‘I Want People to Hear Me’: An Interview With Savannah West

‘I Want People to Hear Me’: An Interview With Savannah West

‘I Want People to Hear Me’: An Interview With Savannah West

Black on Campus used technology, travel, text messaging, and the sheer force of will to build community as we learned to meet deadlines.


Black on Campus was always operating on two levels: At one level, it was a journalism program focused on reporting the stories of contemporary African-American students on college campuses. At the same time, it was always an experiment in training college journalists.

Think of a college class. You probably imagine a male professor standing in front of a classroom delivering an erudite lecture on an obscure topic to a large crowd of students in rows of stadium seats. Maybe younger learners have dispatched with this model, replacing it with new visions of swift, smart, shareable informative videos—delivered by male professors using engaging graphics as they make obscure topics more decipherable. College learning is distant and sterile compared to our imaginations of, say, a kindergarten class. Blocks! Circle time! Stories! Sandboxes! Teachers who know your name! All while learning important skills with people who are not just your peers or classmates—but your friends.

For nearly two decades I have been trying to inject a bit more of the ethics of kindergarten learning into college classrooms by carving out programs where students can develop key scholarly and professional skills in the context of genuine relationships with faculty and mutual—often complicated—bonds of cohort learning. Dr. Sherri Williams, assistant professor of communication at American University, has been my co-conspirator and partner in this work, where she has taught me to adapt cohort learning to train emerging story tellers.

Black on Campus used technology, travel, text messaging, and the sheer force of will to build community as we learned to meet deadlines. Black on Campus became and remains something more than a class. Many of the young reporters are now in their first professional roles. They are working in major cities for print and broadcast outlets. They share each others work, amplify one another’s voices, offer professional advice—and make jokes.

As we encourage Nation readers to revisit the valuable original reporting of the Black on Campus cohort, I decided it was a good time to assess how some of the young reporters thought about their Black on Campus experiences. I sat down with Savannah West. West is now finishing her final semester at Clark Atlanta University. She is a journalism major from Chicago. Though she was active in the program, Savannah also had a tough spring semester and did not complete an independent byline in the first round of reporting. Still, she was a touchstone for the group. I wanted to learn more about her journey through college and the Black on Campus experience as a way of revealing broader truths for students like her.

Melissa Harris-Perry: Of all the Black on Campus students, none had more pure school pride than you. Why do you think that is?

Savannah West: My path to college was not an easy one. I didn’t know what to expect when I got to college. I never actually thought I’d make it here. Black girls are stereotyped and criminalized from a very young age in public school systems. Our creativity is deemed unruly, our inquisition is seen as argumentative, and [our] passion is regarded as misbehavior. Being a black woman who made it to college not only means that I defied the odds that were never in my favor, but that I survived. I graduated high school with less than a 2.0, a criminal record, and no college acceptance letters. I’m about to graduate from the university of my dreams with a degree and experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I’ve had amazing, incomparable opportunities that were only afforded to me because I am a black woman in college. Clark Atlanta University has molded me into the woman my grandma always told me I could be. Making it to—and through—college made me who I am.

MHP: Savannah, when I wrote the introduction piece to our Black on Campus series, some readers responded that the “solution” to campus racial bias is simply to attend an HBCU. You are an HBCU student. Is it that simple?

SW: Because my institution is not racially diverse, there is not much racial bias. So I cannot say that I have experienced all of the same injustices as the rest of my cohort. However, there is a great deal of sexism, elitism, and colorism that occurs at HBCUs across the country. DeAsia Paige reported about the lack of black female representation in student government at white schools, and we have the exact same problem. Women of color make up over 70 percent of undergraduate enrollment at CAU. There hasn’t been a woman elected as SGA president in years.

There have been many student movements for justice and equality like #WeKnowWhatYouDid and #SayTheirName calling out rapists and demanding justice for sexual assault. CAU students have been pushing administration for years to create more policies to protect the student body. Some members of administration put the schools’ reputation over the safety of the students and irresponsibly sweep issues under the rug. Ironically, we are in Atlanta, home of the civil-rights movement. Even in this “black mecca,” there is still a price to pay for black activism, just like Devan and Lauren reported from DC. So no, everything is far from perfect.

MHP: You aspire to be a storyteller. Why do the stories of black folk matter?

SW: Our stories are what drive the movement. Fierce reporting and unapologetic storytelling have often been the driving force behind achieving social justice and civil rights. My favorite quote is, “Until the lion learns to write, the story will always glorify the hunter.” As journalists, I believe that it is our responsibility to hold people accountable and amplify unheeded voices. This is exactly why Black on Campus matters. It is imperative, now more than ever, to document the lived experiences of marginalized people. Everyone may not have access to the platforms that we do as writers, but their stories are still important. Their voices matter.

MHP: You had a lot of travel as part of the Black on Campus experience! In addition to conferences in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and New York City, you also had the chance to visit both Washington, DC; and Los Angeles. What did you learn in those experiences?

SW: When I traveled to DC for the Black Journalists Roundtable at the Education Trust, I literally had a seat at the table. I never imagined that I’d be in the same room as activists, journalists, and politicians who actually wanted to hear what I had to say. I learned what the Education Trust is about and the role that journalists play in the fight for education equity. Everyone at Ed Trust is brilliant and back their passion with real policy to invoke change. I left DC with a fire inside of me to become more civically engaged and to do my part has as a journalist to advocate for things that I care about.

I traveled to LA to attend an event for Stacey Abrams, who is now the first black female Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia. Her political positioning is monumental for so many reasons. However, I had no idea just how much of a national impact local elections could have. I got to hear Leader Abrams address aspects of her platform and gain the support of influential non-Georgia residents willing to donate to her campaign. I interviewed celebrities like Rashida Jones, Erika Alexander, and Chris Bosh. They all stressed the importance of being politically aware and involved, especially as a black college student.

Black on Campus has given me a unique opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with thought-leaders and activists who I otherwise may not come in contact with.

MHP: Dr. Sherri Williams and I have been working for some time on a theory of cohort learning in journalism. What was the value of a cohort learning experience for you?

SW: This cohort experience is unlike anything I have ever been a part of. I go to an HBCU, so I am always surrounded black excellence, but these fellows are rare. Black on Campus has connected me with some of the most intelligent, impressive black student journalists I may ever have the pleasure of knowing. The 10 of us are spread out all over the country, yet we are connected by our shared experiences of matriculating while black. It has been awe-inspiring to watch the stories in this series progress from pitches to well-written, nationally published pieces. Between the GroupMe, our weekly WebEx calls, and e-mails, we have all been in constant communication. We share frustrations, jokes, everyday struggles, and offer genuine support and congratulations when they’re in order. You and Dr. Williams are some of the most busiest, most involved women I know. You both wear so many hats and still devoted and distributed your time and expertise to all 10 of us. I can’t even begin to thank you both for that. Black on Campus owes me nothing.

MHP: I remember thinking one of the most special opportunities for the young women in the cohort was the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with the 2018 Anna Julia Cooper lecturer, Dr. Brittney Cooper, during her visit to Wake Forest University. What did you take away from that conversation?

SW: The main thing I took from our conversation with Brittney Cooper is not to be loud and wrong. As passionate as she is, she said she never walks into a room “guns blazing.” Ms. Cooper explained to us the importance of actively listening, thinking about the tactics we’re going to use and having a few different modes of engagement. She said, “If you’re going to be loud, that’s fine. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about.” Brittney Cooper unapologetically displays her eloquent rage whenever she deems necessary, and rightfully so! She said, “The only reason I have this much bravado is because I can,” then quoted Beyoncé saying, “I talk like this ’cause I can back it up.”

MHP: Ha! We always find our way back to Beyoncé, don’t we? Savannah, when do you find your eloquent rage?

SW: I find my eloquent rage when I find myself having to justify my choice in where to go to college. People will say, “You’re so smart, you could have gone anywhere, why an HBCU?” My internal response is immediately rage. White students are never deterred from attending predominantly white institutions due to lack of diversity—so why me? Why do I have to explain the significance of wanting to be surrounded by like-minded individuals with similar lived experiences? Having to explain the historical significance and beauty behind black colleges is annoying, to say the least. In order to not appear as an angry, dark-skinned black girl, I convey my point intelligently and eloquently. They might not feel me, but I want to make sure that people always hear me.

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