Chima “Naira” Ikoro, 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 Chima “Naira” Ikoro, Community Builder for South Side Weekly.

As a high school student, the Chicagoan felt journalism wasn’t her calling, or so she thought.

With a mix of life and opportunity, the craft of storytelling and reporting found its way back to her, influencing her perspectives on journalism and her love and practice of poetry.

In this spotlight, Ikoro shares with Public Narrative intern Ariel Allman how she now treats her storytelling practice as a way to respect the craft and those she helps to make their work better.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Public Narrative: So how did you get started in journalism?

Chima “Naira” Ikoro: When I was in high school. I did an internship with an organization that I now work at called Young Chicago Authors. I think it was called “Chicago Beat,” and it was their journalism track. But I gave up. I was like, “OK, this is not for me.” And then, fast forward to my adulthood, I went to Columbia. 

Injustice Watch was doing their “Essential Work” series where they were asking organizers or activists, abolitionists, [and other] folks who had their feet to the ground, especially during the summer and fall of 2020, to recount what the pandemic was like and what the uprisings had been like for them. So they’d asked me to write [a piece] for them. 

And that was my re-introduction to journalism in my adulthood. 

I realized that I really enjoy the process of working with an editor and creating something that the public would see and absorb and be able to glean from or hate or whatever the case is. I really liked that process.

And then, South Side Weekly was hiring for section editors, and the role was entry-level. Obviously, they prefer some journalism or editing experience, but other things qualify you to be a good editor. And I was like, “I’m going to go for this role because I haven’t ever been an editor before.” But I write, and I know how I like my work edited. I know how I like folks to steward the changes they might want to see in my work. So that said, I felt like I had a really good idea of how to help someone’s work be the best version of itself without changing what the work looked like. That’s what I’ve always needed [with] my first discipline of writing being poetry, and that being very sensitive. 

So imagining editing other people’s reported pieces with the same delicacy I would edit poetry with was my “Yeah, y’all should hire me” selling point. And then, one of the [questions] for the application for the Weekly was like, “What section do you want to work in? And if you don’t see a section that applies to you, what section do you want to see in our newsroom?” So I pitched the community organizing section and they were like, “Yeah.” And so that’s how that happened. The rest is ongoing.

PN:  It’s so funny. I’ve talked to so many journalists and it seems, in the beginning, they’re just like, “I don’t know if this is for me,” but then they get into it. They fall in love with it or it just all falls into place.

CI: It definitely has been a fun time. And I couldn’t imagine another newsroom to start at because the Weekly has done such a good job at teaching me things. Because, as I said, I had no like experience for the most part. So, yeah, it’s been cool.

PN: How long have you worked there?

CI: I think I got hired in June or July of 2021.

The South Side Weekly is a nonprofit newspaper dedicated to supporting cultural and civic engagement on the South Side, and to developing emerging journalists, writers, and artists. They publish in-depth coverage of politics, the arts, and issues of public interest alongside oral histories, poetry, fiction, interviews, and artwork from local photographers and illustrators.

PN: It hasn’t been a long time.

CI: It hasn’t been a super long time. It just feels like a long time. I’m also no longer the Community Organizing Editor. I’m the Community Builder. So the roles have shifted a little bit.

PN: Can you tell me about your role as a Community Builder?

CI: Basically, it’s community engagement …  Something very important and integral to the Weekly’s mission is combating misconceptions about South Siders and the places that they call home. And so, a large part of that is also the community we serve, feeling connected to the work that we create. So that’s my job, finding a way to bridge that gap between the newsroom and who the newsroom is talking about or servicing.

For example, I started The Exchange, the poetry corner at the Weekly and the tagline is, “Our thoughts in exchange for yours.” I will write a poem and then present a prompt and community members are invited to respond to the prompts or any prompts, in whatever order they want to. Or [they can share] a poem that has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever asked for. But it’s just an opportunity for community members to see their work in print. Usually, that costs money when it comes to poetry. And then also to have people read their work and to have an accessible way to be able to share their work. And so I feel that The Exchange is a multi for the community builder role. It’s just being like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing” and “What would y’all like to see? What do y’all want or what do y’all need?” That type of thing.

PN: Where do you see your role in the communities that you serve as a journalist? And do you feel like a community member?

CI: Yeah, I definitely feel like a community member, especially at this publication. I mean, [when I] have written for other folks, I felt like a member of the community that I was speaking on behalf of. But at Weekly, I feel [I’m] part of the community that I serve because I was born and raised on the South Side, like the Far South Side, and I still live on the South Side and I probably will always live on the South. I tried living on the North Side for one month. It was not good. So, I feel like I am a part of that community. 

So I feel like my role within the community as a journalist is to elevate the voices of folks who otherwise might not have platforms to be able to speak about themselves or their experiences. And to elevate the experiences of people who are usually misquoted or misrepresented in media. 

The way I think of it is, for example, you’ll see articles about an incident that happened on the South Side, or you’ll see articles about an event, or you’ll see articles about a problem or issue or whatever the case is. You’ll see people talking about this situation, but nobody ever talks to the people who are actually involved with the situation. [This] happens a lot on the South Side, especially when it comes to conversations about public health, public safety, or things of that nature. 

And so I think my role as a journalist is to see the people who exist in these communities or in our communities as people, not just residents. As a person, the same way you’re talking to me. And to demand the consideration of how important their opinions or thoughts, or experiences are.

PN: So when you are talking about your journalism, I can see you have such a passion for the South Side. What does it mean to be a journalist here in Chicago? And what’s the most important thing to you when writing your stories?

CI: I think being a journalist, specifically in Chicago, is I feel it’s very fun because there are always things going on here as far as good things go. There are always interesting and fun things going on. We will never run out of things to cover. We will never feel like we’re talking about the same stuff because a million publications could talk about the same situation or event and you’ll have completely different takes. So it’s a great place to start in journalism because there’s so much to pick from and so much room to figure out what you enjoy writing about, covering, or editing. 

But I also think there’s this constant decision that journalists in Chicago have to make about what they choose to focus on and the way they choose to portray a city that’s often used as “political kickball,” in retrospect, as far as the state and country goes. Every journalist will make a different decision — some folks will talk about the stuff that people stereotypically talk about when it comes to Chicago. And some people will be like, “Oh, here’s this music festival out west” or whatever that’s going on that is more important to the people who live here, even if it’s not important or interesting to people who don’t live in Chicago. 

Chima “Naira” Ikoro. Provided.

That can be true for other cities but it personally feels very specific to Chicago. I think that [when it comes to] the important things for me to cover, I don’t want to hear what the police say about the situation. I don’t want to hear what the people we normally ask about the situation have to say about it because I feel they talk enough. So, I think it’s important to get community recounts of events, whether great or tragic. I always hope my work or journalism holds a microphone for the communities that need to speak.

PN: Going back to your poetry. When did you first start writing your poetry? I’ve read some of it. It’s very beautiful. And how has your poetry impacted your storytelling?

CI: Thank you. That’s very kind. 

I started writing when I was in 5th grade. My oldest sister was part of a poetry competition that was formerly known as “Louder than a Bomb,” which I went on to be a part of when I was in high school. And so I started writing in fifth grade because, of course, as a younger sister, you want to copy everything your older sibling does. But then I also was like, “Oh, I’m also good at this and enjoy it and it’s a great outlet.” So that was when I was in, I don’t know, the fifth grade or middle school. 

I performed a poem in front of people for the first time in 8th grade. I did my first open mic as a freshman in high school. So I have been writing for the majority of my life. And because of that, poetry is my first language. So this was a challenge for me when I started writing reported pieces because everything is a poem. It doesn’t matter what you write. If it’s an email, it doesn’t matter. Everything is a poem. And granted, especially at the Weekly, they weren’t trying to dim that. They were just like, “OK, and then let’s also make sure that this doesn’t turn into an op-ed. Let’s make sure that this is a reported piece still.” 

I’m always exploring new ways to use language in reported pieces I write that are still focused on world-building, trying to create a picture. Reported pieces may or may not do. Some folks are really focused on being unbiased, and my existence is not unbiased, so it’s hard for me to be unbiased. But I try to write pieces in a way that will give you the details of the information you need to form your opinion. But the shape of the language that I used around and not specifically the words, but the way that I put those words together will tell you what I think about a situation or a piece. Sometimes poetry doesn’t have manners. So it’s there even when you don’t ask it to be.

PN: It sounds like you are trying to make it unique. But also present the facts.

CI: If you read something I wrote, you can be like, “Yeah, Naira wrote that.” I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

PN: So, at Public Narrative, we focus on changing narratives around Chicagoans and their communities in media. So when you hear the phrase narrative change, what does that mean for you?

CI: It means changing who is telling the story, like the perspective from which a story or experience is recounted. I feel that’s what a narrative change is. 

That’s what that means, especially because if we think about narratives retrospectively, like narratives across the board, all of those stories are often told by people who are least affected by the outcomes of a story being told that way. So when I imagine a narrative shift, it’s those stories being told by the people who actually experience them and are affected by them.

You can find Chima’s work in The Exchange, South Side Weekly’s poetry corner, where a poem or piece of writing is presented with a prompt. Readers are welcome to respond to the prompt with original poems, and pieces may be featured in the next issue of the Weekly. Follow her on Twitter @supernaira.

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