Personal Achievements During Covid-19: Clark Alum Lee V. Gaines on Rallying Pride in Difficult Times

Clark Alum Lee V. Gaines writes on the conflicting emotions that arose after receiving an award during Covid-19, and rallying pride as best she can.

I recently learned I won an award. I received my first ever regional Edward R. Murrow award for best news series. Now, I’m up for a national award, which is cool. When my mom called to congratulate me, she sounded happy. I have a hard time feeling the same way. It’s a positive life event that I am struggling to feel positive about. I feel numb. Actually, I feel tired. 

The series that won the award was one that I poured a lot of energy, thought and time into. I interviewed dozens of formerly and currently incarcerated Illinoisans. I put their voices into radio stories about the benefits of education in prison beyond recidivism rates, what it means when books about race and civil rights are censored by prison staff, and the resiliency and dedication required to gain an education with so many roadblocks in your way. They trusted a reporter that they did not know to tell their stories, and for that I am immensely grateful. I also spoke to numerous educators who teach inside correctional facilities about their dedication to this population, and how difficult it can be just to get a classic novel into a prison classroom. I spoke to correctional staff both here in Illinois and around the country about the challenges of offering educational opportunities with few resources and a volunteer teaching force. Lastly, I filed numerous records requests and poured over hundreds of emails and created my own datasets. 

I should feel proud of the work I put into this series. In a way, I do. But it feels like a distant experience from another era. My pre-COVID-19 life. 

Now, I spend most of my days in my spare bedroom turned home office scheduling Zoom interviews with sources. I ask them to record themselves on their iPhones. I ask them to turn the video camera off on the Zoom call to ensure the highest audio quality possible. I don’t take my microphone into the field anymore because I don’t feel it’s worth the risk to myself and others. I try to find creative ways to incorporate “scenes” into my audio stories. Recently, I produced a piece about braille instruction, and how the pandemic has compounded a preexisting literacy issue in the blind and visually impaired community. Over Zoom, I asked a 17-year-old to demonstrate his screen reading software. I incorporated tape of him using the software and my incredulous reaction to his ability to understand 700 words per minute. I counted this as a win — a creative use of sound when I can’t gather audio outside my own home. 

Bright spots of creativity aside, most of my days are spent asking questions like “how is the pandemic affecting your life” over and over and over again. I find new ways to ask the same question. I use the words “COVID” and “Pandemic” and “pre-COVID” ad nauseum. These words are now ingrained in my lexicon. 

I still talk to people in prison on a regular basis. Those calls are the hardest. They tell me about their friends who have died from COVID-19 while incarcerated. They tell me about their fears of getting the virus. They tell me about trying to clean a dirty cell with a single bar of soap. They feel uncared for and forgotten most of the time. I listen and I sympathize to the extent I can. I have never been in prison except as a reporter. 

I also talk to parents of children with special needs. For them, online or remote learning is an afterthought. Like people in prison, they too are just trying to survive each day. Services that were once provided by numerous people have fallen on a couple parents or, in some cases, a single parent. Teachers aides and nurses are no longer available to these families in the way they once were. Parents feel overwhelmed and lonely. Their children, they tell me, feel uprooted from school routines they relied on to cope.

Then, there are days when I am greeted with confounding positivity. I recently spoke to a young woman who is an undocumented student. She and her mother both lost their jobs at a restaurant in Chicago. They have no money, but they’ve received groceries and other forms of support from their church. She also applied for and received a few hundred dollars from an emergency fund at her college. I asked her if she’s worried about her ability to pay for the next semester. As an undocumented student, she is ineligible for any part of the millions of dollars the federal government has granted to universities and colleges for student financial assistance during the pandemic. She is also ineligible for federal financial aid. She uses the money she makes at work to pay the $4,000 to $6,000 it costs to attend her college each semester. But she isn’t worried. She is hopeful. She told me she places her trust in God that she will overcome, and that this too shall pass. I am taken aback by her optimism.

At the same time, I am keenly aware of my own privilege. I am a working journalist, which is a luxury. So many reporters and editors (and people in general) across the country have been laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic. I am working every week day, sometimes weekends, and getting a paycheck for it. That feels luxurious. And yet I am also exhausted, depressed and perhaps even a little traumatized by what I’ve heard from my sources. I often wonder if I’m serving our listeners and the community to the best of my ability. Over the last several months, I’ve worked harder and faster to publish stories. My productivity is through the roof, but it sometimes feels like shouting into a void. 

Then, unexpectedly, I won an award. I wonder if I’m allowed to feel good when so many others are suffering. The answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that. I am holding all of these feelings at once. And that’s OK. 

When Prof. Kasmer asked me to write a blog post so many months ago, I struggled to find a way to connect my professional experience to my Clark experience and to tie that narrative up with an inspirational bow. This is not that blog post. 

I’ll share with you what my coworkers, family and friends have shared with me: it’s OK to feel conflicting emotions right now. It’s OK to be sad and proud of yourself at the same time. It’s OK to feel anxious and depressed even if you know people who have suffered more than you have. I know you don’t need my permission, but here it is just in case receiving it makes you feel better. I am trying to do the best I can, and that’s all anyone can do right now.