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Empowering People to Face Systemic Inequities: An Interview with AmeriCorps Alum and Journalist Nick Swartsell

May 10, 2016

square nick swartsellToday’s AmeriCorps Alums interview features Nick Swartsell, a Public Allies AmeriCorps alum and journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio who works for CityBeat, an online news site and weekly newspaper. His work has also appeared in publications like Vice, The Texas Observer, The Texas Tribune, The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News. When he’s not reporting, he’s into riding bikes, playing music and eating tacos, though he rarely does all of those things at once.

Can you tell us more about your AmeriCorps service with Public Allies?

I served with Public Allies Cincinnati in 2009-2010 and in 2010-2011. Public Allies has a kind of unique structure: four days a week I was placed with a nonprofit, the University of Cincinnati Economics Center for Education & Research, and on the fifth day I did training and a service project with the roughly 40 other Allies in my class. At my nonprofit placement, my work focused on economics and math education for elementary school students at a variety of schools within the Cincinnati Public Schools system. My first year service project involved helping to establish a job center in a then-vacant building in Cincinnati’s Evanston neighborhood. It still exists today! My second year service project involved more of a leadership role. Fellow second-year Ally Elizabeth Ann Rogers and I oversaw 10 first-year Allies as they engaged more than 100 elementary students citywide in an art project that was displayed at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Before serving in AmeriCorps, your writing focused on a range of local government and community affairs, culture, and art. After AmeriCorps, it seems like your work shifted to focus more consistently on economic and civil rights issues as well. How did serving influence the types of articles you were interested in writing?

I was aware of and interested in issues around economics and civil rights before my service, but in I’d say a more passive way. My time with AmeriCorps made me feel that it was not only possible to take a more active role in those issues, but actually imperative to do so. Public Allies showed me firsthand the daily realities and systemic underpinnings of the inequalities that exist in Cincinnati and other places across the country. In particular, the “Power and Privilege” series of discussions by Public Allies Cincinnati founder David Weaver really widened my horizons in term of systemic issues in Cincinnati and beyond. That, combined with the close mentoring I got from my first and second-year program managers, Donnie Warner and Tynisha Worthy, and the powerful perspectives of my fellow Allies, really pushed me in a more engaged direction.

tall public allies photo

Nick Swartsell’s Public Allies team

I took the civic issues and government reporting I’d just started doing and began looking for ways to make that reporting more critical, wide-reaching, and hopefully empowering to people facing systemic inequities. Sometimes that takes the form of reporting on police reforms. Sometimes it’s race issues. Other times it’s politics or culture. But it’s always with an eye toward the way those issues affect people, especially folks most media ignore.

You recently were awarded a Sigma Delta Chi Journalism award for your City Beat cover story, “That Which Divides Us.” Can you share more about what motivated you to write this piece, what you learned from writing the feature story, and why you think this story resonated with fellow journalists and Cincinnati residents?

Last summer, an unarmed African American man named Samuel DuBose was shot by police in Mount Auburn, the neighborhood where I live. It was my job to cover it for CityBeat. I started thinking about the bigger issues around these recurring tragedies, many of which happen in low-income neighborhoods like Mount Auburn, Over-the-Rhine, and others around the country. Why are so many black neighborhoods low-income? Why are they policed the way they are? Why is it hard for so many African Americans to find opportunities? I started looking at data — from the U.S. Census, health department life-expectancy data, police statistics — and realized that Cincinnati is a very divided place geographically. That divide pivots not just on race, but also on economics.

At the time, a friend and fellow AmeriCorps alum Melissa Shaver was working for a social service agency. She introduced me to Gus Whitfield, who is featured in the story, because she thought his story would interest me. I began to hang out with Gus a bit, and soon realized he had lived through so many of the issues that have kept Cincinnati segregated for so long. With that, the story clicked together.

I think the story has resonated so much because these issues are continuing to bubble up to the forefront of public consciousness, both in Cincinnati and across the country. That’s troubling — because it seems to suggest these issues haven’t improved — and encouraging, because at least we’re talking about them.

What advice to you have for AmeriCorps alums looking to launch a career in investigative journalism with a focus on social justice issues, race relations, or inequities in opportunity in American culture?

First, don’t wait for permission to start writing! Blog in your off-time, if you can, but be sure to be as exact and accurate as you can. Familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade, including public records requests, Census data, law enforcement statistics, non-profit 990 forms, and other sources of information. Also, don’t lose your AmeriCorps network, and keep building your ties to folks doing work around the issues you want to cover. They will be great sources of possible stories.

Second, start pitching story ideas to publications you respect. Make sure your pitch is timely and short (a few brief paragraphs). Include reasons why what you’re proposing is news worthy, how quickly you can complete the work, and where you’re at in the news-gathering process.

Third, and this one is kind of a life-changer: consider applying to undergraduate or graduate journalism schools. There’s a lot of back and forth about whether J-schools are worth it, but I will say emphatically that the two years I spent at the University of Texas getting a master’s in journalism after my AmeriCorps service were absolutely formative to me becoming a professional. So consider applying for scholarships or other funding and/or investing some of that education award in your brilliant future as a journalist.

Finally, remember to keep some skepticism. Your work will be much, much stronger and will do way more good when you’re independent and critical in your thinking. Ask questions, seek new perspectives, and get all the angles, even on groups and issues to which you find yourself sympathetic.

public allies team

Nick with his Public Allies team

AmeriCorps alumni commit to a lifetime of service, and while we think your work clearly demonstrates a dedication to citizenship, we’d love to hear from you about what a lifetime of service means to you and how it is reflected in your work.

I’m not an expert on service, but in my mind it’s a two-fold kind of thing. First is celebrating the gifts and assets of others, and second is joining in the struggle for justice when they aren’t being treated equitably. I hope my work does those things — celebrating the lives and dignity of people experiencing systemic inequity while also showing the bigger picture behind those inequities. The hope is that doing this helps, in its own small way, by informing people, and perhaps pushing them into action.

In the bigger picture, a lifetime of service to me means continually reminding myself that honoring and celebrating the lives and experiences of others in my community in addition to my own is infinitely more rewarding than simply focusing on my own career, comfort, and status. It means being aware of the privileges I have and how I can best use them to empower other people who may not have them yet.

If AmeriCorps alumni would like to read more of your work or connect with you, where should they start or reach out?

Much of my current work can be found at CityBeat’s website. I also have a portfolio site where you can find an archive of some of my work. And anyone wanting to reach out can drop me a line at nswartsell@gmail.com or on Twitter via @nswartsell. Say hi!

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