In 2015, West Side native Tiffany Walden was in her second year working as a breaking news reporter at the Orlando Sentinel when she says her job started to feel draining. She was working early morning shifts, churning out crime stories on tight deadlines.
That’s when her best friend from college, Morgan Elise Johnson, began calling her every day. “Why don’t you move back home and talk about something you care about?” Johnson recalls asking Walden.
Finally, in December that year, that’s what she did. Johnson, in the meantime, was doing research in Washington, D.C., for a Milwaukee-based documentary company. By June of the next year, she too caught the homecoming bug. “After working for three years in a film company, I always knew that I wanted to be working for myself and it was like ‘Why not work with my best friend, too?’” says Johnson, who grew up in the suburb of North Chicago.
This February, they launched their own digital media platform, The Triibe. Its website features a mix of feature articles, artist profiles, op-eds, and short documentary films that aim to encompass the black millennial experience in Chicago. We spoke with Johnson and Walden about their homecoming, The Triibe, and its role within the crowded media landscape in the city. [Ed. Note: Walden is a freelance contributor to Chicago.]
You two grew up in and around Chicago, moved away after college, and came back. What did you learn about Chicago after your experiences away from here?
Morgan Elise Johnson: In D.C., it took only two weeks to feel completely ingrained in the black community. When I came back to Chicago, Tiffany and I tried an entire summer to figure out what the scene was for young black professionals and we literally could not find it. It was night after night searching for people like us and being completely out of the loop because we hadn’t been in the city in years. I think The Triibe came out of us trying to discover the black community and people like us.
Tiffany Walden: There are things to do Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it’s not like in Atlanta, or Houston, or D.C., where every single day there is something you can do as a black person and feel comfortable and not walk into a bar and feel ostracized immediately. That doesn’t exist in Chicago.
That seems to tie in to The Triibe’s mission statement about “reshaping the narrative of black millennials.” What is the prevailing narrative of black millennials in your mind?
M.E.J.: Well, according to Donald Trump, everything wrong with Black America is Chicago. Chicago personifies the criminalization of black people. When I was in D.C. and I told people I was from the Chicago area, everybody asked me, “How did you make it out?” Back in the day when you lived in the Chicago area people would talk about the Bulls, but now, the number one thing people are gonna ask you is about the violence. We felt the strong need to counter that.
Do you feel that media is fueling that narrative? What are you doing at The Triibe to counter that?
M.E.J.: The way journalists are taught and the stories are sold, there is an incentive to report on murder. So the first time someone encounters media is on the worst day of their life, when they lose someone and a camera is in their face. On one hand, their story has to be told, on the other hand I wonder when the media is going to examine themselves and get some diverse voices involved and revamp the model. I try to deepen all the stories we do. We’re not in competition with anybody: nobody is paying us, we don’t have a schedule, and if we need to take our time to tell a story and do it right from our point of view, then let’s do that. We have a certain freedom some media companies don’t have right now.
Tiffany, you’re from North Lawndale. How does a story change when the person telling it is from the neighborhood in which the story takes place?
T.W.: One of the examples I always think of is when Complex or Fader did a story on footworking, but they called it “juking.” Those are two separate things and if you grew up in the city, you’re familiar with the difference. Growing up, I saw footworking circles and it was ingrained in me. Your soul starts bursting and it takes you back to your first basement party when you were 16.
At The Triibe, we have a section called “The People.” In newspapers, op-eds are reserved for experts or longtime journalists. We want to take the op-ed piece back to the people; anyone can submit their ideas or opinions, to help create a dialogue about what’s going on in the community.
You recently produced the documentary series Another Life, which examines trauma and gun violence. What inspired that project and why did you choose to include poetry in the piece?
M.E.J.: I wanted do a story on gun violence, but do it from the point of view of the trauma. We see lots of stories about the body count. That’s been done and it’s not making an impact, so why are we still doing it? Not only are we putting out stories, but we’re also community organizers. We want to see our work in schools, we want to see it at community meetings, and we want to start a dialogue.
To be more inclusive, the people we interviewed had a role in creating this piece. I connected with the poet, Shannon Smith, and I sent her transcripts from my interviews. She would draft poetry and I’d edit the shots with the poetry.
T.W.: It was also inspired by Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and how she weaved poetry through her music videos.
What’s it like starting a whole new media company and how do you hope to expand?
T.W.: I’ve only worked at newspapers and never came across anyone in advertising to show us what it takes to run a media company. We’ve sacrificed a lot to do The Triibe. We don’t work full time and we’re using freelancing as a way to balance life. Right now, we want to spread our name, so we host Triibe Tuesdays at M Lounge, which is a monthly happy hour event for emerging artists and creatives.
M.E.J.: We’re also open for black creatives to submit their own work—that’s why we called ourselves “The Triibe.” It needed to feel communal, it needed to feel black, and it needed to feel like a movement that everyone could be a part of.