Editor’s Note: This article begins a series of reporting follow up on how various local organizations have kept up with commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion in the past year. As a part of the Indianapolis community, WFYI wants to ensure we are also holding ourselves accountable to this work. We hired an outside editor, Traci Tong, to help shape this piece with a reporter who was not involved with the station’s DEI work.
When newscaster and reporter Terri Dee joined WFYI in February of 2019, she noticed she was one of just a handful of Black staff members at the station.
“It just became very apparent to me that there were not any other Black reporters, anchors… none of the local talk shows were hosted by people of color. And that was troubling to me,” Dee said. “I’ve actually heard these comments from people of color when they find out I work for WFYI, [saying,] ‘Oh, I don’t listen. I don’t watch. Because I don’t see, or I don’t hear, people that reflect me.’”
But Dee was hired just as the station was in the midst of leadership and cultural change. Of the 19 members of the station’s management team, 14 were hired after 2016.
The arrival of so many new leaders to WFYI led some staff to more deeply probe the station’s commitment to diversity. As part of that, by May 2019, the staff’s DEI -- diversity, equity and inclusion -- committee was formed, with the goal of ensuring that all staff felt they were working in a supportive environment regardless of race, gender or other factors.
In the beginning, the committee focused on addressing the station’s bathrooms, specifically putting up gender-neutral signs and providing feminine products.
But any other efforts to create other physically-inclusive spaces or institute other change was interrupted in March 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic. The committee’s action on implementing changes stalled.
Just a few months later, protests broke out in response to multiple police killings of Black Americans across the country, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and, closer to home, Dreasjon Reed in Indianapolis.
“Last summer was just a big turning point,” said Taylor Leonard, who runs the staff DEI committee for WFYI. She said she found her activist voice advocating for the queer community, and realized she wanted to speak up on racial injustice as well.
Under Leonard, the committee created specific goals for 2021. Those include creating a diversity and inclusion resource guide for staff; putting together a diversity audit on the station’s hiring progress, and training staff every three months on issues related to DEI. While the trainings aren’t mandatory, the committee wants 100% participation by managers and 80% by staff.
All of the staff meetings are done remotely, and it’s unclear when the staff will return to the station in-person.
“I definitely have moments where I feel like this is going too slow,” Leonard said, echoing sentiments shared both on and off the record from other WFYI staff about the pace of change at the organization. “But I think then, I try to pull myself back and say -- we're being really intentional, and we're trying to bring everyone along in the process. And that takes time.”
Many staff made similar comments about the pace of change. One example was the time it took for the station to issue a public DEI statement. Locally, organizations of all sizes -- from industry giants like Eli Lilly and Cummins to local institutions like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and United Way of Central Indiana -- issued statements condemning racial injustice and committing to change.
WFYI, by contrast, waited until December 2020 to put out its statement. For some staff members, that was frustrating.
“I wish we'd done our statements sooner,” said Sarah Neal-Estes, WFYI’s news director She also said that she was pressed by members of her reporting staff on the delay in a public statement. “At the time, a lot of people were like, ‘what’s taking us so long?’”
But when Neal-Estes attended staff meetings organized by the station’s leadership team, she walked away with a different perspective. The meetings were intended to allow managers to work together in order to craft the station's diversity statement.
“We're not doing this to satisfy everybody else, we're doing this to change the culture of our organization,” said WFYI President Greg Petrowich. “That's an intentional process. And when it's ready, that's when we'd make our statement. But it's a long game, you know, that's what we keep telling the staff [...] when you look at forever, as your timeline, three months or six months is kind of irrelevant.”
Human Resources Director Ryan Robinson acknowledges that for some -- especially staff members of color -- the request for patience might be a tough sell.
“At some level, you're trying, as the organization, to tell folks: ‘You have to trust us. We swear we're doing the work, just stick with us for a year or two, we're on the right track,’” Robinson said. “If I were those folks, I would absolutely have no trust, or I would have a very, very low amount of trust until I started seeing actual action.”
The station is in the process of signing onto “Public Media for All,” a public-facing commitment made by some public media stations around the country towards achieving specific action items, including paying interns and conducting a pay equity review. Similar to how WFYI’s statement condemning racial injustice came out months after the initial flurry of company statements, WFYI signed onto Public Media for All months after the other organizations did.
But newly hired reporters and tenured staff alike express general optimism that the work will eventually get done. And in those extra months it took to sign Public Media For All, the station did map out a plan to achieve those goals, and it made progress on some of them. That progress includes creating an employee resource group for people of color, and incorporating a commitment to diversity into the organization’s mission statement.
Then there are still big questions of how, when and what other policy changes will look like. Will there be open books for payroll? Will there be a closer examination -- or even a full audit -- of news content coverage? Will WFYI be able to retain its new staff members of color? These are all suggestions on the horizon, but have yet to take form.
Still, Petrowich is determined that deep-seated cultural change is coming. His approach to staff commitment to DEI is -- stick around and make it work, or leave.
“We've had that discussion internally that we could lose people on both ends -- that we can lose people who feel like we're not moving fast enough, and we can lose people who think we’re moving too fast,” he said. “You pick the best, most intentional path you can, make your commitments, and then and then hope that people see it.”
Terri Dee, the local All Things Considered newscaster and reporter, is optimistic even as she acknowledges that changes have come in “baby steps.”
“I think the awareness has been awoken,” she said. “But this is a situation that did not occur overnight, over a period of a year over a period of two years. So it’s not going to change overnight, or in a period of a year or two years. But I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing, at least an acknowledgement and a movement towards change in that direction.”