Panelist Q&A: Amy E. Brown on the role journalists play in social movements

By Madison Lauterbach

May 11, 2021 | Equity, Features | 0 comments

//Illustration by Madison Lauterbach | mlauterbach@msmayhem.com

//BLM5280 Director of Strategic Development Amy E. Brown. Photo provided by Brown. 

Colorado-born Amy E. Brown has worked tirelessly for years fighting the oppression of marginalized people, specifically Black women and queer folks

After graduating from California State University-Sacramento in 2010, she worked as a legislative assistant for the California State Legislature for just under three years before moving onto the position of senior advisor with the Sacramento City Council. 

When she returned to Colorado, she set her sights on more grassroots and nonprofit organizations. In May 2015, Brown co-founded the Black Lives Matter 5280 chapter alongside Rev. Dr. Dawn Riley Duval and Dr. Bianca Williams. Shortly after, the group took on the mission of renaming the Denver Stapleton neighborhood to what is now Central Park with the #ChangeTheNameStapleton campaign. The organization also sent members to fight alongside the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in 2016 during the #NoDAPL movement. With Brown as director of strategic development, BLM5280 opened the Freedom School four years ago and has helped dozens of Black families displaced by the pandemic in 2020.  

As a prominent Black activist in Denver, Brown knows firsthand how Black stories can and have been misrepresented by white reporters. 


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


What issues have you seen with coverage of Black stories by non-Black reporters, particularly from predominantly white newsrooms? 

I have definitely experienced and witnessed a lack of care in circumstances in which white journalists can cause their own harm in attempting to report on Black stories in the Black community. I was asked to be a source for a story on how the Black community was pulling together to survive 2020. And the journalists asked me, and this is not a direct quote, but they said ‘I would’ve thought 2020 was a great year for Black people with all the people who got inspired around George Floyd [and] took to the streets.’ That statement and forcing me to tell you why 2020 was not a great year for many—that’s actual violence towards the community that you’re trying to report on. So those kinds of instances of, like, lack of the work that’s required for you to approach these conversations in an informed and empathetic way can really cause further harm to the people that you’re trying to be a voice for and represent. 

I don’t really believe in the term microaggression, I think racial aggressions are racial aggressions. But the number of typically known ‘microaggressions’ that I’ve experienced, whether it’s terminology, whether it’s photos that are selected—I’ve experienced just countless instances of racial aggressions. Journalists who don’t understand why it’s really painful to say, still to this day, ‘Why don’t all lives matter?’ That question is still being asked in this kind of, ‘Oh, I’m just playing devil’s advocate’ way. Those are really harmful experiences to have when you’re trying to tell what are usually very painful stories in themselves. Having to explain these things to non-Black people, it’s a very vulnerable exercise. And so when you experience aggressions or stereotyping or generalizations about yourself and your community when you’re trying to be vulnerable and give people a window into that community, it’s really harmful and impactful. 


How can non-Black reporters better cover Black stories?

I think it takes more work on the front end, doing more groundwork in terms of research beforehand. Going back to the example I gave with the reporter earlier, I literally told them to Google why 2020 was a bad year for [Black people]. I think doing the groundwork ahead of time to really try to take that labor off of Black people who are already overly impacted and overburdened by these things is important. Depending on the topic you’re talking about, asking them what are the flashpoints that could really be hard for them to talk about. 

Take the Tay Anderson situation. Educate yourself about how sexual violence particularly impacts Black women. That way the Black person in the conversation doesn’t have to do that education for you. You’re coming into the conversation informed in ways of how this person might be triggered and might be speaking through their own trauma. I really think there’s just a responsibility to educate yourself. I think that’s the least you can do. 

I’ve always appreciated people who have said, ‘Is there someone else you would like to have join us for the conversation that would feel like a support or hold space for you? Are there supports that I can offer you after this conversation?’ In terms of self-care, I had a really kind journalist give me a gift certificate I could use for a massage or therapy session or a coffee, whatever. It’s just those things to let people know I see you, and I’m aware that this is hard for you in ways that I can’t experience. Those things have really helped me feel seen and safer than I would feel otherwise. These interviews can feel very transactional and extractive, and those things have helped me feel safer. 


Have you experienced being a part of a story that would have been better served by a Black reporter? 

I remember back in 2015, when we launched the #ChangeTheNameStapleton campaign, the white reporting on that was wildly out of touch in terms of questioning why we would care about this, and what does this have to do with anything, and who is this hurting. I remember the coverage being really out of touch, without the context of the legacy of the [Ku Klux Klan] in Denver and what it means to be confronted with that every day. There are so many different conversations we wanted to be having in those moments, really important, really relevant conversations. And it really boiled down to white feelings. These [conversations] were about us having to do the labor of managing their white feelings instead of having timely conversations, which was really unfortunate. 

In 2016, when we did the 135-hour-long vigil in Civic Center Park—we made that space for Black, Brown and Indigenous people. I remember white journalists not just centering white people, but centering themselves. I think they did understand why we didn’t want them present, why white people were being asked to give us that space. But, they acted like they didn’t understand. It felt, like, pretend offense at us asking to have our space respected, and asking to be able to share that space with people who look like us. Those were two, those were two really, clear moments for me where it was like, these just aren’t conversations I would be having with anyone else. 


What role does media play in causing harm to Black communities?

The public has upped the ante in terms of the role media plays in not just participation in and support of movements, but, the actual safety and wellbeing of the people at the center of these movements. It’s not just about causing harm to the person you’re interviewing, or causing harm to the community whose story you’re trying to tell at this point. We really have seen people reading stories and taking untruths and misrepresentations from stories. And we’ve seen violent acts directly follow. I think the role that media plays, whether it’s advancing movements for social change or setting these movements back, that’s certainly a really important conversation. But we’re seeing life and death consequences from media involvement. 

I just think the responsibility sits on the shoulders of journalists who want to be telling Black stories and want to be reporting from these movements. It’s just more important than ever to get this right. It’s important to take it seriously and honor the people in communities that you’re trying to access and represent. It’s really scary out there now, what people do after reading stories and I think it’s important that journalists really take that to heart. 




Tickets are on sale now for our panel discussion For vs About: Reporting for Black Communities. You can click here to purchase yours.


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