Renaissance Journalism’s founder reflects on the past, looks ahead to the future

By Jon Funabiki

One photograph I will always treasure is a lovely family portrait showing 9-year-old Nguyen Thi Ly and her mother and grandmother in their home in Vietnam.

Taken in 2010 by the renowned photographer Catherine Karnow, the tender image captures the warmth of family while proffering haunting evidence of an American tragedy—Agent Orange.

Look closely, and you will notice that the faces of Ly and her mother are unusually flat and that their eyes are widely spaced. Both suffer from serious medical maladies and congenital defects. As Karnow learned during a 2010 reporting trip supported by Renaissance Journalism, their health problems can be attributed to the grandmother’s exposure to Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant that the U.S. military used without abandon during the Vietnam War.

Scientific evidence now shows that Agent Orange has caused genetic damage, cancers and other serious diseases to millions of Vietnamese—including children like Ly—over multiple generations.

“The most shocking thing that I learned is that this is a disease that is passed down genetically,” said Karnow, who was among a team of U.S. journalists who participated in the Vietnam Reporting Project, one of Renaissance Journalism’s earliest initiatives. Their resulting stories, photographs and films helped bring this tragedy to the attention of the American pubic and, eventually, to the U.S. Congress, which authorized funds for increased health and environmental services in Vietnam.

I founded Renaissance Journalism more than 11 years ago for this kind of a story, one that seeks to right the wrongs of our world. Now, on the eve of my retirement as executive director, I celebrate work of the hundreds of journalists who have joined this cause. A few examples:

• There’s “The Intersection,” a bold investigation by dozens of journalists from nine mainstream and ethnic news outlets into how racism has infected policing, politics, schools and housing in the city of Detroit for decades.

• There’s Kristina Rizga’s groundbreaking book, “Mission High,” about a San Francisco school that would have failed if not for the dedicated teachers and administrators who gallantly refused to give up on their charges—largely children from communities of color, immigrants and the poor.

• There’s Oregon Public Broadcasting’s ambitious “Class of 2025” series, which follows the educational journey of a cohort of Portland students to see what works and doesn’t work in public schools. Rob Manning kicked off the project in 2014 when the students entered first grade, and the epic series continues today

• There’s “Who Owns Silicon Valley?”, a data-driven, collaborative probe undertaken by a platoon of journalists from Reveal, San Jose Mercury News, KQED, Telemundo and others to understand how mega landowners impact the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

I also remember many small, yet electric moments, like when we held an Internet training workshop for Spanish-language speakers, and one, older gentleman cried as he learned to use Google Earth to view pictures of the village in Mexico where he had been born … Like when one reporter broke down into tears during a retreat as he revealed feelings of remorse and guilt from the times he had interviewed the parent of a child who had been slain … Like, most recently, when Bay Area journalists came together via Zoom to reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement and the news media’s own complicity in prolonging racial inequality in America.

These activities—and many more—signify what Renaissance Journalism is all about. In an era of rising inequality and racial discrimination, we ask journalists to double down on those problems. In the face of growing mistrust of the media, we ask journalists to work closer to the ground and to build trust with the diverse members of their communities. And in a time when profits and resources seem scarce, we ask journalists to expand their toolboxes by using collaboration, community engagement and other new tactics that are revolutionizing journalism.

When I started Renaissance Journalism, I sometimes soft pedaled it as a modest, “hip pocket” venture. But the idea took off. Today, our programs are growing, and new initiatives are on the books for 2021. As I close out my time at Renaissance Journalism to turn to other passion projects, I celebrate the many journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country who have joined our initiatives. I am indebted to the long list of foundations and other funders who have provided financial and moral support—especially during some difficult times—and who enabled us to post a fundraising record this past year.

I want to wish the best of luck to Valerie Bush who is taking over. A longtime journalist and nonprofit leader, she has been with Renaissance Journalism from the beginning, first as a consultant and then as deputy director. As the mastermind behind many of our initiatives, no one is better prepared to lead Renaissance Journalism into a future filled with great accomplishments. She will be ably assisted by the multi-talented Kaylee Fagan, a rising star. I will miss working with them terribly.

As thrilled as I am about Renaissance Journalism’s prospects for the future, I am sobered by many critical problems that our nation must address. This is the call of the times, and it is vital and urgent for journalists to respond. As the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes reminded us in “Let America Be America Again,” the promise of our democracy remains as yet a fractured dream:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.