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Center for Journalism & Democracy Launches Inaugural Summit At Howard 

Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks to the crowd. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

The Center for Journalism & Democracy, a Howard University academic center committed to promoting pro-democracy journalism, held its inaugural Democracy Summit on the second floor of Armour J. Blackburn University Center.

The event was also live-streamed and uploaded to Howard University’s Youtube page.

Panelists such as political scientist Steven Levitsky and author, journalist, and Howard professor Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed what they believed to be the signs of eroding democracy in the United States and reflected on the historical tradition of Black journalism.

“Today democracies die not at the hands of generals but of elected leaders,” Levitsky said. He argued that democracy could not function without a political party that knew how to lose. “When a political party cannot accept defeat, democracy is in trouble.” 

Coates drew upon historical figures such as Ida B. Wells to illustrate the tradition of Black journalists in the United States and showcase how they upheld democracy in their field. It’s a tradition that actually believes in things, that you can make the world a better place not merely to comment and chronicle,” Coates said. 

The Democracy Summit, hosted by founder and professor Nikole Hannah-Jones, began on Nov. 15 at 10 a.m., welcoming journalists, professors, and HBCU students from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (NCAT), Spelman College, and Morehouse College, among others. 

Following a highly publicized tenure battle with her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones decided to join the faculty at Howard University by launching the Center as one of her main goals. 

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In her opening speech, Hannah-Jones said, “Howard is where I’m supposed to be in order to provide more opportunities for journalists of color, Black journalists specifically, and…to force our field to live up to its mandate.”

Over 200 guests were given laminated nametags to wear throughout the Summit, allowing students and media professionals to identify one another and network throughout the event. Tables were staggered in front of the stage to allow viewers in the back a decent view of the stage. An engraved Center for Journalism and Democracy notebook, pen, and laptop bag were placed on each chair.

During intermission, guests mingled with each other while others stepped outside for refreshments. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

There were seven segments each with different speakers of the 23-person panelist group. Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, was the first to speak, delivering a “Welcome to Howard University” address which was followed by Hannah-Jones’s “Welcome to the Democracy Summit” introductory speech. 

The Summit began with Levitsky’s segment How Democracies Die, followed by Fuel: How Propaganda Works, The Threats to Democracy, The Black Press and Democracy, Foundational Cracks, The Call is Coming From Inside the House, and lastly The Mandate for Pro-Democracy Journalism. 

During an intermission after The Black Press and Democracy, associate professor of Africana Studies and former department chair Greg Carr, gave his thoughts on the establishment of the Center for Journalism & Democracy and the work of Hannah-Jones.

“I think Black institutions are essential for the fight we have to have,” associate professor Africana Studies and former Department Chair Greg Carr said. “And I’m glad that my new colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones is here, and I’m glad we have some resources to move forward in us telling our stories for us, by us, and influencing other communities as well.” 

In Foundational Cracks, Carr joined University of Pennsylvania Chair of Religious Studies Professor Anthea Butler, Northwestern Professor of African-American Studies Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor, and Associate Professor of Journalism at Morgan State Jason Johnson, to discuss what they believed to be true democracy and how the origins of white supremacy may have caused structural cracks in the United States. 

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Butler began the segment by calling for everyone’s attention, “Let me start this off by making one very big statement,” she said. “American democracy is threatened by theocracy.” She continued to explain that while Church and State are believed to be separated, they are in fact, she said, intertwined and have been so since America’s inception. “You must understand that in order to cover religion and politics, especially the Republican Party, you must understand religion,” Butler said.

Professor Anthea Butler stops to speak with those unable to ask their questions during the Q& A. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

In the last segment of the summit, panelists discussed pro-democracy journalism and what it entailed. The segment was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Trymaine Lee. It featured journalists Jay Rosen, Wesley Lowery, Astead Herndon, and Cassandra Jaramillo who discussed what pro-democracy looked like as journalists in the field. 

Lee started the segment by asking Rosen, “what does pro-democracy journalism actually mean to you?” In his answer, Rosen suggested that, during election season, journalists focus “not on the odds” of who’s winning, “but the stakes of them winning.” He also suggested creating content to help citizens stay informed, and focusing election coverage on the voters first rather than the specifics of candidates.

Students and audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions at the end of every panel and chat with each other during intermission. Maleika Stewart, a junior English major from Spelman College, was given the opportunity to ask the panelists a question at the end of Foundational Cracks. 

Stewart, who felt as if she had only just begun to enter the journalism field, felt fortunate to not only represent her school but also have the opportunity to learn and network at the summit. While Stewart was selected by her social justice teacher to attend the summit, however, other HBCU students were invited through to working on their campus’ newspaper.

Maleika Stewart was chosen to attend the summit thanks to her social justice journalism teacher. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

“It’s very hard to communicate with other journalism majors considering Spelman doesn’t even have a journalism program,” Stewart said. “I’m getting advice from people my age and from these adults here who are established.”

Melvin Harris Jr, a senior journalism student at NCAT, expressed similar gratitude for being chosen to attend the summit, “Getting the opportunity to come to this event, the Democracy Summit, I couldn’t have passed it up.” He said, “Being in a room with so many impactful people in the journalism world it just means you can learn so much from the panels, the other HBCU students…it’s a great environment.” 

Melvin Harris Jr. holding his school flag taking a group photo with Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

The work of the Center for Journalism & Democracy is to facilitate pro-democracy journalism, believing “there can be no press without a free society where those in power govern with the consent of the governed,” according to their official website.  

The Center also serves as a resource for journalism students to gain the knowledge and experience needed to implement pro-democratic practices through creating investigative reporting courses and programs at HBCUs. 

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In the midst of her hosting duties, Hannah-Jones was able to articulate what her hope was for those who attended the summit. “I hope journalists who are here, whether they are working, professional journalists or student journalists, I hope they leave with a mandate,” she said. “We’re taught that we can’t pick sides, but when it comes to democracy, we must pick a side. We cannot function as a free press without democracy.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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