Slow down, take small steps: OpenNews’ Sisi Wei on how little changes can lead to big ones

By Janelle Salanga | Originally published: NiemanLab

“We can make change together as opposed to trying to depend on one person to lead us all. When I think about making change that way, it becomes so much more accessible.”

If you’re a journalist of color, it’s very likely you’ve ended up in a space with Sisi Wei, the co-executive director at OpenNews. She’s worked at ProPublica, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press, but she’s also part of the admin team for the Journalists of Color Slack and founded the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coalition for Anti-Racist, Equitable and Just Newsrooms.

The Coalition’s Slack workspace, hosted through OpenNews, originated last summer with the hope that it would give folks across newsrooms the ability to pursue equity and anti-racism in their respective workplaces and the industry at large. A team of 100 volunteers and four committee leaders has grown into nearly 1,000 members since it formally launched in March of this year.

Wei won the 2021 Gwen Ifill Award, an award given by the International Women’s Media Foundation for continuing Ifill’s legacy of supporting female journalists of color in news. She sat down with me to talk about the DEI Coalition Slack, defeating pessimism and creating industry-wide change.

JANELLE SALANGA: Tell me about your path through journalism and design spaces, and how that’s culminated in where you are now.
SISI WEI: It’s been a whirlwind. I started in the industry 10 years ago, but my idea of what I was going to do as a journalist changed dramatically while I was in school. When I first started, I was all-in on interactive graphics as how I wanted to tell stories, because I felt like it was so powerful, and wasn’t something that I grew up seeing because the technology wasn’t there yet for newsrooms. By the time I was entering the profession it was, and I felt like I was getting to be endlessly creative in that job. As time went forward, I focused on “How do I use coding skills, plus design skills, plus journalism skills, to tell stories that we’ve never been able to tell before, because we didn’t have these tools at hand?”I then started down this path of editing work, but also management work, and I started thinking: “How do I design spaces for other people?” Whether that’s something as common as team meetings or something that is all about building trust between departments with editors who maybe don’t know each other very well. That kind of work started becoming very core to what I felt like was my job, and part of my job meant really bringing people together and helping them work together in the best way that they could.

I was looking for different problems to solve while still using the skills that I had really worked on. I was trying to figure out: What is the best way that I can be a manager, a supporter, a sponsor? How do I help people really fight for the best ways to do something, even if it’s not how things have always been done?

I’m at OpenNews now and I started a month before the pandemic hit the United States. I was the director of programs when I started, and my job was to continue listening to the community, and think about, “What are the needs there? What are the gaps that we can fill, that could make a real difference to people?” That’s where the DEI Coalition idea was born.

SALANGA: What are some goals you have for the coalition as time moves forward?
WEI: I would love for some resources to be able to come out of the coalition. As people are working through common challenges, if there’s wording that’s really good for a scenario like a union contract, or if there’s best practices for hiring processes, to be able to save that knowledge so anyone who’s interested can access it.

There’s two tiers to that: The first tier is us slowly working on making these resources for just folks in the coalition right now, so no one has to worry about privacy. Then, eventually working with everyone who contributed to figure out what they are comfortable making fully public.

SALANGA: You’ve also helped found the JOC [Journalists of Color] Slack. How does that coexist with the DEI Coalition Slack in your mind?
WEI: It is so important to me that the JOC Slack and the DEI Coalition coexist, but do not exist as one entity. I feel this way because they have overlapping goals, but the JOC Slack’s primary mission is to keep the conversation a safe space to talk to each other about anything. If we’re here to just watch movies together, that’s cool. If we’re here to talk about, “What is the best face cream?” that’s totally acceptable.

You don’t need to feel like you’re in the space because you have some responsibility to work towards dismantling racism and oppression and all that. If you want to do it, there’s space in that Slack to do it. There is absolutely no pressure whatsoever. It’s about creating a space in which you can choose how you interact, and one of those choices is just being with other people.

That’s very different, but overlapping, with the DEI Coalition, which is about: “We are here because we’re committed to taking action and making journalism a better place. This is the way we will interact with one another and what is acceptable, and disagreements will take place, but here is how we handle that and value everybody, even in disagreement.”

Those are two distinct parts of a movement, and both spaces need to exist. If they were the same space, you would lose out on a lot of things.

SALANGA: What else have you learned through facilitating the creation of the DEI Coalition Slack?
WEI: I truly, genuinely learned the power of collaboration. I have always believed in the fact that collaboration results in better work, better relationships, etc. But there was such a distinct moment in which I felt it to my core while I was doing this work. It was at a meeting in which we [Sisi and Sophie Ho, committee lead for the DEI Coalition’s Safety and Moderation committee] had put together this proposal, a first draft of “What would a moderator team look like in this space? What would it mean for them to take on explicitly invisible work that we see in communities everywhere and make that visible and acknowledged?”

We were pretty happy with what we came up with. So we put out a call to all the volunteers, all 100-plus people, and said, “We’re going to get everyone who’s interested together and we’ll present it to you for feedback, we’ll make changes based on that feedback.” A dozen or so people were interested. And during the meeting they, very constructively, tore four plan to shreds.

The feedback we got was, “This could be so much better and here are all the things that you can consider in order to make it better.” We have this process in the DEI Coalition in which we write down all the feedback publicly in a Google Doc, accessible to everyone else who’s working on it, and as we decide what to do with the feedback, we log it in the Doc. We had a second meeting to see if we got it right — based on the feedback, we made these changes. Does that actually address what you were talking about? After that, we did one final round of tweaking.

The initial plan would’ve been fine. It wasn’t terrible, but what we have now is so, so much better. What it taught me is oftentimes, a first draft can be “good enough.” The temptation at that moment is to take action and move forward.

Oftentimes, it’s hard to imagine in a concrete way what amount of improvement you get from taking more time asking people for feedback. This gave me such a fantastic and stark example. I just cannot not do it like this anymore.

Also, I think about how speed is something that we in journalism default to. I feel like that is a result of how journalism has been taught in schools, as well as how journalism culture is. Once you’re in a newsroom, there needs to be an active movement to value taking time to engage with the community, to counteract, basically, the culture [of speed]. I think that the newsrooms that are really processing it and absorbing it are the ones that are starting to do much better.

SALANGA: So what are some of the conversations you’ve had with folks about how to shift the needle, if news values like speed are already taught as givens from the outset?

WEI: Thinking about changing journalism as a whole starts out as a very scary idea, because journalism is a huge word when used in this context, right? We’re talking about an entire industry, we’re talking about a culture that has existed for centuries. The way that I really think we can break that down is by recognizing and internalizing this idea that powerful institutions are simply made up of individuals. The work that we can all do — that really accumulates and starts to push that needle collectively as multiple individuals push it further — is this idea that as a single person, within an institution, or even within a team, or someone who simply interacts right with a newsroom or a part of a newsroom, that we all have the ability to sort of start shifting the status quo.

It sounds super theoretical. But there’s a million tiny examples of how one could try to change how things are done into how things should be done. Whether that means you’re a freelancer, whether that means you’re on staff, the types of things you ask for could be nudged one little step at a time.

The best articulation of this that I have seen and that I’ve learned so much is from Ella Baker, when she talks about the Civil Rights Movement and “how do we make that kind of seismic change in an entire country?” Her philosophy was always: The people who are affected are the people who have every right to decide what comes next. And it is not about creating single leaders who decide what an entire movement does. That’s not the way to make real change because it still takes away the agency from tons of people. Instead, if you let people project their own strength, and their own decision-making power, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need leaders. It means that almost everyone can be a leader. We can make change together as opposed to trying to depend on one person to lead us all.

When I think about making change that way, it becomes so much more accessible. Like: I can control my actions. If I can inspire one additional person to do something similar with me, that’s already amplifying the change by one degree. What we want to accomplish, in the coalition, or in any space in which people are working together, is that idea that power can multiply and change can happen very fast, if we are all sort of committed to making it and not waiting for someone to tell us what to do. We can work together in support of each other as opposed to in isolation and loneliness.

SALANGA: How do you deal with feelings of helplessness and “Nothing is ever going to change!” that might come up when you’re doing this work?
WEI: There’s many techniques, but a hard lesson I had to learn: When I’m really feeling it, it’s time to take a break. It’s okay to take a break. There’s another added layer of being a person of color working on DEI stuff — a real gut urgency to it. It almost feels like it’s necessary for survival, and taking a rest from that to me feels extra hard layered on top of everything else about productiveness. The reason why I say it was a hard lesson for me to learn is that I often thought taking a break meant that I was quitting. I was like, “I can’t let it defeat me. If everybody did that, there’d be no change.”

But I came across this inspirational quote from a newsletter that said something like, “If you need to take a break, take a break. And taking a break is not the same as quitting.”

It really gave me permission to press pause and rest and fill up my energy tank. I think I ended up taking like a year and a half off from doing anything unless I felt like it was absolutely necessary that I do or say something. I needed to see change happen without me being directly involved. After that, I felt so much better about diving into the work again.

It’s also through getting to see other people that I highly respect and value role modeling [the importance of rest] for me — like Alicia Bell and her out-of-office emails — that I’ve been able to internalize it and help make sure that I’m sharing with other people this same idea.

This is a baton race, right? This is not a “We all go full out and burn ourselves out and then we’re done” kind of situation. We all need to rest and it’s okay to rest. This idea of making journalism, as an entire industry, anti-racist is not something that I expect to accomplish in my lifetime. Or that we could expect to accomplish in our lifetimes. It is a long journey. But balancing that with the urgency that I feel to change the entire industry yesterday has been a really intense contrast. I feel so incredibly impatient, as well as trying to intellectually digest and accept the fact that it is a long game.

That’s been something that has helped me a lot, when it comes to “How do I act? And what is my strategy to create change if the point of view is longer than my time on earth?” What that has really helped me to understand and value more, to our first conversation point about collaboration, is that to make that kind of lasting change, what’s really important is coalition and solidarity. We all have different things that will speak to us the most and different actions that we can take. And it is incredibly important that I do not try to take on all elements of a problem, but rather trust that there are other people doing this work in solidarity with me that are tackling other things. Because they are better at that or more inspired by tackling that or more impacted than I am and tackling that. And I can focus on this element and showing up for other people, when they need me, whatever it is they’re doing, and building up those relationships so that we show up for each other.

SALANGA: Outside of your experiences with pessimism, how do you deal with those feelings when they come up in other conversations? How do you approach people who are themselves going through feelings of, “Oh, I’m just one person, what can I do? Everything is so bad and what is the point of doing anything to change anything?”
WEI: I usually approach people at one level closer than what you described, where people feel that way, but there’s hope that there is something that could be done, and they just don’t know what it is.

For me, one of the most basic but foundational things that is important about all of this is to create a psychologically safe place for people to talk about it. I think one of the biggest barriers to taking action or like deepening someone’s own understanding of their role in society and what can be done is that real scariness to talking about how you actually feel for fear that your opinions are wrong in one way or another, or multiple ways, etc.

Once they get past there is where they start to experiment with taking little steps. And they can get those ideas from peers, which is often like the easiest way to share something that resonates with someone. Like, “I’m also a staff member on this kind of team,” or “I’m also a middle manager dealing with pressure from both sides, and it just feels like I can’t win.”

There’s lots of ways that we try to create these similarities, so people can feel like, “Oh, someone else gets what I’m going through, or at least they’re in the same position.” When we brainstorm what’s possible, or “What do I do?”, it feels much more accessible to people. And I think that creating that accessibility to talking about it then leads to action. And then small actions lead to bigger actions.

SALANGA: What does an anti-racist, equitable, and just newsroom look like while capitalism still exists? How do you make something like that sustainable while this unsustainable system is at work?

WEI: There’s two things at play, right? One, I’m not the first person to say that an anti-racist, equitable, and just newsroom won’t be created and then it’s over. It’s something that you will constantly be needing to do, even if you get really far along, and part of the reason why it is a constant effort is because we are in this larger system that still has systemic racism embedded thoroughly in it. If you want to be an entity or an industry that works against that, that is a constant action that you have to take proactively.

It’s like a tide or a river. If you want to swim against it, you can never just stop swimming.

Two, and this is going to be a really feelings-based answer, but it’s the best way that I found out how to describe it. In the words of Martin Reynolds, one of the co-executive directors of the Maynard Institute: When a newsroom is at that place, it’s something that you can feel in your bones. It’s because you can feel it in the equitable pay that you get, you can feel it in the way in which you are treated, in which you exist in this space, and whether or not others truly value you for who you are. That is a cultural shift. And the way we get there involves both changing culture and changing policy, which together eventually try to change the system.

Once you get to a place that feels that good, it is about that constant effort to together swim against that sort of river of the greater systemic racism in our world. What can you do as an organization, as a group, both internally and externally, to try to bring other people to the same place and to swim together?