The TRiiBE sat down with the 2023 Black mayoral candidates to learn more about their political views. Read their Q&A profiles here. Visit The TRiiBE Election Center to learn more about the Chicago municipal election taking place on Feb. 28.

Kam Buckner wants to remind everyone that he is a son of Chicago. His family has roots in Mississippi; they moved to Chicago during the second Great Migration after the brutal lynching of Emmett Till in nearby Money, Mississippi. Buckner, 37, is a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, and boasts being the only candidate in the 2023 Chicago mayoral race who can claim that honor — he went to Clissold Elementary School in Beverly and then Morgan Park High School.

As part of our 2023 Black mayoral candidate interview series, on Jan. 2 Buckner invited The TRiiBE to his campaign office inside the shopping center off 55th and Wentworth Avenue in Washington Park. He noted that the area was hit badly during the 2020 summer uprisings.

“In May 2020, after the death of George Floyd and when social unrest began to gin up around the country, specifically here in Chicago, we know that many of the shopping centers around the city were boarded up,” Buckner said, directing his attention to the mural painted on the piece of plywood behind him inside the office. “But then we also saw an influx of many Chicago artists being able to use the plywood as an expressive way to tell their stories as well. It was some beautiful artwork around the city.”

During the interview, Buckner didn’t linger on the fact that his father was a longtime Cook County Sheriff’s Department officer, and that he has an uncle who was a sworn CPD officer and another uncle who was a CPD civilian employee. Instead, he highlighted his work as a state representative to bring the SAFE-T Act and Chicago’s first-ever elected school board to fruition. We also asked him about his plans for policing and public safety should he become mayor. 

Throughout our interview, he was adamant about not increasing CPD’s budget if elected. However, he did talk about filling existing vacancies within CPD and finding resources to put more detectives on the streets.

Read our full interview with Buckner below, as part of our 2023 Before the Polls mayoral candidate interview series.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity).

Quick jump

1 Background

The TRiiBE: How does your environment growing up shape your politics and who you are and your outlook on life today?

Kam Buckner: I talk a lot in this campaign about being a son of Chicago. And to me, that's a big deal, right? We could talk about where you go to college and went to law school and all that fun stuff. That's resume-based stuff. But literally being a person who grew up here, who is a Chicago Public School graduate, a person who played in Chicago parks and went to summer camp in Chicago parks and was an early and young utilizer of Chicago Public Library. Chicago really is in my DNA. It’s at the core of who I am.

And when I talk about the reason I'm running for mayor, when I talk about the space that I find myself in today, it really is based on what I feel this city has been able to give me and my family. My mother moved here from Mississippi in 1955. She actually moved here in September of 1955. And the reason that she came here was that in August of 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in the town that was next door to hers. And so when my grandmother and my grandfather heard about this little Black boy from Chicago, who came down to Mississippi and was mutilated, was lynched, was tortured for no other reason than the color of his skin, honestly, they had had enough, right. My mother grew up seeing lynchings. She grew up dealing with the things that were central to Jim Crow. But that was the final straw for my grandparents. And so they packed the girls up and made the trek to Chicago for safety and for opportunity. And so I always remind myself that that's how I got here, because it's how my family got here.

You pled guilty to a second DUI earlier this year, and said that it taught you a lesson. What lesson did you learn from the second one? And what does it say about you as a role model for young Black Chicagoans?

I've been very open and transparent about my past mistakes and my missteps. I've taken responsibility and accountability for them. I've had the conversations about this publicly with my constituents, with my God and my spiritual team and my family. And in the four years that have occurred since the second incident happened, the people of the 26th District have reelected me or have voted for me in four different elections since then.The Speaker of the House has asked me twice to be a part of his leadership team. The Black Caucus has asked me to chair them, which I did through some very tough times in 2020. And I'm ending my chairmanship in 10 days here. And so I think it's very clear that I've become a better person since then.

A lot has happened personally for me since then; got married. I’m a father now. And so I think that what I want to convey to young, especially young Black Chicagoans is that mistakes and missteps don’t have to be your demise, right? We all make mistakes, and we’re fortunate [to] learn from them. And we’re able to impart wisdom on other folks and show people that you may be down but you’re not out.

2 Safety & Policing

You grew up with a very law enforcement-heavy family. You've said that you support both GoodKid MadCity's Peace Book proposal, and an increase in the size of  the police force. What parts of the Peace Book do you support? And how does that work with your plan to increase the police force?

My dad was actually [in] Cook County Sheriff’s Department. My uncles were CPD, both sworn officers and civilian employees as well. And so not only do I support the Peace Book, but I actually worked with GoodKids MadCity to write the state counterpart to that: the Peace Act. It basically takes the work that is in the Peace Book ordinance and expands it to every single police department in the state.

When I talk about filling vacancies, I don’t talk about increasing the size of CPD. I talk about vacancies that already exist, but I also talk about civilianization of many functions. I also talk about, not a call-responder model for mental health calls like currently exists, but a model where cops are not showing up at all — where it’s only a trained mental health professional. I think that's all that's important to be able to bring the city forward.

Increasing the size of the police department is not the recipe for this. What I often talk about is two things. I see public security and I see public safety. I think public security is law enforcement. I think law enforcement has to exist for when untoward things happen, and we need a response to that. Law enforcement is responsive.

I unfortunately have seen numerous times in my family where people have been victimized. My uncle who I was talking about earlier, who's a CPD civilian employee, he worked in the equipment space down at the headquarters on 35th Street. And in 2016, was shot to death, taking groceries out of his car in the Morgan Park neighborhood where I grew up at. And I remember the process of going through the process with the detectives on finding who did it. It happened to be a young man—I think he was 16 at the time, shooting across the street at another young man and my uncle errantly got hit. But these stories are too real. And they're everyday stories in the city. And so once again, I think we need to have an apparatus that is able to respond when these things happen. But also, we got to be preventative and proactive and give people what they need to be safe and to feel safe.

When you say you supported GoodKids MadCity and like the drafting of the Peace Book, will you implement the Peace Book?

Absolutely. Two of the things that should be the first few bullet points in my public safety plan. The Peace Book ordinance, I will implement it. I will work on getting that done day one, and the Anjanette Young ordinance as well.

Organizers have called for more mental health and preventative measures to counteract some of the violence that we see. So we've had that conversation a lot of times. Leaders have had this conversation a lot of times, but then when people get in office, we don't see that. We still see the police budget increase. There are calls to have more police out on the street. Do you have any policies that you are thinking about crafting or have already crafted that really show what these two institutions could look like; this idea of preventative measures and policing? When you mentioned police responding to certain crimes, what crimes? How does that work?

I think you're right. I think we, especially with this current mayor, I’ll just call it what it is. We were sold a bill of goods. And once she was sworn in, almost immediately she backpedaled on so many things that many of us were excited about in the city. And it's disappointing, to say the least. But as I've said many times on this campaign trail, politicians make promises, the leaders keep them, which this mayor has failed to do. And so we got to hold her accountable for that. 

In my public safety plan, which is called Safer 77, being a nod to the 77 communities in Chicago, I talk a lot about making sure that CPD can not be laser-focused on petty crimes, I mean crimes that are smaller and nonviolent. We've got a 20% clearance rate on homicides. No matter where you fall on this conversation, there's nobody who tells me that they're okay with an 80% chance of killing somebody in Chicago and never having to pay for it. That's problematic. 

So, in my plan, I talk a lot about providing resources to put more detectives in the streets. These are not somebody that's pulling you over for an expired tag and then busting you for having some weed in your car.

When you say more detectives in the streets, it does sound like more policing.

Yes. No, absolutely. When I sit down with families in my state rep district, specifically families who have lost young people, they want more detectives. Once again, detectives aren’t cops who ‘gon lock folks up. They’re not banging on your door. They’re solving crimes and solving murders specifically. 

Two Labor Days ago, there was a [4-year-old boy] named [Mychael] “MJ” Moultry Jr. and he was killed in my district, in fact, killed across the street from a park that’s named after Emmett Till’s mother. Right. And I talked to his parents a lot.I talked to them over this holiday break, just to check in on them because I know it was tough for them. And when I talk to people like that, and they have no answers on their son’s death, no answers. The mayor came out and did some dog-and-pony press conference. But then the calls from CPD stopped. And it’s because they said they don’t have the manpower to do it. That’s a huge failure to me.

I don't want to increase the police state. I don't think that we should be flooding our streets with more officers to police in an unconstitutional way. I think we got some real issues. You read the consent decree, you'll see that we've got a long way to go. But what I do think is that we need to start bringing some closure and some solace to the families in the city who have been victims of violence, specifically, like I said, for young people. If I told you how much time I spent talking to parents who have lost their children, it's a really damning indictment on where we have gone as a society.

Your language gives law and order. On first impression, it reads like you’re a pro-cop candidate. And for our audience who may be trying to decide who is the most progressive candidate, I think they need a little bit more information about what your investment in policing is going to be. You mentioned detectives. Is there anything else? When it comes to the police budget, can you get specific about moving numbers around?

For me, when I talk about being able to provide both safety and justice, it is making sure that the CPD budget isn’t once again putting more officers in the street to occupy our communities. That is not the way to go. That’s not how we make people safer.

What I've also said is that we can't sufficiently talk about the violence that's happening in our communities until we sufficiently talk about the violence that has happened to our communities. I mean benign neglect. I mean removing resources. I mean there's the shuttering of 50-plus schools. I think [about] the criminalization of being Black. We've seen that in Chicago for far too long. So we got to be able to deal with those issues.

I’ve talked to specifically young Black men in this city who have wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement. And that is something that they want to do, because they feel like they can give back to their community that way. But these guys, because either they’re on a gang database or because they’ve had a marijuana charge — which is legal now — at some point in their lives, have been told that they can’t serve their community through that way. That’s problematic. So I talked about that, in my plan too, removing some of those barriers that have made the police department more racist and more monolithic in a way that has not been helpful to our communities. So that for sure was a big deal to me. 

But I also talk about CPD currently using this co-responder model now, where it’s a pilot, but they’re sending a mental health professional and a cop out when someone has a mental health call. To me, that’s half baked, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Because if you come to the scene where I am, and I’m having a mental health episode, I mean, I’m not gonna see the guy with the clipboard. I’ma see the dude with the gun and the badge.

When I think about Quintonio LeGrier who was killed the day after Christmas in 2015. The young man called CPD on himself. He made a number of calls saying he was not feeling right. He was having a mental health episode. And he wanted help. And they sent two officers, with their weapons drawn, to go help a man who said that he was having an issue and [they] ended up killing him. They shot through the building next door and killed Bettie Jones, his next door neighbor, who was on her couch watching TV. There's no way you can make me think that a co-responder model stops that, but you know what stops that? If someone without a gun shows up.

And so when I talk about repositioning the budget, I haven’t gotten to really deep specifics, because as I said earlier, CPD lies about what their budget looks like. You got to get under the hood there, once you’re in office, to see where those things kind of line up. But I truly believe that there has to be money there for us to, once again, [have] mental health professionals, social workers, civilianization. And I talk a lot about civilianization of the police force. It’s because I don’t think that you need a person with a gun and a badge to do everything, and we got young people in Chicago who don’t want to be a cop but want to be in the law enforcement public-safety space. Why are there not jobs within the department for them?

So it’s not enough just to change policing in Chicago, we got to change Chicago, and that has to start with having leadership in city hall that is able to make the tough decisions on what we’re doing. It’s not increasing CPD’s budget while clearance rates are still going down. It’s not more money in the spaces that have been problematic given CPD’s relationship with the community. 

I wouldn’t say it’s pro-cop at all. Everything I’ve tried to convey is really pro-Chicago. I’ve said it and I’ll say it again: Communities in Chicago know what they need to be safe. We need to listen to people. That’s not currently happening. And I’ve made that a pillar of the work that I want to do as mayor.

CPD gets a lot of the city budget. With some of the ideas that you have in mind, as you just talked about with safety, how do you fund things like that? Where does the funding come from?

When you talk about the civilianization of the police force, I think there are certain things that aren’t going to be housed within the CPD budget. So I think you move some of those numbers around. I think there's ways to move some of what’s already in CPD’s budget. Once again, CPD has not been very forthcoming with where they're putting all their dollars. But I will be willing to bet, like, blind items for militarization and equipment, like, they have to go. I'm sure it's there. That's gotta go. So we can take that and put a social worker or mental health professional on the rolls. Let's do that. 

I think some of that the budgetary stuff is a split between CPD and obviously the Chicago Department of Public Health, as well. The money's there.

What also is true is that we've missed out on a lot of state and federal dollars, because we have not wanted to have a mental health infrastructure in this city. There are cities around the country — Austin, Texas, Philadelphia — who are getting big money from the federal government, because they have a plan. And we don't, so we're missing out on that, and that will change

How do you feel about the SAFE-T Act? Is it something that you support?

I helped write it. worked very hard to get it across the finish line. I've worked very hard over the last few months to defend it in public, especially from lies and outright attacks on just the face of it. And I'll tell you this, I know that it’s monumental. And other folks around this country are watching to see what happens with it. And I'll continue to fight for it in Springfield and anywhere else that I can.

We took, I think, courageous steps to dismantle a system that treats you better if you are guilty and you have the means than it does if you are innocent and you don’t have the means. So when you dismantle and you attack systems like that, they will attack you back, which is what we’re seeing today with the implementation and the rollout of the SAFE-T Act. But I’m confident that it will begin to take form and people will see that we become a safer society when we’re not over-policing, when there’s accountability, when there’s transparency, and when there’s some real ways to measure success.

3 Mental Health

Is there a correlation between mental health and violence in Chicago? And if so, how are you thinking about this correlation as you draft ideas around policies regarding safety and mental health?

I think there are huge correlations. Honestly, I'll tell you, I think that we had a mental health issue in the city before the pandemic but I think it's only getting worse in the last two, almost three years, which is crazy. We got to be real about the perpetual trauma that we have put our communities through, specifically our young people.

I was talking to some young people at a school in my district, Doolittle on 35th Street. And these young people not only had two or three classmates who were deceased, been shot and killed over the last few years, but as one young man was telling me about all the shootings that he saw over the last year, and he’s keeping it inside, and there’s nobody that you can talk to. In the school, there’s nobody he can talk to in the space that can help him work through that trauma. We are putting this PTSD on our young people who don’t have a way to deal with it.

In my mental health plan,I call for reopening 20 mental health facilities in the city and making a number of those 24-hour facilities so people can come in throughout the day. Also, putting together mobile units so that folks can seek help no matter where they are on the street. And I think that all that matters. We're going to make sure we do that. I’ve talked about putting mental health professionals in all of our Chicago schools. I think that's extremely important.

And one thing that we don't talk enough about is the lead pipe removal. We know that our young people are being poisoned. And the city has said, “Well listen, if you got lead pipes, you gotta figure it out yourself.” The truth of the matter is, this is a city problem. The reason that we have more lead service lines in this city than anywhere else in the country is because up until the 1980s, the Chicago Code mandated that you use lead for service lines. So the city has to step up and say, “Listen, we've done this wrong, we gotta fix this.” You can't tell me that there's no correlation between the lead service lines here and the violence in the city, when it comes to some of the mental health issues that exist. I think it's clear, and we got to be able to work through it.

Do you support Treatment Not Trauma? And if so, how does that fit in with the ideas and policies you have around mental health and safety?

Yes, I do. And when I built my mental health plan, about three months ago, it’s very similar to the work that Treatment [Not] Trauma has tried to put forward.

What’s different in yours compared to the original Treatment Not Trauma?

My plan is a little bit more robust. I talk more about actual operations of the mental health facilities. But my plan was inspired by the Treatment [Not] Trauma work, for sure.

Kam Buckner

4 Youth & Education

Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised an elected school board. And we know how that turned out. Will you support an elected school board if elected mayor?

I’m trying to say this in a more humble way. When the mayor backflips on her promise to give the people of Chicago an elected school board, the same thing that every other school district in this state has,it was my leadership in Springfield that got it over the top,that took us there. And so not only do I support the elected school board, I'm super proud of the fact that I was able to help get that bill across the finish line. I'm super proud of the fact that the elected school board trailer bill that we ran a couple of months after that was the bill that I wrote, and that I carried, which also put a moratorium on school closings in Chicago until after the elected school board is fully set. Because we know what school closings have done in their community and it appeared that the mayor was looking to do more of them.

My mother spent 35 years as a Chicago Public School teacher. My little sister is a Chicago Public School teacher on the South Side of Chicago. My older sister is a Chicago Public School principal in Austin right now on the West Side. This is super important to me. And we’ve got to make sure we get this right.

The next mayor gets to pick half of that board because the hybrid starts in 2024. But I think not only do we have to have a mayor who embraces the way that this board works but is willing to work with this board. One thing we've seen with this mayor is an unwillingness to work with folks who are stakeholders, whether it's the City Council or community groups, and that's a problem. The reason it’s a real big problem coming into this next four years is because we have a 21-member school board coming. We got 66 members of the police district councils. I don't see this mayor working with any of those groups. And so the only appropriate way for the city to move forward is to have a mayor that's able to work with all of those entities in a respectful way. And I’ve proven I can do that.

When you think about who should make up this board, what type of people would you select for it, if elected mayor? Tell me a little bit about what goes through your mind in terms of picking people for the board.

Folks who have been committed to our young people. People who, whether they're community LSC members, or whether they are folks who have done work in and around education, I think that's important. Folks who are parents of CPS students. Folks who have a vested interest in this district. People who have some experience in how do we grow enrollment. CPS has, I think, lost kids for the last 11 years. What do we do to make this a top-notch school system? How do we give our young people the resources they need? So people who are thinking like that, and who are not concerned with titles, but really want to work and get some results.

For decades, the sitting mayor of Chicago has been at odds with the Chicago Teachers Union, and many of the rank-and-file teachers, staff, and even students who complain about the lack of resources and poor conditions within the school. We all have been inside of CPS schools, especially in Black neighborhoods, and there needs to be some improvement there. What do you think the disconnect is?

You know, I can’t tell you that I know. But I do know that the disconnect has made it extremely difficult for our young people to learn, to succeed, to grow. And we’re setting them up for failure. And that’s problematic.

What I've said is that the teachers union contract is coming up June 30, 2024. What I've promised is that I won't wait until June 15 to negotiate the new contract. I'll do it on day one. And I will not do it from behind the podium, or by press release or by tweet. But I will negotiate in good faith. And I'll do it myself, if I have to, from my kitchen table. Because we need some stability in this conversation between city hall, CPS and the teachers union, and it hasn't existed. This is very personal to me.

When I become the next mayor of Chicago, I will be the first mayor who’s a CPS graduate since Harold Washington. That’s a big deal to me. You asked earlier how my upbringing contextualizes my politics? This is who I am. And I’m tired of CPS being a laughingstock. I’m tired of us not providing what our young people need. A little girl in Austin or a little boy in Bronzeville is not just competing against a kid from Evanston or Oak Park, or a kid from Wisconsin or Indiana. They’re competing against kids from across the world. This is a global economy that we’ve entered into and we have not put our young people in this city in a position to capitalize off that. We have to.

Do you have any policies as you're working on or drafting around CPS and how to improve it—and particularly when we're talking about schools in Black and brown neighborhoods?

I think I may probably be the only person in this race who presented an actual education plan in September. We stood in front of a shuttered school in East Garfield Park. They had been closed down by Mayor Emanuel and we stood with the community to present our plan. Dwayne Truss, who was a school board member who Mayor Lightfoot kicked out because he didn’t do what she wanted him to do, stood with us to endorse our education plan and to talk about how important it was that we were able to fix CPS to get it going.

I think one of the biggest pieces that is going to be helpful as we move things along is that we got to have the resources from Springfield to make it happen. I’ve fought for more funding for schools in Springfield since I’ve been there. And we’ve been able to increase the budget every single year.

On day one, we have to have a mayor who can get on I-55 and go on down to the Capitol and make things happen. No one in this race can have the impact that needs to happen in Springfield to bring resources back to our schools like I can.

Who do you have to talk to in Springfield to do that?

Well, the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Governor. Those are the folks who are really in charge down there. And obviously, I've had a great relationship with all three of them. I work very well with all three of them. I've been able to get monumental legislation passed down there.

Historically, we've watched big developments displace and erase Black communities in Chicago, for example, we saw it happening with the University of Illinois being built on the West Side and the surrounding Medical District. We've seen it with the building of the 290 Expressway on the West Side. How would you create policies to support Black residents who are being priced out by some of the new developments such as the Obama Presidential Center or the casino coming to Cabrini Green?

I've been a huge proponent of making sure that we have community benefits agreements that we have put in law, things that protect communities. I formerly worked for the Chicago Cubs. And when I worked for that organization, I was blown away when I first realized that there is literally a city ordinance to protect the Lakeview community from the Cubs. It was called the Neighborhood Protection Ordinance. And it requires the ballclub to provide a certain amount of security and litter cleanup and charitable money to organizations in the area. There's a lot that can happen when a community stands up. But I think the officials have to be able to build those protections for communities and we haven't seen that.

I’ve stood with the folks who called for the community benefits agreement for Woodlawn and Washington Park, around the Obama Presidential Center. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few years with the US Steel site down on the southeast side of Chicago, in a community that has been a sacrifice zone for industrial harm and environmental failure. And so we’ve got to start thinking about how we protect those folks.

We've got to make sure that we're protecting these communities. I've done it in my role as a state representative. I think, as mayor, I believe that we have to institutionalize the protection of these communities from these big developments as well. And so I've not been shy about pushing back on some of these larger developments. In fact, there's a development or a proposed development in my state rep district, called One Central, which is supposed to be built across the street from Soldier Field. And if you look at the news coverage on that, I've been the one person pushing back to make sure that community has a voice in what happens in that space. And so that's this, my trademark.I take that very seriously.

5 Housing & Community

How do you enforce something like that? Even with the CBA that's out there in Woodlawn around the Obama Library right now, people are still being priced out.

So I think that the Department of Housing has to be more aggressive and make sure that we are not letting the market fluctuate away that we're pricing people out. 

I live in Bronzeville. There’s a house across the street from me that's just over $700,000, which to me is asinine. I can't believe that. But we're seeing that. And so when we talk about rent stability, when we talk about making sure that people are not being priced out, that people aren't spending more than 30% of their income on where they live, the city housing department, I think, has a lot that we can do. We’ve got to be smarter about the way zoning works specifically in communities that are ripe for gentrification. We got to make sure that we're not displacing folks. There’s some things I think you can do through the zoning code to make that effective as well.

6 Accountability

Many of your campaign donors are from big businesses and reside outside of Chicago. How would you describe some of the people and groups who have endorsed you? And how are you accountable to them? Have you had to make any promises to them?

So I prided myself as a state representative, and now as a mayoral candidate, on being clear, transparent and accountable to the people who sent me to the seat. And that's been very clear by my voting record. That’s been very clear by me pushing back against power and authority when it's not doing the right things for the communities that I serve. And I gotta tell you, in this mayoral campaign, we have had more grassroots single donors than anyone else in this race, including the mayor. So these are Chicagoans from all across the city who want to see change, who are begging for new leadership. And we're really excited about that. 

We'll see some endorsements coming along I think as early as this week, actually, on certain elected officials who are going to be endorsing our campaign, and then other groups as they go through their process as well. But I think that my track record in the General Assembly, and the folks who have supported me in this space, I have been very clear, right. So I've always gotten the endorsement and the support of folks like the Sierra Club, and folks like the Illinois Environmental Council, as well as grassroots groups on the ground, like the Worker Center for Racial Justice. And in those types of groups I've been able to do work with to actually get stuff done.

We've witnessed mayoral candidates of the past co-opt progressive and abolitionist and organizer language, and make big promises to Black Chicagoans while campaigning, only to go back on those promises when they get into office. If elected, how can Black Chicagoans hold you accountable for the policies you promised them while campaigning?

That's a great question. And it's unfortunate you have to ask that. We have seen people co-opt movements and language and say certain things, and then just to get into office and do a completely different thing. 

As I started off this conversation, when I say son of Chicago, from here, born here, raised here, will die here. This is home. And I'm not going anywhere. And so to me, it's important to be accountable, not just to the people that I represent, but these are my friends, these are my neighbors. These are people who are part of my village in my community. And I can't say one thing today, and then go into something else, and then come back and say, welcome me back with open arms. It's just not how I operate. 

And so I'll be very open and amenable to coming back and checking in with the people. Am I doing what I said I would do? Am I keeping the promises that I've made when I asked you for this job? This is a job interview. And it's an aggressive one. But for me, it's very important that people can clearly know who I am.

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is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.