The Land recently talked with Zaria Johnson, a senior journalism major at Kent State University and a summer intern with The Land and The NewsLab at KSU, about her background, what she hopes to contribute to The Land, and what she hopes to learn from environmental reporting in Cleveland.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, where you’re attending school, and your major and interests.
I live in Cleveland Heights and attend Kent State University for journalism. The decision to attend Kent State was pretty easy to make. I fell in love with the newsroom and student media opportunities the school offers, and it was so easy to picture myself there. My first semester reporting for The Kent Stater came with a lot of nerves, but I had a ton of support from my editors, coworkers, and advisors. I’ve always loved writing, and I enjoy writing stories that have a lot of national context or research but spinning it with a local angle.
You’re part of an innovative program called NewsLab at Kent State University. What does this program entail? What have you learned so far?
The NewsLab partners current Kent State students and recent graduates with a team of local news outlets, and gives us some of that “real world” journalism experience supplemented with helpful collaboration and guidance. For me, it’s been really cool to see how other newsrooms operate, and I’ve already learned a lot about community engagement, Cleveland’s environmental issues, and local organizations that aim to combat these issues. This opportunity with the NewsLab and The Land has already opened my eyes to so many opportunities, resources, and organizations in Cleveland that I was never aware of.
What are some of the favorite stories you’ve gotten to work on so far as a student at KSU?
Most recently, I wrote a story for UHURU Magazine highlighting the issue of racism in the fashion industry, changes made since the number of Black Lives Matter protests last summer and how all of that contributed to the job outlook of Black fashion students at Kent State. I enjoyed taking a national/global issue and localizing it more to the Kent State community. Through that story, I learned a lot about how the fashion industry operates, and how BIPOC fashion students at Kent State plan to change the system as they enter it. As an intern with Akron Life Magazine, I wrote a feature on a self-taught artist named Chika Nkwocha who received national recognition for pieces that called out racial injustice and discrimination, or incorporated elements of African culture. Both of these stories featured young people who were passionate about the work they do and the messages they leave behind, and I think that’s what makes them two of my favorite pieces.
This summer, you’ll be working on Ask The Land: Environmental Reporting Initiative. Why is the environment important to you? What do you hope to learn from this experience?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of my personal impact on the environment. I don’t litter, I try to reduce my plastic consumption and recycle wherever I can. At the same time though, I’ve begun to realize that these small acts of kindness have less of an impact in the grand scheme of things. We have to address the bigger environmental issues and their impact in order to create change. Even in the early stages of my internship with The Land and the NewLab, I’ve learned a lot about environmental issues such as poor air quality, trash pollution and lack of green space, and how these issues disproportionally affect Cleveland’s communities of color. Many of these environmental concerns lead to a rise in health issues in these areas as well. It’s important that we not only address these issues but try to find solutions for the communities that need them.
One of the things that we’ll do through Ask The Land is report at the neighborhood level on residents’ environmental concerns, using their ideas, questions and feedback, obtained through two-way texting and Zoom calls. Have you ever done this before? What do you think is exciting about this kind of neighborhood-based reporting?
I haven’t had a chance to do this type of reporting before, but I’m definitely looking forward to it! When deciding to attend college as a journalism major, this was exactly the type of reporting I saw myself doing. I’ve always wanted to connect with the community and audience members to hear their stories and concerns. Oftentimes, and especially with environmental issues in communities of color, the voice of the people isn’t considered. I hope I can build relationships with community members and amplify their voices wherever I can.
What do you like to do in your free time, other than read great articles in The Land, of course?
I’m currently working as editor-in-chief of the Kent Stater, so a portion of my free time is spent collaborating with our advisor Sue Zake and our other staff members. Outside of that, I love staying in to watch reality TV shows like Master Chef and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, going out to roller skate with friends or watching my pet fish swim around in his tank! I’ve very recently got into plant care, but I don’t have much of a green thumb, so I’ve been doing a lot of research on how to keep them alive.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
I’m most looking forward to exploring the community-based grassroots reporting that has interested me for a long time and growing as a journalist. I’ve lived in the Cleveland area my whole life, so I’m excited to learn more about Cleveland neighborhoods and building relationships with other residents and organizations in the city. I’m also hoping to raise awareness for prominent environmental issues and effect some positive change down the line.
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