‘Shine a light on the human condition’
Here’s how a popular college class gets students out of the (virtual) classroom and into the world as social documentarians.
When Mariama Fofana moved to Colorado in 2012 to escape civil war in the Ivory Coast, she immediately noticed a difference in how Americans interacted based on gender roles.
“In our culture, women are supposed to keep their eyes and voice down,” she said. “But that’s changing – and I want to be a part of the next generation that’s making it happen.”
Journalism is her pathway to that goal, said Fofana, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of her older sister who is an anchor on the Ivory Coast’s RTI 1 national television news broadcast.
First, she learned English. Then, she enrolled in a community college. Now, she’s a Metropolitan State University of Denver student enrolled in a social-documentary class that provides real-world journalism experience. This summer, Fofana is working with a team of student journalists pitching, developing and submitting four stories. Students’ work from the course will eventually be compiled into a coffee-table book following subsequent fall-semester sections.
The long-running MSU Denver class founded by internationally acclaimed photojournalism Professor Kenn Bisio typically brings students to locations such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Francisco to work in teams and teach one another, said Steve Krizman, associate professor and public-relations faculty advisor co-teaching the summer course.
“The goal is to get students out of their comfort zones and into the field, where they talk to strangers and be the ‘butt-inski’ you need to be as a professional journalist,” he said.
A big part of that involves the types of media that contemporary journalism relies on. As part of her news team, Fofana is a photographer for stories on mental health during a pandemic and protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and others; she’s also writing copy for pieces on socially distanced approaches to graduation and demonstrations at the GEO Group’s immigration detention facility in Aurora.
The immigration story hits especially close to home for Fofana, who detailed the 8 p.m. nightly vigils where demonstrators chant so those held inside can hear.
“Through my reporting, I came to find out a lot of detainees are asylum seekers and that it could just as easily have been me and my family,” she said. “So many people aren’t aware of things that don’t affect us, but sharing these stories helps us pay attention. I live 10 minutes away and didn’t even know about this until now.”
Krizman noted that the social element of the class has been key in making the transition to continue the work in a post-COVID-19 landscape.
“Students are digging deep and looking in-depth at issues that are of the moment and from a point of view that much of the population might otherwise miss,” he said. “This pandemic has given us the opportunity to focus on stories that shine a light on the human condition.”
And the multimedia approach to contemporary journalism has helped Fofana strengthen her voice and resolve to be part of a generational change.
“It’s really helped me get out of my comfort zone in a good way,” she said. “For the longest time, writing was my escape; it was all I had. Now, I’m learning how to incorporate elements like photography to help share people’s voices.”
Rachel Lorenz sees the social-doc class as a catalyst for career change. An engineer by trade, the journalism major became interested in amplifying community-based stories, leading her to enroll in the summer course.
“The sharing of voices and experiences is so important,” she said. “Especially at the local level, it can have a real impact of connecting people with issues that matter and ways they can effect change.”
One example of localizing a national conversation is her forthcoming story about Colorado’s vote-by-mail system, which began mailing ballots to every registered voter for most elections after the passage of 2013’s Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act. In the course of reporting, Lorenz talked to county clerks from across the state to examine logistical considerations, security, anonymity and even whether someone is checking those signatures on the outside of a submitted ballot.
In addition to this substantial topic, she’s balancing others on COVID-19 impacts within local Native American communities, how lockdown affects domestic violence and the pandemic’s impact on the summer tourist season in Grand Lake. The resulting stories can serve as more than a graded assignment, too.
“One of the biggest takeaways students get from the class is producing publishable material,” Krizman said. “We’ve had stories placed in Met Media, Westword, weeklies in New Mexico and more. Those are clips, and they’re super-important in building a working portfolio.”
Though it can be a tough juggling act for new journalists, it mirrors the functional expectations of modern newsrooms – and one the class dove into on Day One.
“This wasn’t a ‘cover the syllabus and get to know each other’ first class,” Lorenz said. “We were already brainstorming pitches and started working through angles and assignments right from the beginning.”
And with the shortened summer term, it’s also helped her gain experience with another journalistic inevitability: deadlines.
“Having a finite amount of time to produce a story definitely makes you focus on a tangible outcome, even if the temptation is to keep digging or working on it,” Lorenz said.