Los Angeles-based writer and editor Liz Dwyer joined LMA as managing director of Word In Black in January 2022. She has written about racial justice, gender equality, education, health, and culture for several national websites and print publications including Ebony, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and Good Housekeeping.
She previously worked as the managing editor for BahaiTeachings.org, as the communications director for 826 National, and was the founding managing editor for Shondaland.com a women’s empowerment and lifestyle website from television mogul Shonda Rhimes.
Before her career in journalism, Liz worked as a classroom teacher in both Guangzhou, China, and Compton, California, and she worked on Teach For America’s staff. She is a breast cancer survivor, has run nine marathons, volunteers in her community, and cheers for the accomplishments of her two sons, Olinga and Toussaint.
Liz, it’s great to have you here at Local Media Association and Word In Black. Tell us about how you’ve been applying your experience so far with this new endeavor.
Starting any new job is a bit of a whirlwind, right? But I’ve never bounced out of bed so eagerly every morning even though I’m working remotely from Los Angeles, which means I start at 6 a.m. The early mornings remind me of my days as a schoolteacher in Compton. Having been a teacher means I’m hard-wired to focus on goals, and backwards planning from those goals. But I also know from my decade of experience as an educator that achieving goals is based on relationships and trust. Every journalist worth their salt knows that as well. You don’t get the story if you don’t have connections with folks. And within the Black community, relationships are based in respect and seeing people. So building relationships with our publishers and the editorial staff at the papers — truly seeing them — as well as the LMA staff, is the foundation of the house and has been a major priority.
With your experience working on stories about racial justice, gender equality, education, health, and culture — what is something you think the media industry should know about how these topics get covered?
Toni Morrison once said that she had “spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” She was talking about novels, but when you look at the mainstream media, the news is absolutely covered through the lens of the white gaze. Editors and reporters make decisions about what stories to greenlight, as if, to paraphrase Ms. Morrison, Black lives have no meaning or depth beyond what white people decide is important or true. In addition, Black people are only reported on in the context of problems, but the root causes and context — for example, how public school systems disenfranchise Black children because that’s what they’re designed to do in order to uphold a system of white supremacy — are rarely included in news stories. Instead, solutions are often presented as actions kind-hearted white folks are doing on behalf of Black people.
The truth is that in every Black community there are multiple Black individuals and organizations that have been working on solutions. The Black press is plugged into the who, what, when, where, how, and why of that on an intrinsic level. But for the media industry as a whole, well, if you don’t have genuine, close friendships with Black folks, and aren’t seeking to report outside of the white gaze, you won’t know, and if you’re keeping it real, might not care about the solutions coming from within the community. I’m reminded of an op-ed from philosophy professor George Yancy that ran in The New York Times a few years ago — and it’s critical advice for our majority-white media industry. He wrote, “Don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism … practice being vulnerable. Being neither a ‘good’ white person, nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook.”
What goals do you hope to accomplish with Word In Black in the next 6-12 months?
I had a dream the other night that Michelle Obama interviewed Stacey Abrams for us and now I can’t stop thinking about it. It needs to happen! I’d love for the solutions-makers in the Black community to see Word In Black as a space where their voices and the work they’re doing can be amplified through op-eds because our audience needs to be informed and inspired about what they’re doing. I’m also focused on three big buckets of work: One, building our infrastructure so that we’re uber-efficient, even more supportive of the work of our publishers, and better able to engage with the Word in Black community. Two, hiring amazing people so that we can expand our reporting and expand our newsletter and social media presence. And finally, ensuring the content we create continues the tradition of excellence and community responsibility that the Black press has had since Day One. Also, I want a Word In Black podcast. Mrs. Obama can be our first guest, right?
What do you think is the biggest challenge for Black publishers? How can traditional news organizations and larger news organizations support their work?
My teen son gets his news from Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. My 21-year-old is a voracious reader of Reddit. They don’t see themselves represented in traditional news organizations and they don’t trust those organizations (particularly after the framing of young Black youth during the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder). They also aren’t in the habit of reading a physical paper — all the app-based papers I read aren’t just sitting around for them to randomly pick up — so figuring out how to engage these digital natives is a challenge everyone’s facing. We can’t be all things to all people (seriously, I’m not trying to be a TikTokker) but taking the digital best practices of what makes content accessible to this audience is essential, and that’s what we’re doing at Word In Black. Sometimes people think this means ditching older generations for all Gen-Z content, but I approach this as a “yes, and” situation because Black youth aren’t disconnected from their elders or ancestors.
The Black press has an advantage because our households are often intergenerational. At dinnertime, everyone shares what’s happening in the community and connects with each other. But we can’t preach to young people and tell them to just be quiet and eat their vegetables. The issues we’re facing as a society are too serious, and young people have plenty of solutions, so they need to know that not only do they have a seat at the table, the table also belongs to them. This reminds me of what multicultural education professor Rudine Bishop Sims refers to as “windows, sliding doors, and mirrors.” You see through the window into the experiences of someone else and learn from what you see. You can slide the door open to join the person, and you can also see yourself mirrored in the story. Ensuring that we’re reporting on issues that matter to young people, and ensuring they’re part of the story (or are the story) is key, and we do that by using windows, sliding doors, and mirrors in our reporting. As far as how other organizations can support the work of the Black press, share your best practices and amplify our work. We’re used to seeing each other as competitors, but with democracy at stake, all the boats need to rise together.
Regarding the journalism industry and the Black press: What keeps you up at night, and what gets you out of bed in the morning?
What keeps me up at night about the journalism industry is that it will die if we do not engage young people of color, both as the audience and as the staff. Period. We talk about building diverse pipelines, but I’m not convinced we’re serious about it. I look at the current lack of representation of Black and Latino students coming up as reporters and being promoted into editorial positions, and how difficult it is for folks who don’t have financial support from their families to get into — and stay in — journalism. Last fall, NiemanLab reported that its Spring 2021 survey of 73 award-winning college newsrooms found that less than 6% of editors-in-chief were Black, and only about 10% were Latino — even when the campuses themselves had greater percentages of Black and Latino students. One Black student interviewed for the corresponding story described not feeling “wanted” by her college paper. Students from low-income backgrounds also can’t afford to work at their college paper if the positions are unpaid or only pay the federal minimum wage. And then there is the all-important internship that is often unpaid or underpaid, or doesn’t come with a housing stipend. These are not unsolvable problems. If we want to solve them, we will. The question is, do we want to?
As far as what gets me out of bed every morning, when you get to know me, you’ll realize I talk about the ancestors quite a bit. Their sacrifices, their spirit, and the conviction they had to just keep showing up with love for their families, their communities, and this country, despite the suffering and horrors of racism. I get up in the morning and ask my Black ancestors to help me see clearly. I ask them to enable me to do this work of truth-telling and serve my community in a manner that does right by those who have been killed because of racism — Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many other Black men, women, and children in this nation. And with the ancestors in mind, I do my best to show up with my whole heart full of love for Black folks who are alive. Our choices — and I include myself in this — can bring about racial justice every single day. So what gets me up? These words: Take action, take action, take action.