Bay Area poets turn reporters to tell story of vulnerable public housing residents

February 24, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
It took months of digging through documents and interviewing sources for journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting to flesh out myriad troubles at the housing authority in Richmond, Calif. But this investigation had a twist: three young poets from Richmond teamed up as part of the Off/Page Project to help report the reality for residents living in decrepit conditions. Jeffrey Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a story about storytelling.

Our colleagues at KQED in San Francisco are the television leg of an unusual reporting partnership that includes The San Francisco Chronicle, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the residents of a public housing project in Richmond, California.

Jeffrey Brown looks at what they produced.

JEFFREY BROWN: In many ways, it was a traditional hard-hitting news investigation.

WOMAN: He hasn’t had heat for more than a year. The housing authority says it fixed the problem in October.

JEFFREY BROWN: It took months of digging, combing through stacks of documents and interviewing sources, for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Amy Julia Harris and her colleagues to flesh out myriad problems at the Richmond Housing Authority.

But this investigation had a twist, one that offered a different way of reporting the news, and describing what’s going on, through poetry.

DEANDRE EVANS: This is where rodents and roaches are like family because we share the same meals. We feel 30 below air from cracked windows. No heat from when Richmond wind blows.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deandre Evans, Will Hartfield and Donte Clark, all in their early 20s, grew up in Richmond. Last fall, they joined CIR’s Harris as she interviewed residents and documented living conditions at two dilapidated public housing projects.

What they heard and saw, the cockroaches, mold and other squalor, inspired the three to write a poem called “This Is Home.”

WILL HARTFIELD: I see barren hallways, broken cameras, uninvited guests. There’s no service here, as if a sea of people were cast away on an island to fend for themselves. The weather outside is frightening.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s all part of a new effort called the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between CIR, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization, and the San Francisco-based Youth Speaks, which promotes writing and education and hosts a yearly poetry slam competition for young people.

Jose Vadi directs the Off/Page Project.

JOSE VADI, Off/Page Project: It’s trying to find new ways to tell investigative journalism in a new light, in a new form of storytelling, and also wanted to reach a younger audience and to have them kind of — have a conversation centered around them, around some issues that are affecting their lives and their day-to-day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who’s it for? I mean, is it for the journalists or is it for the young poets?

JOSE VADI: I think it’s for both, you know? I think, with the reaction from our initial work, journalists and young people alike are kind of able to find a common ground through a platform like Off/Page.

JEFFREY BROWN: Vadi himself bridges the two worlds.

JOSE VADI: I know the twinge that exists in the doldrums of my soul exhausted by sitting on asphalt with a pepper-sprayed face and calling this social change.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s a two-time NATIONAL POETRY SLAM champion and a playwright, who now has a desk in a newsroom.

JOSE VADI: There was that initial hesitation of, you know, here’s this poet coming into a newsroom, dealing with some hard-core investigations. Is this poet going to come in here and wear a beret and just write couplets all day? I think that was a fear. But I think when they realized that, myself, I come from a background where a lot of my art is informed by everything that goes on around, you know, my daily life and what I read in the paper and what I see on the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Richmond housing story is actually the fifth journalism/poetry collaboration for Off/Page. Previous investigations looked at sexual abuse of female farm workers.

WOMAN: I have seen these supervisors kiss and hug their wives and kids with the same hands and mouths they force on these women.

JEFFREY BROWN: And bankruptcy problems in Stockton, California, where teens were given access to CIR reports on the city’s financial mismanagement.

WOMAN: It will cost the city $1 million a year over 30 years to pay back the $10.9 million it raided for the arena complex.

WOMAN: I never even knew that.

MAN: It’s dangerous up in here. The murder rate is a murder rate in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: In reporting the Richmond story, CIR’s Amy Julia Harris says the perspective of the young poets brought something extra to her journalism.

AMY JULIA HARRIS, Center for Investigative Reporting: When I found out I was going to be working with poets, I had no idea how that was going to work.

And I took the poets in to talk to people that I had been talking to, and they were asking very poignant questions and said, you know, how are you able to live like this, and were asking really good questions that kind of helped inform my reporting. I thought the poets did an amazing job of just capturing the sentiment of residents, and contextualizing it in broader issues of neglect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Editors at The San Francisco Chronicle seem to agree. In addition to running Harris’ article in the paper, they have posted a link to a video of the poets performing their work.

MAN: I see Juanita, a double amputee bound to a chair, hand scarred by not by surgery or disease, but by a room and a door that a wheelchair wasn’t made for.

JEFFREY BROWN: For their part, Evans, Hartfield, and Clark say they learned from the experience.

WILL HARTFIELD: You can use news as a way to connect everybody to what’s really going on. You all live in the same community, but you don’t know what’s going on in that house next door to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does this connect to your poetry, your own writing?

DEANDRE EVANS: I’m bringing the people’s perspective. See, when you hear our poem, it is like you are listening to the people who actually have to live in these conditions. It’s one thing for you to hear a person talking about it, but to hear a person who is living it is something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: The three are now working with Jose Vadi to turn their poem into a theatrical production, which they plan to perform next month in San Francisco. And they say they’re hopeful the investigation they were part of will lead to changes in Richmond’s public housing projects, a sentiment Donte Clark wrote about in the final verse of, “This Is Home.”

DONTE CLARK: Got to protest, raid the government, shake their pockets and make them fix these projects, huh? Because, if not here, then where? Where do we go next, huh? Because left is cemetery.

But, until tomorrow, before my thoughts will manifest kingdom and we feast in an abundance of wealth, we will break bread, share what leftover scraps we have and find communion in our struggle. This is tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: The story on the Richmond housing investigation aired Friday on KQED in San Francisco. And, online, you can watch the poets perform “This Is Home.”  The entire KQED/CIR report is posted on Art Beat.