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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated Apartments; Wigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America. WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds. Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

One Year Later - Poets' Reflections On A Year Of Racial Injustice Protests

christopher_d._sims_protesting_2020.jpg
Albert Cheeks Riley Jr.
/
Christopher D. Sims during one of the Rockford protests.

Last week marked the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Floyd was a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis by white police officer Derek Chauvin. The tragedy sparked a wave of racial injustice protests across America. Several poets reflect in vivid detail on how these events have impacted them. 

Minneapolis is burning.  

For justice, we Black

people are yearning  

The hate here in the U.S.,

we’re confronting,

discerning.  

I hope you

won't stop learning  

why Minneapolis

is burning. 

That’s how Rockford poet and activist Christopher D. Sims’ poem “Minneapolis is Burning” begins. He said he wrote the piece after inhaling the fumes brought on by George Floyd’s death.  

“I could feel the groundswell,” he recalled. “I could feel it, I could see it. So, I wanted to capture all of that.” 

Sims was active in many of the Rockford protests that happened over the summer. He said he knows people in Minneapolis and St. Paul and he wanted to capture their story.  

Although places in the city were indeed burning, Sims had another reason for using that description in his writing.  

“I think it's the burning of people's minds, their hearts. It could be anger, it could be frustration," he said. "And I think that since Chauvin murdered George Floyd, even white folks, you know, can speak to the burning in their hearts and souls when it comes to these injustices that have taken place in this country.” 

Margo Anderson is a white poet from Aurora. She said she felt the heatwave that hit the country after the incident. And now she looks at her poetry as a way to speak out.  

“I've been trying to use poetry more as activism, rather than just something to share," she expressed. "And like, have people feel my feelings about it.” 

Anderson wrote a poem called “Torn” because she said she didn’t agree with the looting that was taking place, but she understood why things were happening. Something else also left her at a crossroads.

"Like being torn between wanting to go to protests and but then there was COVID, and like not wanting to put my family at risk."

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Credit Yvonne
Protestors holding up signs during May 31 protest in front of the Aurora Police Department headquarter building.

Blind rage fills the streets of Aurora. 

It's a rage from people who have been violently oppressed for centuries, who feel unheard, unvalidated and unwanted,

Who are exhausted from being treated like dirt for so long,

And being told that their concerns, their needs, their attempts at peaceful protests, are the problem. 

Those are a few lines from that poem. Anderson said seeing the whole country coming together also gave her the courage to share her voice about social injustices more widely. She even did so with Aurora Chief of Police, Kristen Ziman. 

“So, I emailed her to say that I was concerned and sent her the poem. And she actually said she would share it with her officers and that she liked it.” 

Leaux from FourPoets, OneMic summed her feelings up in the poem she wrote called "2020 Summer." Here's a sample:

Bodies are outlined mothers are crying,

Police are lying the streets are lined.

The block has never been so hot

Hydrants and hoses going

The block was not trying to cool off from typical summer heat.

They expected us to hide when the police were seeking people looking like me,

But they never expected us Black in solidarity

shouldn't take movies and body cameras to do the right thing.

Leaux said most of her poems were about romantic relationships and family members, but reading the comments about Floyd’s death on social media lit a different fire inside of her. 

“A lot of the comments were just like, 'if you don't want to be arrested or killed, then don't do things that are wrong. Um, he had drugs in the system,'" she explained. "Oh, I saw a lot of them discrediting him not being able to breathe. 'Your nose is so big, how do not breathe?' So of course, playing into like, Black stereotypes? It was horrible.”

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Credit Susan Stephens
Protester holding up a sign with some names of Blacks who were killed by the police.

Leaux mentioned that and last year’s events drove her to change her writing focus.  

“I'm whining about relationships and like people are being killed," she said. "Like people are on the streets are going to jail. Everything and I was like, 'I don't know.' I'm like, 'compared to oh, someone broke my heart. I can get over that a lot better than someone being killed.'” 

Bilaal Muhammad lives in Georgia. He’s a poet who has worked as a police officer for over 25 years. He said writing about police brutality isn’t new for him. 

“But of course, the protest has brought that to light more, you know, but I have always written -- even in my hip-hop days when I was a rapper -- I wrote about police corruption,” he explained. “So, it’s always been with me. Even though I'm a police officer, I just, Oh, I just try to tell the truth.”

Muhammad said he experienced racial profiling while driving. He explained that some of his co-workers have pulled him over. 

“‘Yo, I work with you. Just because I'm not a uniform doesn't mean that you should just pull me over just because I'm a Black male.’ I had that happen to me twice in Camden County,” he shared.

But he said being a police officer does give him a different perspective about the subject of defunding the police.  

“And if you defund the police department, my question is ‘what does that look like?’ From not being a police officer, you don't know what we go through as far as when our budgets been cut,” Muhammad explained. “If you defund the police department the first thing that is touched is police training. The people that wanted to defund the police department wants us to get more training.” 

He said this is a contradiction that must be faced by those calling for reform. 

Sims said cities across America are still burning. 

“Especially with activist energy,” he added. “And there are reasons why and we know its structural racism, institutional racism, its anti-blackness is police violence.” 

But he shares that he has hope and said things like the criminal justice reform bill in Illinois are the start of something promising. 

And Muhammad said, no matter what happens, he will continue to write about social injustices. Here's a portion of his poem "The Other Side of Hate."

Enough is enough.

And I'm tired of being tired.

So I rise with anger in my eyes.

And after a few monuments and stores are burned and looted, you plead for my patience.   

Patience doesn't live here anymore

She's been evicted. 

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.