The Work We Do Tells Amazing People That They Do Not Belong

A brief interview with SRCCON:WORK speaker Sydette Harry

Today is the first day of SRCCON:WORK, and in the run-up to the event, we’ve been publishing short interviews with the nine people selected to give talks to frame each thematic block of the conference. Here’s our Q&A with our opening speaker, Sydette Harry of the Coral Project and the Mozilla Foundation. Sydette spoke this morning about journalism’s inclination to skip the critical questions about diversity and representation.

Sydette Harry on Illusory Diversity and Who’s Missing

Source: Hi! Would you introduce yourself to our readers, please, and say a little about how you came to be giving this talk at SRCCON:WORK?

Hi, my name is Sydette, I’m from Far Rockaway, I am not supposed to be here, according to most folks, and I think that’s a big problem. Professionally, I was community for the Coral Project and now I’m editor-at-large for the Coral Project and do editorial for the Mozilla Foundation site.

I primarily identify with being a first-college-generation child of a deported person. I’m Guayanese from Far Rockaway. But I am also a trained historian, a performance studies scholar, and I’ve been online for a long time. I got online because I wanted to talk about being the kind of person who wasn’t well represented, and I wanted to talk about it in the voice that I grew up in. And it’s not “professional,” it’s not the voice we’re supposed to use in news, it’s not the voice we’re supposed to use in the nonprofit sector, it’s not the voice that the academy gave us to use.

And partially because of my commitment to that voice, and because—I’m not gonna lie, I am a bit of a pugilist—I was told that I would never be able to say the things I wanted to say, or make the observations I wanted to make, and I’m not alone in this, there are many many people who are having the exact same experience. And rather than expanding our view of the world, the work we are doing and the professionalism we claim is telling people who can add amazing value that they do not belong.

I like to talk about it that way instead of talking about diversity, because in many ways, people love to put me up in front of folks. I’m a six-foot-tall black woman, depending on what happens between now and then, I may or may not have white hair at SRCCON:WORK. But people love to put me in front of folks and say, “Oh my god! This is diversity, we’re adding diversity!” And that is a kind of diversity? But at the end of the day I’m still a person who went to a four-year-college, I went to an Ivy League school, I want to prep school, I’m a trained historian, I’ve done post-graduate work, I’ve been published in all the right places, and that’s how much I have to do to be able to say, with any authority, “Why don’t you come to my neighborhood.” That’s the level I have to be at, and that’s how we talk about diversity.

And this talk is more a series of questions. I have some deep questions for journalism, and I feel like we have to answer them, because if we continue to have this space where we claim to want diversity, but diversity continues to look—and have the privileges—like me, a lot of it is people we are comfortable with, wrapped up in things that we are slightly less comfortable with. We’re not going to have a journalism to practice in the way that we are used to, and in a way that we can trust, because we have failed to earn the trust of the people we keep kicking out.

My introduction is that I don’t have the answers: I think it has to be a conversation, and I think it has to be a much larger conversation between more people than the ones we are currently having it with. I can’t represent everyone—I can’t, I have many privileges, but I also have many places where I diverge. So I’m trying to do what I was told, and to use the privileges that I do have to talk about the things that usually people do not bring into the room. You talk about immigration—how many people have actually been through the immigration process, you talk about deportation, how many people can actually say safely that they have family that’s been deported and not be scared? I can say that now, but I can only say that with a large amount of privilege and also a whole bunch of stuff I’ve said is being proven right in large media. Why does it have to get here? It is not the job of the people we claim to cover, and I include myself in this, to prove to us that the world is real. It is our job to tell true stories about the world, and we’re failing. Why is that?

Source: I was going to ask you what kind of questions news organizations should be asking themselves before they get to what we think of as “diversity and inclusion,” but you’ve basically just answered that. Is there anything else you want to throw on there?

How do we make sure that journalism stays sustainable and a people-can-eat-doing-this-job kind of profession?

Source: What do you wish you could get into in your talk, but won’t have the time to discuss?

I would love for us to start getting into the death of writing about arts and culture, and the context and issues around arts and culture, and the questions there. Who is writing about hip hop, who is writing about dance, who’s writing about TV, what do they look like, what are their contexts? But I can’t do that!



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