‘Acting White’ MPR News story earns honors for local high school grad

(l-r) Elizabeth Zalanga and Toni Randolph
(l-r) Elizabeth Zalanga and Toni Randolph

Elizabeth Zalanga turned an insult received as a youngster into an award-winning radio report. She was among the participants in the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) News Young Reporters Series, and her story was aired last summer during a MPR newscast.

“I’ve been told for the majority of my life that I act and talk like a White person.”

Zalanga, a 2014 St. Paul Central graduate, produced a five-minute story called “Acting White” about her being told that as a youngster and how she learned to handle the insult. The MSR recently talked to her at MPR headquarters in St. Paul.

“I’ve been told for the majority of my life that I act and talk like a White person,” she explained. Her friends sometimes told her that “she is the Whitest Black person they know. I never really understood the meaning behind this.”

During a writing class, her high school English teacher suggested that she do a story on this. Then Zalanga pitched it to MPR veteran reporter Toni Randolph, who runs the Young Reporters Series, which “pairs high school and college-age reporters from diverse backgrounds with an experienced MPR producer.”

“I liked the story idea,” noted Randolph. “We haven’t had a story on this topic before. It was something that Elizabeth put a lot of thought into even before she and I met, and it resonated well.”

Zalanga’s story fit the type of stories she likes student reporters to produce for MPR, continued Randolph. When students are “passionate about a topic, I know it will be a story that they really explore deeply and pose questions, and ask the follow-up questions so that they can really get a good hold of the story. That’s what Elizabeth did. She asked good questions of the people she interviewed. She has good writing skills and was able to really relate the point she was trying to make.”

“It was an amazing experience,” said Zalanga. She admitted the writing “and the forming of the piece” at times was frustrating, especially since she was doing it while she was still completing her school work. But she really enjoyed learning the reporting process and, more importantly, the chance to apply what she’s learned in a real-life situation.

Yet, after she heard the finished product on the radio during an evening drive time newscast last summer, “I was excited,” she recalled. “It was great.”

Zalanga’s “Acting White” piece in February was part of the 2015 Twin Cities Youth Media Network Showcase at the Walker Art Museum in February. Her student peers chose it as one of two “Best Story” awards at the showcase. Also, her work has been honored with a “Gracie” Award, which will be given in June by the Alliance for Women in Media, for “outstanding series” in the student radio division.

“I would like to see more people of color working in broadcast journalism — radio and TV. Hearing people’s stories and telling the truth is very important.”

“She’s really passionate about it,” surmised Randolph on Zalanga, who Randolph said possesses such key traits — curiosity, love for writing and ability to follow through — that all good reporters have. “It wasn’t hard work at all working with Elizabeth,” said the veteran reporter.

“Toni let me do what I wanted to do,” said Zalanga on Randolph’s tutelage. She also liked working at MPR, whose staff members were very helpful as well. “They were very open.”

Now a Science Museum of Minnesota environmental research intern, Zalanga said she’s leaning toward attending school on the West Coast to study journalism beginning this fall. “I would like to see more people of color working in broadcast journalism — radio and TV,” she said. “Hearing people’s stories and telling the truth is very important.”

Zalanga’s first foray into broadcast journalism has her wanting for more: “I definitely thought about journalism because it can be powerful. I would love to come back and do another story, hopefully sometime soon.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.