When Alicia Bell took leadership of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy last month, she regarded this new assignment as a birthing process. Citing her family lineage of birth workers and land stewards, she compared working to bring true and widespread racial equity to the landscape of media to the labor of her ancestors. Her job is to distribute resources, to lead with compassion, and to help build a fairer media industry that serves audiences made up of people of color.
Before entering this role, Bell worked at the intersection of media and organizing at Free Press for 5 years. She started there as an organizing manager and then founded Media 2070, an initiative to open up access to capital for media makers of color to tell their own stories. In this Q+A, we dig into how her previous work ties into the mission of the REJ Fund and talk about her visions and hopes for the fund.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Tell me where you’re coming from professionally and personally as you take on this new director role.
Alicia: Honestly being here feels like such a full circle moment for me because my background primarily is not in journalism. It’s community building and education and organizing. I ended up transitioning into this project called News Voices at Free Press. I went into that not knowing much about journalism—really, the thing I knew the most about journalism is that you should never talk to a journalist because you can’t trust them. And they’ll try to twist your words and to stay on your talking points.
I went into this work knowing that Free Press wanted an organizer. And I approached journalism the way I approached any campaign; I just had a lot of one-on-ones with journalists and asked, “Why do you do this? How do you figure out what to trust? How do you figure out what to report on?” So I’ve learned journalism through people and through work to try to transform and re-imagine journalism, and through organizing with journalists and with communities around journalism. That took me through building out the News Voices work in North Carolina. I was working with communities and journalists to try to transform power dynamics of journalism to make it more community-rooted and accurate and truthful. And that work led me into the media reparations work.
There was a lot coming up in my work around the ways that journalism and news has harmed folks. I knew it from organizer training, but I also heard it coming up over and over again with community members. So some of my colleagues and I started pulling at that thread to figure out, what is this? And in the process of pulling that thread, we came to this idea of media reparations: the repair and reconciliation and restoration that’s necessary because of the anti-Blackness that exists in media and the harm not only in newsrooms but also in which newsrooms get funded and which policies exist and what the history is and which communities get left out and included. And because I had been working with communities in general, what I knew is that it was never enough to just create a story or a report on a problem without building power to transform that problem. I knew that that was one of the shortcomings of a lot of journalism. And so that is what turned this essay and history and imagining into a campaign on media reparations. Through that work a constant thread has been: what does it look like for Black folks to be able to steward and hold our stories from ideation to creation to distribution without passing through white hands, except when we want it to? And how do we create ecosystems where that’s possible? That question led me to this work because this work is about building that kind of ecosystem.
Q: What throughlines can you see from your work building Media 2070 and News Voices to now being the director of the REJ fund? In other words, what are you continuing by stepping into this role?
Alicia: Part of why it feels so full circle being in this role is that, especially at Borealis, there is an opportunity to be amongst folks who are thinking about resourcing and supporting and building movement across the variety of movements and identities. And a lot of times with the News Voices work, we were building and bringing together community members who are not journalists with newsrooms and journalists, or bringing journalists into conversation with artists and organizers or whoever we’re working with. We’ve been working with the people who in theory could be some of the grantees of other funds at Borealis. So when I think about it like, what’s possible—not only just with this fund, but amongst all of the funds [at Borealis]—I think there’s an opportunity to figure out where there is alignment and strategy between community needs and newsroom needs because newsrooms are there to serve communities. If that’s not happening, then it’s not the community infrastructure it needs to be. That feels like a really strong throughline.
This work with REJ will be an opportunity to bring some of those things together and support those different movements. I’m thinking, for example, about the movements to re-imagine how journalism covers public safety or policing. There’s just so much overlap there, and it feels like an opportunity to lean into that work or to lean into the movement journalism work, which is aimed at skilling up journalists in service to movement. And also just figuring out what is the news and information you need to build a movement stronger? I’m excited about that because as much as it’s necessary to directly support BIPOC newsrooms, it’s also necessary to co-create conditions where BIPOC newsrooms can thrive.
Q: What are the advantages or challenges of coming from outside of traditional journalism and into this role?
Alicia: I think there’s a lot of unlearning that’s happening right now in journalism around old habits, and ways that journalism school curriculum has harmed folks, and people are interrogating that. And I feel very thankful that I don’t have to be unlearning those things because I never really learned them in the first place. I was able to observe the way they moved and know how to work amidst it without embodying it. So not having to kind of slough off that—that is something that I think is an advantage because it just gives me a little bit more freedom to move.
But I do think it is necessary to have been in newsrooms and worked with newsrooms, trying to shift culture, and trying to shift practices because it has given me insight into what opportunity there is and also what’s hard about that—like the reasons why people don’t move. And I think it’s as important to know why people move as it is to know why they don’t because then, for me, that feels like a context that I can operate from.
I think one of the challenges is that for folks who are grinding every day to put out stories and to move at the pace that a lot of newsrooms require, some of the visioning and some of the field building or movement building can feel far off, or it can feel hard to reach. That’s one of the challenges and opportunities is to figure out how to bridge that. I’ve been able to work with journalists and pull folks into dreaming and visioning, but even that was a process I had to refine because, initially, just asking folks what their dreams and visions are for the future of journalism, I would get responses that were like, ‘Well, this is the project I’m working on. This is my dream for that project. This is my goal for tomorrow. And that’s my vision for right now.’ So I had to really tweak some of that work to get to like, how do we get folks from a day-to-day grind to being able to dream beyond what we have right now? It’s both an opportunity and a challenge all the time.
Q: What’s your vision for the REJ fund so far?
Alicia: I want to grow the fund—both the amount of money that we have to redistribute, and I’m curious about what it could look like to have like racial equity and journalism funds at community foundations that are locally serving. I want to see what’s possible there because so much BIPOC news is local. And I think part of that, like growing the dollars and growing the kinds of funds that exist, means working with folks to gain alignment around why media impacts everything.
I’m excited about what possibilities exist in collaboration between the different funds here. When I mentioned the Communities Transforming Policing Fund or the Fund for Trans Generations or the Black-Led Movement Fund or any of the other funds, I’m curious about what collaboration is there, whether it’s collaborating on resourcing communities or whether it’s collaborating on community engagement. Are the newsrooms that we are supporting serving the communities that other funds are supporting? Because if they’re not, then that’s an organizational miss.
Overarchingly, this work for me is about how we repair and restore our futures and the media that co-creates the future. It’s about how we build a media system and a media ecosystem for our folks for a place where a just society is possible, a media ecosystem that is serving a pluralism of people that can thrive. Ultimately, the vision is media reparations. So any kind of futuring, any kind of grantmaking, any kind of education, any kind of partnership is all going to be oriented towards that.
Q: What do you hope to contribute to and learn alongside the community of news organizations in the REJ cohort?
Alicia: When I think about community transformation, I think a lot about some of the core tenants of abolition because when the abolition of chattel slavery was happening, folks were engaged in a variety of tactics, right? Folks were engaged in maroonage; they were creating new spaces. They gave folks insight into what else is possible and also helped people survive. People were engaged in insurrection, right? They were fighting back directly and dismantling what was there, and people were engaged in self-defense and caretaking. Folks were making medicine. They were protecting people and gathering food and figuring out how to organize, like how to keep people alive until the next day.
So when I think about how I want to contribute to and support newsrooms, I want all of those things to be possible. I want there to be opportunity for maroonage to see what else is possible. What can exist beyond what is common now? What is beautiful and irresistible and juicy? How do we get there? I want to figure out, how do we fight back and dismantle the things that are harming us and not serving us? And I want to make sure that folks have what they need every day to continue to exist so that they don’t fall apart on our way to wherever we’re going. I think some of that lives in what folks call capacity building, or technical support, or just like getting folks the things they need today.
If we’re able to do those things, I think that will feel like success. And I want to learn what my role is from the perspective of all the folks in these newsrooms. When I look at our grantees now, those are some of my friends. I want to figure out how I can be a servant leader to those folks and how to use my positionality, whether that has to do with organizational positionality, sector positionality, identity positionality—like being a light-skinned Black person. I want to know how I can use that to serve [REJ grantees] and the wider media ecosystem. And along the way, we can figure out how to build power and move together towards something else that’s possible, the media system on the other side of reparation and reconciliation.
One of my strongest motivations is curiosity. So I’m just like, what is possible here? And can we do that? And if we can’t do that, what else needs to be in place? I’m also really motivated by winning. And I think that one of the things I love about the REJ Fund is that it feels like there’s ways that we can be winning every year. Every grant is a win. I don’t love when people are like, we’re not gonna win for, like, seven generations. There are some things we probably won’t win for seven generations, but there’s a lot of things we can win. So I’m excited to see—what can we win in this work?