A People with Passion series
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly
As talented as she is personable, editor Kimbriell Kelly of the Chicago Reporter has a gift for putting people at ease. I felt that way as we sat in her office and discussed journalism, so it’s no wonder that subjects feel comfortable opening up to her, sometimes to their own surprise. That was the case in Kelly’s 2006 award-winning story “51 cents an hour” in which she coaxed an Indiana restaurant opener to give Kelly, her photographer, and her intern a tour of her home — the place where she was allegedly imprisoning one of her “employees.”
Kelly’s re-telling of how that story came to be is nearly as engrossing as the story itself. Here, in the seventh installment of my Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Kelly discusses her introduction to journalism, her passion for housing issues, journalism ethics, and her new challenges as editor of the Reporter.
I’ve always loved writing, and asking people about their lives and their stories. Most people wouldn’t believe this about me, but I used to be very shy. So that journalist deflection where you don’t really talk about yourself but you ask people a lot of questions? That was me. It wasn’t until high school that I started getting into journalism. I had a lot of questions about how our school district was run. I remember one of my first stories that I really struggled with was writing about our school district’s referendum. And you know, what 15-year-old understands what a referendum is and a tax raid and levying? I just remember calling, I think it was the mayor of South Holland. My high school newspaper advisor was sitting there, trying to help me, and I just remember asking these questions and not understanding what the story was about. (Laughs.) I was able to cobble something together in working with another writer. But I think that kind of exemplified my early years of trying to understand the world around me and how things operated. Being very particular about trying to get to the bottom of things.
My big issue that I’m really interested in is housing. I think anybody here could tell you that. My sister and I joked the other day – and I’ll show you this text message between she and I – my sister and her fiancé are having a conversation, and she’s asking me “How many places did we live in growing up?” And I added it up and said, “Six.” I named all the towns and how long we lived in each. “Six places in just 18 years. That’s like a new place every three years.”
I feel like the way I grew up, housing was unstable – it was stable, but unstable, because who moves around that much? You don’t think about it as a kid. You’re like, New friends! But as an adult, you think about that. And I think for us, we moved around a lot because of our circumstances. It was about affordability. I was raised by my mom as a single mom, and I think it’s hard on parents whether you’re in a duel-headed household or a single-parent household. In retrospect, I think that really fuels my interest in housing.
A lot of people say that housing isn’t a human right. People are entitled to say that. But for me, it is. I think everybody should have a place to be covered when it’s raining outside, and to call home. For me, I think because of that abrupt structure, I’m really interested in it. That really spurred me in a lot of the housing work that we’ve done here, particularly the work that led to – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Countrywide settlement.
So one of the biggest projects that I did here was about unequal mortgage lending. Basically banks discriminating against people based off of race. You have black people who were earning six figures, over $100,000, and they were getting these subprime mortgages. It was more likely for someone who was white earning $30,000 a year to get a loan than the black person who is earning 100,000. We did this report that ended up on the desk of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She got very, very interested, and we had several meetings with her. Ultimately that led her to file a lawsuit against Countrywide as well as subsequently Wells Fargo. It ended up being this national 8.9 billion dollar settlement, and it started here with the reporting that we did. (Smiles.) So that makes you feel good.
What was your previous best, as far as an exciting moment of your reporting leading to some sort of action?
Well, I don’t think I had anything that close. An 8.9 billion settlement is hard to get close to. (Laughs.) Prior to that was a story I did on human trafficking. When people talk about human trafficking, they mostly think about sex trafficking here in the United States, or people being brought into this country to be slaves. I thought about all the people who were trafficked who were already here, either American or who were just somehow here, and were kind of kidnapped and taken into trafficking situations.
I wrote a story about people who did something basic – they tried to get a job, opened up a newspaper, and ended up in a trafficking situation right here in Chicago. I profiled a couple people and followed the same path that they followed, starting with the employment agency that they had contacted, opening the newspaper and looking in the job section. Went to the employment agency, and all of a sudden they’re trafficked. One person was trafficked out to Michigan. Another person was trafficked out to Indiana. So I went and I found those people that trafficked them, sat down with them at a restaurant, and had a conversation to get their point of view.
That wasn’t an 8.9 billion dollar settlement, but it helped me understand why people do this, what’s in their head. They were offering people housing, food, and that’s pretty much it. That’s what you need to kind of get people in the situation like that.
Now, do you do that as a reporter? Or do you do that undercover as a person who’s looking for the job?
No, I did that as a reporter. From all the journalism ethics classes that you take in j-school, you just have to be very transparent and clear. I had an intern with me and a photographer. (Laughs.) I mean, there was no hiding it. There were three of us.
We went to the restaurant. It was in Greenwood, Indiana. Walked right in. And of course I’m sitting in the parking lot before we went in thinking, How am I going to get these people to talk to me? The ultimate resolution in my head was, By the time I walk out of this conversation with these people, I will have my story. Didn’t know how I was going to get it. (Laughs.) I knew where the person lived who owned the restaurant, so I went to their house, and we canvassed their neighborhood trying to get as much background information as possible. I talked to their neighbors, the kids playing around in the street after school. They’re like, “Yeah, those people in that house are creepy.” They’ll give you a little bit of intelligence about it. We all knocked on doors and talked to as many people as possible so that I felt I had a little bit more ammunition when I went to the restaurant.
I walked in. I remember the husband was at the front desk. I said, “Hey, I’m a reporter from Chicago, I’m just in town for the day, and there’s this guy in Chicago who is claiming that you basically trafficked him, locked him in a bedroom, made him work for you, paid him 50 cents an hour, and refused to let him leave. I’m just trying to get the full story, and I totally want to be fair and offer you an opportunity to talk about this. But I’m only here for the day, and this guy’s making all of these accusations. So you can choose to not be in this story, and I will totally get it, but I’ve already talked to the FBI and gotten their side, I’ve talked to this guy’s side.”
Did you say you talked to neighbors?
No. (Laughs.) Not at that point. But you know, when you present a situation like that, they want to talk to you because then they’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, she already talked to the FBI, she already talked to this guy. We might look bad, so let’s get my say.” It was great that I had already talked to the neighbors, because a lot of people were already suspicious. They knew something was wrong with this house. They had told us that the owners had a van, and they would see people leave in the morning – they would shuttle people out to the van. This is just not normal suburban behavior. They would see people come back late at night and the van would empty out. (Laughs.) People are like, “They’re weird!”
He brings the wife out, and she’s like, “You know, that’s not true. That guy – I gave him a roof over his head, I paid for his food, I paid for his transportation to everywhere he needed to go.” Which was interesting to me, because that’s how she literally saw it. She didn’t see it as her doing anything wrong. She was like, “I’m helping this guy. Even though he got 50 cents an hour, it’s more than he had when he was working here, and I gave him everything.”
I said to her, “Well you know, he said you locked him in his room. I know you live right around the corner. Can we just go there now? Because I’m leaving in like an hour.” She just looked at me, and I think she didn’t expect that question, and she said, “Yes.” It just rolled out of her mouth. I don’t even think she realized what she was saying. “Yes.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s go.” We get in the car, and I remember our photographer Jason said, “I can’t believe she said yes!” (Laughs.)
We go to her house, which is less than a mile away. Of course, we had just been here. It was the eeriest. She shows us the bedroom, and she’s like, “See, there’s no lock on the door.” She flings this bedroom door open and there are mattresses all over the floor. I’m pointing to Jason to take pictures. “Well, what about the bedroom over there? Is that locked as well?” She’s like, “No.” Because that’s her bedroom. She pulls this key from around her neck, out of her brassiere, and she’s like, “I’ll show you,” and opens it.
This is a little odd that she’s carrying around a key to her bedroom. “Why do you lock your door?” And she’s like, “So that nothing gets stolen” or “So people feel safer,” some weird excuse. I turn around and the bedroom behind me has a deadbolt on it. “Well, whose room is that?” And she’s like, “Oh, um, that’s just an extra room.” (Laughs.) So it just so happened that the room she showed us didn’t have a deadbolt, but all the other rooms in the house did. It was an unusual situation.
There are certain cues that you look for as a journalist, taking observations about everything in the house. There are four or five couches in the living room – and it’s a ranch house. This was a small house. There was a picture of her kids – she had four or five kids – on the refrigerator, but there was no evidence of children in this house whatsoever. Zero. I ask her, “Where are your kids? I don’t see any evidence of kids here.” And she said, “They live next door.” So just being honest – you asked that question – I’m just very blunt and honest, and that really revealed a lot. That wasn’t the eight billion dollar story, but that was one that got a lot of attention. I think just the honesty of the storytelling, what people had gone through, revealing all that – that’s my favorite, actually. (Laughs.)
I pretty much don’t do any reporting now. Unless it’s for the blog, which is pretty short. Now it just involves a lot of editorial planning. Trying to do a lot of collaborations with other media to get the work of the reporters that we have now out more broadly. Angela Caputo’s piece about the CHA’s one-strike – I edited that project. When we were done, she was nervous because we’re a small publication. We have a small circulation. She’s like, “Kimbriell, I just want this story to go somewhere.” “Well ideally, where would you want it to go?” And she was like, “I would love it if it were in the New York Times.” So I’m like, “Okay,” because I know the editor at the CNC. “We’ll talk to him and have a meeting.”
We went over there and hashed out an agreement, and it ran in the New York Times in the Sunday section last Sunday. So that’s my job: To edit the projects, edit the stories in the blog, and then get either funding or a broad reach to the work that the reporters are working on now.
Do you miss those moments when you’re out in Wherever, Indiana, exploring deadbolts?
It’s different. I love what I do now because I get to see Angela have those moments. I feel like I can help guide projects, and kind of foster the creativity of what the writers want to do. “You want your stuff to run in the New York Times? Okay, let’s see if we can make that happen.” And I’m thinking, How am I going to solve that problem? But it worked out great.
It’s challenging that our industry’s evolving right now. It’s kind of exciting too. I feel like five years ago, this job was just being an editor. My job today is to be an editor, a web editor, a blogger, a TV personality, a radio personality. I do all that now. That is my role as a journalist now. The job is very multi-faceted, and that’s kind of exciting because it keeps you on your toes. It forces you to try to stay abreast with new technology, which we are not always successful in doing. I remember a year ago we were talking about Digg Delicious, and now everybody’s talking about various other things.
That’s an exciting part of my job, trying to keep pace with technology, to strategically figure out how to keep the publication competitive in that changing and evolving market, and not be like the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” You should read it. You can read it in a lunch break. It’s that short. It’s like a nursery rhyme. But essentially not being like the mouse who waited for the market to return rather than venturing out and trying to find more cheese. (Laughs.)
Kimbriell Kelly at Columbia College, photo credit.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)