Member Spotlight: Markeshia Ricks
The Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI) introduces New Haven and Hamden, Conn. high school students to grassroots journalism through The Arts Paper, the organization’s daily publication. Program Director Markeshia Ricks is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience in newsrooms. Ricks dabbles in voice acting, blogging, podcasting, and photography. Before joining the Arts Council, she wrote for the New Haven Independent, Air Force Times, the Montgomery Advertiser, the Anniston Star, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and the Tuscaloosa News.
How did the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI) come about and get started?
YAJI was created in 2016 as an actionable response to the ever-present threat to public school funding for programs that help students grow as writers, performers, visual and fine artists, and musicians. The program is designed to help public high school students recognize their own power in being curious, engaged, and informed citizens who have a role to play in saving our democracy.
What attracted you to move from professional journalism to your work with students?
Though I’m now in my third year of directing YAJI, I’ve been volunteering with it nearly since its inception. The opportunity to lead the program came at a time when I was interested in stepping away from full-time daily journalism. I was ready for a chance to discover and strengthen my skills as a teacher, creative director, project manager, and innovator. I was curious about what I was capable of beyond journalism, but like many journalists who love what they do, it was hard to let it go completely. I thought, “What better way is there to stay connected than passing on what I know?” Working for the Arts Council gives me the creative freedom to teach in the ways that I think will help our student-journalists actually learn the craft without the restrictions that can come with traditional classroom settings. This role has taught me that, like my students, I’m capable of a great many things if given the room and flexibility to learn.
I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you describe your role as program director of YAJI as the “chief cultivator of curiosity.” I love that! How does journalism nurture curiosity?
When I accepted the position, the Arts Council had been through a few different iterations of what it called the person who led YAJI. Previously, the role was that of a coordinator. When I came on, it was given the lofty title of “director.” I didn’t think either of those titles captured what I wanted to do in the role, which was to get young people to understand that journalism is the ultimate indulgence of curiosity. Teaching students how to practice journalism through the skills of interviewing and reporting is like offering them a permission slip to explore their world. While YAJI teaches these skills, what I’m really hoping students learn is that it’s OK to be curious about the world around them, to ask questions of everyone they meet but especially of those who want to lead them.
Through YAJI, students research, report, draft, and publish articles covering the arts, culture, and community in New Haven and the greater New Haven region. What’s involved in the program? What activities and work do students participate in?
During their spring break, students admitted to YAJI participate in a weeklong intensive where they learn about the craft and practice of journalism through hands-on workshops led by me and the editor of The Arts Paper, Lucy Gellman. Their training covers the basics of what journalism is, the practice of news gathering, reporting, and writing. We also train students in the basics of photojournalism. In addition to their training, they get the opportunity to meet real journalists and working artists in our community. By the end of the week, they are deemed student-journalists and are expected to produce as many stories as they can, with our guidance, for The Arts Paper over a 10-week period. Any student who successfully completes our spring program is welcome to stay on writing as a freelancer for The Arts Paper. Students are compensated for their participation in the spring program and are paid for every published story they write.
YAJI empowers youth voices. How else does it benefit the students who participate?
Our students have told us that learning how to practice journalism, how to present themselves as professional journalists, not only helps them with their writing but gives them confidence. They’re not afraid to ask anyone a question and expect a fair and responsible answer whether it is from their parents, their teachers, or the mayor of our city.
Americans for the Arts Membership
This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to [email protected], or calling 202.371.2830.