After 5 years, 170 students and scores of published stories, we’re just getting started

Jayne O’Donnell, UHMP’s co-founder, right, poses with members of UHMP’s first Baltimore team and co-founder Dr. Reed Tuckson at the launch reception at Howard University on March 9, 2017. Erin Burnett is third from right.

By Jayne O'Donnell

Thursday night, March 9, 2017, two groups of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore teenagers gathered at Howard University to celebrate the launch of the Urban Health Media Project, now Youthcast Media Group (YMG), a new community-focused journalism program targeting high school students of color from under-resourced parts of the cities. The youngest were still in 8th grade; the oldest was a high school senior. 

This first UHMP team included 16 Black, three white and one Mexican-American student, Karla Lozano, who still calls joining UHMP “the best decision I ever made.”  Lozano, who spoke at a Capitol Hill domestic violence event in 2018 and has written many first-person stories about surviving trauma, says UHMP taught her to use her voice to help others. 

That night five years ago, many of the young people - even 8th grader Erin Burnett - knew they wanted to be journalists. (She’s now at University of Maryland studying journalism and has a paid internship at a Baltimore TV station every summer during college.) Others, such as 11th grader Reggie Payne, were leaning more towards the arts. The musician and artist is majoring in studio art at the University of the District of Columbia. 

Wesley Lowery

No matter their dreams at the time, the students listened with rapt attention to moving speeches from former Illinois public health director and author, Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, then-Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery (now a CBS News correspondent) and UHMP’s co-founder, former D.C. health commissioner and UnitedHealth Group senior executive, Dr. Reed Tuckson.

UHMP started with a $300,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation and the passion Dr. Tuckson and I shared for giving diverse young people a voice in their communities, and for keeping media attention on the issues that lead to long term health disparities in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, long after  police shootings have put them in the headlines. 

Howard University was our fiscal sponsor, partner and D.C. base, while Baltimore students worked out of our partner school, Morgan State University, for weekly Saturday sessions. Instructors included now-Associated Press legal/law enforcement editor, Gary Fields, former Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris, former Baltimore Sun health reporter, now Baltimore Banner managing editor, Andrea McDaniels, USA TODAY videographer Jarrad Henderson and former Howard assistant professor Mike Tucker. 

Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck

I co-wrote several articles with students that appeared in USA TODAY. They shot several of the photos and videos to go with them, including former Surgeon General Jerome Adams and ex-Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Since then, we’ve become our own nonprofit 501(c)(3) - in December 2019 - and had dozens of articles published in news media outlets.

Our students, working with professional journalists, have published at least 21 pieces of content for USA TODAY, 11 stories in various local and regional publications, including the Philadelphia Tribune, Indianapolis Star and Miami New Times; 10 stories in Black/Hispanic publications, including the Washington Blade and Baltimore and D.C. Afro newspapers; one story on the drug safety site Medshadow, and one story just this week on the educational site Chalkbeat! Overall, about 170 young people have gone through our training — which we now pay students to take as part of our effort to help level a long-unfair playing field. 

Our students, working with professional journalists, have published at least 11 stories in various local and regional publications, 10 stories in Black/Hispanic publications, 21 pieces of content for USA Today, 10 in the Washington Blade, one story on the drug safety site Medshadow, and one story just this week on the educational site Chalkbeat!

Two are graduating from college in May. Josh Mitchell will earn degrees in life sciences communications and environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is a Posse Foundation scholar. Berri Wilmore, a former intern, will earn a degree in communications and rhetorical studies from Syracuse University. Another former intern, Sierra Lewter, is at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and will graduate in spring, 2023. 

We continue to place many of the high school students who have moved up from our boot camps through our workshops to independent storytelling in paid internships within the UHMP program. And we’re building a support system that includes college and study skill coaches, career advisers and others to help our students leading up to and through their college careers.  

O’Donnell and Tuckson pose with some of the members of UHMP’s first Washington team. Sierra Lewter is second from left.

A large “systems enabler” grant from the Melinda Gates-supported Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health for 2021, along with continued funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and new grants from the Sozosei Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation and private donors made all this possible.

Going forward, we’ll keep preparing diverse young people in communities where opportunity is often lacking to join the ranks of journalists and other communicators in health, medicine, law and whatever fields they choose to make a difference. We just know they will.