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Working with teens transformed my reporting in local communities

Craft: Lessons From The Field

Working with teens transformed my reporting in local communities

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Nataly Mendoza, a student at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, conducts an interview in Spanish with a man.
(Photos via Kate Bradshaw)

Getting people to talk about their health can be a challenge, especially when you don’t speak their language well and they aren’t familiar with your publication. That’s the situation I found myself in as a reporter for my 2019 California Fellowship, as I tried to understand marginalized people’s experiences of environmental health disparities across several city boundaries.

While feeling daunted by the task, I was covering a Menlo Park City Council meeting one day when the answer walked up to the dais. Students from Y-PLAN, a nonprofit based at UC Berkeley that empowers high school students to do policy research and advocacy, were there to present their findings of a housing study they’d worked on. They bravely shared their raw experiences of the housing crisis and how it’s impacted their families, sending a powerful message to the council. 

As I learned more about them, I came up with the idea to hire them over the summer to help me with my research. After all, they were bilingual and already trained in interview techniques. I coordinated with their program managers and was directed to work with Ashley, Mia and Nataly. Below are some of the lessons I learned from partnering with youth on this project. 

Ask what you should ask about

Before Mia, Nataly, Ashley and I began our interviews, I wanted their input on what questions to ask people. We met at a local library to talk and I shared some of my preliminary findings about health disparities in the community with them from my research, and they shared their reflections. 

We decided to ask people how many hours a week they worked, because one student shared that most of the adults she knows work multiple jobs to make ends meet. We also decided to ask if people had ever avoided seeking health care because of the cost, because another student shared that she had experienced that. I had originally only intended to do interviews in the lower-income areas of Belle Haven, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks, but after we talked about it, we agreed to interview people in more affluent areas nearby such as western Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Atherton, to see how responses in might differ. 

Take photos through others’ eyes

In addition to enlisting Ashley, Mia and Nataly with my reporting, I also partnered with Girls to Women, an East Palo Alto nonprofit that was offering a summer program for middle school students, to take photos for the story. I gave them disposable cameras and a prompt to take pictures of what was healthy or unhealthy in their community, after having an initial session to talk about some photo ideas.  

Our photographer, Magali Gauthier, also gave them a short photo lesson. Thanks to their program coordinators who took them on a field trip to complete the assignment, the photos captured a wide spectrum of the community, observed through kids’ eyes. 

Be sensitive to ‘survey fatigue’

Early on, I decided to focus my research work on interviews, not surveys, based on a conversation I had with a community researcher at the San Mateo County Health Department. She pointed me toward the trove of county health data that already existed that could answer many of my questions, and pointed out that because the county is well-resourced, as is a nearby world-renowned university, it’s not uncommon for researchers to approach a disadvantaged area, make significant demands of residents’ time to find out what they want, and then leave without committing resources to help make those desires a reality. A lack of communication around expectations for these studies had created what she termed “survey fatigue.” 

So, I decided to keep the interviews fairly short, and leave flexibility for follow-up questions if people felt like sharing information. We also agreed to give respondents the option of not including their names to be sensitive to people who may be undocumented and concerned about their name being shared publicly. 

I ended up using the information these participants shared through some of the aggregated data I presented in the story. I also collected contact information of interested participants and sent them the links to the series when it was completed.

Teamwork leads to better interviews

To begin our interview work, the three high school students and I decided to seek out areas where people would be more open to talk to us — out on the street, in public parks and at community events. Working with teens also helped us to gain trust from the people we interviewed since it made us more approachable. We aimed to get about two dozen interviews in each of six communities: East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Belle Haven (a mainly Latino and African American neighborhood of Menlo Park), the rest of Menlo Park, North Fair Oaks and Atherton.

I also made an online version of our interview questions in English and Spanish that we shared with our subscriber newsletter, but this failed – only one person responded. 

It also helped to get student input on where to find people to interview. One day, we went to the St. Francis of Assisi Church in East Palo Alto, where one of the students used to attend church. We caught the end of the service and succeeded in talking to many primarily Spanish-speaking people there while socializing afterward. I would have never thought to go there on my own. Plus, an East Palo Alto city councilman was there at the same time doing community outreach about an upcoming meeting, which helped confirm that this was a good venue for talking with this community. 

Treat your team well

Since I’m not used to working with students in my regular beat as City Hall reporter, this was a bit of a shift for me. To help develop rapport with the students, I made sure to always bring snacks and to treat them like the experts on their community that they are. I also created incentives and removed logistical barriers. They were paid $15 an hour for their work, and we scheduled our interview sessions around their summer internship commitments. I also provided transportation for them and we coordinated via their preferred mode of communication, a group text.  

Engage your community

After the series ran, a local cafe expressed interest in putting on a show of the photographs from the story. To celebrate the photo show, I invited people from the various communities in the story to attend a reception and Q&A. Mia, Nataly and Ashley helped answer questions, shared their experiences and were able to shape the community conversation.

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