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Carrboro High School Students Make a Mark at UNC

When Matt Cone, Carrboro High School (CHS) social studies teacher, learned about a recent event at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, he mentioned it to students in all of his elective classes. The November 16 panel called “Making a Mark” was created as a launch of the Hussman School’s partnership with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Not a marquee rollout guaranteed to draw high school students at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, yet a dozen CHS students settled into their seats 30 minutes early to hear from Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ron Nixon, pre-eminent African-American journalists and founders of the Ida B. Wells Society. 

“I was pleased that these students chose to come on a Saturday morning--no extra credit, no assignment,” Cone said. And he noted that one of those students, Nina Scott-Farquharson, asked a question during the Q&A that elicited one of the most expansive and encouraging responses from Hannah-Jones and Nixon.

Hannah-Jones earned her M.A. in journalism from UNC in 2003, and she is now a domestic correspondent at The New York Times Magazine and creator of The 1619 Project. Ron Nixon spent his early professional years in Durham, but he’s now the international investigations editor at the Associated Press. 

Nearly 400 people filled the auditorium of Carroll Hall, and groups of students came from as far away as Howard University. But the engaged CHS students, some in their school-purple tee shirts, caught the attention of many people that morning, and they were mentioned in several news reports about the presentation.

The Ida B. Wells Society was founded with the goal of diversifying the ranks of investigative reporters. Hannah-Jones and Nixon spoke of the frequent excuses by media outlets that they can’t find qualified reporters of color. Hannah-Jones said one of the missions of the Society is to “take away that excuse” by giving young journalists of color the tools and mentorship needed to be fully prepared for first rate investigative reporting.

“The point of going into journalism is to hold power accountable,” said Hannah-Jones, and she encouraged students to push forward toward that end.  

After the panel was over, Hannah-Jones and Nixon took questions from the audience, and almost all of those questions came from college and graduate students-- except for the question from Nina Scott-Farquharson, CHS senior and an editor on the school newspaper, the JagWire. 

She said, “I just asked her (Hannah-Jones), What is some encouragement you can give to someone who is an amateur, is inexperienced in the field of journalism, and who has to talk to very high up people to get information?” Scott-Farquharson is spending this year creating a project for CTE Advanced Studies in Adobe Design; the subject of her project is the academic achievement gap at CHS, so her sources include many adults in positions of authority.

Barry Yeoman, a freelance journalist with deep roots in the Triangle and extensive publications in national outlets, was also in the audience, and Scott-Farquharson’s question made an impression, as did the responses from Hannah-Jones and Nixon. He lived-tweeted much of the event, including this post, “Hannah-Jones and Nixon are giving detailed advice to a high-school journalist. I remember when Ron was a young journalist in Durham, and I am so moved to see him paying it forward.”

Later, Yeoman noted how affirming the panelists were in response to Scott-Farquharson. “They both acknowledged the importance and sacredness of the work she is doing. Just watching their interaction with Nina, their attention and care, it was clear they are committed to a generational transfer of knowledge, a generational mentoring.”

Scott-Farquharson said, “Nikole told me, You have to be confident in yourself and you have to know how to use your words to get what you want. She told me to meet people where they are and don’t let anyone just say No. She told me to be pushy, but not too pushy. She said it’s basically an art you try to perfect, and you can do it!”

Yeoman said, “I was struck by this high school journalist, having such confidence and a sense of mission,” and he observed that the entire morning felt like “the next generation’s journalists of color owned the room.”

Cone said his student's question "was rewarded with the sort of response that offers insight and fuel for years to come."

At the end of the event, Hannah-Jones spent a few minutes speaking informally with the CHS students. "They were so engaged," said Cone, "they now want to quit school and go straight into being investigative journalists."

Scott-Farquharson hopes the classrooms and auditoriums at the Hussman School will become familiar spaces for her in coming years. In the meantime, she has a major project on race and academic achievement to finish, and the power of the morning with Hannah-Jones and Nixon will surely help guide and animate her process.