On the Record: Aisha Turner
Aisha Turner is the first race and ethnicity reporter for Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM). She previously collaborated with the station to produce Precious Lives, a 101-episode series about how gun violence impacts young people in Milwaukee. She began her career as a desk assistant at PBS Newshour and eventually moved up to the ranks of reporter/producer. She has also done work for Al Jazeera America. The Black Student Union hosted her for a talk titled “Gun Violence, Media and Race” on Nov. 13.
You are WUWMB’s first race and ethnicity reporter. What does it mean to cover “race and ethnicity,” two concepts that are notoriously difficult to define, and even harder to talk about? What kinds of stories do you cover?
I am still in the process of trying to figure that out. My approach thus far [has been covering] people that I think are interesting and have a lot of complexity around their position within conversations around race.
The first story I did when I first moved back to Milwaukee was about a guy named Pastor Steve Jerbi. He was pastoring a multicultural congregation, which is pretty rare. The church is mostly black, but he was a white man doing that work. His church is located in the inner city. There was a situation where a 12-year-old [black] boy named Darius Simmons was shot by his older, white neighbor and [Darius’s] mom was a member of the church. Pastor Steve got pushed into this fight around racial justice [because of] how the mom was treated by police afterward. He got caught up in these police accountability conversations as part of what he saw as the “pastoral care.” Then Dontre Hamilton was shot downtown. Maria Hamilton, his mom, was a member of the church, so Pastor Steve was in these Black Lives Matter protests. I did a story about his work around racial justice and about how he sees himself placed within that, both as a white man and as a member of the clergy. I’m still wrestling with, editorially, how to handle this really broad topic — the ideas I want to do are just dissertations. My editors have to reel me in a little bit and say, “What is the three-minute version of that textbook you’re talking about?”
As a journalist who covers social issues and activism frequently, do you feel there is a tension between being an activist and being a journalist? Do you think of yourself as one or the other?
I definitely think there’s a tension. I don’t think of myself as an activist. I think I’m really careful about that. Largely because I tend to work at more traditional outlets and I could get fired, so that’s real — the job risk.
One of my mentors who passed away last year was Gwen Ifill [former anchor for the PBS Newshour]. One of the points she made to us when we were desk assistants was, “It’s not about me.” It’s not about my opinion at the end of the day. There are spaces where it could be, and maybe in another life I could’ve gone down that path, but I think what I’m really good at is trying to understand different points of view and nuanced points of view. If in bringing my own opinions to that, I risk credibility, that’s not that worth it to me. I think the more I dive into nuance, the less I think I know. I know more but the less I think “this should be this way.” There is a tension [though] because there are things where you’re just like, “That’s just messed up, just be a decent person.”
What’s one story you have written or produced that you feel the students at Kenyon College, a predominantly white liberal arts institution, should know about?
I interviewed this family, Greg and Laura Marshall. They have four little girls. They’re a white family who moved from the suburbs and into the city. They lived in one of the more mixed neighborhoods in Milwaukee but it was still predominantly black. They tell this story about, at one point, their house was being worked on so they were staying at a hotel out of the city. They were watching the news and everything was like, “Violence on the north side of Milwaukee!” They were like, “You have to be places, you can’t just believe what’s in the media. You have to know that places are really complicated.” There are higher rates of gun violence [in north Milwaukee] than where they were, but that’s not all there is. They said, “We have Easter egg hunts every spring, community dinners every week. Gun violence is a part of the life here but it’s not even a big part of life here. There’s violence, but that’s not the point, and if you focus on the bad stuff, you’re missing the point.”
During your talk, you spoke about the pressure you feel as a reporter who produces stories about black people for a predominantly white, upper-class audience. You said you fear creating stories about “black pain for [white people] to consume.” How do you navigate storytelling in this situation?
I think that often, the images we see in media about black people or people of color more broadly are certain narratives. It’s important to talk about inequality but that’s so much of what we talk about. And I don’t know that we always talk about it in a way that gets at what’s leading to this. I want more context to stories. I don’t want to create people that are just pitying an entire group of people, or stereotyping them in an even more negative way. I still really struggle with this. I try to focus on capturing the person in front of me the best way I can and then edit, change things from there. That tends to be my focus, is trying to do that well.
How did your work with Precious Lives change how you think about gun violence? About race relations at large?
It just made me believe in individual people. It just really made me believe in community-based solutions that get support from larger society because it’s necessary. It made me believe that we need to figure out a better way of supporting grassroots. That gets tricky because, as soon as something does get more institutional support, there are certain constraints and it’s no longer considered grassroots. But there needs to be more space for trial and error and individuals who are trying to do good stuff, more of a reallocation of energy and resources. Support mentors, that’s what I want. More support for mentorship.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.