View from the Ground: Jamie Kalven wants to turn University students into human rights reporters

Jamie Kalven wants a big table. He begins his address to the crowd of twenty expectant University of Chicago students by explaining that “the major tool will ultimately be a big long table…And some chairs.” He continues, teasingly: “And our assumption is that everybody has a laptop, and we’ve got wireless access here, and some phones, and so we don’t need a conventional office!” Kalven is describing his aspirations for a new student journalism organization he is forming, one that will publish all of its work online. Kalven continues to joke about the modest means: “I mean, we’re starting out from scratch, we haven’t done this before. It’s gonna evolve, we’re gonna figure it out together.” He smiles to the crowd, and then proceeds to discuss the basic administration and digital tools that the group will utilize to collaborate.

This is the first meeting of the “Local Human Rights Development Project,” (LHRDP) which took place last Thursday at Experimental Station. With the LHRDP, Kalven hopes to focus on “human rights abuses in the city.” The group is part of a constellation of other writing projects under the umbrella of the Invisible Institute, a four-man team, including Kalven, which creates “a set of common resources for collaborative work, for collaborative social justice work.” The group is based at Experimental Station, a converted magazine publishing house/bike shop/community garden/artist loft/in-progress-coffee-shop/gallery/art project center/woodworking shop/grassroots political organizing office that has been in rehabilitation for six years after a fire in 2001. The site now is home to yet another project.

Kalven is committed to the belief that great journalism will bring about social change. However, he is distinctive in that he does not see social change as an externality, but rather as the single specific end. Continuing a line of muckraking journalists extending back a hundred years or so, he has devoted his adult life to making the invisible and ignored parts of Chicago visible; race conflicts, police brutality, and the failures of public housing are all subjects widely covered in his work. As he says, “We call this the Invisible Institute to figure out how to bring out and make things visible. We write because we can and we care.”

When discussing the possible stories and breadth of coverage that the LHRDP could provide, he becomes exceptionally animated. His eyes glow as he scans the room of young writers. He gestures more vividly, he speaks more quickly. His zeal is contagious, and there is an aura of earnestness in what he says. He isn’t interested in personal glory or recognition; he’s only interested in the people he covers. A clear indication of this can be seen in Kalven’s heavy reliance, in both his writing and his public speaking, on the pronoun “we.” This focus on the community characterizes his work.

What is inseparable from this mindset is his independence. Rather than seek publication or work with a traditional newspaper, Kalven releases all of his work on a webzine called the “View from the Ground” under a Creative Commons copyright. This affords Kalven the opportunity to cover whatever stories he chooses. This same website will be the launch pad for LHRDP. “The View from the Ground” is equal parts a tangible publication and an ethos for Kalven.

In introducing his own work, he describes it as “a somewhat distinctive kind of journalism….It has some parameters, some shape, some direction in terms of an orientation to what we call ‘human rights reporting.’ And the first, really essential quality, the most fundamental quality is this notion of the ‘view from the ground.’ It’s more than just a–it’s really an orientation, a methodology, a point of departure…” Kalven has made a name in covering local issues with an eye for meticulous and fastidious interviews. He moved into the Stateway Gardens and maintained an office there. The Stateway Gardens were one of the last public housing high rises in the city, until they were demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” He became a regular presence there, documenting the lives of the residents. These interviews eventually became the basis for Kalven’s most prominent piece of writing, “Kicking the Pigeon.” The work is exemplary of Kalven’s style of writing and brand of journalism. In July 2005, Kalven began a series of seventeen articles about police misconduct in Stateway. The work is unparalleled in its attention to detail and documentation. However, Kalven worked from a single vantage point. He didn’t engage his subjects as removed, in his words, as “the passionless outsider,” but rather as a closely connected, impassioned insider. He knew the defendants, the drug dealers and the domestics. Thus, it can be difficult to see him as the “objective journalist” that most newsmen aspire to be.

“The View from the Ground” is an approach to urban politics from the vantage point of the individuals most affected. In summarizing this approach, Kalven explains, “I think it’s the core mission of ‘The View from the Ground,’ and this project…The project is to, kind of, map the city. And not to start with Downtown or Millennium Park or the North Shore, but starting with the abandoned neighborhoods, the marginalized neighborhoods, the populations that are always in danger of becoming invisible.”
After Kalven finishes describing his own work, he continues to engage the crowd about the potential of LHRDP. “You don’t have to reach all the people that the New York Times or Washington Post reach in order to have an impact.” When discussing housing developments in Chicago, he notes, “The [Chicago] Tribune will cover this every six months. A group like this could bring the sustained coverage it really needs.” He points out that his own work grew out of distaste for local reporting and a desire to fill the void in the political discourse of the City. The group is an outgrowth of Kalven’s desire to provide an often unheard angle.

Kalven also has a tendency to minimize objectivity. The key feature of his work is his desire to see change enacted. This focus clearly colors who he seeks stories from and the resulting single dimension that his work operates within. The webzine clarifies this further; “[This] reporting does not purport to be ‘balanced’ in the sense that the reporting in the mainstream press does.” Concerns of bias were raised by students at the meeting. Kalven did not react with indignation, nor did he take offence. Instead, he was excited that “we can have these types of discussions.” He went on to describe the need to “self-check” stories and provide reliable information, even if you’re making a close connection with the subject. “You can do rigorous reporting with these connections,” he said. “There’s a truth out there that can be found. We don’t have to be advocates.”

Read Kalven’s webzine at www.viewfromtheground.com

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