barnes' fellowship stories on gentrification's impact on Portland students here.


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