Noemí Pedraza was a high school junior when her father, Rodrigo, heard the Los Angeles City Council was considering an ordinance for street vendors to work under a new permit system. He suggested she write about it.
Pedraza pitched it to Boyle Heights Beat, a bilingual community news publication produced by youth and focused on the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. It took her a while, but after some research Pedraza was able to find Caridad Vázquez, a longtime vendor who sells tacos and pozole — a traditional Mexican stew — on a street corner. Vázquez, in an interview with Pedraza, said she was thankful for the forthcoming legislation. “We will be able to work legally and people will see that we, too, contribute money to the city,” the vendor told the reporter.
That was nearly two years ago. The story titled “Los Angeles City Council agrees to legalize street vending” was Pedraza’s first byline for Boyle Heights Beat, sometimes referred to as the Beat.
“Being able to have that as my first story taught me how important journalism is, particularly like community journalism,” Pedraza said. “There’s a difference between reporting on a new policy or legislation and reporting on the impact it will have on someone or a community’s life. It makes it more real.”
Community journalism is at the heart of Boyle Heights Beat, a project supported financially by the California Endowment and the University of Southern California Good Neighbors Campaign. It was founded in 2011 by Michelle Levander, the director of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and Pedro Rojas, former executive editor of Los Angeles’ La Opinión.
One reason Boyle Heights Beat was founded was that the neighborhood itself was not covered by mainstream media unless it was about crime or something gang-related, according to director Kris Kelley. Reporters of these outlets tend to “drop in” on stories.
“While the Beat is important in Boyle Heights and fills a news vacuum, it also brings to light community stories which highlight issues found in a lot of similar LA neighborhoods which have low income, people of color, and immigrant residents,” Kelley said. “These include stories around housing displacement, gentrification, the ‘informal’ economy, environmental issues, among others.”
With the project also comes opportunities for growth and mentorship in a field that is still underrepresented by Latinos. Approximately 35,000 copies of the paper are distributed on a quarterly basis, as well as delivered to local restaurants, stores, libraries and community centers, according to Kelley. She said the Beat also holds quarterly community meetings to engage with residents and gather feedback and input on stories they’d like to see reporters cover.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has complicated matters this year, Kelley said the program typically recruits 15 new youth reporters per semester and holds workshops over the summer.
“We hold them to a high level of journalism and standards,” Kelley said. “If they produce one story in the semester, we’re pretty happy.”
The project produces neighborhood journalism, and it makes teenagers pay attention to some of the issues that are happening around them.
Yazmin Nunez, a recent graduate from California State University, Long Beach, is one of the founding youth members of Boyle Heights Beat and a current freelancer for the publication. She recalled recognizing, as a high school freshman, that this program was a one-of-a-kind opportunity to highlight stories from within her community that are “often not highlighted in big media.”
Nunez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Boyle Heights, has reported on Boyle Heights natives who returned to the community to teach and, most recently, a proposed plan to expand housing opportunities and protect existing units in the neighborhood. Her favorite story, though, was from several years ago — about the Sears Roebuck & Company Mail Order building, a historic landmark in Boyle Heights that a developer had plans to rebuild as luxury apartments.
While she was reporting on that story, Nunez said, Boyle Heights Beat hosted a community meeting that gathered residents and the developer. Nunez said many residents attended to voice their concerns. Some even expressed their support for the project. That was when she felt that what she was writing about was really affecting the neighborhood.
“The community is looking for someone who will actually voice their concerns and bring their ideas to the table, and what they have to say to the table,” Nunez said. “Boyle Heights Beat does a really good job at including the community.”
Kelley said the young reporters are also surveyed twice a year as a way for her and the program staff to gauge the impact.
“Almost 100% always talk about how it really opened their eyes to their neighborhood, showed them that they could have a voice … that they could help uplift voices of others,” Kelley said. “That’s a recurring theme.”
The Beat also has a podcast called Radio Pulso which is supported by California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The podcast was a favorite for Olivia Teforlack, who has been involved with Boyle Heights Beat since she was a junior in high school. She said it was really interesting to learn the technical aspects of running a podcast, and she enjoyed co-hosting several episodes.
The podcast has covered a lot in a short time: interviews with Boyle Heights students, a parent and teacher in reaction to the college admissions cheating scandal that broke last year; interviews with candidates in local race; and interviews with musicians and local artists.
Episode 12 of Radio Pulso featured Teforlack interviewing her parents: her mother, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, and her father, who is originally from Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. Teforlack has also explored what it’s like to be a “minority in a Mexican neighborhood” in a story that, to date, is one of Boyle Heights Beat’s most read. She interviewed two sisters who are Black and Mexican, a college professor who is of mixed race, and a Salvadoran woman who sometimes feels misrepresented in her Mexican neighborhood.
“It was very interesting to see their perspectives and how anti-Blackness is in the community,” Teforlack said. “I felt like there was really no representation in that, in general, so I was really proud of writing that piece.”
Reporters also get the opportunity to be mentored through the Beat.
“I think as journalists we come to understand the importance of mentoring because most of us were mentored into our careers,” said senior editor Antonio Mejias-Rentas, who helps guide the youth reporters in the program. “I haven’t met a single journalist who has not looked at mentoring as not only a duty, but something that we naturally tend to do.”
Mejias-Rentas himself has reported on Boyle Heights for years. “It makes a big difference when you’re reporting on your own community,” he added. “It makes a big difference when you’re in the community every day.”
Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a very tired mom. Amaris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.