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Alt Press Course Turns Emerson Students into Advocates

Roger House had come up with the idea for this year’s final project in his History of Alternative Journalism class largely by walking around Boston.

“I visually saw two things,” said House, an associate professor. “One, just the growth and development of the city, new restaurants, new bistros, things of that sort. But also a lot of people just begging, just outright begging. Even around campus, people who are hungry doing little things like opening doors in exchange for a little change for the service.”

Those conflicting observations turned into a year-end project on food insecurity in Boston, which is being compiled and added to the Victory Stride website, a repository of information, discussion, and research on Afro-American social justice history.

“The hope is that students coming along afterwards who are interested in doing research on the issue of hunger in Boston can access the stories of students in this class and can use it as a source,” House said.

The purpose of the class is to teach the history of advocacy journalism and journals of dissent. For the hunger project, House’s 17 students each chose to report on a different aspect of food insecurity, or on a different method for addressing it.

In the tradition of the alternative press, many students didn’t just observe, they embedded themselves into the story.

Erin Kayata ’16, a Journalism major, volunteered at a local Panera Cares café and wrote about not just her experience, but also ways she thought the program could improve. 

Panera Cares is a nonprofit initiative of the Panera Bread chain that operates on a “pay-as-you-can model” and relies on subsidies from customers who can afford to pay the full retail value of the items. Those patrons who cannot afford to pay anything can earn a free meal voucher with one hour of café service per week, according to the company’s website.

“I learned [that] food insecurity is a very sweeping, all-encompassing problem. It’s not a problem that people sort of face once, but it’s part of a whole cycle,” Kayata said. “Also, on top of the food insecurity, there’s also a lot of different ways to tackle it, and a lot of different ways cities deal with it.”

Chris Gavin ’16, also a Journalism major, wrote about the Boston Bounty Bucks program run by the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients can get matching Bounty Bucks coupons when they use their SNAP benefits (food stamps) at participating farmers’ markets, which essentially double their buying power. The idea is to simultaneously encourage people on public assistance to eat healthily and support local farmers.

Gavin said he enjoyed studying a large-scale problem at the local level, and he liked being able to, as an advocate journalist, be part of the solution, rather than just an impassive observer.

“I was excited by it because there’s an opportunity to expand my ability as a writer and a journalist to take on a new format,” Gavin said. “You have certain freedoms in the alternative press that you don’t necessarily have in other forms of media. And the fact that [confronting food insecurity] is a cause that most of us can get behind, it definitely was an alluring avenue to go down.”

House said last year’s final project for the class centered on police relations in communities of color. He said he set out this year to tackle something a “little bit lighter.” But the topic he eventually landed on, hunger, turned out to be another complicated and urgent social justice problem, one he said most students weren’t as familiar with.

“I think it was a new topic, and a nuanced one,” House said. “Generally, when people think of hunger, they think of starvation, but I think the readings helped them to open their eyes a bit on the more nuanced aspects of food insecurity.”

So many journalism courses today focus on digital tools and how to use them to tell a story in an age when delivery method is often given as much weight as storytelling, House said. But journalism is “more than simple gadgetry,” he said.

“Journalism is also quality of reporting. It’s also passion for society. It’s also maintaining the tradition of standing up for the little guy and marginalized communities,” House said. “Without that, you have a journalism of little value to society.”

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