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Alumni Newsletter, May 2022

  • By Salma Abdelnour Gilman

Dear Alumni,

This is a record Pulitzer year for our alumni and the Newmark community, who took home a slew of prizes and honors on May 9. See below for the full list of Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists, plus updates on other alumni news. And check out our Q&A with Sarah Kazadi ’12, who has a new leadership role in the Race and Culture unit at CBS Sports and an Emmy nomination for her documentary about Ahmaud Arbery.
First, please mark your calendars for two special events this month:

On May 17, at 1 p.m. EST on Zoom, we’re celebrating the four alumni winners of this year’s Awards for Excellence: Mary Steffenhagen ’21, Alexandra White ’21, Emani “King” Mack ’21 and Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky ’18. Drop in to show your support, hear how our alums reported their prize-winning stories, and raise a (remote) glass in their honor. Register here.

And…on May 26, we’re throwing a party (in person!) to celebrate Newmark J-School Dean Sarah Bartlett, who retires at the end of June. Join us for cocktails and a big toast to Sarah—and also to the winners of this year’s faculty and staff awards. The festivities are happening 4-6 p.m. on the Margaritaville rooftop, around the corner from the J-School. Register here.

Quick note: This newsletter will go on a brief hiatus during summer break, and will be back to its monthly schedule for the Fall semester.

Cheers,
Salma

ALUMNI NEWS

The news below was submitted by faculty, staff, and alumni. Send your items to alumnioffice@journalism.cuny.edu, and cc salma.abdelnour@journalism.cuny.edu.

Kudos to these alumni and Newmark J-Schoolers for all the Pulitzer Prize wins and finalist honors this year:

Maggie Freleng ’15 is a Pulitzer winner as part of the Futuromedia Studios and PRX team behind the “Suave” podcast.

Azmat Kahn, former Investigative Journalist in Residence, is a Pulitzer winner as part of the New York Times team that reported “The Civilian Casualty Files.”

Aisha Al-Muslim ’09 is a second-time Pulitzer Prize finalist as part of The Wall Street Journal team earning the Explanatory Reporting honor for stories about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Nadia Sussman ’10 is a Pulitzer finalist as part of the ProPublica team reporting the “Black Snow” series.

John Diedrich, a former McGraw Fellow at Newmark, and his Milwaukee Journal Sentinel colleagues are finalists in the Public Service category for the “Wires and Fires” series.

The Pulitzer committee also gave a special citation for the Journalists of Ukraine for “courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting during Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion of their country.” We’re proud of our Ukraine-based alum Igor Kossov ’09 and all of the Newmark grads reporting on Ukraine. Read more about them in our Q&A with Kossov and our roundup of Newmark alums covering the invasion.

More alumni news, awards and honors:

Claudia Cruz ’08 contributed a chapter to a guide on reporting on Latino/a/x communities.

Abi Ishola-Ayodeji ’08’s novel Patience Is A Subtle Thief was published by HarperCollins on May 3.

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh ’10 of The Oregonian won a Headliner Award for beat reporting.

Sarah Kazadi ’12 is nominated for an Emmy for her documentary “I Run With Maud: A Promise. A Movement” which she produced for ESPN+ The Undefeated. Read more about Kazadi and her film in our Q&A below.

Raed Rafei ’12 was awarded the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for 2022/23 to complete his Ph.D. in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The title of the dissertation is “Queer Film and Art Practice from Lebanon: New Political Imaginaries, Radical Aesthetics, and Utopian Futures.”

Emilia David ’14 just joined Insider as a reporter covering fintech on the VCs and Startups team.

Rosa Goldensohn ’14 co-wrote a widely read story in The New York Times about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

Oliver Morrison ’14 is now a general assignment reporter at WESA 90.5 in Pittsburgh. He is a finalist for two local journalism awards, for stories about the local water authority and the Clairton Coke Works.

Jessica Bal ’15 will begin a doctoral program in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in the fall, focusing on the history of photography. She received a Graduate Center Fellowship and will teach courses in CUNY colleges as part of the program.

Michael DePeau-Wilson ’16 will be starting a job an enterprise and investigative reporter at MedPage Today.

Nico Grant ’16 has joined The New York Times as a tech reporter based in San Francisco, where he will report on Google and its parent company Alphabet.

KalaLea ’16 is host of the podcast, “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning”, which was nominated for a Peabody Award.

Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech ’16 is working at The Hill’s Changing America vertical.

Zach Williams ’16 is now the New York State Capitol reporter at the New York Post.

Scott R. Axelrod ’17 is freelancing for The Staten Island Advance/SiLive.com, covering breaking news and the crime beat. He’s also proofreading and editing manuscripts for indie horror authors.

Melissa DiPento ’17 is joining the Missing Them project at THE CITY as deputy project editor.

Lidia Hernández-Tapia Bilingual ’17 was selected to participate in a summer institute that is part of the Crossing Latinidades: Emerging Scholars and New Comparative Directions initiative.

Claudia Irizzary Aponte ’18 is a finalist for a James Beard Award for her reporting on the Deliveristas for THE CITY.

Rob Dozier ’18 won several awards for a podcast series called “Billie Was a Black Woman,” with Audible and Spoke Media. The series won two Ambies for Best Society and Culture Podcast and Best Politics or Opinion Podcast and a Webby for Best Podcast in the TV & Film Category.

Sindy Nanclares ’18 and Sofia Cerda Campero ’18 have earned two awards for a Latino USA podcast they produced: Silver in the National Headliner Awards, and Bronze in the NY Festival Radio Awards.

Max Zahn ’18 is starting a new job as a business and tech reporter at ABC News.

Lukas Southard ’19 just started as a senior reporter for BevNET, a food and beverage industry publication based in Newton, Mass. He will be reporting on entrepreneurial food and beverage companies that have a slant towards sustainability. He will also write for NOSH, and plans to eventually contribute to the company’s two podcasts, “Taste Radio” and “Brewbound.” He was recently awarded first place for Outstanding Newsletter in the 2022 New England Newspaper & Press Association’s Better Newspaper Competition in his former position as newsletter manager at The Berkshire Eagle.

Ben Abrams ’20 has accepted a full-time position as a News Assistant at Law360.

MJ (Min Ji) Koo ’20 will be joining LAW360 as a news assistant in mid-May.

Luca Powell ’20 won the “Rising Star” of the year award from Michigan’s Associated Press Media Editors for work he did with Report for America in Northwest Michigan over the past year.

Natalia Gutierrez ’21 has a new job as Customer Engagement Manager at the AP.

 

ANNOUNCEMENTS

JOURNALISM CREATOR SUMMIT
NFTs. DAOs. The Metaverse. What’s next and new can be overwhelming and confusing. That’s why the next Journalism Creator Summit, hosted by J+ at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, will tackle the universe of Web3. This half-day event will feature expert speakers and panelists who will shed light on what’s next in the future of news, separate the real possibilities from the hype, and give you the information you need to step confidently into this new space. Join us on Friday June 17, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST. Register here for this free virtual event for journalism creators.

Sarah Kazadi, accepting an Alumni Award for Excellence in 2013 as the first recipient of the Newsweek Prize.

Sarah M. Kazadi ’12 Talks About Her Exciting New Role at CBS Sports and Her Emmy-Nominated Film on Ahmaud Arbery

The past few months have brought a string of wins for Sarah M. Kazadi ‘12, amid a decade-long career that’s already had more than its share of accomplishments. Fresh from starting a new job as a senior producer in the Race and Culture unit at CBS Sports, Kazadi found out last month that her film “I Run With Maud: A Promise. A Movement”—which follows a community of runners and social justice activists mobilized after the murder of 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery by three white men in Georgia—has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Short Documentary. It wouldn’t be her first: In 2020, she was part of the Emmy-winning production team behind ESPN’s “SportsCenter Presents 2020 – Heroes, History and Hope” special.

Now Kazadi, a native of D.R. Congo who moved to New York City as a child, is focusing on creating groundbreaking content for CBS Sports, which she joined after leaving ESPN in February. Her latest project is the series MINDSET, featuring elite athletes such as Megan Rapinoe talking candidly about their mental health and their journeys to wellness.

Kazadi cleared some time in her hectic schedule to chat with Alumni Affairs about her work, her inspirations and her most valuable takeaways from J-School:

When did you get the first hint you’d become a journalist?
I moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo when I was 8 years old. In order for me and my brothers to learn English, my mother encouraged us to read books in English, and then write summaries of the stories. The more we did it, the more we loved the language.

That’s where my love for journalism and storytelling began.

What was it like moving to the States after growing up in D.R. Congo in the 1990s?
We left Congo in 1997 after a political coup that [Laurent-Desiré] Kabila orchestrated to get Mobutu out of power. We moved to New York for a couple of months, then to Euless, Texas, for four years, and back to New York. I’ve been in New York ever since.

I have lots of memories of living in Congo, and being around my family and feeling that love, and feeling that community love as well. I think one of the best things that could’ve happened to me was being born Congolese and being able to move to the U.S. Having a foot in both of those worlds — to be able to appreciate Black American culture and my Congolese heritage — has helped me learn that Blackness is infinite. We’re everything, and we’re everywhere. I’m grateful to now be in a position where I can highlight that in my work.

How did you get your start in sports reporting?
I always loved storytelling, but then I fell in love with basketball at 11. I have three brothers, and lots of male cousins. Growing up, sports was gateway to bonding with them. I didn’t anticipate basketball playing the life-altering role that it has in my life. In high school, by playing basketball, I was able to earn an athletic scholarship to Stony Brook University. I chose that school because I thought I was going to be a doctor, and Stony Brook has a great science program. But I took a couple of journalism classes and they sparked something in me. That love of storytelling from childhood was awakened again and I changed my major to journalism.

Coming to CUNY for grad school, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to merge my loves of sports and storytelling. I had a lot of different interests and I didn’t want to be stifled by that. Coming to the J-School allowed me to explore the different topics I was interested in, taking storytelling and applying it to all these different worlds. I did mostly hard news when I was in J-School. I went to Congo during J-School, and I made a short documentary about young women using basketball as a ticket to an education overseas. It was such an incredible trip, and I’m still grateful to CUNY for helping me have that experience back in my homeland.

I was able to put together content that reflected my different passions. That was an opportunity afforded to me at CUNY J-School, that you can bring that storytelling and perspective to a lot of different topics and you don’t have to be as limited.

But I can’t tell you that I anticipated everything working out like this. I didn’t plan on everything aligning the way it did. I am super grateful to be in the position I’m in, to be able to carve a path for myself that feels very aligned with who I am and the work I want to do in the world. Being at CUNY set me up for this.

What sparked the idea to make the documentary “I Run With Maud” last year?
The film project came from my time at ESPN. Like everyone else, I was completely devastated by what happened to Ahmaud Arbery. Part of my healing process when I see some of the horrible injustices happening in the world is to use the tool I have in storytelling, to be a small part of the solution. I’m constantly looking at things through that lens. It’s where journalism and activism align. When you’re in a position to shed light and tell the truth, you have to. I want to be able to use the tools of journalism and storytelling to be part of the solution.

[The idea started] when I found out about the runners, and I saw the hashtag #IRunWithMaud, and I saw the people collectively grieving by running and not being deterred but being empowered. I was inspired by this community of runners all over the country to finish Ahmaud Arbery’s run, until some kind of accountability was served, and until his mom could have the peace of mind to know that her son’s killers were in prison.

When a woman’s child is murdered, justice is a concept that is unattainable. There will never be justice. But to get some kind of accountability, and someone paying some kind of consequence for what happened, I wanted to use my tools to help.

Miss Wanda Cooper Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, is a central character in the film. It premiered on Oct. 29, 2021, and the verdict came out a few weeks after that.

How were you able to get Ahmaud Arbery’s mother to participate in the film?
I didn’t want to proceed with the film until I had her blessing and participation. She was the first person I reached out to, the first person I wanted to get on board.

Once she gave me that green light and trust, it enabled me to do the work with confidence and peace of mind that the family was on board. I put together a documentary pitch deck with my vision for the film, and that was enough for us to have a conversation. And then when I finally met her, she told me that being that it was me, a Black woman who cares deeply, telling the story, she felt comfortable. She felt that she was able to trust that I could understand her on a very specific level. That meant the world to me.

This speaks to a greater issue in media. We don’t have enough diversity as far as the storytellers go, those who make the decisions about what stories are told and how. Until that changes, we’re going to miss opportunities to be more authentic and genuine in the storytelling. I’m so glad she expressed that to me because it made me feel more emboldened and confident in telling that story.

What do you hope to accomplish in your leadership role at CBS Sports’s new Race and Culture unit?
In this role in particular, I want to be very intentional about addressing some of the gaps. For instance, behind the lens there is a huge lack of diversity, from the storytellers to the camera operators. When I’m talking about diversity, I don’t just mean Black folks. I mean anyone who is “other,” who is historically excluded, whether that is the LGBTQIA+ community, Black or Brown folks, or indigenous people, the list goes on. That is something I am mindful of and I want to see change. I want the work we do to reflect this commitment to a wealth of perspectives and different lived experiences.

In this role, it’s about creating content that reflects our lived experiences, both in front of and behind the camera. We’re creating documentaries, features and series, and we’re also helping to bolster some of the great work that CBS Sports is already doing—adding perspective and making sure that different points of view continue to be considered and uplifted.

How did the mental health series for CBS Sports come about?
Mental health is a topic I’m so passionate about, and I’m grateful to be in a position to explore this topic in the sports space.

Back in 2016, I did a video series about mental health in the Black community called MAYBEWELL. It was such a great learning experience for me and started me on my own mental health journey. I feel like mental health is one of the more pressing issues of our time, so it was imperative for me to touch on this topic in this new role. I wanted to talk to elite athletes about their own mental health journeys, and I was so grateful to see how many were open to talking. That’s how MINDSET was born. The ultimate goal in doing this work is to not only de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health, but to also increase access to mental health resources. I’m grateful to CBS Sports for allowing me to pursue this, as well as for the athletes who granted us their time. The content is running On CBS Sports Network throughout the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

What classes or professors at J-School still stand out to you now?
The things I learned in Scotti Williston’s deadline reporting class—even though I’m not in breaking news or daily news right now, I apply those skills daily: critical thinking, storytelling, being on your toes, being able to shoot, edit and report.

I also learned so much from Yoruba Richen. Being able to go to Congo and to produce a documentary and have someone of her skill and brilliance teaching me was super helpful and helped mold me as a storyteller as well. Those are the two classes that stand out, but I know there are more.

I gained so much at CUNY, and I’m grateful that was one of the stops on my journey. Being there among the student body and seeing the diversity among the students was great for me. It was very beneficial for me, being around storytellers from many backgrounds and lived experiences, and seeing that early on was super important for me. As I progressed in my career, in newsrooms and spaces that weren’t as inclusive as they should have been, I always remembered my time at CUNY and that I wasn’t alone.

What advice would you give J-School students based on your own experience?
Don’t be afraid to fully believe in what you’re capable of doing and to pursue it by any means necessary. That’s a threefold thing:

Do not be afraid to dream big: I remember thinking, “I want to work at ESPN. I want to work on E60.” I watched the show from my college dorm, and that was my dream job. I set my sights on it and kept working until it became a reality. It still blows my mind that it happened, but then I think of all the work that went into it, all the doors that were opened for me, all the doors that I had to kick down, too. Dreaming big allowed me to keep going. The vision kept me going.

Commit to making the dream happen by any means necessary. When I look at my college and my grad school experiences, I spent a lot of time honing my skills, honing my craft. I still study my craft. It’s that combination of daring to dream big, and willing to commit to doing the work to making it a reality. Unfortunately we live in a world where there are many injustices. There are so many systemic obstacles that will throw a wrench in the plans. I tried to focus on what was in my control, and part of that, for me, was making sure I was putting in the work. It’s that athlete’s mentality of doing the work and trusting that it’ll show in the finished product. When I step on the court, I want the work to be evident.

Don’t be deterred by someone else not understanding the vision or not seeing it in you. And do not be deterred by someone else telling you what you are or are not capable of. Believe in you.

Keep pressing on.