There are a lot of firsts in our lives that we will never forget. Even before we have the capacity to remember, our firsts are being documented by our loved ones around us. In my case, one first I will never forget was my first editor: Mel Reeves.
When the pandemic took the world by storm and sent me and other college students around the country retreating to our childhood rooms, I was concluding my sophomore year. Sprinkle in a social justice uprising that emulated the Civil Rights Movement that started in my hometown, and you have a solid picture of what the conclusion of my year looked like.
My junior year came before I could blink, after a summer of protest and documenting the activity on the ground, yet I hadn’t found an internship. As journalism students we are taught that internships are arguably the most important part of starting a career. You can imagine my panic at the start of junior year as I thought about my fleeting college time.
After months of reaching out to news outlets across the Twin Cities, with virtually no professional news clippings, someone took a chance on me. I was awarded the Twin Cities Black Journalist internship and was finally given a chance to work professionally.
All of my panic subsided when I had my first Zoom meeting with Reeves and Tracey Williams-Dillard of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. After a (hilarious) first 10 minutes of watching both Reeves and Williams-Dillard struggle to understand Zoom, we were on our way.
Immediately, I could feel Reeves’ passion for community journalism and activism as he spoke about the importance of telling stories “from the People by the People.” His voice was animated as he talked about the job we had to tell the stories no other news outlet in Minnesota was telling. After 40 minutes, we had a schedule of the stories I would be writing that month.
I turned in my first story about a week later and anxiously awaited feedback. So many “what ifs” ran through my mind: What if he hates it? What if he thinks it’s so terrible that he asks for a different intern? What if he thinks I’m not good enough?
I got the file back with his feedback and my heart immediately sank when I saw all of the highlighted and underlined words. But it immediately began beating again as I read his feedback: Much of the highlighted words weren’t criticism but rather praise. At the parts that could be clearer, instead of changing my words or crossing them out, he said, “Try this.”
And that’s what he did: he let me try.
Throughout the course of my internship, Reeves gave me the freedom to explore the topics I was interested in covering while offering a steady hand. I began my professional journalism career with his safety blanket. I worked knowing that if I fell off the deep end, his guidance, in-depth knowledge and expertise would be my life vest.
When the time came to write about COVID-19 in Minnesota prisons—the most challenging story I had pitched at the time—Reeves sat and talked strategy with me. We talked about access, sources, and how I wanted to tell the story. He sent me on my way and I came back a week later with a future award-winning piece.
“Very good work! I am impressed that you chose this topic but also in how diligently you pursued it,” Reeves told me over email. “Also a big part of being a journalist-reporter is asking questions and not accepting easy answers to questions and always following up.”
I didn’t realize it then but I wanted him to be proud of me and the work that I did. He pushed me, sometimes to the point of annoyance, because he wanted me to excel as a journalist.
Reeves saw something in me before I could see it; he saw that I had the “it.” When we weren’t talking about stories impacting Minneapolis’ Black community, we were talking about my future career ambitions.
I always assumed I would go off and write for other publications when I graduated—and potentially become an editor if I was lucky. It was Mel that challenged why I limited myself to being an editor somewhere else when I had the talent to make my own news outlet.
As if he foreshadowed it, my journalism career blossomed following my first internship. Within that year I became an award-winning journalist for my story on COVID-19 in Minnesota’s prisons, freelanced with the Star Tribune, was chosen to participate in a prestigious national investigative journalism fellowship, began freelancing for The Guardian, and more. But I will always remember my first.
Today I am a senior in college, a semester away from graduating. When I saw news of Reeves’s passing, it shook my core.
“I tried to love folks and it turns out I am here today because folks loved me back,” he wrote. “I never ever want any credit for anything I ever do for anybody else but I guess I too wanted to be appreciated. I wanted to get my flowers while I could appreciate them. Turns out you all gave them to me.”
I reflected on the year that rooted my career in ways I couldn’t imagine, and at the center is: Mel Reeves. The editor that believed in my abilities before I confidently did. The editor that watered a starving journalism plant. My first.
Reeves may no longer be with us, but the seeds he planted in all of us will continue to blossom.
Amudalat Ajasa is a Twin Cities Black Journalists and MN Spokesman-Recorder intern and a student at Hofstra University.
She can be reached at email@example.com.