Justice Trailblazers Sarah Koenig and Brittany Packnett Share Insight into the Power of Storytelling

Justice Trailblazers Sarah Koenig and Brittany Packnett Share Insight into the Power of Storytelling

Justice Trailblazers Sarah Koenig and Brittany Packnett Share Insight into the Power of Storytelling

Two leading, powerful voices in the field of podcasting, Sarah Koenig, host and co-creator of the award winning podcast Serial, and Brittany Packnett, activist, educator, writer, and contributor of the Webby-award winning podcast Pod Save the People took center stage at the 2019 Justice Media Trailblazer Awards Dinner on February 21, 2019. “Trailblazers are people lighting the way into new ways of storytelling. They’re exposing injustices, telling us things that we should take note of,” said Errol Louis, NY 1 News anchor, and emcee for the event hosted by John Jay College and The Crime Report.

From left to right, Errol Louis, Brittany Packnett, Sarah Koenig, President Karol V. Mason, and Stephen Handelman.

Held on February 21, the Trailblazers awards dinner was the highlight of the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Justice in America. Previous Trailblazer award winners include legendary broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, Van Jones of CNN, David Simon of The Wire, Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, Maria Hinojosa of NPR, and Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker.

Sarah Koenig calls on journalists and John Jay students to fight for progress during her acceptance speech.
Sarah Koenig calls on journalists and John Jay students to fight for progress during her acceptance speech.

“What is the point of truth? What is the point of information if it’s not feeding progress.” –Sarah Koenig

Moving the Story Forward
During her acceptance speech, Koenig drew parallels between criminal justice narratives from the past and present. In perfect storytelling fashion, Koenig told the audience about a New York City defense attorney whose African-American client had been beaten by white cops on multiple occasions in order to force a confession or coerce him to put the blame on a member of his community. She continued the story by reading an excerpt from the lawyer’s closing arguments, “In its rank and file the police force has men who are willing to give the best that is in them to the service of the people of the city. But I cannot understand why some men, immediately on donning a police uniform, become instruments of horror and cruel methods.” After finishing the quote, Koenig let the audience in on a secret, the lawyer who wrote that speech was her grandfather, and the year was 1922.

The familiarity in the nearly 100-year old case was disheartening. “My point is that very little of what we see in the news is new,” she said. To prove her point, Koenig read off a series of headlines from that day in 1922. “In Albany, a report documenting waste, mismanagement, favoritism, and profiteering in a government agency. Here in New York City an affordable housing crisis, because quote, ‘builders generally are turning to construction of expensive dwellings in supporting a better return on their money.’ In Washington, D.C., house members met with lobbyists to talk about a bill regulating immigration. In Poughkeepsie, attempted sexual assaults on women at Vassar College.”

“Lasting progress in the realm of criminal justice will require ferocious accuracy, ferocious persistence, and ferocious kindness – Sarah Koenig

Promising she wasn’t trying to depress the crowd, Koenig brought up her issue with progress in the criminal justice system. “When it comes to criminal justice, I get confused sometimes on what progress looks like,” she said. “For 100 years we reporters have reported the same stories of injustice, the same stories of crime and punishment.” While Koenig was quick to point out that she’s “not an advocate” and “not on anyone’s side,” that her job is simply to go after the truth and inform the public, she freely admitted, “I think all serious-minded criminal justice reporters are stealth reformers, trying to change their own beat. Because what is the point of the truth, what is the point of information, if it’s not feeding progress?” Koenig then called on the journalists and John Jay students in the room to help change the narrative. “Lasting progress in the realm of criminal justice will require ferocious accuracy, ferocious persistence, and ferocious kindness,” she said. “If you haven’t already gathered, I’m not hugely optimistic when it comes to this stuff, but right now I must say, standing in a room with Ms. Packnett, and all you fierce advocates, I do feel hopeful.”

Brittany Packnett encouraged the audience to help tell the stories of those who have been silenced.
Brittany Packnett encouraged the audience to help tell the stories of those who have been silenced.

“Injustice in this world and at this time and in this political age is not an anomaly, it is a constant. And surviving it is a lifestyle.” – Brittany Packnett

Passing the Mic
Following Koenig, Packnett took the stage and recounted her story from the Ferguson Protester Newsletter to Pod Save the People. “Before there was a podcast or Campaign Zero or a sea of policy change, before there were grand speeches or TV interviews, before people wanted us for documentaries and back when people were calling us low-lives, classless black thugs, all we had were our tweets, our vines, our periscopes and our words,” said Packnett. “We collected every one of those we could from one another and from our burgeoning protest community and created a newsletter to do what we were slowly discovering was the essence of protest—telling the truth, out loud and in public.”

“We have always fought not because we want to but because we have to.” – Brittany Packnett

Packnett emphasized the importance of speaking with truth and telling the stories of those that have been silenced. “We were just tired. Physically sure. But we were tired of living the truth while the news reported lies. We were tired of having our lungs worn while shouting the facts, while mainstream outlets were silencing our voices. Our spirits were certainly exhausted from having to scream just to have our humanity acknowledged and still so often be unsuccessful,” said Packnett. “I did not come to this work as a storyteller or a journalist, or as a political editor or an operative. I come to this as an activist. I come to this as a person always concerned with telling stories to achieve freedom and not ratings. To pursue justice and not sensationalism. We have always fought not because we want to but because we have to.”

“We are trained to believe that the stories we haven’t heard are unheard because they either don’t exist or because the victims cannot tell it. The stories exist. We just haven’t been listening.” – Brittany Packnett

Speaking of inconvenient truths that still exist today, Packnett highlighted the discrimination many live with daily, and how at times technology is the only way people can protect themselves. “Cell phone cameras stood between us and a lie. Tweets stood between us and arrests. Livestream stood between us and death. Now we use every platform at our disposal because cell phone cameras and tweets and livestream still stand between us, and lives, and arrests, and deaths. Sometimes they protect us. Other times they do not. Black, brown, and poor people are still losing the battle for the dignity of ourselves, every single day at the hands of a system that was never built to serve and protect or rehabilitate us,” said Packnett. Adding, “Injustice in this world and at this time and in this political age is not an anomaly, it is a constant. And surviving it, a lifestyle. We are trained to believe that the stories we haven’t heard are unheard because they either don’t exist or because the victims cannot tell it. The stories exist.”  

Meeting with John Jay Students

Before the Trailblazers Award Dinner, Brittany Packnett and Sarah Koenig gathered with John Jay students to discuss the do’s and don’ts of podcasting.
Before the Trailblazers Award Dinner, Brittany Packnett and Sarah Koenig gathered with John Jay students to discuss the do's and don'ts of podcasting.

In the hours prior to the event, Koenig and Packnett met with several John Jay Students—most are members of the Life Out Loud podcast—who were able to ask questions on the dos and don’ts of podcasting, gather tips to stay motivated in the face of naysayers, and received encouraging words from the two trailblazers.

Packnett gives students some insight on the editing process for podcasts
Packnett gives students some insight on dealing with the naysayers

Wishing to learn more about developing narratives and introducing characters to the narrative, student Ariana Kazansky asked Koenig about her own writing and editing process. “It doesn’t always have to be something huge that splashes on the scene. It can be something small. I think people often will err on too much information,” said Koenig. “A lot of it is not necessary. You have to ask yourself, all of the time, is this serving the story?” When student Karen Argueta asked the two how they deal with the critics and the naysayers, Packnett offered sage advice, “You don’t have to tell yourself ‘no’ before other people do. And when you do get a ‘no,’ recognize where that ‘no’ is coming from, because sometimes, their ‘no’ really shouldn’t matter to you.”

After the meet and greet, we spoke with students who attended the event, and asked, What lesson did this event teach you?

Karen ArguetaKaren Argueta

“One of the things that really stuck with me is that not everyone’s ‘no’ has to matter to you. We work within a space where we get a lot of criticism, or are met with disapproval when we’re talking about very real stories. Packnett affirmed for us that you don’t always have to care about perspectives that are antagonizing or confrontational about the work that you’re doing, so long as you’re speaking with the truth.”

 

Saarah AliSaarah Ali

“While I think podcasts are very progressive and they allow a lot of space for women— especially women of color, and marginalized groups—from talking to these two women, I learned that it’s not as progressive as it seems. We actually still have a long way to go. This meeting definitely pushed me to think of the different ways I can get involved in all the aspects of making a podcast. Increased involvement will hopefully get more of a diverse set of voices, especially underrepresented voices, out there. There’s more work to do.”
 

Rebecca SinghRebecca Singh

“One of the things I took away from meeting these two awesome women was an understanding that not everything, not every bit of material you have, needs to be held so precious. We have the things that matter to the narrative, yes, and those are the things we keep. But then we have the things that don’t matter, and those can go, and that’s okay. Learning about how we have to make those kind of editing choices is important. And it’s a practice we’ll be able to implement in our own podcast.”

 

Sadie ChevanceSadie Chevance

It was so cool to meet these two inspiring women. I’ve been an avid listener and fan of their work. What I particularly love was how I was able to connect my own experiences to their content. I learned so much during our meet and greet, and they really have inspired me to work even harder on Life Out Loud. I’m fangirling a bit right now.”
 

 

Velislava BozhinovaVelislava Bozhinova

“Meeting Sarah Koenig and Brittany Packnett was fun. I can see similarities in what they do in their podcasts and what we do on Life Out Loud. It’s good to see that storytelling and podcasting can be used as a means to help spread social justice.”

 

 

 

Scenes from the Koenig/Packnett Student Conversation

The students excited before the arrival of this year’s trailblazers
The students excited before the arrival of this year’s trailblazers

Packnett and Koenig answer student questions

Packnett and Koenig answer student questions

Packnett and Koenig answer student questions

John Jay students meet Brittany Packnett and Sarah Koenig

John Jay students meet Brittany Packnett and Sarah Koenig

John Jay students meet Brittany Packnett and Sarah Koenig

All smiles after the meet and greet event

All smiles after the meet and greet event

The annual Justice Trailblazer Awards dinner was one of the highlights of the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Justice in America.