SJNN a year in

By Jack Doppelt

Our social justice journalism project is not yet a year old.  As we launched it with the support of the McCormick Foundation, we were committed to doing something that trains a lens on issues that matter to those in communities that are off the beaten journalistic track.  We knew we wanted to report in depth.  We knew we didn’t want to compromise our reporting or credibility by being advocates.  We also knew, though, that we wanted to listen to community activists and to treat vulnerable people with respect and with care to not stigmatize or put them in harm’s way as we give voice to their lives.  Some journalistic rules might need to be reexamined in the process.  The first step in addressing societal inequities and systemic abuses is in recognizing that they exist.  We knew we had to depict the impact on individuals and communities in vivid ways. And we were seeking co-publishing partners to help get the word out.

The Social Justice News Nexus [SJNN] was born, and our first group of reporting fellows set out to dissect how the war on drugs, and the corrosive use of drugs, have conspired to devastate some of Chicago’s communities. In her story just published on the Gate News in Spanish and English, on ChicagoNow, and anchored here on SJNN, Jackie Serrato sought to set the record straight about her own neighborhood, Little Village.

What emerged is a dynamic multi-media, data-driven combination of audio, community mapping, and an online survey of 175 Little Village residents that punctures the stereotype of a community that is a hub of the Mexican drug cartels.

Her story – Gangs and Narcotics in Little Village: Media Hype vs. Reality – takes us from a recent Friday night into a civics lesson that traces Mexican gang activity back to its origins in segregation and ethnic rivalries when Lithuanians and Bohemians in Little Village made life hard for the newcomers. What she discovered is a community that is gang divided from east to west, whose Mexican American cultural codes of keeping lethal drugs away from kids trumps over gang codes of turf-driven profit making.

Police data confirm that there is not much on the ground trafficking in heroin in Little Village, no open air markets, no recognized intersections for drug dealing and fewer drug stash houses than elsewhere in the city.  Her conclusion:  To view Little Village as a a battlefield of the war on drugs is to miss a hard reality and to substitute a misguided truthi-ism that matters.

As one retired gang member put it: “We ain’t no drug hub. We’re a gangbanging hub. Get it right.”

As we enter our second cycle of stories – this one on the intersections of mental health and the criminal justice system – we strive to get it right. Two stories help frame where our stories are headed; the first is a personal account by Medill freshman Lauren Harris – My brother could be Michael Brown – and the other is A Visit to the Cook County Jail.  Please check them out and continue to visit SJNN and our blogs on these issues as we produce our series, to be published in the spring.