Deen Freelon - One Network, Many Neighborhoods‽

This episode features Deen Freelon. He, along with a panel of guest speakers critically explore the implications of One World One Network‽ and the challenges Black scholars face in the field of communication.

Noshir Contractor: ICA presents.
​​The noise you just heard is the sound of the "interrobang." A non-standard punctuation mark, the interrobang’s appearance is its explanation: an exclamation mark superimposed directly on a question mark. The theme for the 2022 International Communication Association annual conference – "One World, One Network‽" – ends with an interrobang. The symbol simultaneously celebrates and problematizes the "one-ness" in the modern age of global communication. This podcast series features episodes hosted by the six co-chairs of the conference theme. In this episode, co-chair Professor Deen Freelon hosts a discussion with a panel of hand-selected guests about their experiences as Black scholars in the field of communication. Here’s Deen.
Deen Freelon 00:02
My name is Deen Freelon. I am an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, here with my colleagues, Meredith Clark…

Meredith Clark 00:36
I am an associate professor and Director of the Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change at Northeastern.

Deen Freelon 00:45
I love to hear it. I love to hear words like that. And of course, there's Charlton Mcllwain, who is at NYU in…

Charlton McIlwain 00:56
It’s the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. And also Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development here at NYU.

Deen Freelon 01:06
Thank you very much. This is somewhat of a reunion. We've co-authored a couple of pieces together and I really admire your work. I wanted to just get this conversation started about being Black in communication. Because I feel like it's something that we don't really talk about enough, possibly because there aren't enough of us to talk about it, and we don't get into the same room often enough to talk about it. So, I don't think anybody needs, regardless of what race you are, I don’t think anybody needs us to tell them that communication is an overwhelmingly white field, right?

Deen Freelon 48:03
The theme of this podcast series is One World, One Network. So, I think there's some sense of, we are one network. We're all in the field of communication, right? We're all in this discipline. But there's different neighborhoods of it, right? So, we're kind of, like, in the hood of the network, OK? There's a little bit of separation. It might be like that one street that, like, runs and you got, like, the whole big rest of the neighborhood over there. And you got us over here.

Deen Freelon 01:06
The first question I want to ask, and I'm gonna let Charlton start with this one, is could you talk a little bit about your grad school experience and just how it was for you, you know, being a Black dude in a communication department, whenever you went?

Charlton McIlwain 03:01
Yeah, well, I went to grad school at the University of Oklahoma. I actually went there for my master's degree first and then separately to communication for the PhD. My transition was from a master's in human relations to a department of communications. I spent my first year not funded. I had to pay on my own, got loans, and thought it was, you know, a blessing and so forth that I just got in. So, I was grateful and didn't look around, really, at the inequities in which everybody else in the doctoral program that was white was getting fellowship funding, I was not. You know, I was reading all this Black Studies, taking courses over the English Literature Department, but I was doing all that kind of on my own, right? I’m reading, I didn't have a professor to bounce things off, to have that language. So it wasn't, I wouldn't say it was a hostile place. But it wasn't a place and program where I felt like I was really getting sort of nurtured and developed in the way that other folks were.

Deen Freelon 06:23
Oh, my goodness. Wow. Okay. I have a lot to react to there. But I want to hear about Meredith's experience first.

Meredith Clark 06:33
Yeah, there are a lot of parallels, actually, to Charlton's experience. I came from an HBCU. I am a two-time graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. And that's a historically Black college or university for anyone unfamiliar with that acronym. And my master's was in journalism. But I worked in the field for a few years. And it was because of decisions that I saw that were being made without real research behind them that I decided I wanted to go and get a PhD. And so, this was 2010. I went to UNC Chapel Hill. And I was kind of an oddball in my program. There were two Black women who were admitted in my cohort. And my friend and I, we remain friends to this day, but we often joke that they decided they would never do that again, because in the years following, there was like one Black person admitted in each cohort. And I didn't come from a program where I'd had a lot of research training. I wrote a thesis, but that’s because I insisted on doing it. So, I show up at this PhD program. I'm trained as a professional journalist, but I don't have the same sort of academic grounding that everyone else has. I wound up writing my dissertation on Black Twitter. But I was there with a committee for whom, with the exception of one person, no one really knew what Twitter was. They had no idea what Black Twitter was. And so, I was in this position to sort of be the expert long before we consider PhD students experts, right? But I had to essentially teach my committee about the dynamics of social media and about the dynamics of Black community in this way, and it was still a very isolating experience. I felt like I was failing because I wasn't achieving things as quickly or seemingly as easily as other people.

Deen Freelon 12:13
I'll speak a little bit to my experience. I think in many ways, it mirrors what I've heard from you two. So I went to graduate school. I got my master’s and PhD from the University of Washington. Now, I'm a North Carolina native. North Carolina is 22% Black. I go to Washington; Washington is 5% Black. In the entire time I was in the program, I was the only Black male student there. My thought is, if this is what I really want to study, this is what I have to go through. So, it's really only been recently that I've really been able to look up and be like, “Wow, kind of jacked up there weren't more of us back there, right?” And so it’s really only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to kind of step outside of that a little bit and say, “What are some ways that we can integrate some, you know, Blackness into this very, like, white thing?” Right? So, the next question I want to get into here, and I’ll start with you Meredith, is currently what are some of your biggest challenges being Black in the field of communication research today?

Meredith Clark 15:06
Being Black in anything is a challenge, right? When you think about a world that is so defined by anti-Blackness, by the creation of Blackness as negation, getting up and deciding to be something and to do something, and to affirm yourself and others is a challenge every day. Having to make the case for the kind of work that we want to do is also difficult. And that is everything from educating reviewers about the importance of the work that we're doing, with it centering on Blackness and Black people, to having to talk to funders who are somewhat interested in our projects but tend to see us through sort of an anthropological or sociological lens where we're pathologized.

Charlton McIlwain 17:07
I remember very specifically, I think it was either in my first year, maybe my second, I remember a colleague in my department saying, right to my face, these words: “You are an inferior scholar.” At a time that I enter a department with very little direction, very little mentorship. I'm prepared in the ways that I know that, you know, I gotta put my head down, I gotta work, I gotta research, gotta write, gotta do all these things. But in a place that's basically like, “glad you got here, see you in a few years, hope you make it.” To know that I'm walking into a place that not only does that, but where other colleagues are saying things like that, it then made for several years of, you know, profound imposter syndrome. I'm fortunate to have been successful in much of that part of the career. I'm a full professor, I’m a vice provost at my institution. In many ways, one would say I've made it. But the struggle is still there. Sometimes you get pushback when you talk about what counts as academic excellence, what counts as research excellence, when you've got people saying, “Look, your qualitative research work about race isn’t the kind of stuff that we do or is valuable.”

Deen Freelon 21:15
Yeah, it’s tough. I gotta be honest with you Charlton, it's incredibly upsetting to hear that somebody said that to you, to your face. In terms of contrasting with my experience, when I came to grad school, I knew how to code. But like, almost nobody knew how to do it. And so I feel very fortunate in that my academic credentials have never been challenged. But I think part of the reason for that is because I came into a situation where I knew how to do something that most white people didn't know how to do. And so I think in that way, in some way at least, that maybe back staged my Blackness a little bit for some people. They were like, “Oh, he's the data science guy. Oh, well, he's Black, too, which is also great.” But some of the challenges for me, specifically, have been things that you all have talked about, like getting people to take race seriously. One of the ways that I dealt with that, in my early work, was doing work that did not center race. And my thought was, “Well, okay, I'm going to do this for a little bit. And then I'm going to pivot.” And that’s basically what happened. And I think that’s not a strategy that I would recommend to everybody, but I think it actually worked well for me, because by the time I started talking about it, people couldn't backtrack on all the nice things that they had already said about me. But another big challenge for me is attracting Black grad students. I’ve found that to be a challenge. I'm still trying to figure out what is going through the mind of the Black grad student when they're trying to apply to various places. Is it, “Do I want to go someplace where my people are?” Am I looking specifically at the department seeing what the racial makeup of that is? So attracting grad students has been a real challenge for me. Because I feel like this field at least potentially has a lot to offer Black students, especially when you've got culturally sensitive professors doing the teaching and the instruction. Next question, and I have just a couple more here: what changes in our discipline would you like to see to make the field more hospitable to Black people and perspectives?

Charlton McIlwain 26:11
Wow. We could spend all the remaining time I'm sure and more on this. It's hard to even pinpoint where change has to start. Because really, it's got to start everywhere simultaneously. I would probably say I've gotten 20 to 25, and I’m sure both of you it’s the same way, emails this year. Black graduate students, want to work with me, want to get advice. And the reality is I can't answer all of them. I can't answer very many of them. I certainly can't work with many of them. And my sense is that phenomenon happening across different registers is probably discouraging some folks from pursuing their degrees. All of that having the effect of keeping the representation of Black folks in the pipeline headed to where we are thin in a way that’s not sustainable. I think that, you know, people are still getting to departments that are inhospitable. So, we have to be in bigger numbers, we have to be represented, we have to be in a place where we have communities that are built into departments that help to push graduate students that come in on a path towards success, or at least success in a shorter timeframe and in a much more healthy way of going about it.

Deen Freelon 31:10
Excellent, I love it. I've had this idea just kicking around in my head: what if at ICA we had a Black caucus, right? Across all disciplines, right? Anybody can do it. The room doesn't have to be all Black people, it should be mostly Black. But if you can get with it, you can be in there. If you’re OK being in a room full of Black people you can do it. What do you think?

Meredith Clark 31:59
Yeah, I love it. Everyone is looking for some sense of safety and security and community. And I think the more places and ways that we can find to create that, the better. I'm all in.

Charlton McIlwain 32:29
Yeah, same here. And I think as Meredith just alluded to, having that centralized, so not just having the caucus, but that the caucus has some way of structuring the conference for a given year, rather than just being sort of, you know, off to the side.

Deen Freelon 33:33
So great to get your endorsement. Now. I guess I gotta do it since I said it.

Charlton Mcllwain 33:40
Yep, you’re in charge.

Deen Freelon 33:43
Meredith, changes you’d like to see?

Meredith Clark 33:45
The changes I'd like to see are so wide ranging. I want more people to check themselves. Take seriously the books and the readings and the reflections that they're doing and examine their practices for signs of anti-Blackness. I think something that is so small, like when we're making these relationships among faculty members and students, who are you seeking out for those relationships? Who gets invited to your house? Black students see and know when we are being excluded. In between, I would like to see more support for students to collaborate, not only with other faculty members, but with other students across universities. And that requires money. It requires time, it requires resources. But what that does is it allows students to build the networks that they may not be able to have at their home institution. You can bring in pairs of Black students, you can bring in small clusters of folks. But that's still not enough to supplant the structures that we are up against. And then finally I really want us to examine the practices of anti-Blackness that we have enshrined in the academy. The peer review process itself – how many peers can you have when the percentages of Black faculty, of faculty of color, of faculty from marginalized backgrounds of any race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status are so low? We're kidding ourselves to say that it's some sort of peer review. We are not the same.We don't have the same experiences. And we need to admit that these are very flawed systems. There may be other ways to do things. And be more open to that.

Deen Freelon 37:42
My grandmother, God bless her soul, she was all about positivity. So, I gotta honor that right now. And the question is, what are some positive experiences you have had, that are rooted in your Blackness? And I will start this one. I'm sure that you both and many folks in the listening audience will know about the Nikole Hannah-Jones incident that happened over the summer where the Board of Trustees folks said, “Oh, well, we brought her up for a vote, but then we didn't.” And then stories conflicting. And all of this culminating in them finally offering her tenure at the very end of May, and then her declining and deciding to go and go to Howard. But one thing that happened in the wake of that incident was being able to look at how the faculty in my department reacted was incredibly illuminating, eye opening and gratifying for me, because there were some faculty members who, I'm talking about non-Black faculty members, who were incredibly supportive and who said all the things that I wished that they could say and that was great. So just that sense of knowing who your allies are, who is willing to stick up for you, who's willing to lay their credibility on the line, to expose themselves to harassment and attacks for you, was incredibly gratifying.

Charlton McIlwain 40:44
I think that being around for so long number one, and seeing some of the changes, even though it's not enough, is being able to have that community and being able to work with folks like you. Being able to be at a point in time where we can look around and say, there are Black folks that are in senior positions of scholarship, that are doing things that are connected to the things that we always said we would do if we got to where we are. It's great to be in a place where you can have a conversation that centers Blackness, that you can center Black ways of thinking and knowing and doing and cultural ways of interacting. And that being the normal. We're not hiding, we're not putting on the performance when we're in this space.

Meredith Clark 45:11
Really just seeing the work received by people outside of academia, that is one of the most affirming things that I can imagine. I feel the great privilege of being able to read and write and think for a living. When I see quotes from some of my written work on Instagram and on TikTok and being used in people's social media posts, I'm, like, just overjoyed. You know my dad, when I was getting a PhD, he's like, “What do you mean you're studying the internet?” Like, “You better be able to get a job.” It’s great to be able to say, you know, God rest my dad’s soul, “Yeah, Dad, I was able to do it. And it's having an impact.”

Deen Freelon 48:03
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. It's been a really, really good conversation. My hope is that this reaches all kinds of people who have any interest in Blackness as far as it goes in communication. And so, I really look forward to exploring that idea of how to forge connections, but also how to how to build strength both between and within, so consolidating that within through a caucus or other types of processes that bring people together who are the only ones in their departments, across disciplines, across methodological approaches, but also figuring out where your allies are. For me, when I think about One World, One Network, that's how I think about it. I think about within and between, and that's how I want to move forward. So that's it for me.

Charlton McIlwain 49:59
Thank you, Deen, for bringing us together. It's been a great conversation. Glad to be part of it.

Deen Freelon 50:01
Thank you, so much. I really appreciate it.

Meredith Clark 50:05

Noshir Contractor:
This podcast series is presented by the International Communication Association in the lead up to the 2022 annual conference in May. One World One Network ‽ is sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication at both the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

This episode was produced by Christian Elliott (kris-chin) (ell-ee-it). Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero (all-dough) (dee-ass) (cab-ah-yero). The theme music is by Jon Presstone. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, please see the show notes.

Be sure to listen to the other episodes in this series where we continue exploring the conference’s theme – “One World, One Network ‽” – from the perspectives of the conference theme’s other co-chairs.

Thanks for listening.

Deen Freelon - One Network, Many Neighborhoods‽
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