I’m Donna Ladd, an editor, journalist and columnist from Philadelphia, Miss., who left the state the day after graduating from Mississippi State in 1983, wrote heavily for alternative media, including the Village Voice in New York City, and then returned to Mississippi in 2001 after getting my mid-career master’s degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In addition to being the CEO and editor-in-chief of Jackson Free Press Inc., which I co-founded, I am currently a freelance writer for The Guardian and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellow. I also have a John Jay College “Preventing Violence” fellowship and a Solutions Journalism Network grant to currently examine police and community strategies for reducing violence among young people of color in New York City compared to other cities in the U.S.
To facilitate my current reporting, I have scaled back my obligations at the Jackson Free Press and now split my time between Jackson, Miss., and New York City, with a little Panama City Beach, Fla., and New Orleans thrown in for good measure.
Reporting and Writing
My current reporting focus is the perhaps-unintended consequences of “Broken Windows,” quality-of-life policing, stop-question-and-frisk, and other strong policing methods on communities of color. I’m exploring the possible links between policing strategies and the deaths of unarmed people, especially in non-violent encounters, which I’ve long studied and written about before the advent of the smartphones that are now, in some ways, forcing police and the community to have a long-overdue, if contentious, conversation. Through a John Jay College “Preventing Violence” fellowship, and a Solutions Journalism Network grant, I’m specifically examining police and community strategies for reducing violence among young people of color in New York City compared to other cities in the U.S.
One of my oldest beats was covering protests and police practices in America, including the police riots in Tompkins Square Park and the ensuing months of protests against kicking the homeless out of the park back in the late 1980s. I’ve since covered the anti-war Iraq protests in New York City, and the protests in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in West Palm Beach during the disputed 2000 presidential election.
My current work is focusing on how American police departments are, or are not, effectively responding to the demand for smarter, safer policing. I’m studying and writing about the effects of past and current policing practices both on vulnerable members of the community, especially minors, as well as on the police officers who enforce the policies on the streets. What are the solutions, and how are they being instituted?
My goal is to uncover and write about the smartest policing practices and reforms in a balanced, solutions-oriented fashion by telling rich and honest stories about the people on the front lines of this difficult, but predictable, rift between communities of colors and the men and women who police them.
Editing, Managing and Teaching
I helped found the Jackson Free Press in 2002 in order to bring a progressive, diverse news source to my home state, and I serve as CEO and editor-in-chief of the paper, BOOM Jackson magazine and a daily news website.
I’m also a teacher and speaker, offering talks to journalism and writing students, from Columbia and Medill/Northwestern universities to nearly every college in Mississippi. (See Selected Clips and Links.)
I teach my Writing to Change Your World narrative non-fiction workshops and seminars in our offices in Jackson as well as to remote students via the Web.
Education and Fellowships
I’m the daughter of illiterate parents, but my mother pushed me to succeed in school, and I received my B.A. in political science from Mississippi State University in 1983. I was one of the first members of my family to attend college and the first to earn a master’s degree, in 2001, from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I studied journalism with a social-justice focus, focusing on the effect of zero-tolerance discipline and policing against young people of color, over two years in a mid-career program. I explored the intersection between criminalization and social justice, especially affecting young people of color, at Columbia through studies in Teachers College, the Columbia Law School and the Institute for Research in African American Studies with the late Manning Marable (where I researched 1960s media narrative on race for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented”).
In 2001, I received a six-month Packard Future of Children fellowship to study the discriminatory application of school discipline on children of color and kids with disabilities, and the creation of a cradle-to-jail pipeline; during this fellowship I moved back to Mississippi, and the work has informed a great deal of the reporting I’ve done on issues affecting kids and teens, as well as criminal justice, in the Jackson Free Press and elsewhere.
In 2014, I was named a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Leadership Network fellow. I’m currently going through a three-year program of training, learning and studying the status of vulnerable children in Mississippi and America, intersecting with the organization’s race equity and wealth inequality focuses and its new emphasis on policing reform in America. My particular interest is how to rework the media narrative into one that provides more balanced, proactive, solutions-oriented journalism that helps solve the continuing problems associated with racism and wealth inequality in the United States.
I intend to use the fellowship, and my expanded network of experts due to it, to help improve the media narrative and to build context around how young people (of color, especially) are presented and discussed in the media, especially in the criminal-justice arena, and how more solutions-oriented journalism can bring about positive, systemic change in American cities as well as in rural states like Mississippi.
In 2015, I was named a John Jay College of Criminal Justice “Preventing Violence” media follow and awarded a Solutions Journalism Network grant to look deeply at the way communities and police departments are, and are not, working to reduce violence in U.S. cities. I am traveling extensively in the U.S. to do this reporting. I plan to publish the resulting pieces in several outlets in 2016.
Awards and Recognition
My work at the JFP, especially on civil rights-era murders and Mayor Frank Melton (our reporting sent him to both state and federal trial), has been featured in national media, including Glamour and Reason magazines, CNN, NPR, Canada’s CBC, CBS Radio, the BBC, al Jazeera, the Rachel Maddow Show, among other outlets. In addition, my investigation of the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore was successfully used in the conviction of former Klansman James Ford Seale. My work has been discussed in many books, most recently “Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders” by Renee Romano (Harvard University Press).
I’ve been fortunate to win many awards for columns, political columns, editorials, feature writing and investigative work, and I’ve shared in a number of public-service journalism awards with the talented members of my staff for our collective work in Mississippi on difficult topics including abortion, LGBT rights, the death penalty and race murders.
In 2011, I was honored with a Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award, a Dress for Success Women of Strength Award in 2009 and the 2009 Angel Award from the Center for Violence Prevention for my work against domestic abuse. I’m the recipient of the 2006 Friendship Award, along with Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, from Jackson 2000, a racial-reconciliation organization.
I’m the former diversity chair of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and I’ve taught workshops on diversity, writing/reporting and opinion writing at Northwestern and Columbia universities and at conferences around the country.
While I’m spending a great deal of time in New York and other cities and states these days, I live in Jackson, Miss., with my partner in life, big ideas and business, Jackson Free Press Publisher and technology author Todd Stauffer, three ornery boy-cats and the screen porch where I do most of my writing.