Shining Light, Telling Stories, Having Impact

The Social Justice News Nexus at Medill partners with journalists to explore issues impacting Chicago communities.

by Kari Lydersen, Interim Director of Social Justice News Nexus
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad
searching abandoned buildings.
Credit: WBEZ Chicago

When Adriana Cardona-Maguigad walked around the Back of the Yards neighborhood where she was editor of a community newspaper, she would often chat with people living on the streets or in abandoned buildings. She was surprised to hear that many of them had Puerto Rican accents, since the Southwest Side neighborhood has a largely Mexican immigrant population. Cardona, who moved to the U.S. from Colombia as a teenager, started asking more questions.

She began uncovering a strange and troubling story: many of the men and women had come to Chicago from Puerto Rico to live in unlicensed drug treatment centers housed in storefronts and residential buildings in Back of the Yards and surrounding immigrant neighborhoods. And some of them had been sent by Puerto Rican government authorities.

Around this time Cardona was selected as one of the inaugural class of Fellows in the Social Justice News Nexus (SJNN), a program launched by the Medill School of Journalism with support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. SJNN’s mission was to bring together journalists, community leaders and Medill graduate students to tell the stories and amplify the voices of people in marginalized communities, related to important policy and social justice issues.

Angel and Manuel in the abandoned house by Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, WBEZ Chicago

With financial and editorial support from SJNN, Cardona continued digging into the story of Puerto Ricans sent to unlicensed treatment centers in Chicago, where they reported a complete lack of medical supervision, manipulative and abusive treatment and other serious issues. Many people ended up fleeing or kicked out of the centers, leaving them homeless, often without speaking English or even owning warm clothes, in a city where they had no connections or resources. SJNN received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to allow Cardona and another Fellow to travel to Puerto Rico. And in 2015, the investigation aired on This American Life and WBEZ Chicago Public Media.

This American Life: Not It! Part One

The experience and connections that Cardona developed through this project continued to shape her career. In 2016 she accepted a job as an investigative reporter at Univision Chicago, where she did more stories on the unlicensed treatment centers and also delved into housing, exploitation of workers, police misconduct, domestic violence and other serious policy and justice issues affecting Univision’s Spanish-speaking audience.

Joey Gannon and WBEZ Chicago

Cardona continued to collaborate with SJNN, including as a Fellow leading a team of Medill students investigating asbestos in Chicago Public Schools. The resulting two-part piece showed exposed asbestos in a Chicago elementary school, in a room where children studied and ate lunch. Shortly after the piece aired, the asbestos was repaired and the district’s online asbestos inspection records were updated. The series won two Chicago Emmy’s. Cardona is currently also working with Medill students through SJNN on a piece about immigrants and the state Department of Children and Family Services. She has also collaborated with other SJNN Fellows on investigations, including a recent project with the Chicago Reporter on race and police hiring practices.

Cardona’s work throughout her career has been an example of the journalistic approach so sorely needed in a city like Chicago that is notoriously segregated and where large contingents of the population feel they are not adequately represented by media nor given a seat at the table in civic and policy debates. A study by the University of Texas Center on Media Engagement and the Chicago news organization City Bureau released in January 2018 documented how Latino and African American residents on the South and West sides of Chicago feel misrepresented and under-served by the media.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad,
WBEZ Chicago

SJNN aims to address this situation by supporting and amplifying the work of journalists like Cardona working and living in these neighborhoods; and also by connecting with community leaders to produce media that will serve their communities and to help journalism students and professional journalists better understand these stories.

Since its inception in 2013, SJNN has hosted four annual cohorts of Fellows focused on specific themes: drug policy and treatment, mental health and criminal justice; housing and homelessness; and environmental justice. Currently, Fellows are working with Medill graduate students on in-depth stories about a variety of social justice issues. Fellows have shed light on serious and under-covered issues and also on the resilience and creativity of local leaders in addressing these issues.

SJNN Fellows’ stories are published in major media including the Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, Chicago Reader, the Guardian and Crain’s Chicago Business, and also in community media outlets that engage residents who feel misrepresented by and may not consume mainstream media.

While SJNN’s core principle is to nurture important journalism and dialogue in local communities, SJNN is also paving the way for distributing such stories on a national level and helping facilitate understanding and dialogue between stakeholders dealing with similar issues in different locations, including through a network of partner media outlets around the country.

La Perla community in Puerto Rico by Adriana Cardona, WBEZ Chicago

And sparked by Cardona’s project, SJNN has also had a long-standing focus on Puerto Rico including relationships with community organizations and leaders in Puerto Rico and in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. For the past three years Medill students have traveled to Puerto Rico on a “Medill Explores” trip hosted by SJNN. And students have also with SJNN support traveled to cover Native American movements in Standing Rock and on the Crow reservation; Black Lives Matters protests in the Twin Cities; Arab American communities in Dearborn, Mich., and social justice issues in other locations.

By supporting and connecting community leaders, journalists from a wide range of media outlets and backgrounds and journalism students, SJNN aims to help tell stories of crucial impact at a time that a vibrant, diverse and independent media is more important than ever.


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