Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, left, and Ariel Allman, right, in conversation. Photo: Screenshot provided by Ariel Allman
Public Narrative’s mission is to bridge gaps between communities, nonprofits, and media makers that help shift existing and harmful narratives and tell better and more complete stories. We do this through workshops and trainings, but also through conversation and connection.
As part of our Narrative Change Community Newsletter, we spotlight different folks and organizations that move our city’s narratives forward. We help you get to know better some of your neighbors — including media makers that cover issues and topics that matter to you.
Meet Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, a reporter at the Race, Class and Communities desk at Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ 91.5 FM.
Esther refers to herself as an “adoptee” of Chicago, where she has lived for the past 25 years. Having immigrated to the United States at nine, Esther grew up in Northern Virginia and found a love for journalism during middle and high school. She attended college in Chicago, where she continues to work and live. Esther hopes to further connections with the community and tell honest stories that reflect the people she serves.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Public Narrative: So, how did you get started in journalism? Did you start here in Chicago or somewhere else?
Esther Yoon-Jin Kang: My family immigrated to the United States when I was nine. I was in fourth grade. A couple of years after I learned enough English, my first foray into newspapers was actually writing — this is kind of embarrassing — a horoscope for my middle school newsletter in northern Virginia.
After that, I got really into journalism in high school. I had an amazing journalism teacher with whom I’m still in touch, and by sophomore year I was like, “Oh yeah, this is what I want to study in college.” Ironically though, when I got to college, I lost any ambition whatsoever, and I just goofed off most of the time there.
My first full-time job was as a web producer at the Tribune Company, which at the time owned a bunch of big papers [such as] the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, the Orlando Sentinel and News Day. I had been offered some newspaper reporting jobs in other places in the country, but I didn’t want to leave Chicago at that point. I really wanted to stay here. And these jobs [I was offered] also paid very little, and as a child of immigrants, I couldn’t really take on such low-paying work because I had a lot of loans, bills and [other] obligations.
So I went into this digital journalism world which was gearing up in the early 2000s. And in making my foray into journalism first on the web, I learned a lot of skills, and I learned a lot of general adaptivity skills, which helped me in my transition to radio. I never had a radio background, but all those web skills helped me get comfortable with software and stuff like that.
And then, after my web producer gig, I was the web editor at Chicago Magazine. So then, I did a very brief stint in communications, but I immediately ran back to journalism because I was just horrible at communications, and I was horrible at PR. It wasn’t my cup of tea; I don’t think it will ever be.
Yeah, that’s my journalism journey, and then, of course, I got hired [at WBEZ] almost four years ago now.
PN: You work for WBEZ, an affiliate with NPR. Are you mainly focusing on the article aspect, or are you focusing more on the radio [work]?
EYJK: Yes, WBEZ is the local Chicago affiliate for NPR, and I do on-air stories, and then some of them become web stories. Sometimes I do web-only with maybe a quick spot [on the radio], which is a 30 to 45-second quick news item. So it’s like a news brief in radio form.
But I also do long-form narratives, like feature stories. Are you a listener?
PN: I’m originally from Wisconsin, so I listened to the NPR station up there.
EYJK: Yeah, so you know how it is: The reporter goes somewhere and reports on whatever is happening. So I do that on air and also write stories for the web.
PN: So, what does it mean to be a journalist in and for Chicago to you, and what do you think is the most important thing when you’re writing your stories?
EYJK: Is it OK if I separate those questions?
PN: Of course.
EYJK: So I came to the Chicago area in 1998 for college and never left. I moved to the city right after I graduated [college and grad school]. And [in Chicago,] there are people who are born and raised here, love the city and are very proud. People like my colleague and friend Natalie Moore at WBEZ, represent Chicago well.
Then there are people [like myself] who are adopted — I call myself an adoptee [of Chicago], who are lucky enough to be grafted into the family. I’ve been in this area for a quarter of a century, and I’ve been a Chicagoan for 20 years. I got married here. I had a child here. I’ll probably die here, you know — like that’s very, very likely.
Ta-Nehisi Coates once tweeted, back when he had Twitter, that Chicago is the most beautiful city in America. I know he’s not talking about downtown, the Loop, and the shiny sort of touristy stuff. Maybe he is including those things, but he’s also talking about the history, the people, the South Side, the West Side, the smells, the food, the spirit, the pride that people have — all of that.
Chicago has got problems, but I still feel like I can’t imagine loving another town in the same way.
So what does it mean to be a journalist here? To be able to cover this town as a journalist and tell the stories of its people for the residents and their children and grandchildren? It’s a real honor, a privilege, and it feels thrilling on many days. There are boring days, sure, but I’m really grateful and thankful.
It’s funny because writing my stories is not [about] the writing itself — it’s capturing the sound for my audio stories or even taking photographs. All of that is the necessary evil that I have to do to get the story out.
My favorite thing is listening to people’s stories.
I love hearing people’s perspectives. I love connecting. I love engaging with them. And I love to ask questions and respond to them like a human, not a robot, and sometimes push back when necessary, especially to people with more power.
But all of that falls under the umbrella of listening to people’s stories, talking to them and having conversations. That’s my favorite part, more than writing and the production aspects. It’s also related to this listening part, but [also] having a posture of curiosity and having humility and wanting to learn is one of the most important things. I know so little about anything. And I also have a bad memory, so I forget what I’ve already learned. I’m not embarrassed to admit that. And I think admitting ignorance is really healthy, or at least I hope it’s healthy.
PN: We’ve talked a lot about Chicago, but where do you see your role in the communities you serve as a journalist? And do you feel like a community member when you go out and talk with people you’re writing or doing a radio show about?
EYJK: You use the word ‘serve,’ and I think that’s the keyword. There are so many ways to go into a community and exploit people and their stories because there’s such bad news. [Journalists can] exploit their pain, contributing to the perpetual exploitation of these communities by the rest of society.
As a journalist, I don’t want to partake in that, so I have to take good care of their stories. I need to tell stories that have not been told and shed light on what the community might need. In some ways, I need to root for the community and the flourishing of these communities. If you are going in and covering something and you immediately leave and don’t have any care for what happens to the community after, that is deeply, deeply problematic.
Do I do this well for every story? No, absolutely not. But that’s what I hope and strive for. It’s harder and harder to do that, especially given the way that media is headed. There’s so much emphasis on being on the news cycle hamster wheel. And there are such short attention spans and so much content out there trying to grab eyes and ears.
I’m trying to balance being relevant and on the news cycle and making it my priority to serve communities.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang. Provided.
As for whether I’m a [community] member, I would say that I am mostly a member of my community through the church I belong to on the south side. It’s close to where my family and I live, so it’s more tied to geography. It’s more old school, which I think makes sense because I’m not hip with the times, and I’m not on the internet much for community. I’m terrified of social media, so in any case, my family and I are really involved in the work our church does, especially through a nonprofit organization that [our church] founded. It has restorative justice programming and a community garden that provides produce to neighbors. We host back-to-school fun-fair, among other initiatives. I love spending time with my community, and I volunteer and am grateful for that.
To a lesser extent, I’m a member of other communities, like the community of journalism, of Asian Americans, but I call myself a very low-capacity person. If I had too much on my plate, I could not handle it. So I want to be more involved in other communities, but right now, I’m barely surviving, like having a job, taking care of my family and things like that.
PN: It’s not easy. As a woman, I empathize, and the world doesn’t make it easy to balance all of it.
EYJK: Absolutely not. And I’m lucky. I consider myself very fortunate because I have a very supportive husband. I have a community around me that helps whenever I need it. But I also don’t have family around to help; they’re scattered throughout the country. So it’s tough, and maybe when my kid’s off to college, I’ll be a better community member overall.
PN: At Public Narrative, we’re very focused on changing narratives around Chicagoans and the communities in the media. Chicago can get a very bad rep, and it can be a target for many mainstream media sources. So when you hear the phrase “narrative change,” what does that mean to you?
EYJK: To me, narrative change doesn’t mean doing something new or pivoting. It’s really [about] doing your job better. It’s providing a fuller, more accurate picture of the communities we cover. I feel like the media have been flattening Black communities, Latino communities, Asian American communities, and every other community for centuries. Like using stereotypes and tropes, only telling certain stories about each of those communities.
So it’s not about changing course when we’re talking about narrative change. It’s about doing your job better. Don’t do it the same way you’ve always been doing it. It feels like a big deal, like a pivot, but that’s only because of the long history of incomplete portrayals of these communities in the media. I appreciate the work that you [at Public Narrative] do, and it’s really important right now.
In a very silly and fun way, a couple of colleagues at WBEZ and I are trying to do that. We’re trying to contribute to narrative change in a very non-public radio way. We have a new podcast coming out that celebrates Asians in pop culture. We pitched it to highlight the accomplishments and the stories of Asian trailblazers in American pop culture, but also as an antidote to some really sad news and all the depressing stuff we read about. It’s a way to say, “Hey, it’s not all sad, it’s not all bad news, we’ve got a lot to celebrate. We’ve got a lot to contribute, and here are some folks who were doing that.”
Another thought about narrative change, this goes without saying, but narrative change requires bringing in more voices from the communities that we cover. I personally know the benefits of being Asian American when I cover stories pertaining to our community. Old school journalism might say, ‘Oh, if you’re part of the community, you can’t cover it because you’re too close to the subject matter.’ Well, I think often it’s the color of my skin, a language skill that I have, a posture, or even knowing a cultural norm that provides me with more insight — sometimes more access. It results in a better, more accurate story about that community.
I find it important to bring in more voices in journalism from the communities we cover.
PN: I’m learning more about journalism, and, interestingly, old-school journalism had that mindset that you need to separate yourself [from the community] to tell the news. I feel it’s contradictory because how are you actually supposed to honestly and accurately report if you’re not invested?
EYJK: Well, you can talk to some old-school journalism professors about that, and it’s tricky because I think a lot of the old guard is so used to doing things from a predominantly white perspective. That’s not accurate, and when you do that, you miss out on a lot of truth and nuances. I hope that we’re headed in a better direction. But I think it’s tough to enact that change in a lot of newsrooms. It’s a battle, for sure.
PN: I have a very systemic mindset when it comes to multiple aspects of our society, and I feel that is very applicable to journalism. As you said, [journalism] came from a mostly white mindset and trying to break down how deep it runs, I don’t think people realize it’s a long process, but I think that we see those glimmers of hope.
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do these spotlights. We see some change, progress made and voices uplifted that should have been uplifted long ago.
EYJK: Yeah, and I’m grateful because here at WBEZ, I’ve worked under two Black editors who just are incredible. One of whom was my first editor here at WBEZ, Alden Loury, and now I’m working under an interim editor, my colleague Natalie. They have encouraged me to cover these stories and tell them from my perspective.
I’m not trying to bad-mouth anybody because every newsroom in America has a long way to go. But there are definitely wonderful editors — editors advocating for reporters of color, and reporters of color also stepped up saying, “This is why I can make this story better because I am part of the community.”
I certainly hope that we’re headed in that direction.
Friday, Feb. 17, 2023: This story has been updated since its original publication. In reference to her editors in transition at WBEZ, we’ve added the name of her former editor Alden Loury at Kang’s request.
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