Champions of Change in Minnesota: Kyndell Harkness

As the Star Tribune continues to examine diversity in coverage and staffers, a veteran photographer leads the way
Kyndell Harkness – Editor for Diversity and Community, Star Tribune

Photo by Leila Navidi

In her more than two decades of photojournalistic work, Kyndell Harkness has seen more of the state than many ever will. For the Star Tribune, she’s covered the Super Bowl and the Olympics; she’s stood among crowds responding to Prince’s death, to police shootings; she’s captured family farmers and visiting presidents. For five years, she’s served as president of the Minnesota News Photographer’s Association. And as of 2020, she has served in a new role, as assistant managing editor of diversity and community. While examining retention and recruitment at the Tribune, she’ll fight against another thing Harkness has seen more of than most: inequity in the newsroom.

After the killing of George Floyd, Harkness says, “there were a number of us in the newsroom who were thinking about what that really meant for us, doing some soul searching in terms of how our paper needed help with equity, and what needs to be said and done.”

Harkness’s new position represents a structural change, as the Star Tribune pivots attention toward internal biases. As of early March, Harkness says, the Star Tribune has been researching ways to conduct diversity audits, of news coverage as well as of people in the newsroom. Harkness says staff have been building plans for separate teams to undertake specific changes. “The first two we’ve started are Stylebook team and Internship team,” she told me via email. “Members of those teams will look at our existing systems and see if the way we are doing or saying things makes sense. If not, how do we make it more relevant? These will be the first [in] a number of teams to help shift culture.”

At stake is “how a 150-year-old organization centers whiteness, and how do we move toward equity?” Part of her efforts will simply involve listening, she says—work she’s been doing for years, although never in an official facilitator role. “I used to joke that the Star Tribune should pay me for my therapist fee,” she says, “because people would just come and sit down, and I’d tell them what they need to hear.”

We talked with Harkness about George Floyd’s impact on the newsroom, facing skepticism while covering diverse communities, and why it’s hard to retain people of color.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.

How did George Floyd highlight inequities in the Star Tribune newsroom?

I think this kind of thing started to happen with journalists as they were covering Ferguson. There was a little bit of an awakening when that was happening. But for us, having George Floyd happen right in our city, and then having to deal with the aftermath of that, and being quarantined—dealing with the coronavirus at the same time, [when] we’re all alone in our spaces, trying to make news happen—I think, once things calmed down a little bit, we started asking questions. These folks had gone out on the streets and put their lives at risk, to see things change. And there were people—the handful of us who were in the room making decisions—really trying to make sure that our representation was correct, and that we were having more conversations about what this, how we present, what the folks who are protesting look like, and just being really careful.

In those moments, when you’re in the room where decisions are being made, you really start to notice that you’re alone. You still say your piece, but you’re also wary or concerned that you’re gonna be heard, given that you might be the only person saying those things. And I think a lot of the folks who are in those rooms—the handful of people of color who are there—we just started talking to each other, talking about how we had to constantly educate, and how we were tired, and how that’s not fair.

Then we were able to see what other newspapers around the country were doing—that everybody, at that point, was very tired. And they were tired of always having to do the education, or to stop something from going in the paper, or going online, that might set off parts of the community in ways that the person who was writing it, or the person who put that headline on it, might not have seen, right? I credit [senior managing editor and vice president] Suki Dardarian—when all of this was happening, and there was a definite toll on Black journalists—[for asking] how people are doing.

Do you think George Floyd was also important for buy-in from white journalists, regarding equity and inclusion?

I’m sure it has contributed in some way, right? Having people come out during a pandemic, in the numbers that they did really made a statement. And that the footage, the videos that we saw—one from the Cup Foods cam, and one from that young woman in North Minneapolis—I think we got to see the full aspect of it, and people [couldn’t] say, at this point, “What happened before? What happened after?”

I think, for the first time, because everybody was stuck at home, they could actually sit down—and this includes journalists—and look at the evidence with real, fresh eyes, and see what happened, and I think that does help. That helps—like, would we react? And yeah, they did, in large numbers. And there was just such a ripple effect that happened through so many companies.

I keep on thinking about this: There’s got to be this cumulative effect, right? Breonna Taylor, all of these different people … we know their names, we’ve read their stories, and these things continue to happen over and over again. There was a point where there was sort of a numbing to it, where people just came out and protested and went home. And I think it was just sort of the breaking point, where people were really saying, “Enough. We really need to fix what’s going on.” And part of it’s fixing ourselves.

With white journalists, I think enough of their colleagues are saying things, and we are in positions where people have an opportunity to listen, and not be completely distracted. But I think they also felt isolated. Like, who, as a white journalist, am I to say what needs to be done and what doesn’t need to be done? What’s my place in moving or changing things? So, they might have just kept quiet for all these years, when they’d see stuff and not like it, or they’d say something to one other person. Now is this opportunity to state how they’re feeling, state what they want to do, how they want to help. They can ask for help. I think there’s an openness to the process—at least, in terms of what I’m hoping for with this job: to keep things open so that people can learn and ask questions.

For you, have there been standout examples of inequity in the newsroom?

Well, personally, in being a photographer, there have been microaggressions here and there. Sometimes, as a photographer, you’re not sure if folks are not listening to you because you’re not a writer. [laughs] Or if it’s something else.

But I will tell you, over time, at all the newspapers that I worked for, there was always that moment when you go into the community, and sometimes you are apprehensive, when you see people who look like you and you’re covering them, because there’s always going to be a moment at some point where there is going to be anger at your organization that is, you know, given to you, or presented to you in some way. And you have to do this explaining of why the newspaper only comes to your neighborhood when bad things happen. And it’s really upsetting to see, and I remember over time I just got super tired of hearing the same narrative. And I kept on wondering, like, is it real? Is it just a learned behavior, or are we really doing these people a disservice? Where does the truth lie in that? And there’s really no way of knowing, because no one is actually quantifying those stories in any way. Like, are we just going into North Minneapolis when bad things happen? Everything is anecdotal. So, what does that mean?

Nobody’s really looking at, and quantifying, what we do in communities, so there’s no accountability. We can’t say, “Well, yes, we have!” [laughs] You have to get the numbers. And that transparency, I think, is just so important. Because it might be—the community might have the narrative wrong. They might. But until we can say, “We have done X stories on this variety of things! We’re had these voices in our paper! And on our website!”—we can’t dismiss that. So, until we know more, we have to, we always, should be doing better.

Is quantifying those stories something you’re going to do in this new role?

Yeah, there’s a lot about transparency, a lot about finding what I always call the inside-outside game. Inside, we have to make sure that we create a culture in the newsroom that feels like home for everyone, to help with our retention, and to help create better stories, to get more diverse people in, and get them to stay, and have a good time telling the stories that they’re capable of telling. … And then there’s the outside game, which is making sure that we’re transparent about our process, and to invite people to know us a little bit more; instead of having them come to us, making sure that we’re going out to them—COVID safely. [laughs]

How many people in the Star Tribune newsroom are journalists of color, and how much growth do you want to see? 

We have done some hiring but we’re still in the 40s. Our numbers are going up, which is important, but I still believe that retention is the most important thing for me. Culture matters for long-lasting change.

I think [hiring] tends to be where most organizations, most companies, tend to go first. They go to hiring first. The reason why I’m squishy on it is because that always feels, to me, like it’s important but not the most important thing. We need to get more people in the office, to create that difference, but in the ’90s, news organizations went on a hiring boom in terms of people of color. They did the ’90s version of implicit-bias training, and then we hit that economic hurdle, and all that diversity work went out the window, and so I don’t think that we can hire and train out of our equity issue. I think that it’s more about the retention piece, and that’s the harder thing to do. Because it’s about structure, and that’s basically what I’m most interested in. I’m interested in creating structures that are built into the fabric of what we do, that are bankruptcy-proof.

Why is it hard to retain people of color?

I think it’s a problem with most news organizations. Retention is always an issue. I always feel like there are journalists of color—there’s like a conga line around the U.S., where folks stay at certain places for a while, and then they leave and try something new. And most of the time, they’re moving to, maybe, bigger cities. Or more diverse cities. Or closer to home. And I think that, especially for a city like Minneapolis, where their community might be a little community, where it might be a little bit harder to find for journalists of color, sometimes it takes a little bit more work. There’s this feeling of isolation for journalists of color when they move to Minneapolis.

Have you felt isolated in that way?

I’m just used to it. [laughs] So, you know, I turned 50 [in 2020], and in my journey, I went to an all-girls Catholic high school in New York City. In my class, I was one of maybe—I can count them: five Black girls in a class of 110. I have just been very used to being the only one. Like, it is what my experience has been my entire life. So, to say that I feel isolated—it has always been there. So, for me, that adjustment, like—every single place I’ve worked for, I’ve been the only Black photographer—definitely the only Black female photographer—regardless of where I worked. So, I don’t know. It was never a big deal, because that’s the water I’ve been swimming in all my life.

As a leader in this new role, is there a mentor you want to channel?

I’ve been studying martial arts for a long time, so I really do think about my instructor, and think about how he talks about leading as a person who is also doing. So, making sure that you have this understanding that no matter how much you’ve trained, no matter how long you’ve been working at this one thing, that you’re always a student, and you’re always learning.

So, if we’re talking about diversity and equity: being able to listen, being willing to be wrong, is essential to that piece. And if the newsroom is actually listening to each other, and hearing, and learning, then we do a better job of delivering the news that people need to know. And if we extend that to our sources, and to the people that we’re writing about—listening, learning, and being open—then our coverage is so, so much better, so much more in depth, so much more complex, and Minnesota gets a better vision of themselves in that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.