Monday, December 28, 2020

The Genesis of The Project: A Professor's Passion and Pursuit

By Andrew Vazquez

Fountain speaking with workers at Breakthrough
Urban Ministries during a visit with his class while
leading his first Convergence project on the subject
of homelessness in Chicago.
As a journalist, Roosevelt University Professor John W. Fountain believes that stories need to be heard, none more important than the stories of murdered Chicago women. That is what he says led him to choose in January 2020 as a subject for Convergence journalism, the capstone undergraduate course at Roosevelt, “Unforgotten: The Untold Story of Murdered Chicago Women.”

Fountain, a native son of Chicago, who has taught for the last 14 academic years at Roosevelt, said the subject is important because it not only gives students an opportunity to report on a timely subject that is also socially relevant but also serves to capture the voices of those people who lost loved ones, and the chance to be heard and not forgotten, to live on every day in spirit and by the presence of their stories.

Fountain said he realized that the project would not be easy for students to undertake.

“It is a lot of difficult cases because some of these cases are really cold and are hard to contact relatives,” he said in an interview. 

Still, he asked students to do what he has done for many years as a seasoned veteran journalist—to report and to humanize homicide victims. But students faced the challenge of trying to locate relatives of 51 victims identified by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Murder Accountability Project, some of the cases dating back almost 20 years.

Also clear to Fountain was that the story of these women, many reportedly associated with drug use and prostitution, and many of them Black and Brown, had not gotten the publicity they might have if they were white and middle class, he said. He said as much to students from the beginning, challenging them to look beyond so-called circumstances of their deaths and also any stereotypes, and to seek to tell the story of who they were.

“The goal of the stories is to bring—and spread—light by telling the women’s stories,” Fountain explained.

The project began in January with Fountain’s Convergence class during the spring 2020 semester and was picked up by a new group of students in his Convergence class this fall.

Fountain recalled speaking at the beginning of his class’ investigative project to Thomas Hargrove, who founded the Murder Accountability Project. “He told me, ‘it’s an ambitious project.’ But he said that whatever we could do to bring publicity to the story would be well worth it. That was all I needed to hear.”

Among Fountain’s hopes is that students will learn from the process of reporting and writing and that they will be “sensitized to issues concerning the poor and voiceless,” he said, adding that the future of journalism is in the hands of student-journalists who will someday decide the “platter of daily American journalism.”

Fountain with Roosevelt University students
covering the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
In previous years, Fountain’s Convergence classes have traveled to Flint, Michigan, where they reported the story of the Flint water crisis; covered the story homelessness in Chicago, particularly during the winter months; the story of the murder of young Black men in Chicago; and how faith is lived in America. 

 These kinds of projects matter to Fountain because they focus on social justice storytelling, he said. In the case of the 51 women, he said, “they were either someone’s daughter, mom, aunt, sister, etc. They are human beings.” 

 “If it was 51 dogs or animals in general, killed strangled, mutilated, then set on fire, then the city of Chicago would be on fire over the issue,” he added.

Why “we” should care is clear to Fountain who quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ We have to care about humanity,” Fountain said.

Fountain choosing to cover the story of the 51 slain Chicago women did not come as a surprise to his wife Monica Fountain, who is also a journalist.  

“It is in line with the types of stories that previous convergence classes have done, and the kinds of stories he has covered throughout his journalism career, seeking to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said

“It gives students an opportunity to work on an important project that makes a difference,” Monica Fountain added. “Professor Fountain is always looking for real-life opportunities for his students to put into practice what they have learned.”

Samantha Latson, one of the student-journalists who has worked on the Unforgotten Project said the experience has been “rewarding.” 

“A moment I will never forget is interviewing the sisters of Gwendolyn Williams,” Latson said, referring to one of the 51 women. “Hearing the voices and seeing the faces of two sisters who expounded on the memories, and also longed for another encounter with their sister was impactful for me as a student journalist. 

“This encounter will always remind me of my purpose as a reporter, which is to advocate for those who are often silenced and pushed to the side,” Latson, a senior, added. “It means the world to me to be a part of a project advocating for Black women who look like me.”

In Fountain’s eyes, that alone means the project is a success.

Samantha Latson contributed to this report

The logo for the Convergence project led by Fountain on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.