What defines a community?
Boundaries? Gathering places? Clubs, schools, businesses?
Or are communities defined by the way outsiders see them?
And if outsiders define a community – Liberty City, for example – as a dangerous place to go, a place riddled with crime and corruption, and the people who live there believe what they think, then what?
For five months now, a posse of Florida International University journalism students have done their best to cover Liberty City in a way that it's not been covered before. We've produced coming on to 50 stories on local events, issues, places, businesses and, most of all, people. And we've learned that Liberty City, though mightily challenged, is more than crime, corruption and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.
Here are some things we've noticed:
• We've been welcomed. People appreciate what we're doing and read what we report. That most of us are not black doesn't matter.
• There are bunches of people working hard to put on events or create organizations that bring Liberty City residents together, but few people come to them.
• Many of those same hardworking people get nervous and tell us it's none of our business when we ask them about government and grant money they spend on those events and organizations. Transparency isn't on their agendas because, until now, they've run their own shows, with no questions asked.
We're asking those questions. We need you to tell us what you think of what we report and, more importantly, we need you to tell us what we should report.
I came up in the 1960s. My life was framed by the civil rights movement, which I saw from afar in California, and by the Vietnam War.
That came to mind the other day, as my Liberty City Link students and I chatted during the weekly meeting we convene to discuss ideas, stories and the community in general.
Specifically, I was reminded of a poster that adorned many-a-wall during the Vietnam era.
It read: “What if they threw a war and nobody came?”
An odd brain pop, to be sure, but with a slight rephrase it becomes relevant: “What if they threw a community event and nobody came?”
I'm white and Jewish, and I don't live in Liberty City. Back in the day, though, I was an activist in my own community, and I think I know a little about how community's tick.
One thing I know for sure is that there is no community when the folks who live there don't believe there is one. And there's certainly no community when the folks who live there believe what outsiders think.
Outsiders think Liberty City is only one step removed from hell. What they see on TV or in the paper are drive-bys, political corruption or references to riots that occurred three decades ago.
To quote from a blog post on the respected demographic site, city-data.com, Liberty City is “very relaxing between the hail of gunfire and the smell of crack.”
The trouble, I suspect, is that many residents agree with that perception. And that means they don't have the community pride that can change it.
Liberty City does have a lot of problems. It's poor and it's neglected by many of the agencies charged with building it up. Jobs are scarce, schools seem unable to compete, there are too many babies having babies, and there's a history of organizations and elected officials who work more for themselves than the public they're supposed to serve.
We journalists sometimes say that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and we hope we're shining the sun on corners of the community that often aren't well lit.
The Liberty City Link team finds out a lot simply by being out on the streets. I ask you to help us find out more.
Tell us what we should cover, send us your announcements, newsletters and press releases.
If it's good, tell us; if it's corrupt, tell us; if it's just really interesting, tell us. We can't promise we'll do everything, but the more we know, the more we can cover.
You can reach me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. My phone number is 305-919-5677. My fax is 305-919-5215.
The Liberty City Link team looks forward to hearing from you.
Neil Reisner is a professor of journalism at Florida International University, and the editor of Liberty City Link.