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Sarah Alvarez Interview

Sarah Alvarez, Michigan Radio’s Public Insight Journalist

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 did environmental justice, access to health care and disability rights [law], 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 with it by having the chance of making it to the Supreme Court to change the law.  But, because the law is pretty hostile to civil rights cases, most of what I did was figure out why something was going to be a bad case to bring to court.  So, I transitioned out of that and started working 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 stuff.  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 Just 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 to get hired here.

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.  That’s what I want to do and there is no bigger group that this happens to other than kids and people living in poverty.  I love doing this work, because I feel my expertise helps.  What I really like to do is get as close to a person’s story on the air 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 [for example] like how a teenager 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 the audio editing, and the mixing and the producing that we do everything ourselves.

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 story 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.  And, to tell their stories in a way that they can really connect to people.  This 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 story telling coaching, because I think it’s really empowering for people.  This kind of work is the most impactful, because 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 plan of State of Opportunity.  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.  They’re both embedding in classrooms.  Jen’s embedding in 5th grade and she’s looking at disparities between very well-funded and not-so-well funded school districts.  And Dustin is trying to embed in a 3rd grade classroom to follow the high stakes testing.  We’re also going to circle back to folks we’ve featured before.  Now we’ve 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 so many good ideas for on-air stories sent to me from people.     

And, I’m also doing a project on busing in Detroit.  It’s the 40th anniversary of a Supreme Court case called Milliken v. Bradley that said it was illegal for Detroit to bus kids inter-districtly.  To try and desegregate the school district in and out of Detroit they tried to switch up the numbers a little bit.  But the Supreme Court said this is illegal.  This project is all about what has happened since then and a look into whether Detroit is the way it is today because of efforts to abandon integration and educational equity after that case.  Not that I think busing was a good idea, but the controversy was so huge afterwards and there was so much animosity.  So, where we are now was directly tied down to 40 years ago when there was an attempt to integrate.  I’m trying to integrate voices who were involved 40 years ago and 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