There was a moment early on in the pandemic — before the stay-home orders, economic collapse, and the renewed nationwide calls for racial justice — that my breaking news instincts kicked in and I pivoted right into crisis mode.
Instantaneously, I flipped the format of Tostada Magazine’s genre of uplifting food journalism into a makeshift breaking news site to provide information so that Detroiters who suddenly found themselves unemployed could feed their families.
But as the weeks dragged on, mental and physical fatigue soon took its toll. I was deep in a reporting rabbit hole prompted by colliding crises. The restaurant and food industry that I covered in the “before times” was on the verge of collapse, causing supply chains to deteriorate. Thousands of Detroiters found themselves unemployed, on top of the approximately 35 percent of residents who already live in poverty. Schools immediately shuttered, meaning many children were at risk of going hungry on a daily basis. Organizations set up to provide social safety nets suddenly became more strained than ever as they’ve attempted to respond to the exponential demand for emergency food and cash assistance. Meanwhile, it became painfully clear that critical COVID-related information was not reaching immigrant and non-English speaking communities.
I already had a stack of other work piling up and I had accepted a new fellowship that would stretch my bandwidth even further. Top it off with weeks of complete social isolation at home and there were days that I’d rather just stay in bed than face what seemed like endless chaos.
How would I use my journalistic values to tackle these converging and lasting problems without burning myself out? To answer that question, I became inspired by the ways that Detroiters are collaborating to address the many inequalities around food access, poverty, and sustainability that have been exasperated by the pandemic.
One of my favorite things about the many spaces that I occupy as an independent journalist is I’ve already cultivated a collaborative ecosystem of my own. And so I turned to my colleagues with In Good Co. Detroit, a storytelling project of the New Economy Initiative (NEI) that I contribute to. Our respective efforts already overlap in many ways. Both platforms are intentional not only about telling stories that reflect the people who live and work in Detroit, but also about the writers, podcasters, videographers, and photographers that they hire to produce them. And so when we started brainstorming how we would approach our features during these times, it made sense to pool our resources so that more people could benefit from our shared journalistic vision.
What we came up with was an eight-part reporting series that chronicled a community-led fundraising effort that illustrated the many ways in which Detroiters are making their own connections for a greater good. The Pay It Forward crowdfund raised more than $50,000 to pay several Black and Brown chefs to use their empty kitchens to feed some of the most vulnerable communities impacted by the effects of the pandemic. One of the organizers, Shelley Danner, had approached us and asked if there was a way that we could help keep the goodwill generated from the campaign going.
The result, a vast range of stories told by a half a dozen journalists of color. Among the highlights, was a story by Megan Kirk, who’s finishing up her final term (virtually) this summer at Michigan State’s journalism school and highlighted one of the only Black-owned food delivery apps in the country that works exclusively with Black-owned restaurants. Tostada contributor Grace Reyes profiled a new Eastside vegan-friendly takeout spot that deals in all manner of chili peppers. Model D editor Dorothy Hernandez volunteered her news organization to cross-promote the series and write about a beloved downtown Thai restaurant that survived two recessions and continues to persevere during one of the worst times in history for restaurants. Lauded veteran photojournalist Cybelle Codish, meanwhile, was commissioned to visually elevate the editorial quality of the series.
I spoke with Pamela Lewis, executive director of NEI, about how the pandemic has crippled small businesses, but more importantly about the restorative power of collaboration. She noted how the pandemic has resulted in thousands of small businesses across the country struggling to navigate the bureaucracy involved in accessing the federally-funded emergency Payment Protection Program lending options. One barrier from receiving this type of funding for many of the enterprises that NEI supports, she says, is that they do not have established working relationships with the commercial financial institutions connected with the program, a requirement to apply. Many are considered microbusinesses, have fewer than 10 employees, and have had to turn to other forms of capital such as from community development financial institutions, grants, or from friends and family when traditional lending has been out of reach.
“We knew that they might get missed in this process,” says Lewis.
NEI tapped into its existing relationships with its funders, including the Kresge, Ford, Knight, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr foundations, and others to help in immediate, practical ways, like providing mini-grants to help entrepreneurs pay their bills for a few months.
At the same time, what Lewis found most striking was that even though many Detroit entrepreneurs were experiencing their own hardships, they were first checking in on each other.
“It was interesting to hear the national media, particularly when the PPP (loans) were going out and there were all these really privileged and well-positioned people getting those resources and then not seeing what was happening in our community. You saw the contrast of what felt like tremendous grief, and then having all of these small businesses in Detroit that were more focused on how they could help someone else than what they needed for themselves.
“This contrast is unsettling and inspirational all at the same time,” she added.
The nonprofit also used In Good Co. Detroit to serve as a platform to uplift the voices of the businesses it serves. By partnering with Tostada, our collaborative effort was able to hire a handful of journalists of color to write these stories, put some money in their pockets, and expand the series’ perspective through the lived experience of the writers. It’s meant building that relationship with Model D. And it’s meant shining a light on eight independent restaurant operators that have a long road to recovery ahead of them, but who, have had an opportunity to envision a new way of doing business that empowers their communities.
While some long to return to whatever normal was in the “before times,” the colliding crises of 2020 are reminders that business “as usual” was a system built on vast economic and health disparities in communities of color.
In a recent conversation, Michelle Obama and celebrated journalist Michele Norris noted during the first lady’s new podcast that now more than ever it’s not enough to “reach for normal,” but rather, “reach for better.”
By working together, I’d like to think that we’re getting just a little closer to reaching that better.
This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with In Good Co. Detroit powered by the New Economy Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.
Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!