Diversity Internships Help Launch Writing Careers

The funds for her paid internship at OC Weekly may soon be running out, but Nadia Afghani says she’s staying put. “They’re going to have a hard time kicking me out of here,” she says during a phone interview, “because I just refuse to leave.”

Right on the heels of completing a post-graduate internship at the paper, Afghani was awarded one of two Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Diversity Internship grants last summer. And with more than nine months of reporting, conducting research and writing her own stories at OC Weekly, she’s found herself deeply rooted in the paper’s editorial department — a place she says she can’t imagine not being a part of.

AAN established the Diversity Internship grants program in 2001 to assist its member papers in diversifying their newsrooms. A total of four grants of up to $2,500 each are awarded annually to help fund paid internships for talented minority writers, with the hopes that they will consider a career in the alternative press. Since the program’s inception, 14 grants have been awarded.

Nadia Afghani
Nadia Afghani

According to OC Weekly Publisher and Editor Will Swaim, nominating Afghani for the grant was a no-brainer. “She’s a great writer. A really nice stylist and very funny,” he says. When Afghani’s work at the paper slowly progressed from fact-checking duties and calendar listings to bigger writing projects, it became evident that her talent and point of view were something that the paper needed. “She’s young and smart and has this unique kind of cultural perspective that’s difficult to find,” says Swaim.

Shortly after completing her undergraduate degree in English at California State University, Long Beach, last May, Afghani began the first of her internships at OC Weekly. A native of Anaheim, Afghani, 22, says she grew up reading the paper but lacked experience in journalism. “I was a creative writing major in college so I really knew nothing about editorial writing,” she says. “Coming into this I was just completely blank.”

In the newsroom, Afghani’s writing skills flourished, and by July she had already written what Swaim describes as one of her best pieces — a feature story titled “Terror-fied.” The first-person account wittily and candidly details how Afghani — who is Muslim and of Afghan and Uzbek descent — and her family have been routinely harassed by law enforcement officials as a result of the post-9/11 climate of suspicion. “It’s beautifully written, very smart and kind of poignant and funny,” says Swaim.

The stories she’s written during her six-month internship have canvassed a broad spectrum of topics — from politics to fashion and car shows — and most have been based on ideas she came up with herself. Such versatility has made Afghani a great fit for a newsroom where writers wear many hats. “It’s really essential in a small staff that people can go anywhere and do almost anything, and she’s really good at that,” says Swaim.

Afghani says her most challenging assignment during her internship took place when she interviewed two sexual-assault counselors about a controversial local rape case. “I didn’t really know how to approach it,” she explains. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to try and be so politically correct, yet still try to get the gist of the story. But the writers here were very helpful — I couldn’t have asked them to hold my hand any more than I did. It was difficult but really fulfilling once [the story] was published.”

Through all of this, Afghani says her journalistic skills have been enhanced and her commitment to the craft has only grown stronger. “This internship has really helped me improve my writing, the way I look at things and how I investigate my articles,” she says. Her work at the paper has also helped Afghani expand the market for her writing. During her internship at the OC Weekly, she began freelancing for two newly established Muslim papers in Southern California.

Asked how she’s managed to balance her time between them, she admits that it has been something of a challenge. “It’s difficult, but it’s all a learning experience in time management. You do it because you love it, and I’ve just learned to love writing so much that I don’t mind…not going out with my friends to stay home and write,” she says. When her stint at the paper ends this April, it’s likely that she’ll stay on at OC Weekly while also picking up a few freelance projects at the other papers.

Jovon Belcher
Jovon Belcher

The second Diversity Internship grant awarded last summer went to Pittsburgh City Paper, where Jovon Belcher completed his internship this month. A 1999 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Belcher, 28, majored in creative writing and began reporting as a freelancer for the paper two years ago. His writing has also appeared in the New Pittsburgh Courier, a local African-American paper.

Though Belcher, who is African American, has had some experience writing about issues affecting people of color, the Pittsburgh native says he made a conscious effort during his internship to broaden his scope of reporting. “I’ve had a diverse experience in life. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into a certain category,” he says. “I like to learn about other cultures and how things work elsewhere.”

During his tenure at the paper, Belcher has worked closely with Arts and Entertainment Editor Bill O’Driscoll covering a variety of film and live performance previews. Editor Chris Potter says Belcher’s interest in comedy helped expand Pittsburgh City Paper’s A&E coverage of that subject. “It was something that we weren’t doing before, and we started doing a little more of as a result [of Belcher’s reporting],” he says.

In writing reviews, Belcher was especially good at providing readers with rich detail and visual elements, Potter says. “Jovon is a sort of ‘being there’ type of journalist. He has a good sense of audience response” and how to capture the surroundings in his stories. Potter says he also appreciated Belcher’s tenacious attitude and how he delved into his stories. “God knows there’s enough desk jockeys in this business who just sort of work the phones from inside their cubicle,” he says.

Spending most of his time out of the office and on the beat, Belcher contributed to the paper’s annual winter guide and wrote weekly columns. In an interview written for the publication’s regular Local Vocal column, Belcher spoke with Marcellus Green, an intriguing local barber whose long list of customers, 50 years in the making, includes jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Max Roach.

Belcher says he learned a lot from his time as a staff writer at Pittsburgh City Paper, although he found it daunting at times to chart new territory. “I didn’t study journalism in school, but I did a lot of hands-on work [at the paper] where I was forced to learn a lot of things really fast. It’s hard to say what kind of education is better — whether it’s to be in a classroom or just go out into the field and be thrown in like I was,” he laughs. Belcher says he also appreciated the chance to get behind the scenes at the paper and learn the day-to-day inner workings of the newsroom.

Now that his internship is completed, Belcher says he’ll be doing some freelance reporting and also applying what he’s learned to his creative writing projects. “I’ve really been able to sharpen my writing skills as far as putting sentences and paragraphs together in a more cohesive way. My writing has gotten a lot better from such an intense experience,” he explains. His biggest project in the works is a manuscript recounting his experience of being arrested and placed in the Allegheny County Jail several years ago. The book is tentatively titled “They Have My Heart.”

The benefits of the AAN Diversity Internship grants are apparent inside newsrooms like OC Weekly and Pittsburgh City Paper, where past recipients have become full-time staffers. No stranger to the positive effects of cultivating new voices, Swaim says, “The diversity grant pays off in part because you can rely on the person’s unique background to bring some change to the paper.”

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.

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