x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The truth is out there, in Harlem

Grassroots journalism is changing the way people look at the news in New York's Harlem.

NEW YORK // Joseph Hayden, 68, is a self-described news junkie who got so angry watching mainstream television that he set up his own company last year, called Still Here Harlem Productions, to produce videos on every aspect of life in his historic African-American neighbourhood. "The mainstream media is basically concerned about profits and does not see the world through the same lens that I see it. They are concerned about the middle class, not people at the base of the pyramid who are poor or low-income," he said. "The average guy isn't necessarily interested in Iraq or Afghanistan and we needed a media who would market us, tell our stories from the bottom up." Just as much of the US media, newspapers in particular, seem to be in free fall in terms of viewers, readers and advertisers, Mr Hayden is determined to provide a model of grassroots journalism that he hopes will be replicated in poor neighbourhoods across the country. With a budget of US$40,000 (Dh146,800), including his own savings and donations, he and two other volunteers rented a couple of rooms in an apartment block and filled it with video cameras and editing equipment. Outlets from CNN's I-Report to the Manhattan Neighbourhood Network cable channel have aired Still Here Harlem's videos. Topics range from African-American reaction to the election of Barack Obama as president to the hundreds of thousands of black men stopped and searched by police on Harlem's streets each year for no probable cause. "I watch CNN and they say Americans feel like this, or they feel like that. But what are they talking about? Did they ever ask us?" said Mr Hayden. "They tell us there's an unbreakable bond with Israel. But did they ever poll us on what we feel about the Israeli-Palestinian issue or on Iraq? "I see soldiers as trained serial killers but is the media interested in that opinion?" Mr Hayden and his volunteer staff have no formal training in journalism but have quickly learnt the basics as they go along. Many in the community recognise them already and they have had no trouble gaining access to local politicians, police and others. The driving force behind the project is very much Mr Hayden, a slight and gentle man, much of whose life story reads like a crime novel. Born in 1941 in Harlem to a mother who raised three sons on her own, he said he was "born into poverty and experienced want at a very early age". His first brush with authority came when he was five, when a teacher refused to let him take a book home. He flung down a flowerpot and was taken to the police station. By 16, he "dropped out of school and dropped into the streets". He spent much of his life in prison for crimes including drugs and manslaughter, which he says was in self-defence. He was a known associate of Nicky Barnes, who led one of the city's largest heroin rings before his arrest in 1977. It was jail that helped Mr Hayden to turn his life around and he calls New York's infamous Sing Sing prison the "Harvard on the Hudson" river. While incarcerated, he obtained a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a master's degree in professional studies accredited by the New York Theological Seminary. He was raised a Protestant Christian but now feels closest to Buddhism because "Buddha was a teacher and I love teaching, it's the ultimate profession", he said. He was released from prison in 2000 and became involved in the campaign to overturn the disenfranchisement of convicted felons and restore their right to vote. When campaign funding ended in 2006, he looked around for something else to stay active and he came up with the idea of Still Here Harlem. To make ends meet, the company covers weddings and makes promotional films for local companies but the main focus is news and information. Mr Hayden is also discussing a tie-up with Amsterdam News, the city's biggest black-owned newspaper that started in 1909. "Newspapers are from the 19th century and we're using 21st century technology so perhaps we can meet in the 20th century," Mr Hayden said. Paolo Walker, a 27-year-old producer and technician, said working at Still Here Harlem had given him a chance to learn about video reporting although he feared he would have to get a paid part-time job soon because his savings were running out. "We cover the whole smorgasbord of local events," he said. But unfortunately it rained the day they wanted to go out and film local Muslim's views of Mr Obama's outreach speech to the Arab world in Cairo and he felt the story was now dying. Mr Hayden is hard at work preparing a business plan and application for non-profit status, which would help fund-raising efforts. "I want to build a state-of-the-art studio and get a satellite truck and link. I also want a training centre but I would make it a requirement for every young person that they learn the history of our community." sdevi@thenational.ae