After A Year At Harvard, Columnist Is Challenged, Renewed And Ready For Conversation

By Dawn M. Turner
Chicago Tribune.


My two-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Mass., was simple. Barely 1,000 square feet, it was on the raised first floor of a courtyard building and had white walls, modest furniture and lovely hardwood floors. From my living room window, I could see a sliver of the Charles River.

When I opened the front door for the first time last August, I knew it was exactly what I needed and where I belonged.

People will tell you that a year away at Harvard University as a Nieman Foundation for Journalism fellow is transformative.

What that means depends on the fellow’s personal ground zero and how much she needs to transform.

This fellow arrived on campus pretty broken.

I was uncertain about my place in our seismically shifting world of journalism. I questioned whether my voice was being heard over the rants and bombast. I wondered what impact I was having on this city I love dearly.

On the personal front, I had decided to end a marriage that spanned more than two decades to a man who in many ways is a wonderful human being. (Hence, the name change.)

My year away was one of the greatest gifts of my life. (My daughter, born on Christmas Day, cuts her eyes at me when I say this. So, I emphasize, “one of.”)

I learned so much about my profession, my place in it and myself.

I spent the bulk of my class time at Harvard Law School and in nonfiction and fiction writing courses, including one in screenwriting.

I wrote like crazy. I finished a book proposal with several completed chapters and sent 85 pages to my literary agent. I completed two short stories. And a Hollywood producer is waiting to take a look at a screenplay I’m close to wrapping up.

At Walter Lippmann House, home of the Nieman Foundation, my fellow fellows and I met several times a week to listen to journalism industry experts and researchers, and to learn from campus rock stars who look at the world through a lens tilted upward and slightly off center.

Two of my favorite seminars were by a molecular biologist, who told us that, as a child, he marveled at watching tadpoles turn into frogs; and an art historian, who taught us “The Art of Looking.” That means you stare at a painting long enough, giving it your full attention, until you divine those things not immediately apparent.

This idea dovetails nicely with the notion of examining issues we think we know, and opening ourselves up to divergent and challenging viewpoints.

I learned that I love cycling, kayaking, dancing, though the verdict is still out regarding whether I have skills, and the hilarious NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” which ended its network television run in February.

So this and so much more was my year.

It helped me rediscover my voice and footing, and why I do what I do and want to continue doing it. Along the way, I made some deep and, I hope, lasting friendships with 23 other fellows and their families, including the Tribune’s Jason Grotto, also a 2014-15 Nieman.

Now I have come back to you. And, you’ll be reading more from me as my column will appear more frequently.

There’s a lot to talk about: the great challenges facing the Chicago Public Schools system, upcoming elections, Chicago’s unyielding problem with guns and violence, police officers acting with impunity.

The most recent issue of the foundation’s publication, Nieman Reports, has a series of insightful articles on race and reporting.

I contributed a piece on the role the media play in skewing perceptions of communities and people of color. You can’t turn on the television news, for example, without being bombarded with negative images of blacks, black men in particular.

It’s no wonder we all, police officers included, struggle to see beyond the stereotypes.

When I returned to Chicago from Boston, I was reminded of how alarmist, I call it Paul Revere-ian, our evening news is.

Although some stations do a better job than others, too often “what bleeds leads.
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One of the first things I noticed last year when I arrived in the Boston area, the land of Paul himself, was that the evening news rarely opened with stories of violence and mayhem. There wasn’t this drumbeat of negative images of blacks.

Boston has about a quarter of Chicago’s population. It has its share of violence. It has its own legacy of segregation and segregated communities. But the coverage is different. Stories of mayhem appear in the lineup. They just don’t seem to be front and center. They don’t yell, “The blacks are coming! The blacks are coming!”

We’ll talk more about that later. Much to be said and done.

For now, I’m channeling my inner Nina Simone. (By the way, I highly recommend the recently released documentary on the singer, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”)

As the High Priestess of Soul sang it, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day … and I’m feeling good.”

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