Inspired By: Deborah Douglas

By Susy Schultz

Talking to Deborah Douglas in late April, the veteran journalist talked about one type of journalism. 

“For me, Solutions Journalism is the missing piece of the inclusion puzzle that I always longed for, as a journalist who’s been practicing for three decades,” said Douglas, who just returned to Chicago to be director of the Midwest Solutions Journalism Hub at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism as well as a senior lecturer. 

Deborah, a JAWS member, continued: “We spend a lot of time in journalism focusing on the who, what, when, where, and we don’t really get into the hows. So, this work is an invitation to slow down the storytelling to dig into how, in this case, how is an intervention working that is being applied to a social problem, such as public safety or education access.”

Some journalists dismiss Solutions Journalism, claiming it tries to reframe storytelling only to be positive. But, Deborah said, that means people are missing the point. 

“You’re telling fully contextual, authentic stories with voices and proportion,”she said. “I say it is a way to frame the positive as part of the story. It shows individuals and communities being agents of their own salvation.”

She talked passionately about the issues and the beauty of Solutions Journalism. But passion is familiar to Deborah. She has brought it to all she does as an award-winning writer, editor, educator, author and expert on this country’s civil rights history. 

Her 2021 book, U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events that Made the Movementis one of the most comprehensive looks at building and maintaining the civil rights movement. It is more than a travelogue. It is a compelling read, a playbook of the civil rights struggle, a guide to its star players, unknown actors and the marker moments you never knew about. 

In the preface, Deborah wrote: “I’m a product of the Great Migration, having grown up as a Black girl in the remnant aura of the civil rights movement. My childhood experiences included hearing my mother’s memories of picking cotton, inhaling books belonging to family and friends who studied at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and heeding my grandmother’s instructions to never fall asleep with a broom next to the bed for fear a witch would ride my back in the night.” 

Deborah was there for crucial moments of the civil rights movement. Born in Chicago, she moved to Detroit after the 1967 uprising and lived through a massive wave of white flight.

In second grade, she moved to Tennessee for the first time to stay with her grandmother, then for a long stretch from seventh to the 11th grade before she returned to Detroit for her last year in high school.

In Detroit, Mr. Barasch — she does not remember his first name — was a“radical Jewish teacher. I had him for two years, and he only talked about the Holocaust. He could take any conversation and loop it back to that history.”

Deborah said when white flight came to her Detroit community,“white teachers flew, too.”

So the Black teacher she remembers, Mrs. Gail Smith, who filled the kindly white teacher’s old spot, taught with a cultural twist. 

She explained what she learned:“Mr. B showed me what pride looked like, and Ms. Smith, who was Afrocentric, showed me that we had a culture we could be proud of.” 

Deborah took that pride wherever she went in the world.

She said she felt lucky there always seemed to be a counterbalance to the negative.

“In the southern schools, they unleashed all these micro-aggressions. But I knew there was a better way,” she said.

But even though her address changed, one thing that never wavered in her was her aspiration to be a journalist. She made that decision at age 8 when she saw a news anchor on television and said: “I want to be that, Mom.”

“So, for two years, that was in my head. And then, when I was 10, I was reading the encyclopedia. Remember those? And I read about a place called Columbia School of Journalism, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a whole school for this!’”

Deborah was determined. So was her mother. “My mother realized I was serious, and she didn’t want me to go to New York because she’s a highly religious woman, and she thought New York was a den of iniquity.” Deborah’s mother did her research and found Northwestern. 

“She said to me, ‘they say this is the best journalism school,’ ” Deborah said. So that was where she went. 

Deborah said that her background, as well as her work as a reporter and editor, drew her to Solutions Journalism. “It’s a rigorous approach to covering pressing social problems.” But she also thinks this type of asset-based storytelling may be a solution for journalism. 

“If you believe that individuals are experts on their own lived experience, then we as journalists are duty bound to go to them. Look them in the eye, and ask them about their experience, what they’re doing to address these issues, and what additional resources or support they need to fully actualize the interventions.”

Deborah said she came to Journalism and Women’s Symposium late in her career at the invitation of Michele Weldon.

“I knew Deborah from AWJ [the Association for Women Journalists — Chicago chapter] and her work at the [Chicago] Sun-Times” on the editorial board and as a columnist, said Weldon.“Aside from being an exceptional journalist and author, she is a generous, exceptionally intelligent magnificent human being. To know her is to admire her.”

Weldon, an assistant professor at Medill who is now emerita faculty, hired Deborah as an adjunct professor to teach undergraduate journalism. It was a chance for Deborah to go back to her alma mater.

“She was and is a magnificent teacher,” Weldon said. “Everyone loved Deborah, whether it was graduate or undergraduate classes. And she did all this while working full time at the Sun-Times.”

Of JAWS, Deborah said, it validated her sanity. “Talking to members reaffirmed for me that I was not crazy. The things I experienced in newsrooms, the good, the bad, and the ugly were real for me and others.”

Still, she also said the organization needs to stand in the allyship that is part of JAWS’s mission for women of all different backgrounds — why did it take so long in her career for someone from JAWS to reach out and welcome her? 

She has never been afraid to question the status quo and look for things to be better. 

While teaching at Medill, Deborah also created a graduate investigative journalism capstone on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Deborah described the project on her website: “Handpicked students spent the summer researching, reporting and traveling across the country to document how the civil rights movement still has implications for people and policy today.”

Deborah has toggled back and forth from academia to publications, constantly gathering more experience, numerous accolades and breaking ground for the generations behind her. She was the founding managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in Memphis, where her team worked on the “Profiting From the Poor” series with ProPublica. That package won the Investigative Editors & Reporters highest honor. 

She was the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. And most recently, she was co-editor-in-chief of The Emancipator. She describes it on her website as “a collaboration between Boston University and The Boston Globe that centers critical voices, debates and evidence-based opinion to reframe the national conversation on racial equity and hasten racially just outcomes.”

In 2019, Deborah Won the Studs Terkel Community Media Award from Public Narrative, one of the highest honors for a Chicago journalist.

And through the lovely and extended interview with JAWS, Deborah also told us what she tells her students. Advice that all JAWS members could use. 

Said Deborah: “You can’t sit around waiting for people to know how wonderful you are and invite you to the next level. You have to go there in your head. Know that it is always your responsibility, and it is never theirs and don’t be afraid to take chances and break things.”  

Susy Schultz is a former JAWS president, writer, investigative editor, strategist, nonprofit news executive and chair of the Advocacy Committee for the newly created Investigative Project on Race and Equity.