Why a philanthropist sought a reporter’s help to tell Freddie Gray’s story
Wes Moore and Erica L. Green each paid attention to Freddie Gray for the four years it took to write their book, "Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City." The book, which describes the five days of unrest in Baltimore after the funeral of Gray, who died in police custody, is told from eight perspectives: a young Black woman whose brother died as a result of police violence, a Black police captain, a white public defender, the Baltimore Orioles owner, a Black city councilman, a Black former basketball star who was involved in the protests, a Black local business owner, the Gray family’s attorney.
During a presentation to the Education Writers Association National Seminar, the authors explained the message they wanted to convey by writing the book. Freddie Gray, who was 25 years old when he died, got national attention as the protests erupted in April 2015 after his funeral.
“The reason we knew his name was because he was killed in police custody … arguably the most peaceful week of Freddie’s life -- the week he was in a coma -- because that was the week when he was surrounded by doctors and nurses,” said Moore. “How hard would Freddie had to have worked in order to make it to where people knew his name before?”
The reason this story needed a journalist to be involved
It became clear early on that this account needed to be told through a “journalistic lens,” said Moore, who is the president and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity that seeks to eradicate poverty in New York City. Moore sought out Green because, among other things, she had been in the midst of the protests in Baltimore the day they began happening, and she had deep experience in Baltimore as an education reporter.
Moore said as he began describing the people whose views he wanted to incorporate into the book to Green, she became an obvious choice. She didn’t just know the names, she had covered their stories. “You have to be able to walk this journey with context,” said Moore, explaining his goal, along with Green’s, of unearthing the things the eight individuals were trying to say and also including the “unspoken and unwritten” messages the world could learn through people such as Freddie Gray.
Green also brought a keenly personal perspective. Knowing there was talk of a riot and walkout at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore the day of Gray’s funeral, she received confirmation from a school police officer that such an action was likely. “I went out to the scene in the first place because my kids were there, not to cover a riot or unrest. And I stood there, and I watched them and I listened to them and I heard them."
How Moore kept “Five Days” from being just about his story
One of Moore’s motivations for writing this book, and for doing so with the “journalistic lens," was his intent to balance the power of the individual story such as his with raising awareness of intractable, systemic issues of poverty.
The truth Moore and Green both worked to extract was that of the entrenched issues that made success so unlikely for people like Freddie Gray, born to a single, undereducated, drug-addicted mom and exposed to high levels of lead in his public housing.
When the unrest began in Baltimore, Moore was speaking in Boston about his story. He was being presented as “proof that the system works.” (Moore’s upbringing in Baltimore and the Bronx presented daunting challenges once his father died when he was 4 years old, but he became a Rhodes scholar, served in combat in the Army, established himself as a social entrepreneur and became CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation.)
Even though hard work has its value, Moore notes that the current systems of philanthropy, education and law enforcement have placed far too much emphasis on the sole power of individual hard work.
“There’s something incredibly problematic and wrong-headed and dangerous about that narrative and the idea that we, as a large society, can sit back and rest on a celebration of an individual without being willing to indict a system.”
Why does it become “enough” for society that some individuals somehow make it through on work and luck while so many like Gray don’t, asked Moore.
Why it matters that Green researched “T22s”
Since the meeting Moore and Green were presenting at was geared toward education reporting, Green went into detail about her process.
Once Green discovered that Gray’s educational records ended in 2008 (he was a 10th grader and 18 years old) with a “T22” code, she set off to find out what the code meant (it means a student has been turned over to the state correction system as a juvenile). She spent a year exploring the outcomes of students who received “T22” codes.
Green researched “T22s,” as with many details she delved into as an education reporter, because she knew that digging into the data would help clarify deeply seated issues.
From a reporter’s perspective, Green says she has learned that outlets are more likely to pick up stories that reflect reality. Instead of saying, “Hey, I want to write about poverty, say ‘There’s a young girl sitting in the McDonald’s parking lot with a borrowed iPad, and her parents probably can’t afford to buy off the dollar menu,’” she recommended.
From protests about Freddie Gray to improvements in education
Moore and Green know that one book isn’t going to turn an entire nation’s education system around. However, Moore knows (from his lived experience) and Green knows (from her professional experience as a journalist) that change begins with telling the stories that lead to the conversations that just may ignite change.
Moore noted that this contentious time in the US has shown why difficult conversations have to occur. Speaking of other countries, he said, “We have watched countries that have looked at their deepest wounds and have known that the only way that they can move forward after some of their deepest wounds is actually to understand them and embrace them. Being able to bring human context and use a human introduction” is critical to explaining a societal context.
“While data can add context, it really is the stories that promote action.”
Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief's nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida's quasi-governmental children's health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.