Journalist or Activist?

Who am I?

When I tell people I’m a journalist I feel like a phony.  And if I say I’m an activist or an organizer, I feel like a poser.  I’m not sure if it really matters how I identify myself or what my title is, but, starting last year, as I rooted myself on Detroit’s east side, I kept coming back to the question…who am I?

I spent the last year as a kind of producer-in-residence at The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.  The Center’s mission is to “nurture the transformational leadership capacities of individuals and organizations committed to creating productive, sustainable, ecologically responsible, and just communities. Through local, national and international networks of activists, artists and intellectuals we foster new ways of living, being and thinking to face the challenges of the 21st century.”

While living and working at the Boggs Center (for free), I helped out with some administrative stuff and also organized a few meetings and discussions, but spent most of my time working on stories that exemplified “transformational leadership” and “productive, sustainable, ecologically responsible, and just communities.” Here’s one (which aired on World Vision Report and WDET) and here’s another (heard on UnFictional, The Story and WDET).

Can I be a producer with an agenda?  How can I be part of a grassroots movement and remain a trusted producer who can file for local and national shows? Can I be an advocate and keep my professional integrity?

These questions started coming to a head when my documentary, Work in Progress, was born.  It began with collecting stories, interviews and ideas around the subject of Work with 96-year-old philosopher, writer and community organizer, Grace Lee Boggs (as in the Boggs Center).  “Jobs,” Boggs explains, “have only lasted a few hundred years.  Before the industrial revolution, and even up to 100 years ago, most people didn’t have jobs. They did Work.”

The first time I heard Grace lay out this idea, my mind was blown wide open. And since then, I’ve come to see Detroit as a place where, out of creativity, necessity and compassion, a new idea of Work is emerging.  One in which the bottom line isn’t money but rather cooperation, dignity and need.  Grace constantly emphasizes that we’re in the midst of an economic and cultural revolution, “as awesome as the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture 11,000 years ago and from agriculture to industry a few hundred years ago.”

I think she’s right. So I set out to build a documentary predicated on this notion.  And so it became Work in Progress. Here are the first few minutes. In them you’ll hear Grace and a few other characters we get to know later in the story.

Listen to “Clip 1”

Is it my job to challenge the ideas I laid out in the first few minutes of the piece or to celebrate and elevate them?  Well, if you listen on, you’ll hear that I took the latter route. (You can hear a cut of the piece over at UnFictional, where it first aired). And I did this not because I was working with the Boggs Center, but because I began to think that if more people heard these ideas then I’d be doing my small part to help facilitate the transition from jobs to meaningful, community Work.  (I don’t think I would have been able to admit this kind of aspiration a year ago, but I’m trying to internalize that idealism isn’t something to be ashamed of).

Choosing a Side?

I want to make radio/audio for listeners who begin to trust and rely on my stories not for their clear-eyed objectivity or reportage, but rather because the pieces make them look at their home in a new way or help them understand their own role in re-imagining where they live.

I’m a lot more interested in figuring out a way to create “a healthy way of life” with my stories than I am in exposing Detroit’s policy shortcomings, for example.  That’s not to say we don’t need that kind of investigative reporting, I’m just saying that I like the idea of it being heard alongside a story that’s coming from the perspective of an active, engaged citizen with a specific point-of-view.

Whatever journalist there is in me, insists on reporting what I encounter with accuracy and honesty.  And the activist/organizer Zak reminds me that creativity, dissent and passion can be the building blocks of a dynamic and unique story.

From Jobs to Work.

Personally, I think my job in radio became my Work as soon as a) I felt truly connected to and in love with the place I was living and working, and b) I envisioned my storytelling as something that had the potential (I hope) to do more than reflect Detroit, but also somehow create and build upon the city and its residents.  I need to be clear though; I’m not there yet…Not even close.

Up until now, I haven’t done anything very original with my work.  I’ve simply been telling stories of resilience to illustrate the fact there are people in Detroit creating and applying visionary solutions and ways of living in the 21st century.  It seems like there’s a conventional wisdom that says one’s “activist” self and “journalist” self will inevitably be at odds or in conflict with one another, but it’s my experience, at least so far, that the two self’s have lessons to teach other.

In the meantime, I continue to find inspiration in projects that are principally wrestling with these questions while still keeping their ear on aesthetics and craft, like Housing is a Human Right, and Katie Davis’ Neighborhood Stories, for example.


  • Bony London


    Thanks for sharing your tensions around identity. Seems like it’s a good thing to inhabit both the journalist and activist roles – why choose? I do think that pieces with a strong point of view can be even more powerful/convincing when the narrator/voice IS grappling with some of the questions or holes in that perspective, or some of it’s limitations. That way, in the end, the perspective seems even MORE solid. Anyway, can’t wait to hear what’s next from you.

  • Tessa


    I appreciate the sentiment expressed here, but I think it’s important to distinguish between “journalism” and “writing.” Why not say you’re a writer? If you say you’re a journalist, people will expect to get that “clear-eyed objectivity” you say isn’t your main goal. You’d be doing a service to current journalists if you labeled yourself as a “writer” instead.

  • Larry Sparks


    Zak this process is about Making a life, not just a living
    after all were all works in progress to that (?) ideal human being, maybe with high hopes, we’ll get closer at the ReImagining Work conference. much love and hope larry

  • Sarah Reynolds


    Thanks for this, Zak. It’s a useful way of thinking about this quandary — one I often find myself in as well.

    Storytelling is at the root of both journalism and of activism, and as you said — these two selves have lessons to teach each other.

    Thanks for laying it out there.


  • Zak


    Thanks Tessa, I appreciate the feedback.

    And thanks for reading, Sarah!

  • Nathan


    Reading your story, I’m reminded of Philip Meyer’s notion of “public journalism”: It’s not about advocating for one particular point of view in the traditional “activist” sense. And it’s certainly not about trying to achieve some sort of “objective” view from nowhere. Rather, it’s about trying to rebuild the community’s sense of itself. To foster deliberation. To go deeply into explaining the systems that govern our lives. And as the 1947 Hutchins Commission recommended, reporting “the truth about the fact.”

  • Devin


    hey zak! what an incredibly relevant article to write in the midst of recent controversies surrounding public radio & new york times freelancer affiliations with occupy wall street protests. i think the points you raise go beyond “healthy way of life” stories and into all stories, including investigative pieces. i report all the time on arizona’s policy shortcomings, spend entire weekends culling campaign finance reports and writing public records requests (my colleague just finished an absolute thriller of a piece on operation wide receiver which predates fast and furious and includes tape from an actual wire tap in 2006, featuring a stripper named candy) and still i think that fairness, balance, and accuracy are subtly but significantly different than “objectivity.” we do things in this world because of our values or our funding, and the sooner we’re honest about this, the better. jay rosen writes often of moving from politically neutral newsrooms to a politically plural ones. maybe? and ps reading this makes me want to move to detroit, not for a job, but for work.

  • Zak


    Nathan, that’s brilliant. I hadn’t heard of Meyer before. Thanks for the heads-up.

    And Devin, as always, thanks for taking an idea and exploring it further, with more nuance and subtlety than I would’ve imagined.

    Also, please share the link to the wide receiver story!

  • FCM


    I think it’s complete BS for journalists to pretend that they don’t have biases. It’s part of the reason why we have such little faith in ‘the media’ these days.

    Journalists are generalists. They don’t really understand any one thing particularly well. (as opposed to specialists) But even specialists, say academics in the humanities for instances, are constantly self-examining themselves to find biases.

    The biggest deception is to imply neutrality, when we really can’t escape it at all. The most honest thing one can do is attempt to be impartial where appropriate, and acknowledge where we are coming from.

  • Carol Jackson


    Zak, I had the pleasure of working with you at The Story – and I think you do what many journalists do, try to find people who are living “the story” – who exemplify a trend. Other journalists may choose to tell stories with facts and figures. In your case, you can see the trends from your friends and neighbors, not from a spreadsheet.

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