Sylvia Snowden, 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 Sylvia Snowden, host of “Political Forum with Sylvia Snowden” on CAN TV.
Born and bred in Chicago, the now news anchor was a teenager when she decided journalism would be her career of choice and had all the signs within that proved she had what it took to succeed. Her grandmother found ways to show Sylvia knew it too.
Sylvia shares with Public Narrative intern Ariel Allman how she treats her storytelling practice as a way to respect the city she grew up in and unconditionally loves. And if you ask her how that’s been going, she has a vocal audience that affirms she’s on the right path.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Public Narrative: So how did you get started in journalism?
Sylvia Snowden: [It was] so random. I was always the kid who was kind of like your local town crier. Like before the internet was a thing, Morgan Park High School had me. If there was a fight, I would tell you about it. If there was good gossip, I want to get it and get it to you first. And I was wondering, at 13 or 14, what I could do with my life. High school was approaching and I had a friend say to me, “Did you know that television anchors make like $90,000?” And I was like, whoa. That sounded like big money. And I said, “You know what? I like to talk, I write relatively well and I like $90,000. Maybe this is for me.” And that was kind of the carrot that was dangled in front of my face and got me hooked on the idea of trying journalism as a career. I started writing for a community paper when I was 16, I just got hooked. It evolved from a random conversation on a school bus with a friend about what anchors made and I just – it’s like a light bulb and I was like, I could do that.
PN: That’s so special. That’s awesome that it started that early for you.
SS: Yeah, I had to find something to do with my desire to just let everybody know what was happening.
PN: Kind of going along with that — did you have anybody you look up to in the journalism community here in Chicago?
SS: You know, I was always the sort of person who said I was going to blaze my own trail and I was going to forge my own path. So it was important that I be me. Growing up, my grandmother would always save the newspaper columns of Mary Mitchell and Dawn Turner Trice for me to read. Women like that, who told it how it was as they saw it, spoke their truth unapologetically through the lens of a woman of color reporting on Chicago. I think they’re definitely traces of that in what it is that I do. But you know, I think that I always committed to being me, but if you talk about people who I read and who I studied very early on, my grandmother hooked up with those two.
PN: Oh, that’s so special. That’s awesome that your grandma was so supportive and brought in those things for you to do.
SS: Yeah. And I don’t even know what she [was thinking] because this was probably even before I had decided in my mind at 13. She was probably saving these columns back when I was eight or nine, so I don’t even know if she knew what she was doing, sort of, planting that seed, but she saved those columns every single week. And I remember the very first time I sat on the panel with Mary Mitchell and she asked me a question. I started bawling, I was like, “My grandma used to save your columns, I can’t believe I’m sitting next to you.” Very true story.
PN: She knew. She had that sixth sense. So, what does it mean to be a journalist here in Chicago for you? What is the most important thing to you when you write your stories for Chicago?
SS: I’m Chicago born and raised — Chicago through and through. To know Chicago is really to love Chicago. In my mind, if you don’t love Chicago, you simply don’t know Chicago because I don’t understand how you could know Chicago and not love it. You can love things and you can love people and still be open to the idea that things could be better, that things aren’t perfect. There are things that could be improved — and really interrogate those things. But with that, [do not] not diminish the love that you have for that person or that thing. And that’s sort of how I think about Chicago when I tell my stories. I think it’s always through a lens of “listen, I love this city,” and I hope that’s what people take away from the stories that I tell. I love the city; I love the South Side. I love being from here. I love the people here. And I think that if you’re writing or if you’re reporting on Chicago with love, that kind of makes all the difference.
Sylvia Snowden. Provided.
PN: I was gonna say, having watched part of your show, I could see you embody the pride that is Chicago and I can tell that you’re so passionate and so excited to get these stories out and let people know the real news. And it’s not covered up by bureaucracy and political stuff and it’s really inspiring to see you do your work.
SS: Well thank you. I think that’s important though to really be connected to the people in the neighborhoods and talk about the issues that matter to them, especially the people in the issues that oftentimes don’t get reported in the media. So if you can do that work, I think you’ve done a service.
PN: Going along with that, where do you see your role in the communities that you serve as a journalist? Do you feel like a community member?
SS: I think it is a privilege to have a platform, to have a television show [and] to have a column. That’s a privilege that not everybody has. And I really see my role in the community as the person who is responsible for speaking up for the people who oftentimes don’t have a voice. To tell stories of the people who oftentimes don’t have their stories told. I feel like if I can get out there and tell stories with the vantage point of those people in mind, I have done my job and I’ve done it well. I think that’s really my role to use the skills that I have to not even advocate, but to give voice to those concerns and to speak to people who may have those concerns.
PN: Yeah, because it’s so easy in such a big city [for stories to] get muddled up and the voices to get dampened.
SS: Yeah, even if you go to journalism school. I went to Mizzou (University of Missouri). I went to one of the best journalism schools one could possibly attend, but the techniques [taught] are to get the story quickly, get it out and move on to the next thing — not necessarily interrogate all the layers and all the players and all the pieces. And I think that you have to do that to make sure that you have considered the vantage point of everybody involved in the story and what everyone in the community needs to know about an issue.
PN: Right? It seems so contradictory. I’m a psychology student at Adler University. But coming into this world of journalism, I find it so interesting that journalism schools wouldn’t encourage building connections. You know, uncovering the deeper stuff, looking at the root of the problem and not just cranking out stories like dollar bills.
SS: One of the challenges, I would say definitely is the industry, as you move towards — we talk about this all the time in media — more of a profit model, the model has made it more difficult for people to really get in communities and know the communities. And the other thing about journalists and journalism is that oftentimes, to get a promotion, you have to move to a new city. I mean Chicago is a number three market. So you may start in market number 300 which is probably someplace way far away. So it can be difficult if you’re not from a place to really make those connections and make those strongholds and to get to know a place. So I feel like an advantage that I have is sort of being from here and knowing the city and understanding the city in a different way. So when I’m telling a story, I do have a slight advantage of being able to tell it with a little more nuance.
PN: Yeah, you have that strong base to kind of hold you up to be able to like make those connections.
SS: I think that they do teach us that in journalism school to try to connect with the subject, try to connect with the story, try to connect with the people and so I think that people do attempt to do it. But it can be tough if you’re not from a place or if you’ve heard things about a place. [You may hear] “don’t go to this side of town” or you’re relying on Google Maps to tell you what the neighborhoods are instead of knowing where they are in the boundaries. So those sorts of things I think can make all the difference.
PN: Gives you an advantage in the field basically.
SS: Yeah, and you can do that work, but it can get tricky.
PN: In what way can it get tricky?
SS: Connecting with people and learning and understanding neighborhoods is its own skill set outside of getting the story because oftentimes the story is the people and the people have the stories, but they have to feel like they can trust you with their story in order for it to really be told. And I think that learning how to get people to trust you with their story and how to immerse yourself in a community that you may not be from can be difficult if that’s not a background that you have. So that’s been kind of another element of my job that I’ve really tried to refine over time, you know, making a connection, making people feel comfortable.
I’m always surprised on “Political Form” when politicians just sit down and just start saying things. You would be surprised when people feel like they can trust you with what they have to say — the ways in which they will open up. But that can be tricky because a lot of folks are not, especially in a big city like this, that trusting.
PN: Right and it’s understandable, you know, there are weird people out there nowadays.
SS: … Or people who will chop your words or twist your words, or try to get that money soundbite that they can put on their reel and move on to the next big city. You have to weigh all of that before you sit down with a journalist. So I get that, I understand.
PN: You mentioned your show “Political Forum.” I was wondering if you could talk about what inspired you to create the show.
SS: So I actually didn’t create “Political Forum.”
“Political Forum” was a long-running CAN TV show that we’ve been doing for about, maybe, 25 years now. I think that really exemplifies commitment to the community. The show started as a live call-in show where representatives would come in and sit down and talk about their wards and their districts and they’d be able to take calls from constituents through the program. And back in the day, because I’ve worked CAN TV since I was probably about your age. I started here at 23, but I answered phones on “Political Forum.” I sort of stayed in the background for eight years just answering phones and my manager at the time left, but she trained me on how to sort of book the show.
So when I got a new manager, occasionally I would help him book the show and I would still answer phones. They figured out I had a journalism background, so I helped him produce the show, do some of the research and some of the question writing. And then he got so busy that I looked up and I was completely producing the show and just handing the questions to the host and the politicians saying, “Here’s what you’re going to ask and this is what we’ll do.” And the questions [were] always very friendly, safe, fun questions. [For example,] “What’s your favorite thing in your district? Do you have any exciting things happening in the ward?”
And three things happened. The first was that the show was being hosted by CAN TV board members who were volunteers. And we began to run low on volunteers who actually wanted to host a show. So our then-executive director called me in and said, “Hey, we’re running low on hosts and you have this journalism degree. Would you mind maybe filling in from time to time?” So that was how I ended up on camera as opposed to behind the scenes.
The next thing that happened was this former executive director said, “You know, I really want to make the show less safe, [not ask] ‘tell me what’s happening in your ward’ and really get it to cover some of the more hard-hitting issues in the community and open the show up.” So I said, “OK, I will try to make it a little more newsy, hot, hard-hitting news.”
The third big thing that happened was the pandemic. We had to shut down because we were a community space. We could see our station being a place that was, sort of a magnet for a spread if you will. They were not allowing a lot of people into the building at that point in time, but there was so much stuff happening. So I ended up coming in what I thought would just be once or twice to give pandemic updates. Then we had the riots and the looting and fighting over the statues; and the virus just continued to spread and do damage in communities, especially communities of color.
I found myself during this restricted time coming in, and almost weekly, doing these news shows. And I kind of looked up when the dust had settled and the pandemic was over and it was kind of my show at that point. It was a hard-hitting news show reflective of what was happening in communities and neighborhoods and then we got this awesome new executive director back in April last year who said, “Hey, I see what you’re doing. I have a vision for this station and I have a vision for “Political Forum” in particular and I want it to be “Political Forum with Sylvia Snowden.” So it’s solidly your show every single week.”
That’s the very random evolution of “Political Forum” and me.
PN: It’s so cool, the progression. You’ve been there every step of the process, starting from the groundwork all the way to being at the forefront of the show. So you really know it inside and out at this point.
PN: But I feel that must give you a really big advantage when communicating your stories because you know what all goes into it. So you can create an environment where it all flows and works together and it gets like the good information out there.
SS: Yeah, I think that that’s really why people like the show and why the show has connected with people. Especially during election season, I found that folks are looking for places that are providing them with information again, that they can trust. Being from the city, I understand how important it is that you can find an unfiltered, trustworthy news source. So because I have been here from the beginning and understand what I think our viewers need. And because I have, again, the support of an awesome executive director who wants to make sure that that’s getting out there. I really have a lot of room to make the show what it is the community wants and what it really needs. Having that space and understanding the flow and the pace and what our viewers are looking for, I think has made all the difference.
PN: What would you say is the biggest impact that this show has had on the community of Chicago?
SS: When people say, “I watched “Political Forum” and was on the fence about getting vaccinated, but after the show, I was able to make an informed decision about what I wanted to do,” that makes me feel like the show has done its job. Or “I love what you’ve done with your election series, you’re sitting down with candidates and asking them the questions that I really want to know.” I know that a lot of times, and this is really what I think maybe the biggest thing that the show does is [when people tell me] “you make politics simple enough for me to understand.”
And I feel so many times people on the margins, in marginalized communities, are left out of that space and it’s these sort of upper-class talking heads bloviating about these issues that a lot of people don’t understand. But I can take those issues from up in the sky and bring them down.
I believe it was Kerry Washington who said that politics is one of those things where even if you’re not thinking about it, it’s thinking about you or something to that effect. And I feel that in marginalized communities, politics is thinking about you and they have some ideas on what’s going to happen. So it’s important that you understand what it’s thinking, and if you don’t agree with the thoughts, [understand] what you can do.
If I can help people understand these highline issues — make it so they can feel they are part of the political process, or they can know what’s happening, or they can know how what’s happening applies to them or why the things in their neighborhood are the way that they are and what they can do to change those things — that’s when I feel “Political Forum” has done its most important work. Making it so that people understand what’s happening. They feel ownership in what’s happening and they can make informed decisions based on the information they receive from the show.
If I’ve done that, I’ve done my job.
PN: It seems like you’re encouraging the development of personal self-advocacy — being aware and being informed of what’s going on so that you can make those educated decisions.
SS: Yeah, or even understanding how political decisions are impacting your life.
I did a story relatively recently with a journalist from the Illinois Answers Project and she talked about her work with security cameras and parks. And she said that in parks, in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, where there wasn’t a ton of crime, if they requested security cameras the Park District is typically like, “OK.” But people in poorer Black or brown neighborhoods whose parks actually had crime — if they requested cameras, the Park District was like, “No.”
These are political decisions that are being made and they are impacting you whether you know that or not. And if you’re dissatisfied with that, there are folks you can call, there are things you can do to advocate, but you have to know what’s happening and how it’s impacting you and that these are in fact political decisions that have been made about your community in your neighborhood and your safety. That’s one example to help people better understand and make that connection.
PN: At Public Narrative, we focus on changing narratives around Chicago and its communities in the media. I’m sure you’re very aware of the stereotypes that are out there regarding Chicago. And we really want to be a part of that change, to tell the true story of Chicago and make sure that the voices of the people are actually heard. So, when you hear the phrase “narrative change,” what would you say that means to you?
SS: Well, first of all, I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity to say this. I admire Public Narrative so much and the work that Public Narrative does, and the way that they really see journalism as a tool for change, and really the engine that can drive change. I think that’s so admirable and so really aligned with my feelings about the industry, it’s just an honor to be here and to be featured.
I think that the narrative about Chicago really kind of drives me nuts because, and I say this all the time, you have a very … how can I say this politely? We have a very instant, hot take, flash-in-the-pan news cycle. And the hot take, whether it’s true or not, is that “Chicago is the murder capital,” “Chicago is a terrible place,” “The South Side and the West Side are the badlands.” And none of that is true. And I don’t just say that because I love Chicago. I say that because the data says that that is not true. And I think that what journalists have to do to dismantle that information is firstly go into these communities that you have been told are awful places, where nothing good could possibly ever come, and actually talk to people and tell the good. And not just find the good, but tell the truth.
And I think my connection to this work is making sure that people are truly committed to telling the whole truth and examining as many layers as possible, which I think is a cool thing about “Political Forum.” It’s not a two-minute soundbite. It’s a 30-minute conversation.
But I think that’s really the most important thing that journalists can do, to get back into the neighborhoods, back into connecting with people in these communities, hearing their stories. There are stories there that would absolutely blow your mind. There are stories that still blow me away every single day. The truth about the communities, I think when that is told, that is when the narrative begins to shift., But we have to commit to doing that work and not just, “Hey, I have to get in and have to get out. I have a deadline and this is what we’re gonna have to do,” … we also have to check our own biases.
One thing I came to understand coming into this work is that even though journalism is supposed to be an unbiased industry, we all come in with our own lenses and our own vantage points and our own perspectives. If we don’t check that to figure out how that is coloring the stories that we’re telling, especially if we’re reporting on communities that are not our own, and how we see the people in those neighborhoods, then we have the potential to do a great deal of harm.
I watch the news sometimes, having a journalism background, and hear and see the way that stories have been colored by the storytellers and perhaps by the news directors, who may not have a real connection to the West Side or the South Side or any number of neighborhoods. So I think that’s really important to acknowledge our own blind spots in this process and be willing to learn, grow and be open to what we may find as we tell these stories and do this work.
PN: I mean louder for the people in the back. It’s so interesting to me because as a doctoral student, we are taught the very same things. Every person is going to come into that room with a set of biases and it is so critically important that before you even step foot in the room with a client you check yourself and you get your s*** together, to put it bluntly.
It’s really cool to see all these connections between journalism and psychology and you would think they’re such different fields but there really is a lot of overlap.
SS: I was a sociology minor in school and I mean, obviously, sociology is more macro than psychology is, but I think that sort of understanding why society functions the way that it functions and then juxtaposing that against the news and what people are made to understand about society and made to understand about communities and neighborhoods and people — it’s very easy to understand then why in many instances society functions the way that it does. We have a very great responsibility as storytellers to make sure that we have done our due diligence and that we’re making people understand communities and neighborhoods. I think it’s of paramount importance.
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