After a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, journalists from around the country swarmed the predominantly black St. Louis suburb, focusing on racism in its police department.
Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA), a civil rights reporter for the nonprofit news organization ProPublica at the time, went to Ferguson, too, but she took the approach of access to equality. While her colleagues looked at the racial breakdown in traffic tickets, Nikole went to a school board meeting and talked with white parents reluctant to accept students of color into a predominantly white school after a majority black school closed. Spurred by a comment Michael Brown’s mother had made in her grief — that she had just gotten her son through school, and that would get him the access that came with education — Nikole told the story of his death from the angle of segregated schools.
More than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ostensibly ended school segregation, the practice continues, Nikole has found. Her stories over her past 14 years as a journalist bring to light the two-tiered public education system that limits black and brown students’ access to opportunities taken for granted by white students. So many of the inequalities in society stem from entrenched school segregation, yet few reporters give it ink.
Even as a teenager, Nikole knew she wanted to be a journalist, and to write about racial injustice. She prepared with an undergraduate degree in history and black studies from Notre Dame before accepting the Park Fellowship at UNC’s journalism school. The master’s program augmented her reporter’s instincts with practical skills, mentors and the all-important clips — published stories that show what she could do.
The Chapel Hill News hired her as its education reporter, and within months she had transferred to The News & Observer’s Durham bureau, covering education in a public school system that had a high percentage of minority students. Some journalists consider the education beat a little low-profile for their tastes. Nikole made it anything but, drawing national attention and receiving numerous awards.
Nikole put her investigative skills to work at The Oregonian, then ProPublica and finally, The New York Times. At present, she has taken a year off from The New York Times Magazine to write a book about black children’s struggle for equal education, from slavery to modern times.
During her career, Nikole has won a Peabody Award for her This American Life podcast on school segregation. She has been recognized with awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the American Bar Association, Online Journalism, Columbia University and other august bodies. The Root magazine named her among its 100 most influential African-Americans.
And now, her work has been honored with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a “genius grant.” Nikole is one of 24 people chosen for the 2017 awards given to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The fellowship is, in the foundation’s words, “not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.”
Readers pay attention to Nikole’s work because aside from the integrity of her stories, she challenges assumptions, digs through layer after layer to make readers think twice about what they believed to be true. When she and her husband, Faraji, disagreed on whether to send their daughter to a majority black or majority white public school, she laid out their discussions in a lengthy New York Times Magazine piece that earned her the National Magazine Award. More importantly, readers still responded to it more than a year later.
Conveying a full and accurate story requires examining it from all viewpoints. Diversity among investigative reporters is critical. Because the industry itself was not doing enough to ensconce journalists of color into relevant roles, Nikole and three other black investigative reporters created the Ida B. Wells Society, named after an African-American journalist in the late 1800s who crusaded against lynchings. Their organization cracks open the door of access for women and minorities who have committed to careers in investigative journalism.
Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, the society is now 700 members strong. The nonprofit runs investigative reporting boot camps and a mentorship program. Foundation grants have enabled the co-founders to hire its first paid staff.
Nikole is fearless, relentless, authentic and stylish. She’s not afraid to delve into data. She piles up evidence, but she never scolds. A story always beats an argument. And Nikole won’t stop uncovering stories until school segregation changes course.