Amethyst J. Davis, 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 some of your neighbors better — including media makers covering issues and topics that matter to you.
Meet Amethyst J. Davis, founder of Harvey World Herald.
Davis was born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, a Chicagoland south suburb, which she hails as the “arts capital of the south suburbs.” Her journey into journalism began when she returned home during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic while undergoing a lackluster stint in the private higher education sector.
In this spotlight, Davis shares with Public Narrative intern Ariel Allman her call to start the only traditional newsroom in Harvey, and her advice for young journalists looking to start their careers. She also calls for continued advocacy for the people in Harvey, as they deserve to have their voices amplified and their truth told unfiltered.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Public Narrative: So, how did you get started in journalism?
Amethyst J. Davis: I have a nontraditional background.
I used to do, in college, policy research — [I was] into policing policy and strategy specifically, and I wanted to work in police oversight. I was initially going to go work for New York City doing this work because I was living up there at the time, coming out of college. I worked in administration at NYU, my alma mater, simply because they offered me more money. I was a broke college student from Harvey, and $20,000 is a very big salary difference.
So I took the private sector job at my college alma mater, which I really didn’t want. But, you know, being from 152nd in Loomis in Harvey, Illinois, $20,000 was a [significant] salary gap for me. So I chose to stay in New York City to work in higher education. But, to be honest, I was miserable, and that’s not a shot at higher education. That’s just not what I intended to do after college.
I needed spontaneity.
I was sitting behind a desk all day, and every day was the same.
I came in, I knew exactly what I would do every day, and I was doing the same thing every day, day in and day out.
I remember, six or so months into working this job, there’s this murmur about a virus.
So now we’re in early 2020 — there’s this murmur about a virus, and the university was preparing contingency plans. Our office was preparing contingency plans in case we had to go remote. The students were no longer coming into the university at this point. And my manager was like because no students are coming in, you all can wear jeans every day, and jeans were usually relegated to Fridays. And I’ll never forget: It was a Thursday, and I remember sitting in my chair reading that email damn near on the verge of tears because the most exciting thing about my job is that I wear jeans every day. This is not what I wanted for myself coming out of school. And no sooner do I have those thoughts, and I’m sitting there trying not to crack, and we get another email from the university. “If you were a non-essential worker, beginning the next day, Friday, you were to start working from home.”
I never felt so relieved in my life, and I never felt so happy to be called non-essential. But, eventually, I felt bad because it was not lost on me that there was an economic privilege in being able to do remote work, and people were dying.
I remember doing the remote work, and while I felt relieved that I didn’t have to put my costume on every day and go into the office and fake the water cooler talk, I had two roommates; we barely talked, barely saw each other living under the same roof because I was reclusive.
So I was, effectively, really lonely and bored and had to find some way to get through quarantine. So I decided to get back into reading and writing. And I just so happened to be at my job assigned to the social media team in my department, helping with the social strategy. I did not use social media at the time. I hadn’t been on Facebook in years. I didn’t have Instagram and hadn’t been on Twitter in six or seven years. So I had no clue what the hell was going on with the social media world. So I was doing a whole bunch of online research to get more information about it, and I stumbled into a journalism and media rabbit hole. I found my way into these webinars about journalism, investigative reporting, and all this other stuff. And I was like, “Damn, I wanna do this like this is hot. I like this.” That’s when I decided I was going to pivot. I’m going to go into journalism.
Whenever you don’t know what you want to do, you decide to get a graduate degree. So initially, I was like, “OK, this is a perfect time,” and [I] was going to apply to grad school, and then I was like, “Nah f*** that shit, I’m gonna do this.” You need the experience to get into journalism and journalism to [gain] experience. I mean, you need experience to get opportunities, opportunities to get experience. So I applied to all these unpaid part-time internships and got rejected from every last one of them, which I knew would happen. I didn’t have a background, but then I found Documenters at City Bureau in Chicago, where they pay and train you to go to public meetings. So from there, it just kind of took off.
So how I got into journalism was a combination of everyday needs to be different. Every day just has to be; it can’t be the same.
It is the case now where no two days for me are the same. Like yesterday, I spent my day largely working on edits for our freelance staff. Today I’m working on edits and also doing some fact-checking. I’m also working on campaign finance research and going to do a shot list for our photo file directory. And in the midst of that [I’m] making my way to my doctor’s appointment, my granny’s house, hopping on the phone for two meetings and then going to the clerk’s office to wrangle information from them about why they may not be taking meeting minutes for the city’s committee meetings. So, no two days are the same and I like this. It’s way more stressful, but no two days are the same. I can dig it.
PN: Yeah. It seems like I talked to so many people [and] every person I’ve talked to has just fallen into journalism. They may have done something in high school, but they moved away from it; then they find their way back, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to them. It’s so funny that so many people share that same experience.
PN: So you founded the Harvey World Herald. What inspired you to create that organization?
AJD: Yeah. So the summer of 2020, we couldn’t travel much, but we were still encouraged to take vacation days. So I took a week and came back to Illinois. And I was staying downtown on, I think, Washington [Street]. Bucket boys weren’t out there. The State Street preacher man wasn’t telling people they were going to hell. Downtown had no life and it was wild. I had never seen downtown like that in my entire life. At that point, at 23 years old, I [had] never seen it. And when I was living in New York City and I had never seen Times Square so still.
Then when I got here [in Illinois] on that vacation, I got on the train and went out to Harvey, my hometown, and when I got off the train, everything looked the same. It was wild. I mean, there were still people sprawled out in the middle of the street, potholes, street lights don’t work [in] downtown Harvey. Our street lights are out, they just don’t work. And then, I got to the street I grew up on, 152nd and Loomis where my grandparent’s house is, and outside the house, there was this huge pothole on the corner. It was so big, you could sit in it, I could sit in it that’s how big it was. And it was still there and I almost sprained my ankle coming around the corner trying to walk up the street. And you still have buildings abandoned.
COVID-19 changed the whole world and it brought in so much despair, and for Harvey, that’s just business as usual. I mean, it just hadn’t changed. Realistically, I also knew if it was bad before because it was, it was suddenly worse because of the economic fallout of COVID.
So I remember going back to the hotel later on that night trying to do some digging into the latest on what was happening in the community because when I was away in New York, I would hear things every now and then on social media. I was trying to get more information about stuff that was happening in the community and I had the hardest time. I have done policy research, I work in a higher education administration and much of my job at that time included being able to think on my feet, being able to do quick research; and I couldn’t find anything. And at that point, I was also pivoting into journalism. So I was building up that skill set, and I’m like, “If I can’t find anything, I know people in Harvey are having a much worse time than me.” So there was this empathy.
When I got back to New York and I was like, “Man, Harvey, we just need our own stuff. We need our own news.” And the light bulb went off: I’m gonna build it. I was like, “We need our own news, and I’m gonna build it.” Didn’t know how to do it. I had no journalism — no business background. I didn’t know how to start a business or a company. But I’m going to do it.
And so the Harvey World Herald is one of those news outlets that launched during the earliest days of COVID-19 in the sense of the vision and the thought process. COVID was a very big reason why that light bulb went off.
I came home between October 2020 and May 2021, staying with my grandparents. COVID was a light bulb during that period and the affirmation that this needed to happen because when I came back, I was also starting to sit through problems that existed in Harvey before COVID — political corruption, people not knowing about the different resources available to them, people not talking about policy.
One of the biggest issues I caught during that period was these Facebook pages online where people just spread misinformation and disinformation about stuff happening in Harvey, you could flippantly tell it was either biased, wrong, or it was half-informed. So COVID was the light bulb, but the extent to which Harvey has really just been put through political corruption through structural disinvestment and histories of racial and economic segregation in the South suburbs that we are not talking about or addressing at all — be it the Chicago media flippantly maligning, disrespecting, dehumanizing the community, and engaging consistently in morally bankrupt practices. So, those pre-existing issues were the affirmation for me that we needed our own s*** built by us, for us, and with us.
PN: COVID was a wake-up call for a lot of people. What does being a journalist in and for Harvey mean to you, and what is the most important thing to you when you write your stories?
People in Harvey are really fed up and tired. Someone flat-out told me “I wanna know what happens in Harvey, but I wanna know it without the drama.”
People are just fed up with constantly having these political agendas being met with unkept promises or being let down. People are over-promising and under-delivering. Those types of events, I’ve now realized more than ever, have really traumatized people in Harvey. I think there’s trauma behind political corruption. I think there’s psychological damage behind constantly seeing yourself marketed as subpar or inferior through media. And I think in serving Harvey, there is empathy. I always say we were building a newsroom by, for, and with the community.
I think there’s a deep empathy that drives a lot of the work that we do at the Harvey World Herald. And I think it drives the work we don’t do at the Harvey World Herald. We do not post mug shots. We do not issue political endorsements. We don’t take money from Super PACs, and we don’t lobby.
I’ll be the first to tell you that journalism is advocacy, and getting up and saying that we need to keep people informed is advocacy for a more informed populace. Holding people in power accountable for their actions is advocacy for those not in power.
I’ll be the first to tell you journalism is advocacy out of the gate. But [again] we don’t lobby.
I think that is rooted in empathy. I think it’s rooted in understanding because Harvey did not have a local news outlet for so long. The silver lining was that we could build one and learn from other people’s mistakes. And I think that is what I’m trying to be so attentive to in the direction and the leadership I try to apply.
And how we move at the Harvey World Herald is being very uncomfortably honest and telling people, [for example], I know for a fact, we’re not the ones who told you that because Harvey Police Department isn’t talking to the media, that we’re not going to write stories about gun violence in Harvey. I know that wasn’t us. I know somebody at a TV news station in Chicago did it to you. It wasn’t us, but I know that there’s harm, and now that we’re here, we need to work on repairing that harm even if we weren’t responsible for it. Again, this goes back to the trauma and emotional pain behind being maligned by the media, policy, and politicians.
So there’s a deep empathy that drives the work that we do with the Harvey World Herald. There’s a huge commitment to being very uncomfortably honest about the mistakes others have made. And it also means being uncomfortably honest about the mistakes that we’ve made. I’ll cop to it that just this week, we had a headline go out that someone said, “You know what, this is kind of misleading,” and I look back at it, and I bit the bullet as the person who wrote the headline. I bit the bullet and said, “You know what, it really is.” And I changed it, and we’re going back to the drawing board on some additional reporting around that, as we’ve just gotten some new information about it. It changed the course of the reporting. So I think being very conscious about developing newsroom values that can serve as a guiding course is important in doing the work we’re doing at Harvey.
PN: Touching on the generational trauma that you discussed, that’s so rampant. I’m a clinical psychology student, so we talk about stuff like this all the time, and it makes me happy to hear that you approach it with empathy, care, and consideration for the trauma that is and still is occurring. I think more newsrooms should adopt that, to be honest. So we would get more honest storytelling and a better reflection of what the community looks like.
PN: So we touched on this a little bit. But where do you see yourself in the community, and do you feel like you are a community member?
So I hope we can play a tiny part in a big collective vision. Currently, we are the only place in Harvey where you can get information about what’s happening in the community, not by people who are running for office, have run for office, currently sit in office, or have some type of political, economic, or social incentive to spin a narrative because they are tied to an existing institution in the city.
There’s a burden in being the only newsroom in town because think about the issue of news deserts in America. If anything, we should modify the language of news deserts because a desert is a naturally occurring environment. There’s nothing natural about living in a community where it is hard to meet a basic fundamental need: information. And [what we] increasingly see is the contraction of newsrooms in America. [It] is more driven by economic and financial forces and increasingly, in some cases, political forces. So I hope that the Harvey World Herald can be an agent in becoming a conduit to help people in Harvey build relationships and to help other newsrooms in the community grow.
Amethyst J. Davis. Provided.
There’s an absolute need for more niche outlets, people who can cover Black, Brown, and queer people in Harvey — people who could do that in a much more dedicated fashion than we could as a general outlet. Or [maybe an outlet that focuses on] the city’s growing Indian community or people [who] want to focus on education. But there is a community in which you have a strong ecosystem, and it lives in abundance. Harvey does not have a lot of options. People in Harvey deserve to exercise agency. They deserve to get up and say, “You know what, I like this news outlet for X, I like that news outlet for Y. I like them over there. I don’t like them over there. I like them over there for BC and D.” That is exercising agency. You can really only exercise agency, not when you have basic needs met, but when you have an abundance. Basic needs are a floor, but that’s not where we end.
So, I really want the Harvey World Herald to be a small part of a very big collective vision. That’s what I see us now trying to do, and I hope it’s where we’re at. I hope that down the road, we can not just meet basic needs and become a watchdog and tell stories that make a difference in the community. But I also hope that we can become an incubator to help young people explore other storytelling mediums, like journalism, TV, and film.
I always tell people Harvey is the arts capital of the south suburbs. We’ve always been that, but it’s Harvey. People think that we’re inferior and have nothing. But we’ve always had our creative talent and our storytelling abilities, and we just lacked the type of spaces to build and support that energy. And I hope the Harvey World Herald can become an incubator for supporting that type of energy in the community.
PN: Heck yeah, that’s really cool.
So, at Public Narrative, we focus on changing narratives around Chicago, the suburbs, the South Side, and everywhere. And especially regarding the relationship between the communities and the media. So when you hear the phrase, narrative change, what does that mean to you?
AJD: Hm, this is a good question. You all are the first to ask me that, too, now that I think about it.
AJD: Yeah, for real. That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that. I get [asked] all sorts of stuff. I don’t necessarily think I get normative questions a lot. I get more like logistical ones. You’re good.
PN: I love this question.
AJD: In journalism, people often say, “We give a voice to the voiceless.” No, we don’t. There ain’t no such thing as giving a voice to the voiceless. But it is a thing that many journalists and media organizations are hardheaded and don’t listen to people, right?
I always say that everybody has a voice, but not everybody has a platform. That’s much more accurate. We always say [we are] the only traditional newsroom in town because there are churches and parent-teacher associations. These are their types of information systems. So we’re not the only place to get information, but we are the only traditional newsroom where you can get information. And I say that because we need to be doing more.
I think narrative change means being able to do more to give space to other people to tell the story on their own terms and not retell it for them. And I think that empowering people [is] supporting and working with community organizations or being able to call your own s**t as a journalist or a newsroom and be able to clock where your ego and your pride is the very reason as to why a story isn’t getting told or isn’t getting told in a much more nuanced fashion. So I think those are ways we start to empower people to tell their own stories and pass the mic if you will.
PN: I love the energy. I’m so here for it. I have one more question for you. What would it be if you could give one piece of advice to a young person interested in going into journalism?
AJD: If I were them, regardless of what type of reporting they want to do — investigative, arts and culture, entertainment, climate, or whatever — I would tell them to retire the idea early on, out the gate, that working for hyperlocal or local newsrooms is a stepping stone to something better. There’s this idea, and it’s highly elitist, that local news is inferior. There’s this perceived inferiority, perceived untrustworthiness about smaller newsrooms.
Regardless of what type of journalism you do, journalism is a public service, period.
It is a public service for every damn body. Your job is to get up and be concerned with the broader public. Arts, culture, and entertainment — for those reporters, their job is not to try to rub up against celebrities. No, their job is to remind people about [how] the arts and entertainment are about drawing us closer to the world we live in, not removing us further from it. You cannot understand [enough] that as an arts, culture, and entertainment reporter if your primary concern is being able to go buddy-buddy with celebrities on the red carpet. It’s not about you; it’s about the public. And so when people say, “Cut your teeth at a small paper and work your way up from there,” you are using the public. You are using the community. You are supposed to serve as a means to an end.
This is also fueling some of this contraction with these newsrooms not having these communities, not having the dedicated reporters [doing] the type of coverage they need. It’s already bad enough that so many newsrooms are closing because they cannot afford to stay open. Adding insult to injury is a gross elitism in this industry that attempts to use communities, use people, and, increasingly, those most pushed to the margin for your own career prospects. So the advice I would give them is very early on, retire this elitist and small-minded idea that working in local or hyper-local community media is inferior or is a stepping stone to something better.
You can find Amethyst’s work in the Harvey World Herald. Follow her on Twitter @APurple_Reign.
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