To really know what’s happening in a neighborhood, ask the people who live there. Better yet, get them to write stories about it for you.
Enter FreshWater Cleveland’s new community correspondent program, which will train four budding journalists to share stories about what they know best: Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.
The program kicked off Oct. 3 at PNC Fairfax Connection, where the four community correspondents—selected from a pool of applicants—have begun their education. Supported by a grant from the Cleveland Foundation, the program will shine a light on an often overlooked neighborhood while developing writers from within its borders. They will be equipped, trained, and mentored as they share inspiring local stories about progress and equity.
Charlotte MorganTeaching the classes is Charlotte Morgan, an instructor in the first-year writing department at Cleveland State University, where she is also a faculty adviser for an honors program. She also leads writing workshops for Literary Cleveland.
Morgan, a longtime journalist and a resident of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, is eager to show the participants they have the power to generate solutions by highlighting problems.
“Too often, people who live in these neighborhoods know what’s going on, and no one hears them,” Morgan says. “They don’t know how to speak truth to power. … This gives them an opportunity to write stories about issues that matter and have the hope that seeing them published will make a difference.”
Morgan will give the four writers the tools they need. “What I do best is to help people understand that words matter,” she says. “They don’t really understand the power of words. [My goal is to] get them to understand that they have a unique perspective, and if they just learn some [journalism] craft, they can actually go out and interview people and tell a story that only they know about.”
Meet the four Fairfax correspondents
Lauren Harrison nearly went to medical school. She was filling out her application for the University of Pittsburgh and suddenly changed her mind—opting to instead get a master’s degree in education.
Now, after more than a decade working in education and the nonprofit sector, Harrison, 35, is circling back to medicine, but on her own terms, including practicing yoga. She’s also homeschooling her daughter, Kali, 10. And she is eager to become a community correspondent.
“It will solidify the things that I’m already doing and bring a voice to a space that seems voiceless at times,” she says. “A lot of the stories that get told from our perspective aren’t told from people who are actually living it.”
She has more experience in photojournalism. “I’ve had some people tell me that I should actually explore writing, and it’s been something that I’ve avoided for my whole life,” she says.
Not anymore. “Why not give myself a try?” she says.
For the last three years, Harrison has lived in Hough and Fairfax, switching between the two after growing up in Warrensville Heights.
“Being in this area with so much potential, with the hospital and corporations coming in to develop, the city’s in a good transitional period, especially for the residents that are still here. So I felt it was just a powerful place to be in, and when the opportunity came for me to stay down here, I jumped on it.”
She enjoys putting a human face on misunderstood places and “little pockets of beauty in our city that people miss, because either they’re driving through it to get to another part of the city or because residents are so used to what their area looks like that they don’t take time to even see it,” says Harrison. “[I want to] highlight little pockets, hidden gems that people miss every day, and be able to tell the real story.”
One such gem may be the garden in her side yard. Harrison plans to triple it next year. “Since I did the transition to health and wellness, I’m learning to touch the dirt myself, and being sustainable in that way has been real calming,” she says. “When I’m not doing stuff for homeschool or yoga or community-related, I’m probably playing in the dirt, learning more about the stuff that I’m growing.”
Kyle WilsonKyle Wilson
Kyle Wilson has a short film on the festival circuit. “Look Twice” has won several awards and screened in two dozen film festivals. So why does this flourishing filmmaker want to be a Fairfax correspondent?
“I’ve always had a strong passion for my community and where I came from,” he says. “This facet of writing is interesting to me because it serves two things: It sharpens my writing tools, and it’s a new form of writing. But also I get to tell stories within the community I grew up in.”
Wilson, 34, earned a degree in film production at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. He’s directed some short films and written several scripts that he is shopping around to independent producers. He sees no problem moving from fiction to journalism.
“No matter what character I write, it’s always a real person,” he says. “Or I’m always pulling for a real person. So even though the story is fiction, the way you grab an audience is writing about real people.”
Having grown up in Fairfax, he has a lot of tales to tell. Wilson is most interested in relating “interesting stories about accomplishments, rising above the status quo or things of that nature. I’d like to get those out there, because the stigma of the [Fairfax] community is [that] there’s nothing there,” he says. “There are Ph.D’s, Wall Street people, [and people who] have done movies, worked in Fortune 500 companies. There are a lot of enriching things going on that only people in that community know.”
He calls Fairfax a diamond in the rough or, as film people say, a sleeper. “What people don’t realize is when you don’t have an outlet to show other people, the stigma is never going to change,” he says.
Angela ThomasAngela Thomas
Angela Thomas isn’t afraid to say what others are thinking. She’s willing to go there.
“People want to know, but they’re afraid to ask,” she said. “I’m a catalyst for change. I’m the spokesperson for most people. I’m the person that will say stuff that most people are afraid to mention.”
Thomas, 50, has seen changes of her own. She has worked as a reservations operator for Marriott International in Solon, as a shuttler for Alamo Rent A Car, as a Boy Scouts of America leader, and as a tester for the Fair Housing Board.
After earning her GED in 2013, Thomas enrolled at Lorain County Community College and signed up to become an announcer at the student internet radio station. Ten training sessions were required. After the first session, they called her in.
“They said, ‘The bad news is we won’t be training you anymore for the radio. The good news is you’re going on the air live today.’”
She loved it. “It was exhilarating. Oh my goodness,” she says. “I did commercials, promos, demos, recorded my own stuff, and had three shows.”
Next stop, the Ohio Media School. She graduated but continues to work on her craft. “I’m still learning how to better make commercials and operate the camera and that sort of thing.”
She also bowls, models, dances, sings, and writes songs and poems. She has music on ReverbNation and stories on WordPress. And she has belonged to Dress for Success Cleveland for more than a decade.
Thomas grew up in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Now she lives with her brother in Fairfax. As a community correspondent, she hopes to help people find the resources they need and “maybe create a news team in the area that can talk about things that the news doesn’t even want to cover.”
And she hopes to uplift and encourage those who may have given up, Thomas says. “I just know that we need to be awakened, and the community needs some hope and to know that change can come about.”
Elle WilsonElle Wilson
Growing up, Elle Wilson attended lots of community meetings with her mother. She has lived in Fairfax since she was 8 years old.
“I got my love for Fairfax from my mother,” she says. “I usually was the youngest person at these meetings.” Now 25, Wilson still attends neighborhood meetings, and she’s often still the youngest person there, she says.
“It’s really true that so many things are happening here, and it’s not all bad,” she says. “There are so many success stories and people who’ve lived here who’ve accomplished things, CEOs, Harvard graduates,” she says, echoing her older brother, Kyle Wilson.
“It’s actually a really calm place to live, really quiet,” she says.
Wilson began writing when she was little. “I have always loved writing,” she says. “Mostly writing for fun, mostly novel-type writing.”
She recently turned to journalism, including writing a story for FreshWater Cleveland. “It’s just been an interest of mine that I never explored. I wanted to give it a shot.”
A graduate of the now-closed Montessori School in University Circle, Wilson attended Baldwin Wallace University for a year and now attends Cuyahoga Community College on and off. “When I can afford it,” she says.
Other interests include software engineering and the history of languages. “It’s interesting how fast some languages die,” she says.
Closer to home, she sees growth. “Everywhere you go in Cleveland, construction is happening, but especially in Fairfax,” she says. “The [Cleveland] Clinic is always growing. That’s a blessing and a curse, depending on who you talk to. It’s eating into the neighborhood, doctors parking on all the residential streets so they don’t have to pay to park.”
She’s excited about the community correspondents program. “If we don’t tell the stories, the stories won’t be told,” she says.
Portrait photos by Karin McKenna