It was 2003 and I’d moved back to the Bay after being laid off from a giant dot.com and deciding I just couldn’t work in that system anymore. Instead, I was a bicoastal tech consultant, explaining blogging, RSS feeds, content management systems, semantic data, tagging and all the social media I was fascinated by to big companies that were terrified because they didn’t speak geek.
As a side project, I connected with a set of folks at a shop I’d always admired–New America Media, and tried to help them modernize their presence online. Back when I was an aspiring high school/college-aged writer in New York, I’d sent long handwritten pitches to Sandy Close and company, now had the chance to volunteer my tech skills to help their enterprise.
One of the people Sandy introduced me to with special pride was Kevin. A little shy, a little heavy-set, Kevin was developing the kind of youth programs using media and storytelling that really change kids’ lives. As a former writing instructor myself (8 years with Teachers & Writers’ Collaborative) I hit it off with Kevin right away and enjoyed his stories about working with youth.
Fast forward some years, to 2008. I am now a new Oakland resident and my friend Kwan Booth and I are starting Oakland Local, a web site meant to be more inclusive and diverse than everything else we’re seeing in the East Bay. We don’t have a lot of money, but we have a growing audience–many of whom are under 35 and black, many of whom are social justice oriented, concerned about climate change, influencers.
Kevin, who is still at New America Media, becomes someone I turn to for advice and counsel. He knows writers in Oakland we can connect with, he’s got advice about the political scene, and he steers talented young people of color looking for chances to write in our direction.
When we want to raise money to find someone to cover the trial of BART cop Johannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant—and share the reporting with many other organizations in the Bay–he connects me with Thandisizwe Chimurenga–a wonderful journalist based in Los Angeles, who proceeds to write stories so powerful they are pretty much smoking (and one of them, about the trial’s opening day, goes viral on Yahoo! and gets 17,000 page views). There is no question that we’re speaking truth to power, in the best possible way.
A few years go by, and Kevin is on our Board. He’s an African-American journalist, male, talented, born and raised in Oakland and passionate about giving opportunities to young people–the perfect person to support what we do (and someone we want to value and support in every way). Oakland Local is growing, we’re in our 4th year, and my secret fantasy is that someday he will become our editor, running the local news web site he helped advise and create.
Only instead of that happening, Kevin goes to Stanford. He’s talked at length with everyone doing hyper-local news, he’s seen the funding (the hope) that foundations so briefly attach to supporting local non-profit media, and he’s gone to Stanford with his own intention to plan and then launch an Bay area news web site from a Black perspective. Part of me feels excited and hopes we can partner, part of me is threatened and hopes this isn’t a one or the other scenario, only before I can talk to Kevin about it, the unthinkable happens–he’s diagnosed with an acute system infection and cancer and almost dies. For the next two years, he’s in treatment, battling to survive with the support of his amazing wife and extended community. He becomes better–and then not, and you know the rest of that story.
What I want to share is that Kevin, who never bragged about himself as a journalist or an educator, had an amazing ability to connect with people that made so many of us love him. As a journalist he had that elusive thing called “news judgement” that lets editors assign stories everyone wants to head–but he also had a kindness so many talented journalists somehow often lack. When Kevin got sick, I reached out and helped virtually a couple of times, but resisted going to see him–I just wanted to deny that his struggle was probably not going to end in a win.
Now that he is gone, I am thinking about what I can do to honor him, the lessons he taught me, the friendship he gave me, and the shared pleasure we took in empowering and teaching others. It hurts that I missed my chances to see him when he was alive, but I know that he ended in life in the warm glow of his family, friends and the intimate circles of a community that found it easy to love him.
Kevin, I hope it’s good in Heaven, and that riding the jet stream of the universe is amazing fun. Thank you for being you and all you shared with me.