Diana Lu joins The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund as program manager

Like many of you, we are celebrating and honoring the life and legacy of bell hooks, who passed away last week. Her words have inspired the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund and our community of grantees and partners. In her book, “Killing Rage: Ending Racism,” she give us guidance and a vision of the “beloved community”: “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

The ability to participate in this type of community requires all of us and requires us to support each other. As we enter into a season of reflection, gratitude and time with communities, the Knight-Lenfest Fund would like to formally welcome Diana Lu, our new Program Manager. 

Diana joins the Fund from Germantown Info Hub. She previously served as community engagement editor for WHYY’s PlanPhilly, and also has experience in economic development. 

“I joined the Knight-Lenfest Fund because I wanted to continue collaborating with community news organizations and help steward resources,” Diana said. “As a journalist, I always got to lead with community engagement—in concert with analyzing data, reporting, curating discussions and events, and fundraising—and later learned that my non-traditional path made me a ‘product person.’ Roxann helped me find my people at the News Product Alliance, where a city planner/nonprofit workhouse/data cruncher made perfect sense in journalism. I wanted to be in a position to extend my learnings and connections, too.” 

Diana and I recently spoke with our colleague Joseph Lichterman about community, what we are looking forward to learning about and collaborating with you all in the larger work of a mutual-aid approach to journalism, and to celebrate the talents and expertise that Diana brings as our immediate team grows to two people.

What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation. 

Wishing you all a joyful, restful and peaceful wrap-up to the year and a bright 2022! 

Joseph Lichterman: Diana, what brought you to the Knight-Lenfest Fund and what made you interested in this role?

Diana Lu: I initially got to know the Knight-Lenfest Fund as a grantee, I was a part of the Germantown Info Hub. In partnership with G-Town Radio, we had decided to launch our weekly radio show and we decided to work on a narrative project that was really meaningful for our team as well as for the Germantown community. 

The experience, how our project and team were able to grow, and some of the things that were established were really important at that stage. As a result of that, we also got to know Roxann very well, and a lot of the other fellow grantees of the COVID-19 Information Fund. For us, as a relatively young project, some of those networks were really important. One thing that was very distinct about it was the relationship with Roxann and the Fund. I’ve worked primarily for nonprofits and government agencies, I’ve had some small stints in corporate philanthropy, but for the most part, this relationship that Roxann had with us was strikingly different because we were a team that was predominantly POC, and we were serving a community that was predominantly POC.

In other relationships with other funders, regardless of whether it’s in journalism and media, or if it’s a community nonprofit working on affordable housing, it was typically a thing where there was a rubric, you had one year or two years to do it, and they’d ask: “Did you accomplish it?” Even if you didn’t, you’re going to say that you did it in a way that ensures you get funding again, but the space for exploration of how you wanted to grow, or where you could learn from things that sometimes just go wrong and talk it out, there wasn’t always a space for that. 

Roxann created the space for that which allowed for vulnerability, I think amongst our team that also allowed us to pivot in a way that we felt really supported. That was special for me because it was so different. And after our grant ended, it made me want to continue to work with Roxann. That was the thing that made me want to pursue this and cross over to the other side.

Lichterman: Roxann, what excited you about Diana joining the team, obviously she has deep roots in Philadelphia, but what are you hoping the Fund will be able to take on now? 

Roxann Stafford: If you don’t mind, I want to backtrack to a couple of things Diana said, because I think that will build into why we’re excited and where we want to be able to grow the work that that Diana and the larger team, both from the Info Hub and G-Town Radio were doing that was so important and critical. 

We started these journeys at the beginning of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty, and to be able to give people an opportunity to voice what was going on, as well as to get real information and be able to make decisions in the best way possible for them in real time with other folks who are also going through that journey, was really beautiful to watch. And it was something that really helped to allow us to explore this larger notion of a mutual-aid approach to journalism, which has been a part of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund from the beginning. 

Little did we know, obviously, that the pandemic was coming and the notions of mutual aid and the ability to understand how interdependence works would be more important. But we were so lucky to have Diana and the larger team be there in lockstep with the Fund trying to figure out if something was possible. Could mutual aid and its, for lack of a better way of describing it, design principles and imperatives be applied to journalism? Can news and information be a vehicle for solidarity? Can it set people up for success around agency and creativity? A better understanding of self, a better understanding of those around them, all these things that were heightened and needed because of what was going on with the pandemic. The extremes of being in isolation for many, and the extremes of being distanced and wanting to have community, but not knowing how to have community.

They did an incredible job exploring that, along with our larger community of grantees. That’s why I’m so excited, in particular, to have Diana on board. She brings so many different ways of thinking — from a city planning background, a design background, a great facilitation background, an economic development background, a strong journalism background, and understanding of the role of citizens being a part of journalism, what’s beyond solutions journalism, all into this one person who happens to be an amazing foodie, and a great dog lover. That’s an amazing combination for what’s going on during this time. 

Lichterman: Roxann, you hit on the point which has been a core tenant of the Fund, which is this idea of journalism as mutual aid. Diana, what journalism as mutual aid mean to you and how do you hope to use that principle to inform your work with the Fund?

Lu: First, I feel so seen by Roxann in all the parts, including foodie and dog lover. My first identity is probably just Darla’s pooper scooper. I am a two bit player in her world. All the world’s a show for Darla. [Ed. note: Darla is Diana’s wonderful dog]

My understanding of participation and mutual aid came from being a part of a giving circle, which was participatory and democratized a not-so-transparent process for a lot of people who are not on the funding side of things. It helped me to really understand that mutual aid is more than the sum of its parts. And like Roxann said, it’s very much exponential because then it goes two ways. It’s not just a give-and-take but it’s a give, take, and then grow and compound together. People really come in either with a shared mission or a principle of how they can contribute to this larger shared ideal in a very aspirational way. 

As that translates to journalism, I think that not knowing it at the time, just like I didn’t know that I was a product person, I think we were practicing a lot of these things without necessarily understanding the terms which is also totally okay. As a direct beneficiary of a network of mutual aid within the larger Philadelphia news ecosystem, it made me want to share what I got, which includes the learnings from some of the networks. That’s not just the case for me, but also folks on my team to where when we find something that is valuable to the Germantown community or even for the personal professional development of one of our team members, like our community organizer, and community reporter, who are both Germantown residents. That was very important in the model of the Info Hub, and everybody who’s involved with G-Town Radio is a resident. We were very specific about place-based, community-based empowerment and skills building, and then using that as a way to then set things up. I myself wasn’t a resident of Germantown, but I didn’t need to be there for that long to make sure that as things were established, they were strong enough. People use that word “sustainable” — they were strong enough to sustain themselves and each other because it was grounded in, not just money, but the exchange of skills, ideas, and then the amplification of a larger network that people became a part of. So I’d say for me, in terms of journalism as mutual aid, it’s easier for me to grasp, because I’m already built into the system organically.

Stafford: And that’s how we operate as the Fund. We see that our capital is one aspect of our work in the community. But we have other aspects, such as sharing knowledge through different workshops that we give in various communities, even internationally. We see this through working with artists and providing opportunities for artists to share their thoughts and practices. Even before Diana joined the team, we collaborated on being able to bring the poet laureate of Oregon, Anis Mojgani, to share a poem with the Knight-Lenfest Fund grantee and partner community. Then with the larger Germantown community, a poem that he wrote, reflecting on the recent uptake of not just shootings in Black and brown communities, but in particular, the shootings and deaths of very young people, children. There are many other touch points beyond just capital that we operate from. It’s wonderful to have Diana be a part of this, because like she said, this is what she breathes. So when we collaborate and work together, we’re thinking about all the different types of resources that we can bring to bear, including great spots for people to grab food and hang out with and have a good laugh. And as I mentioned before, bringing artists together and using art as a way for people to process what’s going on in their lives.

Lichterman: What do you think is the value of journalism and using information to be able to take this approach? And why do you think that is an important vehicle for this that can bring communities together and leverage these changes? How do your backgrounds outside of news impact your thinking?

Lu: Looking both at the example of the poem by Anis and then just the role of community media, those were two clear resources that came out of G-Town Radio’s relationship with the Fund. One thing very clearly needed was funding the capital improvements we desperately needed. A lot of this would not have been possible with decade-old studio equipment. That also included getting a robust new website, which makes it a lot easier for G-Town Radio to conduct membership drives. That leads to not only financial sustainability, but also a clearer centralized place for Germantown residents to be able to find G-Town Radio and be able to look at other programming. 

Sharing the poem was a resource, and it was something where it really spoke to us because of so much of the gun violence that has happened in Germantown, and unfortunately, is a case where it happens a lot to children and just bystanders. Roxann actually connected us with Anis and he recorded a reading of the poem, just for us, for our radio program. Without the connection of Roxann, we would not have access to the poet laureate of Oregon! There was no exchange of money, it was just something that really fit.

With my particular journey, my background is in city planning and in community economic development. I’ve spent the bulk of my career working with local businesses, primarily smaller businesses. And my interest was in how they tie into specific neighborhoods, business districts, and commercial corridors in cities like Philadelphia, which is where I did a lot of this work. But it was always about empowering those who are tied to the city or to their neighborhood and earnestly want to create a place that people can come to and help create local jobs. That could be an expansion of programming in the nearby park in the same neighborhood, or a business owner who wants to get a new awning, security cameras, or lampposts in their storefront, because they’re trying to activate that sense of community, that sense of place. 

A lot of what I was doing was connecting folks with resources, which included funding, but also included connections to other business owners, technical assistance providers, or training they needed. To step back a little bit further, I got my start in high school growing up in California, doing a lot of environmental justice organizing. I took that grassroots approach and applied it to a much more practical programmatic, sometimes policy-oriented way of elevating local businesses and translating that to job creation. Those things then just made sense when I became a journalist, and my role was as a community engagement editor at WHYY’s PlanPhilly. Instead of money or grants or fixing your awning, we were asking readers “did you know that the zoning is changing on your street, what do you need to know so that you can decide whether you need to apply for a zoning variance? This is happening in your neighborhood. What do you need to do to be fully informed so that you can make a decision that is not harmful to your family or your community?” That was the immediate connection for me that made it easier and less intimidating for me to cross over to a seemingly unrelated field because product is something that has arisen as a niche subsector in the changing landscape of journalism. I think I came in at a time when some of that interdisciplinary thinking was embraced, and I was very lucky for it. And that’s what eventually allowed me to be a part of something that was so community-based, like the Info Hub.

Stafford: To Diana’s other earlier point, it’s an interesting time where I think the journalism industry as a whole is a bit more open. I think we’ve seen in the past for people who haven’t done the traditional route of I went to a J-school, I worked at this major paper, I did this or that. I think we’re in a great time where folks see that it’s all about developing skill sets,and you can develop skill sets in a lot of different places. Plus, the industry has a lot of serious problems it needs to solve. The way that one has traditionally been educated, and traditionally runs the “business” of news, got us into those problems in the first place — harmful, detrimental, and deadly problems for many people, on top of the financial problems. 

So it would make perfect sense to say, “Perhaps we need to look at it from other perspectives, right?” Those perspectives can come from lots of different places. And it doesn’t mean that folks who have gone through the “more traditional” journey don’t have a place to play. They have an important role — their role actually gets to be bigger, more creative, and more expansive because they get to be around other people that will ask them interesting questions. And they can start to build things that they didn’t even think they could, because they’ve been told they’re in a certain skill set or role or job, or have a job to be done so to speak.

Lichterman: With all that background, as we head into 2022, what’s on the horizon for the Fund? 

Stafford: I’ll start off with a story and a quote from Octavia Butler that has always rooted me in terms of how I thought about the Knight-Lenfest Fund and how we engage with folks.

When the science-fiction author Octavia Butler was asked for advice about how to predict the future, she said “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers. At least, you can be one of them if you choose to be.” 

This quote is interesting to me, because there’s a power in choice and there’s not one answer. When we think about news and information, that’s the core of journalistic excellence, and journalistic excellence is a main tenant of the Fund. So as we continue to learn more ways in which we’re going to be living through this pandemic — the pandemic has not gone away — and we continue to do the work around accountability and reconciliation to address many forms of racism and prejudice, we’re going to be seeing a lot of different ways that news and information are going to be created and communicated. 

So with that context, The Fund believes that there’s no single newsroom, and no single initiative that’s going to solve all the needs of the industry, and all communities. What we hope to do and continue to do as we enter into the third year is give folks an opportunity to be part of this work alongside us. We invite folks to come in and bring their expertise from lots of different places — bring their questions, bring their joy, to help us as we participate in building the future. 

What that means is as our mutual aid approach to journalism grows, and we continue to learn from all of our partners, and our grantees, we are looking at this larger arc around “journalism as an act of care”, and that’s going to be heavily influencing how we continue to build our partnerships, design our programming, and do our investments. 

What we mean by that is around three different areas. The first area is really thinking about it from the context of community. So how is news and information created and distributed? And how can it be done in such a way that there is care for the community and care alongside the community? There’s that virtuous cycle that Diana spoke about earlier. 

The second area of this is really looking at it from the perspective of what’s happening within news organizations or communities to provide news and information. We know that there’s been increased trauma, fatigue, and burnout, just like the larger community is experiencing. We’ve got to think about what care looks like in the context of those who are on the frontlines creating news and information and getting it out to folks. 

And then the final aspect of this — again, all this builds on what we’ve been doing since day one — is around the notion of how we can address the crisis mindset that has been generated around the relationship to news and information. Every time you hear something new that’s happening in the world, from a Supreme Court decision, to another variant of COVID, to a fire down the street, to this animal on the verge of extinction, you start to develop this crisis mindset associated with news and information. We want to help people move into a mindset where information is helping them have a joyful life by virtue of being able to make the decisions that they need to make for themselves and their community, and understand the impact of those decisions such that they can make better ones, joyful ones. 

So those are some of the three areas around this larger work that we want to do that we’re currently calling it “journalism as an act of care.” I could go on and on, because we’re very excited about 2022, but I definitely want Diana to chime in as well.

Lu: As a part of the team, I really look forward to testing some of the theories that have already been put out both by the Fund but also by the grantees and to say, “Well, okay, so a bit of time has passed, during a really unprecedented time that no one was ready for.” That allows a reset, oftentimes a more painful reset, but at least I think a lot of people are willing to explore possibilities of doing things differently. And that change is necessary, in a way that maybe we didn’t think we had the luxury to explore a couple of years ago, especially if you weren’t paying attention to the trends and jobs lost in journalism over the past 10, 15 years.

I’m excited to be able to focus especially on the Philadelphia news ecosystem, because of how much it can reinforce each other and how much we can learn from such tight knit communities. I want to learn about how some of those connections are being fostered in ways that we don’t even see, which is also okay, because it’s not a top-down approach. Learning about what could be bottom up and ways that things connect that may not always be visible from up top, we want to know how we can then take those learnings and apply them elsewhere. How can it be targeted and relevant for future grantees in other news projects and other cities that are facing similar troubles but have the same types of resources that weren’t traditionally seen as resources from a scarcity mentality?

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