UHMP teaches students to tell the health and social justice stories of the unrepresented

Hermes Falcon

Urban Health Media Project

Urban Health Media Project introduces middle and high school students in underrepresented communities to journalism and teaches them how to cover health and social issue topics that touch their lives.

“I want to be a journalist,” says Sreehitha Gandluri, a student at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland. “I want to talk to people, I want to write stories. I want to share the stories of the unrepresented in our community.” 

Students from Maryland, Florida, Washington, D.C., and six other states have written articles and produced videos published in outlets including Miami New Times, the Philadelphia Tribune, D.C. Line, Washington Blade, USA TODAY and the Indianapolis Star.

“There was another story that I wrote about mental health and racism during the pandemic, and that story was published at USA TODAY,” Sreehita says. “Oh my God! That’s my name on USA TODAY. It was surreal.”

Since its founding in March 2017, Urban Health Media Project has held reporting bootcamps and workshops covering a range of topics from food insecurity to housing inequity for LGBTQ youth to pandemic mental health. 

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the caliber of the people who have instructed these young people since the start--people of color, whenever possible, who have and do work at places like the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post,” says Jayne O’Donnell, USA TODAY’s former health policy reporter who co-founded UHMP with Dr. Reed Tuckson. 

This past year, UHMP expanded its curricula to teach students how to create infographics and iPhone videos and to train them how to report on the decriminalization of mental illness.

Also, the nonprofit worked to upgrade its social media accounts and create videos with staff, interns, students and contractors whose experience includes stints at Dateline: NBC, ABC, Voice of America and as documentary filmmakers. 

UHMP creates an environment where students of all backgrounds feel encouraged and excited to write about health-related topics they are passionate about.

“Growing up as a Black queer kid, you have people in the Black community who hate you, and you have people in the gay community who hate you because you’re Black,” says Donovan McClain, a high school junior in Baltimore, Maryland, who hopes to become a surgeon. He began collaborating with UHMP after attending a reporting bootcamp this summer and went on to host a “Therapy Thursday” Instagram Live session on back to school mental health awareness.

“For a long time, I was scared to speak up for how I felt, but through this program it has made me realize that it’s okay to speak up and that things will get better when you stand up,” he says.

Through the help of sponsors including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, the Sozosei Foundation, and private donors, UHMP provides equipment and training to those who might not otherwise have access to it.

“Ideally, I would like to be an investigative journalist or a feature writer,” says Yesenia Barrios, a UHMP intern and DACA recipient who immigrated from Mexico when she was nine years old. She double majored in Journalism and Digital Communications at City University of New York’s Baruch College. “I’ve been able to learn a lot from [UHMP].”

The students and interns offer a fresh perspective to the seasoned journalists they work with on how to present the news and use social media. 

“They are teaching us what they would respond to and how they’d want to see it,” O’Donnell says. “It’s a real give and take.”

Ultimately, the goal is to help newsrooms become more diverse.

“Every publication, every broadcast outlet wants to hire young people of color. They can make such a difference,” O’Donnell says. “And it just means so much to me to give them that chance.”

Hermes Falcon (he/they) is a UHMP intern and freshman at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.