Revealing candid insights about my education journey in journalism
I share interview excerpts about how my hometown shaped my worldview as a j-school educator, and why inspiring awe is critical when teaching journalism to students.
Hey y’all! Anita here. I’ve scheduled this month’s missive to go out while I’m on vacation in Vegas being sparkly and (responsibly) irresponsible.
So, instead of my usual updates and analyses, I leave you with an interview I did that’s my favourite in recent memory. Celeste Faye, an eighth-grade English teacher and PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, hosts the Teaching Tomorrow podcast (available on Spotify, Apple, SoundCloud). She interviewed me for her 77th episode, which will be released on April 18. I highly recommend checking it out in full, especially for my subscribers who are journalism educators or students. Until then, I’ve included excerpts after the jump.
Anita Li, welcome so much to the podcast.
Thank you so much for having me.
I've been stalking you — I mean, I reached out to you a few times — I've been stalking you professionally because I've been teaching journalism to my students. And we've watched your TEDx talk. And you've been, you know, in the background of some of the things that I've been doing with my students. So it is a real honour and privilege to get to talk to you in real-time today.
Thank you. That's so sweet. I'm very excited about this conversation. It was marked on my calendar, and I was very much looking forward to it.
Well, it's an interesting intersection because you're doing a lot in the world of journalism and you know, the world of writing and education. A K-to-12 education is probably, I'm assuming, a little bit outside of some of the spheres that you're in. So we're going to be talking to you today about writing about digital literacy. But I want to begin with your work that you're doing: You are at the helm of what you call a hyperlocal news outlet, and in an interview that you did, you said that young people are more likely to trust neighbours, volunteer and vote when they have access to local media, which I found fascinating and totally confirmed a lot of the research that I've been doing. You also said that this is an important service to democracy to fill in those gaps. From a school [perspective], I see Humanities teachers — that's English, Social Studies, History, Geography, those kinds of teachers — are often many young people's first point of contact with what you're talking about in terms of democracy and civic engagement. So how might educators help foster this kind of civic-mindedness through media engagement?
So for me, from an educator standpoint — especially for our Humanities — teachers basically are conduits to understanding the role of journalism in society. So I like to liken journalism to math and sciences. I was somebody, when I was a kid, who struggled with math in particular and a little bit in the sciences, and now I'm fascinated by math. I actually loved science when when I was a kid. Then when I got older, the rote approach to teaching really put me off the subject. But when I became an adult, I reignited my passion through having awe for the subject, and understanding that science and math concepts actually help us understand the world better. We [should] frame journalism in that similar way, where not only does it help us understand the world better, [but also] the reason why we have all these freedoms and privileges in a democratic society is in part because of the role that journalism plays in illuminating the world, and creating mutual and collective understanding and a shared understanding of a particular geographic area or particular circumstance. To me, inspiring awe in what journalism does and how it serves the public is really a great way to lower the barrier to entry.
I want to go back in time to Anita as a student. I honestly don't understand how accomplished you are. Because you are a young person, you are doing so much. I am, you know, suspicious if you're actually sleeping at night. Who were you as a young person in school? You know, you got your start very early in journalism — I think I read somewhere it was 14 that you had your first internship. But who were you as a young person? And what role did writing and journalism play for you throughout school?
I love this question. And I want to be as honest as possible and direct as possible about this because I think it's really important due to the fact that my journey played a significant role in my development, not only as a person but also as a journalist and educator. So, I grew up in an area of Toronto — a suburb of Toronto called Scarborough. This is well known; I've spoken about this quite a bit. I grew up in a middle class family, but in a working-class environment. Scarborough was a very interesting and unique place in that it was very diverse, and kind of the definition of pluralism or Canadian pluralism in a lot of ways, but it also was really underresourced. And when I was growing up, it was very much stereotyped and denigrated, and I didn't understand it because I had a really wonderful childhood growing up where I did around McCowan and Finch in Toronto. I just want to set the context because I think that was quite significant in shaping who I was. I went to a school called Anson S. Taylor Jr. Public School; I still have amazingly fond memories of that school. It was at the top of this hill, we had a pond full of turtles and it was a very intimate kind of setting. There [weren’t] big class sizes, and it was extremely diverse. If you look at my kindergarten class, any sort of background that you'd imagine is represented in my class. And that was just my framework and how I grew up — it was just a given. That was my norm during a time when I don't think it was a norm in many other parts of the world.
High school — that's [right after] the time of [former Ontario Premier] Mike Harris’ cuts [to Ontario’s education system] — was when it started getting not as good, like even less resources, bigger class sizes. I felt like my teachers were really overtaxed. It's easy to be critical when you're a student, but when I look back, I feel like there were a lot of teachers who tried to do their best, but with very limited resources. Still, it was an environment where I started to lose my love of learning, particularly [for] math and to some extent, science, which is really sad because I was a huge science lover when I was a kid; I was really into geology, astronomy, doing experiments and everything like that. So the nature of learning started becoming more rote, less exciting. And it kind of killed a lot of my desire to develop myself in mathematical and technical areas. I actually taught myself how to code in a basic way using HTML when I was in middle school, but by the time I got to high school — I'm a woman, a girl, and STEM wasn't encouraged for girls, especially at that time.
But also in tandem, during that time, I was an overachiever — classic overachiever who was head of yearbook, head of my student paper, co-president of a bunch of other organizations. I am very much a reflection of how much of a keener and a nerd I was in high school. I also definitely think Scarborough gave me a bit of like, cool kid flavour, if that makes sense — and I don't mean that in a shallow way. Because I do think that that has actually been significant in my ability to build The Green Line in a way that makes it more relatable and accessible, and not as pedantic or esoteric or overly head in the clouds and not feet on the ground.
Basically, it was a combination of me being very precocious — precociously intellectual — and having that be encouraged to some degree, and being a keener in school. But at the same time, like I said, the setting in which I grew up — Scarborough is the birthplace of Canadian hip-hop. So even though rock music and punk pop was really popular when I was in my formative years, especially in high school, I still also had a different cultural kind of exposure.
In some ways, you would [be] forced to relate to others — forced sounds like a negative thing, but it's almost like you're put in a situation where you're around a bunch of other people, so it just becomes natural. And I think that's why it just ultimately made sense that I ended up becoming a publisher of a local Toronto-based publication because I know my city really well; I'm born and raised here, and also I grew up in an area that really is a bridge-building place. And I do think it's really special because there's no other place quite like that in the world. You can talk about New York, you can talk about London and the diversity in a lot of major urban centres, but Scarborough at the time felt very much like a small town still. We lived in a welfare state (that's becoming more eroded over time unfortunately) and it was a very stable time for Canada economically. It was kind of an ideal environment to incubate this second-generation, kids of immigrants and racialized kids who are effectively newcomers to this country, but also not feel judged in that space and not feel like you're othered. It's a very unique experience. You were saying, ‘Oh, you did so much when you were young — of course, it's my abilities, but I think it's also the confidence that the area that I grew up in afforded me because I didn't feel different. And I know from the experiences of other friends that I have who lived in other parts of the country, that's not really the case. And so it's very unique, not just in Canada, but also in the world I believe.
You can have a quote unquote diverse city, you know — just thinking about New York — and it's still very segregated. You go to one neighbourhood, and you see a class picture of kids. And, oh, that's an entirely white class, even though it's in the middle of New York City. I think you're hitting something really important about how we live together. And yes, you're able to find a way to live together in this little microcosm of your classrooms. But then that becomes — I don't even think it's about you achieving; I think it's about how you become curious about other people. As a journalist, you have to be curious about other people.
Yes, absolutely. Being able to relate to people and have empathy and want to cover their stories is what leads to success, quote unquote, in journalism — if by success, we mean impact, right? My curiosity has never abated. I think it actually shaped my worldview significantly because The Green Line in this era of polarization is trying to build bridges, but not in a way that's surface-level. The crux and the foundation of The Green Line is informing people and educating people around how to live, but not in a way that talks down to them. It's rooted in a sense of place, and I really feel like geography and my sense of place connects to my sense of belonging and how I move through the world, which has really helped me connect to all sorts of people. [It] just really informed the way I work as a journalist.
The first unit that I do with my students is around identity. We start figuring out who are we as people before we start writing any of our major work. What are these forces that have consciously shaped me and unconsciously shaped me? That then comes into your journalism. I think that there's this old idea of like, ‘We're unbiased, and journalists don't let their own background come into their work.’ But The Green Line is actually doing some behind-the-scenes work, where you're actually showing us who your journalists are; you're trying to allow us to better connect with you as people, and there's so much wisdom in that. In the journalism world, that's happening more and more — you as a person are going to be part of whatever you write, and you can't pretend like your background is not showing up somehow in your writing.
You nailed it. And I think it's almost incumbent upon us as journalists — it's our responsibility to actually understand ourselves really well. Because then you don't imbue your journalism with this false sense of objectivity, whereas it's really just your worldview. And I think the better thing is just transparency as a counterbalance or countermeasure to that false sense of objectivity because you're just being straight up about who you are, what your values are. It's not like you're imposing it on people, but then they have context for your framework. And I think that's what's missing in a lot of these angry discussions that are very polarized and very binary — people don't understand the context of other people. I just think about my own personal history and journey. I'm so complex and I don't narrate everything about my life, nor should people feel the need to do that unnecessarily, you know, so it's about generous assumptions to a large degree. Somebody once asked me who my favourite journalists are, and I definitely have them. But the people who influenced me the most are actually writers because I find writers are really excellent observers of humanity. And that's really what has inspired me thus far [when building the] foundation of The Green Line.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Quick and Clean
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