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Farai Chideya

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Why I'm Leaving Journalism... For Now

Posted: 07/26/11 03:47 PM ET

"I feel very free to reinvent myself."

These words are written in Magic Marker on one of those huge Post-It notes the size of a signboard. It hangs in my bedroom and has sustained me for some time as I've examined my life, made some changes, and stared down an existential crisis.


I remember the first time I was introduced to existentialism, by my high school English teacher Mrs. Simms. The discussions around the literature we read -- the questions of God, of existence, of the existence of God -- provoked a debate over purpose and faith so intense that one woman dropped out of the class. I remember looking at my teacher, who remains an impeccable wit to this day, and seeing her drily respond to the outrage that truly transformative literature provokes. I believe in some ways, Mrs. Simms was preparing us for the moment in our lives when we, too, questioned meaning on a fundamental and absolute level. (As teenagers, we thought we had already reached that point, but, well... not so much.)

Most interesting people I've met, and no doubt some uninteresting ones, reach a point where a pillar belief of their life fails to support. In my case, the pillar belief was that the Truth Will Set You Free. That's why I became a journalist. I believed that telling truth would help make the world better. It was almost a secret hope. I did, and do, believe in the power of being a witness to history. But my hope was still that the act of witnessing would help us rise.

After years in journalism, years that took me to at least 45 of the 50 states and 25 countries; years in which I covered four presidential elections and countless other news events; I began to question whether witnessing and telling the story really was powerful. If it was, why were things so screwed up?

My personal crisis of faith could be summed up as: To witness, or to do? I decided that I needed to do -- to help do something, however small to help with our country's economic crisis. I decided to go apply my communications skills at the online marketplace Etsy. Some of my friends considered it a radical, even rash, change. After all, I was leaving behind (at least for the moment) a 20 year career in journalism. I still have so many things to learn. Right now, my learning is taking place in the areas of technology and commerce. Lifelong learning keeps me from feeling bored or hopeless, and once again as I start in this new field I am feeling the thrill of accelerated growth.

(Above: A fire at the house next door to my mother's. Below: my mother's garden.)

But why go into commerce? As a bit of personal background, while I was working in recent years to report on news events (and to deal with the inevitable drama of news production), I was also seeing the neighborhood I grew up in decline. The house next door to my mother's became an unlicensed group home; then was abandoned; then partially burnt down in a fire. This was absolutely unthinkable until the past decade's economic losses and real estate market manipulations. It has broken my heart and galvanized me into a dialogue with the City of Baltimore about what to do. I know my hometown is hardly the only one suffering, and sometimes I tell myself to suck it up and accept the new economic normal. And then, someone else help me see the world with fresh eyes. For example, while visiting from out of town, my cousin's nine year old child looked at the house and said, "It's like a war." I couldn't have said it better.

There is an economic war going on in America, and all of us are losing, even those of us who have the resources to insulate ourselves. I haven't felt this kind of desperation in America since the 1970s. Even though I was a child then, I remember the gas lines, the hostage crisis, the palpable feeling that things could fall apart. That transitioned into the early 80s of government cheese. I'm not sure which I really liked less: grinding economic anxiety or grinding economic anxiety drenched in a gooey, melted mess of self-congratulatory superficial solutions. The fact that we remember government cheese more than any transformative jobs program is a profound sign of government's failures. I deeply believe that persistent un- and under-employment is eroding America's resilience, and manifesting in the degradation of neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. The debate over the debt ceiling is only the latest installment of a long-playing debate over where we put our resources.

Returning to the topic of journalism, I've been heartened by knowing many reporters and public intellectuals talking about the hard issues at hand. One of them, Melissa Harris-Perry, is guest hosting the Rachel Maddow show tonight. I had the pleasure of regularly discussing issues with her when I hosted the NPR show News and Notes. To be frank, I am thoroughly enjoying being a consumer of the news instead of a producer, knowing that there are still so many in the game stepping up bigtime.

So, I've moved to a new part of the chessboard, at least for the moment. I believe life is a journey, and also that families are the ultimate small businesses in America. As I'm learning, being in business requires a constant witnessing, and lot of use of those classic journalistic chops like active listening and rapid notetaking. In fact, I think journalism is transformative to the life and skills of anyone who has ever taken their work in the field seriously. One of the things I love about my job is that both the CEO and COO of Etsy are former journalists. I don't think that's random.

So, the occasional existential crisis ain't so bad. As I'm learning, the answer to the question of whether to witness or to do is: both. In time.

So to all the people who have asked me why I'm not on radio, or TV, know that I am where I need to be.

Much love,
F

 

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