Borealis Philanthropy Introduces Alicia Bell Announced as the new Director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund
When Alicia Bell took leadership of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy last month, she regarded this new assignment as a birthing process. Citing her family lineage of birth workers and land stewards, she compared working to bring true and widespread racial equity to the landscape of media to the labor of her ancestors. Her job is to distribute resources, to lead with compassion, and to help build a fairer media industry that serves audiences made up of people of color.
Before entering this role, Bell worked at the intersection of media and organizing at Free Press for 5 years. She started there as an organizing manager and then founded Media 2070, an initiative to open up access to capital for media makers of color to tell their own stories. In this Q+A, we dig into how her previous work ties into the mission of the REJ Fund and talk about her visions and hopes for the fund.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Tell me where you’re coming from professionally and personally as you take on this new director role.
Alicia: Honestly being here feels like such a full circle moment for me because my background primarily is not in journalism. It’s community building and education and organizing. I ended up transitioning into this project called News Voices at Free Press. I went into that not knowing much about journalism—really, the thing I knew the most about journalism is that you should never talk to a journalist because you can’t trust them. And they’ll try to twist your words and to stay on your talking points.
I went into this work knowing that Free Press wanted an organizer. And I approached journalism the way I approached any campaign; I just had a lot of one-on-ones with journalists and asked, “Why do you do this? How do you figure out what to trust? How do you figure out what to report on?” So I’ve learned journalism through people and through work to try to transform and re-imagine journalism, and through organizing with journalists and with communities around journalism. That took me through building out the News Voices work in North Carolina. I was working with communities and journalists to try to transform power dynamics of journalism to make it more community-rooted and accurate and truthful. And that work led me into the media reparations work.
There was a lot coming up in my work around the ways that journalism and news has harmed folks. I knew it from organizer training, but I also heard it coming up over and over again with community members. So some of my colleagues and I started pulling at that thread to figure out, what is this? And in the process of pulling that thread, we came to this idea of media reparations: the repair and reconciliation and restoration that’s necessary because of the anti-Blackness that exists in media and the harm not only in newsrooms but also in which newsrooms get funded and which policies exist and what the history is and which communities get left out and included. And because I had been working with communities in general, what I knew is that it was never enough to just create a story or a report on a problem without building power to transform that problem. I knew that that was one of the shortcomings of a lot of journalism. And so that is what turned this essay and history and imagining into a campaign on media reparations. Through that work a constant thread has been: what does it look like for Black folks to be able to steward and hold our stories from ideation to creation to distribution without passing through white hands, except when we want it to? And how do we create ecosystems where that’s possible? That question led me to this work because this work is about building that kind of ecosystem.
Q: What throughlines can you see from your work building Media 2070 and News Voices to now being the director of the REJ fund? In other words, what are you continuing by stepping into this role?
Alicia: Part of why it feels so full circle being in this role is that, especially at Borealis, there is an opportunity to be amongst folks who are thinking about resourcing and supporting and building movement across the variety of movements and identities. And a lot of times with the News Voices work, we were building and bringing together community members who are not journalists with newsrooms and journalists, or bringing journalists into conversation with artists and organizers or whoever we’re working with. We’ve been working with the people who in theory could be some of the grantees of other funds at Borealis. So when I think about it like, what’s possible—not only just with this fund, but amongst all of the funds [at Borealis]—I think there’s an opportunity to figure out where there is alignment and strategy between community needs and newsroom needs because newsrooms are there to serve communities. If that’s not happening, then it’s not the community infrastructure it needs to be. That feels like a really strong throughline.
This work with REJ will be an opportunity to bring some of those things together and support those different movements. I’m thinking, for example, about the movements to re-imagine how journalism covers public safety or policing. There’s just so much overlap there, and it feels like an opportunity to lean into that work or to lean into the movement journalism work, which is aimed at skilling up journalists in service to movement...