Finding good stories and good community in Bethel
Lakeidra Chavis, 2015 psychology graduate, continues her work in journalism
When Lakeidra Chavis told friends she would move to Bethel to work as a reporter for the public radio station this fall, she could feel their skepticism.
“People wouldn’t say anything. They’d just give me that look, like ‘Oh …’” she said.
Bethel, a hub village of about 6,400 people on the lower Kuskokwim River, far off Alaska’s highway system, is a remote and sometimes rough place. The night Chavis arrived, she stayed in the radio station’s building and learned the next day that someone had broken all the windows in the cars in the parking lot.
“I was in shock for a few days,” she said.
Yet that incident has been softened by the kindness that has since enveloped Chavis in her first month in town. Chavis got the reporting job at KYUK in September after graduating from UAF in May 2015. She spent the summer working for KTOO, the public station in Juneau.
“Everyone’s just really kind,” she said of Bethel’s residents. “People are always bringing food like moose stew or dried salmon and always checking to see if you’re fine. There’s just so much community here.”
The work has been fascinating as well.
“I get to work at a station where it’s bilingual,” she said. KYUK broadcasts in English and Yupik, the language spoken by many of the indigenous people in the station’s listening area — the broad delta formed by the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers as they enter the Bering Sea.
“It’s like an experience you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.”
When Chavis, now 22, entered UAF in 2011, she thought she would become a psychologist and help people beat their addictions. She earned the psychology degree, but her career hasn’t tracked the plan.
Blame it on the student newspaper, The Sun Star.
Chavis, as a freshman just out of Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, saw a Sun Star advertisement seeking news reporters.
“I’d applied for like 19 jobs, and nobody hired me,” she said. So she walked into the office and told the editor she was a good writer — even though she had no training in journalism and little understanding of the work.
“I didn’t know you could study journalism,” she said. “I didn’t know what NPR was. I learned a lot and that’s how I got involved.”
Involved is an understatement. During her sophomore year, Chavis became the paper’s most prominent staff member — almost by accident. For the annual April Fool’s edition, dubbed The Fun Star, she wrote a brief satirical article about an imaginary vagina-shaped building to be built on campus. A graphic drawing accompanied the article, and the headline used a thinly veiled crude slur.
A professor asserted that the article constituted sexual harassment and contributed to a hostile learning and working environment at UAF. The university administration declined to act, citing free speech. The professor then said that the paper violated Title IX, the U.S. law prohibiting federally funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex, and that the university didn’t investigate properly.
The university investigated and found no misconduct, but then was asked for an outside review. The outside reviewer decided no harassment or violation had occurred. However, the dispute continues to draw nationwide attention, with opposing advocacy groups using it as an example of either the lax enforcement or overbearing nature of federal Title IX policy.
Chavis believes the article, as satire, can’t be considered harassment. However, she has mixed feelings about the whole incident. Despite the university’s ruling in her favor, she said the institution’s handling of some aspects detracted from her education.
In addition, she’s not likely to escape the notoriety the article created. “What’s really funny, or I guess it’s not funny, it’s embarrassing, is that I had to explain that article in job interviews,” she said.
The experience didn’t dissuade her from becoming editor of The Sun Star the next year and then deciding she would pursue journalism as a career, despite the stressful late nights. “Sometimes our layout editor would fall asleep at the desk,” she recalled.
While her satirical article wasn’t journalism, the fallout also gave her experience in standing up for herself under strong criticism — something she’s already had to do as a reporter in Bethel.
Chavis produced a news report about absenteeism and tardiness on the Bethel City Council. One council member “went on a total rant” on the phone with her, and another “posted about it on social media and said some not very true things” while also using a sexual slur to describe her inquiry, she said.
She took on her critics directly, which she said resulted in a mutual understanding of the story’s legitimacy and an apology from the council member who used the slur.
“I’ve never done small-town reporting before, so it’s a real learning experience for me,” she said.
Looking back, Chavis said, “I’m really grateful for my experience at UAF, however nontraditional and controversial it was.”
Others also were grateful for her presence. A committee of Chavis’ peers chose her as the student speaker for the 2015 commencement.
Chavis, who was born in Monticello, Arkansas, was the first in her family to graduate from college. Chavis first came to Fairbanks when her mom, who works as a nutrition specialist in the Army, was transferred to Fort Wainwright in 2010. Her mother and stepdad, Tamika and Kevin Lee, and her 3-year-old brother, Jordan, now live in North Carolina but traveled to Fairbanks for the graduation ceremony.
“That moment was personally just more for my family,” Chavis said. “I was so nervous, I don’t remember a lot of it.”
Despite her nerves, the speech still showed the wordsmithing skills she honed at The Sun Star.
“I remember when I was a freshman moving into Moore Hall,” Chavis told the crowd. “There was a distinct feeling in the air and on everyone’s faces, feelings that in the years since have weathered in the midst of navigating the confusion of classes offered every other year, of too many unfair parking tickets, of too many experiences shadowed by cynicism. But a few weeks ago, I felt those feelings return — the glimmering light of aged idealism, the jitteriness of unlimited possibilities ahead and the inexplicable lightness of hope. As we move into the next stages of our lives, maybe these feelings can act as a springboard, propelling us into the lives we have yet to live, people we’ve yet to meet, and a world we’ve yet to see.”