From Next City to Next Journalism: Oscar Perry Abello is redefining accountability journalism
Oscar Perry Abello is a New York City-based journalist and senior economics correspondent for Next City, where he covers responses to economic injustice for the non-profit online magazine devoted to inspiring greater economic, environmental, and social justice in cities.
I spoke with Abello as part of RJI’s Inclusive Media and Economies project that examines the links between rebuilding local economies, futureproofing local media and an imperative to address systemic racism, all amid a public health pandemic.
As communities attempt to control the pandemic, rebuild businesses, and dismantle the systems that create and sustain racial inequality, there is an opportunity to engage local media as changemakers and not just chroniclers — but only if journalists are willing and capable of advancing an accurate, complete and equitable narrative of the economy.
Few journalists do this better than Abello. He doesn’t just tell the story of the economy from the perspective of people and communities frequently marginalized by it. He amplifies the many ways they work to change the systems that exclude them by design, showing what’s possible when those closest to a problem are centered in the process of deciding what to do about it.
He summed up his storytelling framework in an interview for Solutions Journalism Network: “Here’s how something usually works and how that has ended up excluding certain people or places, and here’s how it can work differently and how [they] came up with it.”
Abello was born in New York City and raised in an inner-ring suburb of Philadelphia, a child of immigrants descended from the former colonial subjects of the Spanish and U.S. imperial regimes in the Philippines.
In two separate interviews in May and December, RJI talked with Abello about his journey, his approach to reporting, how the events of 2020 changed his work, and what economic stories we should pay attention to in 2021.
Abello summed up his storytelling framework: “Here’s how something usually works and how that has ended up excluding certain people or places, and here’s how it can work differently and how [they] came up with it.”
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
RJI: What was your path to becoming a journalist and how did you end up at Next City?
OPA: I didn’t have a typical entree into journalism. At Villanova, I studied the thing that I wanted to write about which was economics, with a focus on economic development in underserved or undeveloped areas. I took classes in peace and justice studies to learn how race and white privilege and gender are built into the economy, into everything. Outside of the classroom, I worked on the student newspaper for four years and ran a student magazine that covered broader issues of racial and social justice. I also worked in the university’s press relations office, helping to write press releases and send them to reporters, and writing for university publications, just trying to get a little portfolio going.
When it came time to graduate in 2008, I faced a decision, just like a lot of folks back then, on whether or not to take unpaid journalism internships and work at a restaurant or a bar at night to feed myself and pay the rent. I come from an immigrant family background so I didn’t have some trust fund to fall back on. At the same time, with my economics degree I found I did have access to communications jobs in nonprofits that were doing the kind of work that I wanted to write about. I ended up going to [Washington] D.C. and working in international development for several years and then moving to New York City. There was some strategy behind the move: I didn’t want to write about Congress or politics or foreign policy so I thought I needed to get out of DC to really do the work I wanted to do as a journalist.
I eventually found a job with one of most globally respected international development groups on their global communications team, running social media accounts and writing fundraising emails. That was my day job. And I found different places online to contribute as a reporter. Then in 2014 I came across the work of Alexis Stephens who was the first Equitable Cities Fellow at Next City. I saw the pieces she was putting out and I was like, ‘This is it. This is the stuff I want to write about — and it’s focused on my country.’ Because — and this is one of the things I learned in international development — as a journalist, I really shouldn’t be writing about other people’s countries, especially if I want to write about this topic. There are plenty of smart, dedicated journalists in those other countries to write about their countries. So, when the Equitable Cities Fellowship opened up in 2015, I applied.”
RJI: So, you started at Next City as a fellow, became a contributing writer, and eventually served as editor before taking the role of senior economics correspondent. You also contribute to a number of publications and sites that view journalism as a social enterprise and make it a point to highlight what’s working and why. Have you always had a solutions-oriented, strengths-based approach to reporting or is that something you embraced as a result of joining Next City?
OPA: It started in college when I was writing op-ed columns for the student newspaper. I would write about things like fair trade or micro finance and topics that suggest that our economy wasn’t working for everyone and needed to work differently somehow.
I didn’t call it solutions-oriented in the early days. And Next City didn’t either. When Next City was founded in 2003 cities were seen as places that are full of crime and pollution and smog and the view was that all of the problems come out of cities. And the founders wanted to create a publication that would look at cities as the places where ideas come from to fix all these problems. They weren’t journalists. They were three urban studies graduate students who wanted a publication that would look at cities differently, as places for solutions.
RJI: It’s one thing to write about solutions and responses to economic injustice but you do it from the perspectives of the people who are most often harmed by it and doing something about it. Where does that intentionality come from?
OPA: Villanova is a place where people talk a lot about Catholic social teaching and one of the principles is subsidiarity, which means the people who are closest to the problem need to be involved in fixing the problem. But when I went out and worked in international development it became clear that some people value that principle and others do not. There’s a divide between the people who just want to fund what works by any means necessary and the folks who have lived the problem, who have survived the problem and have ideas on how to solve the problem. Their input and insight are tremendously valuable and yet their perspective gets ignored all the time. And their work gets ignored.
“A year ago, I wasn’t so sure that there was a broad interest in understanding why the financial system doesn’t reach everyone equally. But over the summer, based on the feedback I’ve gotten on social media, in direct messages and emails, I’ve started to feel more confident that more people are looking for explanations.”
I’ve also reflected back on my own experience coming from an immigrant family background and how, when people feel like their situation isn’t working, they act on it. They move from one country to another. They move from one part of the country to the other — from the south to the north. And when they find segregation in the north they say, “Well, we’re here so let’s try to figure something else out.” My point is, people who face these problems are not just waiting for someone to come in and save them. Like any other group of human beings, they are trying to do something that works for them and that deserves more attention.
I also worry sometimes that the more journalists write about problems, the more powerful people feel like they’re the only ones who have the power and agency to do something about them, and I don’t want to feed that impulse. I want to feed the impulse of a billionaire who is worried about racial inequality to go listen to and follow the lead of people who have lived through that inequality and are already doing the work of addressing it.
RJI: What advice do you have for journalists wanting to adopt a more strengths-based, solutions focus to their reporting on the economy?
OPA: The first thing that comes to mind is do your homework. It’s something journalists say to each other a lot, but if you want to write about these issues from a strengths-based or solutions perspective, you have to first know the history and experiences of the people and places you’re writing about. I may never know what it’s like to be a queer Black woman, but I can make a commitment to myself to continually learn from reading or art or finding creative spaces where folks who have those experiences are able to express what they feel like and what it’s like to be them.
If you want to write about inequality in urban areas in the U.S., read “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, which is about the Great Migration. It’s three biographies in one. My favorite line actually comes very early in the book where she describes the Great Migration as “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.” You get right away the idea that these communities and people who are so often portrayed as victims, as helpless, that they have agency and power and courage and bravery and ideas. They didn’t just up and leave. They put a lot of thought into where they went and where they landed, and they made homes and built amazing communities and they have been fighting to improve or in some cases to hold onto or reclaim those communities.
Also, understand that ideas about the economy don’t come from nowhere. They come out of conversations. People have debates and discussions and they generate equations and theories and ways to explain the world. And they generate policies. Even though my economics professors never challenged the whiteness and the white privilege and power structures that brought certain ideas to the table, they at least made sure to tell us that the theories of economics don’t come out of nowhere.
So, when I look at a foundation, like the Ford Foundation, and it says instead of spending down our endowment we’re going to borrow a billion dollars in bonds and we’re going to use that money to make these grants, I understand that’s not an idea that comes out of nowhere. It comes out of a discussion with boards of directors, senior leadership and financial advisors. Who gets to be in those conversations? Are they mostly white? Predominantly men?
RJI: How have COVID 19, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and nationwide uprisings around the movement for Black lives changed your work?
OPA: A year ago, I wasn’t so sure that there was a broad interest in understanding why the financial system doesn’t reach everyone equally. But over the summer, based on the feedback I’ve gotten on social media, in direct messages and emails, I’ve started to feel more confident that more people are looking for explanations. People say, “Thank you for explaining how that works. I’ve always wondered how that works. I’ve always wondered why it doesn’t work, why it isn’t reaching certain neighborhoods or certain people.”
“I hope that more journalists and institutions start to realize that they, too, have accumulated power and privilege that isn’t earned and that they start taking steps personally and professionally to change how they do business.”
I would also say the questions I’m asking have expanded. For example, there’s a book that came out earlier this year called “The Deficit Myth” by Stephanie Kelton that challenges the myth that the federal government has to balance its budget just like a household and how it’s not a valid comparison at all. Yet we’re all still trapped in this paradigm that the federal government can run out of money and that really limits our imagination politically and also journalistically. Being able to push into those questions is something I would say has been new this past couple of months. Because as journalists, especially those who cover the economy and finance and budgets, we have a responsibility to learn, understand and explain how things like federal spending actually work.
RJI: Could you share one or two other stories or promising solutions that people and the media should pay attention to in 2021?
OPA: I can give you two concrete ones and then one that’s a little more vague but interesting. The first is community-owned and community-controlled real estate development and projects that are challenging the conventional model in which a developer who knows a lot about real estate raises the capital and builds whatever they think the market needs. These developers mostly use other people’s money. Some of it is our money. Private developers will use public pension dollars to build luxury condos and hotels. But there are more and more examples now of communities working with lawyers, with experts, and becoming the developers of their own neighborhoods.
The second concrete story is how cities are being more intentional about putting public dollars — public pension dollars or just the city’s own deposits — where they will make a bigger difference in Black communities. I’ve done stories in the last couple of years about St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, even the state of Pennsylvania and Fresno County in California doing this. If you’re the city of St. Louis, you’ve got a dozen banks that you use and a couple of million in there at any given moment. And those banks get recertified to hold deposits every year so this time around, as part of the recertification process, you require those banks to explain how they’re going to address the local Black Lives Matter economic plan. It may or may not produce any immediate impact, but isn’t that the right thing to do?
The vague story idea is that in this pandemic, we’ve seen so many mutual aid groups popping up and we’ve also seen that the Black Lives Matter protests are more diverse than they’ve been than in past years. I’m really interested in how all these networks and relationships, both informal and formal, continue to play out and what new ideas emerge out of those relationships and conversations. It’s surprising to me the number of times in an interview where I’m talking to somebody about all the people that are part of some project and I’ll ask, ‘How did you all get together?’ And they’re like, ‘We met during Occupy Wall Street in Oakland or Minneapolis and you know, we didn’t talk about doing this thing then, but we just kept talking, and three years ago we realized we could do this. And today we’re talking to you about what we did.” It’s one of the hidden secrets of all my stories, that everything emerges out of conversation.
RJI: Is there an idea or a solution that you hope emerges out of conversations about journalism in the coming year?
OPA: I hope that more journalists and institutions start to realize that they, too, have accumulated power and privilege that isn’t earned and that they start taking steps personally and professionally to change how they do business — everything from who you call as a source to who you hire to how to stop perpetuating the white supremacist power structures that have made our country and our economy what it is today.
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Linda Miller is an experienced journalist, media innovator, and consultant to The Diversity Institute. She led the Public Insight Network and co-launched an initiative focused on changing racial narratives in Minnesota media. She’s working with RJI to develop inclusive economic and engagement strategies for journalism.