How a news org’s Future Black History Makers project builds on community listening efforts

By Caitlyn Yaede

Timothy L. Bright Jr. of Loyd Auman Elementary School wants to be an artist when he grows up. London Myles attends District 7 Elementary School and aspires to be a pediatrician. Serenity Sanders of Bill Hefner Elementary School wants to be a chef.

The video above showcases these Future Black History Makers as they describe their ideal careers. (Video courtesy of Fayetteville Observer)

These Cumberland County Schools students are just three of 28 Future Black History Makers highlighted by the Fayetteville Observer as part of their efforts to better the paper’s relationship with the Black communities of Fayetteville.

Children Sir’Leland and Langston Davis with Fayetteville Observer staff at the Observer’s reception for its 2023 Future Black History Makers on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County. The staffers are, from left, News Director Beth Hutson, Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts, and reporters Lexi Solomon and Taylor Shook.
Credit: Paul Woolverton/The Fayetteville Observer

The Observer was in the fifth cohort of UNC-Knight Table Stakes in 2021-22 – their challenge was to earn the trust of Black residents, who had been neglected in the past. Led by News Director Beth Hutson and Opinion Editor Myron Pitts, the Future Black History Makers project highlighted the team’s efforts to forge partnerships and engage with the community.

“A lot of our Table Stakes challenge has been learning how to repair that harm, and learning how to keep promises,” said Pitts, a Fayetteville native.

The Observer hosted roundtables with Black community members last summer to gain more insights about its coverage. A key takeaway for Hutson and Pitts was to highlight young Black leaders beyond simply athletic or academic success. Future Black History Makers were chosen for having outstanding character, public speaking abilities and other skills that may typically go unrecognized, in addition to good grades or athletic skills.

“All the leaders in any community, Black or otherwise, they’re not all gonna be academic stars or valedictorians,” Pitts said. “They’re gonna come from a variety of fields. Fannie Lou Hamer had a completely different background than Dr. Martin Luther King.”

In the video above, the Future Black History Leaders name an African-American figure that they admire. (Video courtesy of Fayetteville Observer)

This project, a partnership between the Observer and Cumberland County Schools, kicked off with an email to parents of elementary school students, outlining the project and inviting nominations. The newspaper received about 100 nominations, which were narrowed down to the 28 featured students recognized throughout the 28 days of Black History Month, Hutson said. Each student was featured in the newspaper and in videos; Observer photojournalist Andrew Craft took a portrait of each student.

Hutson and Pitts worked closely with Lindsay Whitley, associate superintendent of communications and community engagement for Cumberland County Schools, to help the project come to life.

“We worked with (the Fayetteville Observer) to collaborate around the idea of celebrating some outstanding young people who are already doing great things in life and who have the potential to do even more great things in the future,” Whitley said.

The Future Black History Leaders project also included a collaboration with the Arts Council of Fayetteville — the students, their parents and Observer staff visited an art exhibit called “Soul & Spirit” that explores Black joy. Additionally, young leaders could choose to be interviewed on local radio station WIDU 99.7FM. Pitts spotlighted these students and the impact of the project in a column published in the Observer.

After witnessing the enthusiasm around the project, Hutson said she plans to continue the program next year with another round of Future Black History Makers.

“Last year was trying to earn the trust of Black readers and do a better job of serving them,” Hutson said. “This year, we’re trying to focus more on different segments within the Black community because, obviously, it’s not a monolith. This is a way for us to reach parents and families.”

Pitts recalls walking through the exhibit and hearing a parent remark, “This is such representation.”

“Really anybody could be a Future Black History Maker, which is a true statement,” Pitts said. “Anyone in Cumberland County Schools could wind up being the leaders of the future.”