When Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins was playing volleyball, basketball, and lacrosse as a three-season athlete at Norfolk Academy, she was learning skills and absorbing, almost by osmosis, an understanding of the way to collaborate for success.
“We’re stronger together,” she said. “Together, we can win.”
Blaize-Hopkins went on from Norfolk Academy to earn a B.A. in sociology from Columbia University and an M.A. in journalism from the University of Miami. She worked in television journalism in Florida, Texas, and Nevada, earning an Emmy Award along the way, and now is a professor of journalism at Santa Monica College in California.
She is also the incoming president of the national Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the first Black woman to serve as the organization’s president. It was her supreme skill at building a winning team that helped catapult her to that nationally prominent position.
In 2020, Blaize-Hopkins watched as the murder of George Floyd ignited demonstrations across the country. Journalists were covering the protests or attempting to do so; there were at least 50 documented cases of journalists who were detained, arrested, or seriously injured by police in California while covering the civil unrest, Blaize-Hopkins said.
Blaize-Hopkins, who was then serving as president of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the SPJ, was outraged by the interference in the rights of journalists “to do their jobs.”
She mobilized. Working methodically and strategically in her outreach, she helped build a coalition of 20 organizations, many of which had not collaborated before, to lobby the state legislature for a bill that would strengthen press freedoms in California. Over months, the coalition used every tool it could find to press its case, from phone calls to social media to Zoom meetings with state legislators. Blaize-Hopkins wrote an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, the daily newspaper in the state capital, which began: “Journalism is not a crime.”
The coalition’s full court press secured the win. Senate Bill 98, which exempts media professionals from having to comply with police dispersal orders while covering protests, marches and other types of demonstrations, passed both houses of the legislature, and in October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law.
Blaize-Hopkins cheered the decision and lauded the governor and legislators on Twitter (@AshantiBlaize). “It was a great moment to feel that we did something that will impact the lives of journalists in the state,” she said.
There’s more work ahead. Blaize-Hopkins feels excited about challenges ahead at helm of SPJ, particularly in making the organization— and the nation’s newsrooms — more open to the “huge, diverse, cornucopia of people” who are working in the industry. She’s also keenly aware journalists are losing their jobs as media organizations struggle financially; she feels the public needs a greater appreciation of the importance of a free press in sustaining a healthy democracy.
“I am very cognizant of what my ancestors had to go through to be viewed as humans. Everything I do is in honor of my ancestors,” she said. “How are we making a difference in the lives of others? That’s why I got into journalism in the first place, and that why I care about press freedom.”
— By Esther Diskin, Director of Communications
This article appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of the Academy Magazine