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Conversation with Sarah Alvarez

Sarah Alvarez, Michigan Radio’s Public Insight Journalist and State of Opportunity Team Member, talks about the second year of the State of Opportunity project, her background as a civil rights attorney, and her new role reporting on the issue of Michigan children and their families living in poverty. 

Can you tell our Producers Circle members about your recent career transition?

I was working in a civil rights practice where I worked on environmental justice, access to health care and disability rights, and while I feel that those areas are incredibly important, I was unsatisfied with my work.  I did something called Federal Impact litigation, where you take one big case and try to change the law by taking the case to the Supreme Court.  I transitioned out of that and started working in management for social justice organizations doing management; helping non-profits with various things, like how to not lobby too much and help them with their IRS issues.  I was happy to be able to use my skills in a way that was helpful, but when we moved here to Ann Arbor I decided that journalism was the kind of career I didn’t pursue, yet always wanted to do.  I did a 3 month internship with Vince [Michigan Radio’s News Director] and got really lucky and was hired.

How does your background assist the work you do here at Michigan Radio?
I really like reporting on the issues I have history with, such as civil rights issues.  I like to report on things that are affecting marginalized groups; groups that we don’t hear from a lot and who are being impacted.  We don’t hear their perspective.  And there is no bigger group that this happens to than kids and people living in poverty.  I love doing this work, because I feel my expertise helps.  I really like to get as close to a person’s story as I can.  So, I love doing non-narrated pieces where you don’t hear from a reporter at all.  Those are my favorites, because I think these are the people that [traditionally] aren’t on the radio very much.  But sometimes you can’t do that; a lot of the stories that we tell can’t be told that way.  You just can’t tell a story about a teenager who doesn’t have Medicaid in the voice of a teenager because there’s a lot to explain in four minutes.  I love the process of being a journalist.  I love editing the audio, mixing and producing everything myself.

Which State of Opportunity piece has touched you the most?

I think the work I do on the child welfare system is what is personally most impactful for me.  I’m now working with a lot of kids who have aged out of the system and I’m doing storytelling coaching with them.  These are young adults who want to tell their story, and use their personal experience to enlighten people on what it’s really like to be in the foster care system, and what they wish they could see change.  So, I’m helping them to craft their stories so that they can share them in a way that they can really connect to people.  Sharing their story with a reporter is a scenario where folks can be easily exploited, because some of the stories are so tragic, you could see them exploited by media that doesn’t care.  So, I’m working with them to know what parts of their story they don’t have to tell, and what types of questions they shouldn’t answer.  I love doing the coaching, because I think it’s really empowering for people.  I’m honored by the level of trust people are putting in me, and I appreciate it.

What upcoming State of Opportunity projects can you tell our Producers Circle about?

I think that most people aren’t familiar with the State of Opportunity plan.  The first year we were concentrating on 0-5, this year we’re concentrating on Kindergarten through 8th grade, and next year we’re going to do high school and young adulthood.  We’re just entering K-8th grade now; Jen Guerra and Dustin Dwyer are doing a lot on high stakes testing.  Jen’s embedded with a 5th grade classroom and she’s looking at disparities between very well-funded and not-so-well funded school districts.  And Dustin is in a 3rd grade classroom to follow the high stakes testing.  We’re also going to circle back to folks we’ve featured before.  We’ve now known people for over a year and will tell their stories again: Where are they? What’s happened in their lives?  Part of my job is to get as many diverse voices as I can get, and to try and increase the diversity of people who listen.  I get many good ideas from stories sent to me.     

And, I’m also doing a project on busing in Detroit.  It’s the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley that ruled it was illegal for Detroit to bus kids inter-districtly.  They tried to switch up the numbers to try and desegregate the school district in and out of Detroit.  But the Supreme Court said that was illegal.  This project is all about what has happened since then and looks into whether Detroit is the way it is today because of efforts to abandon integration and educational equity after that case.  I’m trying to integrate voices who were involved 40 years ago with education reformers today, to see if it’s much harder for them with such a racially and economically segmented system.

Please contact Sarah directly if you would like to share your experience and expertise on an issue that would help to diversify the voices heard on Michigan Radio. sarahwa@umich.edu