No Ordinary Reporter
Freelance journalist Sonam Vashi, an Atlanta native, is passionate about justice and making a difference in the lives of ordinary people who face extraordinary challenges. Recognized for her reporting on community and social issues, she’s a winner of the Atlanta Press Club Award of Excellence for Investigative Reporting. Vashi has written for, among other media outlets, Atlanta magazine, The New York Times, ProPublica, National Geographic and The Washington Post.
You are a seasoned journalist with a proclivity for extensive research and astute analysis. What drew you into the arena of journalism?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, even as a child, but what I love most about being a journalist is that my job is to try to understand a very complex, confusing world—and help others understand, too. And I love the idea that journalism can help correct a wrong, or shine light on issues and people who too often have been ignored by people in power.
Describe the most memorable story in your archives? What makes it significant?
I don’t have one, but I have loved writing about the communities along Buford Highway in different ways along the years. As someone who grew up in Norcross, Georgia, I feel very connected to the thoroughfare, and every time I drive along it, I think about the different people I’ve been lucky to write about: the restaurateurs preserving their culture’s flavors, the organizers working to end harmful policing practices, the reporters connected to the people they serve, the entrepreneurs keeping Buford Highway innovative.
You have written for venerable publications. What are some valuable lessons you have learned over the course of your career as a journalist?
For me, it’s that the community should always be at the center of the work. If you don’t have a mission in mind—for me, it’s trying to serve Black, brown and immigrant communities in various ways—you won’t feel fulfilled, and it’s more difficult to be effective. Also: As someone who’s often driving around the city to talk to people, always keep a bottle of water in your car!
By some metrics, mainstream media tends to skew its coverage to endorse preconceived perspectives. You have penned several features on pertinent social issues. How do you sidestep your personal views to craft an objective and truthful report?
In this job, I am constantly learning and challenging my preconceived notions. For me, it’s important to identify what my own biases might be: What are the experiences I’ve had that make me more likely to favor one side over another? But also, my personal views and experiences can sometimes enhance my reporting: What are the experiences I’ve had that might make me well suited to tell a story? (For example, coming from an immigrant community means I might be better informed and sourced about immigrant issues than someone who doesn’t.) No one is truly objective, but my job requires me to be both curious and open-minded. The most important thing is that I can acknowledge my own biases and make a special effort to hear someone with whom I may not personally agree.
In your story “What role do tourists play in the future of Confederate monuments?” (National Geographic, October 2020), you spoke with a college student from an Indian immigrant family who emphasized the need to “prioritize Black voices.” The chorus exposing racism and inequality in America is echoing across the country. Do you feel minorities are finally unmuzzled?
I think racial minorities have always been “unmuzzled”—it’s just that power is shifting, and more white people, and people in power, are now (slowly) listening.
As a journalist who shines the light in dark corners, what are the most progressive sociocultural developments you have noted recently?
I’ve been very interested in the abolition movements—which aim to remove prisons and policing—and the different frameworks and alternatives that are being proposed to replace them.
In your writings, you transition from somber to celebratory with graceful ease. “What will it take for APD to change the way it polices itself?” (Atlanta magazine, September 2020) is vastly different in spirit and style from “Love comes and goes, but Jalisco’s hard-shell tacos are forever” (Atlanta magazine, March 2020). Do you find it challenging to switch gears from configuring hard-hitting content to penning light-hearted narratives?
I tend to be a person who can easily compartmentalize: Life is full of highs and lows, and there is often beauty in seemingly difficult circumstances. I see my job as complicating narratives—rejecting the idea that something can be all “good” or “bad,” or that there is always a single truth or narrative. That work is messy and complex, but it ultimately provides a more accurate reflection of what real life is like.
In 2020, you cofounded Canopy Atlanta— “a community-powered non-profit newsroom presenting stories chosen, reported, and presented with Atlantans.” How did the idea to showcase neighborhoods and proffer local news take root?
Six journalists—informed by the feedback of many more—came together to found Canopy Atlanta, which creates participatory journalism for Black, brown and working-class communities in metro Atlanta. Through our individual professional experiences, we felt that the way traditional journalism was being done was
often extractive (meaning, we weren’t always creating meaningful, two-way relationships with the people we reported on), did not often center communities of color, and did not always fill the most urgent information needs of those communities. Instead, Canopy Atlanta collaborates with and trains residents in specific communities—so far we have partnered with or will partner with West End, Forest Park and Bankhead—to choose, report and present journalism that directly responds to those needs.
What are some of Canopy’s most significant accomplishments so far? What is your vision for the future?
We hope to rebuild trust with communities whom traditional, legacy journalism has excluded or ignored, and we’re building capacity in those communities to continue accessing the information they need to thrive, through elected officials, public records and more. We do this most notably through a paid, six-week Fellowship, which trains residents in reporting techniques that equip them to better access information on topics like housing, education, criminal justice and more. We envision a future through which all Atlantans—particularly those that have not been adequately served by existing media—can get the information they need to make decisions in their lives.
Is there someone in your line of work who you admire? What makes them remarkable?
I am so inspired by the work of journalists across the country, especially those working at community-centered newsrooms like City Bureau, Outlier Media, Scalawag and many more. These folks keep community at the center of their work and are transforming what journalism can be. And I’m inspired locally by community-centered journalists (like those at Khabar!), organizers, and everyday people who work to serve their communities.
What advice would you offer a journalist in the making?
I would ask them, why did you become a journalist? What problem are you seeking to solve, and for whom? And my advice would be to keep that question—whose answer may change over time—and the people for and with whom you’re working at the center of the work.
Working as a journalist takes a physical and emotional toll. How do you self-preserve?
I am very bad at this—and I see this flaw creating problems in my work. I’m learning from my friends and colleagues at Canopy Atlanta and through the John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford how to embrace the messy parts of the process, and the importance of making space for the things that bring me joy: building community with other journalists and Atlantans, gardening, being outside in the city that I love.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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