“Meeting in The Commons: How to Become Badass Collaborators”

click above to see the talk instead of read it

This is a talk that publisher Mikki Morrissette gave July 24, 2022, at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis about Minnesota Women’s Press, the shifting nature of journalism, and the concept of The Commons. It was preceded by an excerpt of a talk given by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 titled “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence.” It includes the words: “Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us.”

When I was a journalism student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s — which consisted primarily for me of working at the Minnesota Daily college newspaper — I learned three things that stuck with me during my career.

1) A professor named Jean Ward taught a reporting class on research. I learned how you can find phone books in the library to reach contacts on your landline phone. Other digests and almanacs and encyclopedias were full of useful information that you could find on bookshelves. I wrote my stories on a typewriter and stepped over to a copy editor who would mark it up in pencil before it was delivered to the production space where it would be typeset and miraculously turned into a printed newspaper that we could hold in our hands the next day.

So… that lesson shifted over time.

2) I also learned about being objective in journalism. That you get sources from all sides of a story. You write it up as an impartial observer, do not inject any of your own perspectives, and then move on to the next story.

I have been struggling with that lesson, as editor of the Minnesota Women’s Press. The obligation to journalism is about being impartial. The obligation to our readers is something different. Minnesota Women’s Press always straddles that line because we uniquely offer first-person narratives. We do not have reporters dropping into a story, getting quotes, and leaving.

We work with many first-time writers about their experiences with trauma, and inequities, and restoring ecosystems. They are not impartial. So… automatically we present a different kind of storytelling. One that I love, as someone who has always seen media as a way of sharing stories more than imparting facts. But internally I have wondered — is this journalism? It seems like we are somehow ‘cheating the structure’ of the lessons I learned decades ago.

A few months ago, I connected with one of my Minnesota Daily colleagues, who is a photojournalist with the Star Tribune, for a philosophical discussion. Now that we are in the twilights of our careers, I asked him, given all that we have witnessed and documented in Minnesota over years … can we walk away from telling those stories?

When he and I knew each other, we were barely in our 20s, embarking on our journalism careers. Now I was turning 60, I said. As I think ahead to the diverse hands I want to leave this publication to for the next decades … what am I leaving them? Given everything that has changed about media in our four decades, can I create a new sustainable vision of the role journalism plays in our society?

During the pandemic, Minnesota Women’s Press published the book “35 Years of Minnesota Women.” It showcases the stories about gender-based violence and ecofeminism and women’s representation in politics and inequities and racism. I am very proud of the book … but honestly, I also was frustrated to the point of anger to realize how much we have been writing about the same issues for decades.

Given the platform I have had for five years now as a publisher … with my youngest, Dylan, about to move to Oregon for college … I can see myself in a few years sitting in a cottage by the water, reading and writing books all day. Do I have the energy to kick Minnesota Women’s Press up a notch before I do?

Shortly after that conversation with my photojournalist friend, I sat in on a Knight Foundation forum that explored the very questions I was asking myself.

How is journalism going to be sustained into the future, not only in revenue, but in relevance?

Nikole Hannah-Jones was in that forum. She led the 1619 Project for The New York Times designed to fundamentally change the way we look at the consequences of slavery. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the work, among other recognitions. Then… she was denied tenure at North Carolina because a donor questioned her objectivity. She is now Knight Chair of race and journalism at Howard University.

During the Knight forum, Nikole Hannah-Jones said that all journalism is activism. She says if you grow up white in a community with good schools, respectful police, and welcoming businesses, it influences how you view and report on those institutions. Even if those with white privilege — who tend to run the newsrooms — do not see that as bias, it is. For example, we trust that police authorities are telling the truth when they tell us — as they did before a teenage girl’s video footage came out — that George Floyd was a criminal who died of a medical condition after being taken into custody. I saw that news release in my inbox.

As Nikole said, a journalist’s attitudes and values inevitably shape how facts and sources are interpreted. Reporters and editors decide what is important… from our point of view. What makes the front page … what does not get covered … what sources get the most attention … how does the headline characterize the truth?

It is a difficult job. And as we know from the misinformation and fake news crisis we are more mindful of today, there can be great bias involved.

Nikole’s words made me sit up straighter. They gave me permission to see my role in a different light. I knew what I wanted to do with my platform, my decades of experience, and my exit strategy. On my 60th birthday in April, here at First Unitarian Society, 11 women from around the state came to talk at an in-person event. We called it “Celebrating Badass Minnesota Women.” These women were definitely badass.

I asked each of them to give a five-minute power talk about what they are passionate about and what community can do to be part of that passion. I will show a couple clips from those conversations in a few minutes …

When Nikole pointed out that objective journalism is a myth — that it tends to favor status quo sources — it reminded me of what I love about what I am doing now. And what we could do to take that model one step further.

It should not only be the editor’s and reporter’s job to interpret and judge what is important, to settle on a silver bullet answer, or a ‘he says’ ‘she says’ form of journalism.

What if we center the grassroots individuals and organizations in the story development process? What if Minnesota Women’s Press not only continued to center powerful everyday women as its story sources, but also invited them into a virtual newsroom?

We started in January by asking people in two conversations what they are afraid of. Then we talked about some of those specifics in conversations with small groups of interested parties — mental health, healing from gender-based violence, reducing the stigmas that limit our capacity to deal with addiction, the affordable housing crisis, concerns among the LGBTQ+ community about aging and legislation. [Thanks Phil.]

We interviewed stakeholders engaged in solving these issues, right alongside Minnesotans who care about these issues.

Our next step, after we generate the underwriting and funders to enhance our team, will be to create a series of action steps that people statewide do together. We want to look at the work involved in getting gun legislation passed … defusing toxic masculinity … funding restorative justice practices on the front end of conflict, to reduce and deflect and prevent violence, instead of spending all public safety funds in law enforcement and incarceration after the harm has already been done.

  • My theory: Media does not need to be a passive product that is consumed.
  • What if we sustain the funding, the relevance, and the importance of journalism by creating a different relationship between readers and media?
  • What if we build a model that has the capacity to engender trust in journalism again?
  • What if we focus on solutions journalism, designed to reduce the weariness of being overwhelmed with problems and connecting people as they make stories happen?

Our new Changemakers Alliance content launched in January. It focuses on:

  1. Bringing people statewide with like-minded concerns together in conversations
  2. Turning that into a story, in our magazine, at womenspress.com, and in our niche newsletters, funded by underwriters and supporters
  3. Those stories lead to conversations about solutions,
  4. Which leads to an ongoing series of stories about how people statewide are taking action to make those solutions happen.

We put this model to the test for our June issue about Addiction. To a different degree, we used the same model for our 2021 issues about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Transforming Justice. We are about to embark on several other topics, such as the one I just started Thursday with a group of women about restorative justice — women here in Minneapolis who eventually want to see their best practices used statewide.

The third thing I learned about journalism — besides how to track a story and be objective — was the joy in co-creating with others. I spent much of my career as a solo freelance writer. Many of us here are introverts, who get energized by being alone with our thoughts, our words, our books. But what I loved about working at the Minnesota Daily in the early 1980s was the power of co-creating with others. As an editor, sitting together in the afternoon news huddle, talking about the process of stories that might be ready that day, where to put our focus, what the lead stories might be.

When we are talking about community-based solutions, the people who best know those solutions, those ideas, those needs — can be in a co-created space with us, especially in this day of virtual Q&A and meetings. We are all people, trying to find answers and tell stories.

My view of the media business I love is that we tend to be reactive, writing for a passive audience. But our most engaged readers are NOT passive, and want to get in front of the stories, to change outcomes.

Doing and being together is a crucial ingredient in how our society works. It can certainly feel like politicians and capitalists and money lenders rule the stories. BUT, they are merely players, like the rest of us. It is what we do in community that is the real deal. THAT is what deserves the coverage, not as simply “feel good” stories, but as the center of what we write and read and care about.

You will see this articulated in our August issue of Minnesota Women’s Press about The Commons.

I learned about the Commons from Julie Ristau, former publisher of Utne Reader. She and her husband Jay Walljasper were part of developing a website full of stories about the concept. As she explained to me:

We have become so accustomed to thinking that everything is owned by someone. Yet our hidden wealth is in the common spaces and communal actions that we develop together. This is actually the crucial element in our life support system.

She says it was a light bulb moment for her and Jay when an Utne Reader contributors wrote about how capitalism, for example, had convinced many of us that progress is defined as replacing Main Streets with shopping malls … that forests are worthless until they become timber.

Why are companies allowed to dump waste products in our water, or allowed to bottle it up and sell it back to us as drinking water in plastic containers?

Why are consolidated and toxic farms allowed to leave depleted soils and grazing stock for the next generation of people who eat?

As she puts it in our August issue: “We have an upside-down narrative that seems to allow a few people and institutions to profit from public spaces. Some things cannot be owned.”

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1967: “We have to shift from being a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

Being in The Commons is about the reproductive choice rallies that Rev. Kelli and so many others from First Unitarian Society are engaged with. It is about the neighborhoods who come together for National Nights Out … who plant flowers near sidewalks … who put out a chess board table and a free library box for passersby.

I am being interviewed by Sue Scott on her “Island of Discarded Women” show in August about how women in particular are gathering in badass ways.

Thanks to the international Community Solutions Network, based in D.C., Minnesota Women’s Press in October is hosting a Bosnian journalist, who hosted me in her country in June, to talk about how to elect women in a patriarchal society.

Participating in the commons is not always about leading charges … but sitting for coffee on a pedestrian plaza … sharing a communal meal… gathering together in a sanctuary like our own.

It is about being reminded, and taking THAT to our politicians and investors, that all that we build — thanks to our shared Internet, and public-funded highways and labor — is part of the community space, to be shared together. Anything less than that is … just less.

Harriet Barlow, formerly of Minneapolis, contributed an essay to Jay Walljasper’s book “All That We Share”

“I stop at the farmer’s market, a public institution created by local producers who want to share their fare. The same spirit prevails at our local food co-op, of which I am the owner (along with thousands of others), and at community-run theaters and civic events. These commons-based institutions provide us with essential services, the most important of which is fun. Living in the commons isn’t only about economic wealth. It is also about joy.”

To that end, in April, when we gathered a large group together here at FUS on a lovely Saturday afternoon, here is what three of the women that day (Chris Stark, Ellie Krug, Robin Wonsley) had to share:

Find the full First Unitarian assembly, including music, here

Mikki also talked about the strategy behind CALL development with readers at a Google News Initiative webinar; find that discussion here, starting just after the 30-minute mark.

The Martin Luther King Jr. reading is in the “Together” song by Nordic Giants that was partly inspiration for this talk.