Melissa Harris-Perry wants to help mentor the next generation of female journalists.
Harris-Perry is leveraging her roles as founding director of Wake Forest University’s Anna Julia Cooper Center and editor-at-large of Elle.com to lead a mentorship program for five female Wake Forest undergraduate students focused on creating content on issues that affect women and girls of color. Harris-Perry said that she was interested in launching the program to foster future talent to make a dent in the media industry’s well-documented diversity problem.
“Newsrooms aren’t as diverse as our audiences and as our population,” Harris-Perry — who wrote about Beyoncé for TIME’s Person of the Year issue — said in a phone interview. “It’s important that we’re developing young talent and making sure that young people who have these skills and have these interests will contribute in the long run in making sure that our newsrooms are reflective of their readers.”
The five students will get training from Harris-Perry, magazine editors and other professional journalists. So far, the students have participated in an event at Stanford with Solange Knowles moderated by Harris-Perry and met with The Nation‘s Dave Zirin. At the end of the year-long program, the scholars will produce a long-form multimedia project centered around a certain issue, which will be published on Elle.com.
“I always think of myself, first and foremost, as a teacher,” Harris-Perry said. “Part of what I hoped my opportunity with ELLE.com would be would be an opportunity not only to engage readers, but to engage students…I’ve loved the chance to try new things that allow new opportunities for my students.”
Harris-Perry says that that the program has already resulted in fruitful discussions. After Beyoncé’s surprise appearance at the Country Music Awards last month made waves, Harris-Perry said it was a topic of discussion around the table.
“At our meeting on that Monday, one of the scholars said, ‘I really had an issue with Beyonce’s performance — not because I don’t love Queen B. She’s just not a country music person,'” she said. “And two scholars had this really smart dialogue… It was this really beautiful conversation that was happening about music and politics.”
Another bonus of the program, according to Harris-Perry? The fact that the students are based in North Carolina. “One of the lessons of the election is that all of our information emanates from the corridor from D.C. to New York. We often miss important things outside in the world,” Harris-Perry said.
The media business has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, both for the issues being covered and the composition of newsrooms. And fashion magazines, in particular, have been criticized for often leaving out women of color. But Harris-Perry praised Elle for its work about the Flint Water Crisis and collaboration with Marley Dias, the 11-year-old founder of #1000BlackGirls. And Harris-Perry writes about “often-overlooked stories of women and girls of color” for the magazine’s website.
“She lends such an incredible voice,” Elle.com editorial director Leah Chernikoff said of Harris-Perry. “We want our site to look and sound like our readers, who are incredibly diverse. And we’re always working on it. This is not a perfect system, and we’re always striving to be better.”
And Harris-Perry has high hopes for the five young women in the program, who she’ll also be working with to develop plans for professional development.
“They have extraordinary big goals,” Harris-Perry said. “Whether they want to go to law school or become a beauty editor, we want to provide them with the foundational support to do that.”