Member Spotlight: Educator Turned Journalist Takes on the Race Beat at Vox
Fabiola Cineas’ background as a teacher and education journalist helps her thrive in one of the newest - and most important - beats in journalism.
Less than 3% of journalists are Black women, according to the American Society of News Editors’ 2019 Newsroom Diversity Survey. An even tinier percentage of journalists have public school teaching experience. And on top of that remarkable history, Fabiola Cineas is a pioneer in a new beat. Cineas, who previously covered education for the Philadelphia School Notebook and Chalkbeat New York, now has the title of “race reporter” at Vox.
“[Murry] Bergtraum is viewed as one of the worst schools in [New York City],” Cineas said of her alma mater in an episode of Vox’s web series, Glad You Asked, where she hosts, questions America’s meritocracy-based education system and explains how meritocracy perpetuates inequality and racism against people of color. “I had to kind of join an elite group within this high school to stay afloat. It just felt like most of the time I was trying to survive.”
In this member spotlight, Cineas gives EWA a look into how her past – attending troubled, public schools in New York after being denied admission to some of the state’s selective public schools, then teaching seventh grade English in Camden, N.J. and transitioning to education journalism – has served as an important foundation to help her take on a beat that a growing number of news outlets are adding.
Her experiences as a child of Haitian immigrant parents, student, teacher, and education journalist prepared her to investigate how race and racism affect every aspect of American life, from health to economics to, yes, education.
The below Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.
When did you realize there’s a link between race, education and opportunity?
It was very early on, even before high school, when I was in Brooklyn. I quickly realized there was a tier: certain students who were able to take part in certain programs, certain students who weren’t. And then just what it meant to have to advocate for yourself to get into the good schools or the good classes within those schools. Even with the middle school admissions, for example, in Brooklyn, I was able to get into the school I got into because I had an older sister who was already in the school.
I didn’t have parents who could advocate for me. My parents are immigrants from Haiti. Many parents could potentially come in and talk at parent-teacher conferences and say, “Oh, I need this for my child.” But as a first-generation student, it was us who were always advocating for us. I mean, myself and my siblings, who are always advocating for ourselves and telling our parents, “This is what it is we need.”
I was fortunate to be the youngest out of many siblings, so I could see what they went through when it came to various stages in the process of applying for different [public] schools [in New York].
In Glad You Asked, you mentioned believing your education experience was an outlier after attending Murry Bergtraum. How so?
It’s the programs I was able to be a part of, whether it was legal outreach or being a policy scholar, [and] getting a full-tuition scholarship to go to college. Those opportunities were definitely game changers for me and helped really guide my trajectory. We can look up the numbers for how many people are able to get into these kinds of programs and get [those benefits.] That’s why I feel like my story was different.
People can look at me and be like, “Oh, you did it. You worked hard, and you were successful.” But there were so many other factors that went into what I was able to accomplish. Yeah, I worked hard. But I had this entire army of people [behind me] who were dedicated to the mission of opening up doors for young people when it came to education. Without that, I can definitively say it wouldn’t have worked out.
I know so many people who also worked hard in high school. But those resources were not available to them. You can see where different people ended up based on the kinds of resources that were available to them.
Do any of your past teaching experiences stick with you?
I taught seventh grade and the main thing that sticks with me is the amount of violence my students had dealt with. So many of my students were survivors dealing with some of the most horrific things that no 11-year-old, 12-year-old should have to know about or just deal with at that age.
To see them come to school every day and do the best that they could was a constant reminder of the kinds of inequities that America has. Some of the worst violence you can think of … my students survive[d] that. I think about how they were just doing their best in class and just trying to represent a city that had such a bad name, even though so many of them were living there. It was just really powerful to see the kind of fortitude in the kind of world they had.
A few years ago, race reporter as a job title wasn’t the norm. What contributed to reporters being able to cover race more openly?
[The election of Donald] Trump was definitely a moment when newsrooms really had to rethink the things they were saying, the things they were doing. Several years ago, it was a line that you would include later on. You’d maybe throw in a couple of stats about why a certain thing was the way that it was.
But using terms like systemic racism was just not something you could throw into a story and have editors be OK with it and have readers have an understanding of what it is. Race is able to be front and center, and people recognize that it is part of the narrative, that it is the narrative for a lot of what’s happening in society.
Back then, if you’re pitching a story and even in the early Trump years, if you wanted to call Trump racist, even now, it was kind of slapped on as an opinion piece. Let’s actually look at the definition of what it means to be racist, and let’s look at what racism means, and we can see that.
How do you utilize your education reporting skills when covering race?
A big one I think about a lot is how I would often go into people’s classrooms when I was an education reporter. The classroom is such an intimate space when you’re observing the relationship that teachers have with their students or just processes that schools have in place. Just getting to just enter into so many schools is a skill I definitely still use.
Sadly, I’m probably not using it as much as I would like to now because of coronavirus, but it’s something that is definitely in my back pocket of how to talk to, for example, young people that I’m interviewing.
Talking to students, like kindergarteners and first graders,about what they’re learning, I think, [it’s] a special skill of trying to understand people and where they are.
Can you talk about your personal experiences as a reporter who is a Black woman?
One of the biggest things I experience is, especially if I’m writing about Black women or girls, it’s so personal that sometimes when I’m writing, I’m like, “Oh, is anyone going to care about this thing?’ I care about this so much. But sometimes it’s like, “What’s the point when no one’s really going to care about this thing?”
It’s weird to kind of be experiencing the thing you’re writing about while you’re writing about it.
Just having that moment [and] realization when I’m actually writing the story can be challenging, but I’m constantly reminding myself why I’m writing a piece like this because no one else will write and know what it is, but a lot of other people will.
As a Black person, as a Black woman, people will kind of think you’re being “biased” because you want to write about yourself, but it’s also like, “No. This is a real thing.” This is a real phenomenon we need to be talking about and writing about. And so just making space for people to see these specific issues that are happening in the classroom with Black children are worth being written about.
Whether it’s race or education, what issues should be covered more?
There needs to be so much more coverage of just what’s happening in prisons. [You’ll] see stories like, “Oh, this is going on at Rikers Island. It’s terrible.” Then the story will disappear, or you’ll see prisoners protesting at a prison in the Midwest, and then the story will disappear.
It’s unfortunate a lot of reporting is connected to what’s trendy or what’s hot. But I think reporting on even my beat, it’s just like it needs to be [covered]. I wish I wasn’t waiting for it to be hot all the time and for it to be more mainstream because I think it depends on it.
Last year, we talked about police so much, but now you’re in a different place if you try to pitch or write about the police or prison abolition.
What was some of the best reporting advice you received?
Some of the most best recent advice I’ve gotten, or the one that sticks out to me always, keep going, keep writing.
There was a point when I was freelancing where it was like, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this.” But then I spoke to someone who was like, “A lot of it is just you have to keep going. Just keep writing because it’s really hard, but you just have to keep at it.”
There is that almost automatic reflex of, “Oh, should I just not be doing this? Should I just drop out and not keep doing this?” So keep writing.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
As a reporter, it’s important to read a lot. You need to read widely, not just within your beat or field. It’s important to read widely and also to learn the writers you like, learn their styles and learn the stories and pieces that you appreciate. Try to mimic that kind of writing to get better and stronger.