Naomi Ishisaka supports equity inside the newsroom and champions inclusivity in our coverage. In her Monday column, Naomi looks at issues of race, culture, and equity through a social justice lens.
Naomi, what drew you to journalism originally?
I was actually a very quiet and shy student when I was growing up, and it never would have occurred to me to write or tell stories for a living. But while I was quiet, my writing spoke loudly. After reading my work, a language arts teacher at Garfield High School encouraged me to write for the student newspaper and it lit a fire that I would carry the rest of my life. The words I wrote and the stories I told changed how people thought about issues and helped them see themselves reflected. I was lucky to benefit from programs to support students of color in journalism, such as the Urban Newspaper Workshop that The Seattle Times sponsored and the Northwest Journalists of Color scholarship program, both of which connected me to brilliant journalists of color who served as role models and mentors. Those programs taught me that my background and perspective had value and there was a place for me in this work.
You’ve worked for a few publications around the Puget Sound. What keeps you covering this community in particular?
I am a lifelong Seattleite who was raised by a strong community of social justice activists, advocates and academics of color who believed they could use their voices and skills to create the world they wanted to see. But I didn’t often see myself or the communities I am a part of reflected in the media. I got into journalism to change that, and tell the stories of under-represented people and issues.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
The pandemic has made it harder to do what I like to do most for my reporting: being out in the community, talking to people and just observing the world around me. I still talk to a lot of people by phone and on Zoom, but it’s the unplanned conversations or opportunities to witness what’s happening firsthand that I miss the most. It’s the little observations and details about places and people that technology can’t replace.
Are there stories you wanted to explore before the pandemic that are now difficult or impossible to look into?
The pandemic has made it very difficult to bear witness to what is going on in indoor spaces, such as prisons or hospitals. Before the pandemic, I hoped to spend time meeting incarcerated people who were doing educational work in prisons, for example, and that has not been possible. This is now even more unfortunate given that incarcerated people are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and it’s more important than ever for the media to see what’s happening for ourselves.
We’ve had uprisings over police brutality in the past, but generally they’ve been localized and have quieted after a short time. Why do you think the protest movement taking place today is so widespread and enduring?
I think the protest movement experienced a tipping point. The Black Lives Matter movement has been going strong since 2013, but the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, combined with the pandemic hitting Black and brown people hardest, was too much to ignore. Really for the first time, you saw a massive cross-racial, multi-generational coalition of people in urban and rural areas all coming together to say “enough.”
Can you describe what covering the protests has been like?
One of the most notable events I attended was the South Seattle rally and march in early June, led by youth from Community Passageways, a restorative justice program I wrote about in February. As a Rainier Beach resident, I have never seen so many people on our streets at one time. There were thousands of people of all backgrounds and ages, marching together for racial justice. At the end of the march there was a kind of mini festival set up at the Rainier Beach Safeway, with speakers, music, food and a strong feeling of hope and possibility.
Thinking back over the last year or so of your work, what pieces have been your favorite or most rewarding?
The pieces that I think have been the most important to me have been the stories about re-envisioning the criminal legal system as well as the Sunday cover story on the history-making nature of the current racial justice movement. In some ways I feel like I have waited my whole life for this moment, where a wide range of people are finally interested in and receptive to having these tough conversations about our system of policing and mass incarceration.
How have you been keeping busy during the lockdown, aside from work?
I started growing vegetables for the first time! I grew peas from seed and it felt like a small miracle when they started sprouting. You would think I just walked on the moon given how excited I was about it. I have quite a bounty of tomatoes now too. I am a proud vegetable mom.
Do you have any social justice reading or watching recommendations to keep us going through lockdown life?
In addition to the books Moira McDonald and I recommended in our racial justice book list in June, there are a number of outstanding films you can watch, as well. Some I would recommend are “13th,” which is a great primer on how we became the world’s leader in mass incarceration; “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is a powerful film based on the words and life of James Baldwin; “Whose Streets,” focusing on the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising; and “Crip Camp,” which is a documentary about the disability rights movement.
Highlights from Naomi’s portfolio
You can find previous Behind the Byline interviews and other peeks behind the scenes on our Inside The Times page. Want to learn more about your favorite Seattle Times journalist? Send a message to assistant managing editor Danny Gawlowski.