One year ago, 20 Florida International University journalism students and their professor – yours truly — set out on a mission: to cover Liberty City in a way it’s never been covered before.
With support from the South Florida Times, Liberty City Link set out to portray this vibrant community in its fullness — the good, the bad and the indifferent.
Today, some 40 student-reporters and nearly 100 stories later, we hope we’ve succeeded, at least a little.
We've covered events, written profiles and produced substantive stories on the U.S. Census and how non-participation impacts federal funding, on the planned 7th Avenue Transit Village and more.
We've learned about a community unlike the places we usually go and we've learned about how journalists can better cover it.
To be sure, some of the students from FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication approached the task with trepidation. After all, their parents and friends said, Liberty City is full of violence and its politicians and power-brokers are corrupt — but it might be okay to attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, as long as there is a safe place to park.
I was apprehensive, as well, but for different reasons: How would the community perceive a bunch of students, mostly Hispanics, a handful of African Americans, Caribbean Americans and a few Anglos? Would we be welcomed or would the community see us as interlopers?
We've learned a lot these past 12 months.
We have been welcomed as what we are: journalists trying to understand the community, avoid stereotypes and dig deeper than typical members of the media.
We now know that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Liberty City is no more dangerous and faces the same issues as other similarly neglected communities around the country. Yes, street smarts are required, but the mostly-female Liberty City Link crew has encountered not one uncomfortable situation.
But we've been troubled by other things.
Many Liberty City residents seem to buy into outsiders' views of the place where they live and find it difficult to effectively demand what other citizens get.
Rather than holding elected officials and other leaders accountable for their promises and action or inaction, the community seems to accept symbolic gestures in place of deeds.
What comes to mind is the reaction to a spate of drive-by shootings over the past year. Elected officials and high-ranking officers in the Miami police department called a community meeting to announce they would fight the problem by enforcing existing curfew regulations.
No one bothered to ask whether the shootings had indeed occurred after curfew and whether enforcing a curfew was an effective step against violence. Likewise, no one demanded that the police follow up with reports on the policy's results or made sure it was, in fact, enforced.
And, perhaps most important, the fact that drive-by shootings are not random crimes but usually involve individuals who know one another went unexamined.
Which leads us to another observation: Liberty City is fragmented and seems to suffer from a leadership vacuum. There does not appear to be a core of credible individuals who are, at least, somewhat unified and able to address issues, demand solutions and make sure official promises are kept.
Liberty City Link's student reporters hope, in the next year, to address some of these issues.
In the works are deep examinations of crime, political power, leadership and more.
One last request:
Despite our growing fondness and understanding of Liberty City and its residents, we remain outsiders. We ask you to be our eyes and ears, to tell us what we do well, what we could do better and the important issues we should cover.
If you belong to a church or community organization, please put us on your email lists; if you own a business, tell us what's going on; if you are simply a concerned resident, please be in touch.
Far from being apprehensive, FIU journalism students now ask to be part of Liberty City Link.
And they hope the work they do serves the community.
Neil Reisner, editor of Liberty City Link, is a professor at Florida International University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.