A fond farewell, and happy trails, to reporter Dara Kerr

Oakland North reporter Dara Kerr.

Oakland North reporter Dara Kerr.

Dear readers,

It’s June, so I hope you have room for one more commencement speech.

This is a special one for reporter Dara Kerr, who is wrapping up her tenure here as Oakland North’s fellow, a position that combines reporting with advising beginning students here at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and helping us dream up better ways to serve the Oakland community.

Some of you might know that Oakland North (and our sister sites Richmond Confidential and Mission Local) are nonprofit websites run by the J-School. They are the core component of several classes here in the journalism masters degree program—ever-evolving news labs where we teach reporting basics, try to push the boundaries of online storytelling and hope to give back to our nearby communities some of the local news coverage that has been lost in this era of media cutbacks. The sites were launched in the fall of 2008, and since then have grown enormously. Those of you who have been reading Oakland North since the beginning know that we couldn’t have gotten this far without Dara.

Dara took the Oakland North course the first time it was offered as an elective and she never really left. Over the last three years, she served two turns as a student reporter, plus stints as a summer intern and bike blogger. After graduating from the J-School she became the site’s first fellow. Her byline has been on hundreds of stories. She was in court every day for the city’s gang injunction hearings, and she led our coverage of Proposition 8 and the Johannes Mehserle trial verdict. She reported on how Oakland became California’s ground zero in the marijuana legalization debate. She covered the day when Mayor Jean Quan was sworn in, and the day when we found out that the Super Long’s was leaving, and the day the world didn’t end.

But you might not know exactly how much work she’s done behind the scenes to make Oakland North a better community news site. She came up with some our most popular features, like our ongoing profiles of food truck operators and the summer “treat” series, and was part of the brain trust behind the launch of our audio podcast, ON Radio. She’s the person who makes sure that every week there’s an adoptable animal and a community photo. For several years she wrote Oakland North’s bike blog, which she discontinued when she became the fellow in 2010, since she was able to fold bike news into her regular reporting beat. I think we all knew, back in when she first joined that reporting crew, that we were in the presence of greatness when Dara named her bike blog Keeping It Wheel.

Today, we’ll publish Dara’s last official piece for Oakland North, as her fellowship ends and she moves on to other reporting gigs. It is an investigative inquiry into the existence of monsters in Lake Merritt. (I think you’ll agree that we are still in the presence of greatness.)

But before we wish Dara good luck in the reporting adventures before her, I thought you might want to know a little more about the adventures that brought her to Oakland.

Dara moved to Oakland from New York City, where she’d already spent her early career doing international human rights work. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, she earned a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University, and then spent several years working for human rights groups, including writing documentation for the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which uncovers mass gravesites worldwide, working with the women’s rights group Equality Now on investigating the murder of girls in Ciudad Juarez, and serving as a as a human rights researcher for the Central American Legal Assistance. In this role, she helped refugees seek asylum in the United States by documenting atrocities that had occurred in their home countries. It was through this work that in 2005 she met a survivor of the 1974 massacre at La Cayetana, a small Salvadoran plantation town, and began the work that was to bring her to UC Berkeley and to journalism.

The massacre, she says, occurred “six years before the civil war began, but tensions were already running high in the country between the Army and oppressed farm workers. Revolution was simmering. There was a war next door in Nicaragua and above in Guatemala. So what happened was the workers started to stand up for themselves and organize.” Some of the workers of La Cayetana joined the farm workers’ union and the guerilla Popular Liberation Force, staged strikes demanding better pay and circulated a revolutionary magazine.

In response, she says, “The National Guard came into the town and kind of terrorized it. Six people were killed and 28 kidnapped—they weren’t ‘disappeared,’ they all came back.” Survivors described a gruesome military operation, in which the bodies of the dead were hacked up with machetes, and the kidnapped were maced and then taken away, barefoot and naked.

In the run-up to El Salvador’s civil war, Dara said, there had been skirmishes between individuals and the military, but—as far as anyone has been able to document—La Cayetana was the first time when the Salvadoran  National Guard had conducted an operation targeting an entire town. As she later wrote, “La Cayetana was a harbinger of the decade-long war—the turning point when standard army procedure first became mass murder.”

In the following years, she says, the massacres in El Salvador became bigger and more frequent, leading up to the most infamous, the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, when approximately 1,000 people were killed. In that year, a second military sweep was conducted at La Cayetana, in effect destroying the town.

For years, Dara struggled to find a way to return to El Salvador to learn more about this largely undocumented massacre and to speak with the survivors and their relatives. “I’d tried to get funding to write about it with a human rights grant and it just wasn’t working out,” she recalls. “Then I met [UC Berkeley journalism professor] Lydia Chavez and she said, ‘You should do it as a journalist and become a journalist.’ It was an ‘A-ha!’ moment for me, and that changed everything.”

At UC Berkeley, Dara’s research about La Cayetana became her masters thesis; it was published this summer in the online magazine Guernica as the story “Under the Volcano.”

The switch from human rights work to reporting meant learning a new kind of writing. With the academic writing she had done before, she says, “You’re not focusing on making it good for readers, you’re trying to document information. So it’s different—it’s not storytelling, it’s story gathering.”

But Dara says it also drew on the same strengths: listening, and knowing how to talk to everyone in a community.  “What I found was coming to the J-school—I always thought I loved to do these big investigative pieces, but I found I love stuff that’s not about human rights,” she says. “I loved hyperlocal reporting and finding out about one community. Oakland North has been great because I can write about anything that interests me, like food and bicycles. I see myself kind of trying to do both still—because I’m still interested in these big international or local horror stories, these investigative pieces. But I really do like doing the local stuff. And that’s what I learned in J-School about myself—that not everything has to be so serious.”

“This is the fun of reporting here in Oakland—I get to meet more people than I normally would as a citizen and do cool things,” she continues. Some of her favorite stories, she says, came out of “being able to profile people I normally wouldn’t meet, like the shepherd in the Oakland hills and the graveyard tombstone engravers and Dan Fontes the muralist.” (If you want to meet a few of the other people who have crossed her path, try her profiles of the skaters of Bordertown or the tofu masters of Hodo Soy Beanery.)

Coming from another state, Dara wasn’t sure what to expect when she started reporting in Oakland. “Oakland has that—in Spanish they call it mala fama—it’s like bad fame,” she says. “I was shocked to find that it is such a diverse city—not just the people but the industry and its leadership on a lot of issues, a lot on environmentalism.” Some of her favorite stories, she says, came out of covering Oakland’s environmental innovations. “Definitely the EBMUD digester,” which turns food waste into energy, is one of her favorite topics, she says. “That is the second one in the world and the only one in the U.S. that is using food scraps. There are digesters everywhere but the idea of using food scraps is really innovative. Also the [Alameda County] green purchasing program and the fact that they’re working on making county buildings LEED-certified, like the juvenile justice center.”

If you have seen Dara around town, you know that she reports on two wheels; this, she says, was an important part of getting to know the area.  “I used to be a bike racer in New York—and in New York that’s how I got around the city at all times,” she says. “Being on a bike and doing the [Keeping It Wheel] blog I had to ride all around the city, which helped me learn the city and what’s going on, because there’s a way you see things via bike that you don’t walking or driving. Walking is too slow—most people won’t walk where you’d ride a bike. Last weekend I rode a bike from West to East Oakland—you’d never walk through most of those areas, over highways and under underpasses. And in a car you wouldn’t go on those routes either, and you go a lot faster so you don’t have the opportunity to observe. In fact, whenever I feel like I need a story I’d hop on my bike and I start riding around and inevitably I find one.”

And although three years seems short, a city can change a lot in that time. A few notable differences in Oakland, she says, are the city government’s increasing interest in bikes (“When I was covering the mayoral campaign every candidate talked about bicycles!” she says), the proliferation of food trucks and the City Hall battle over where and when they should be permitted to park, and North Oakland’s post-recession retail surge as new businesses set up shop. “Some of the first stories I wrote about were [about] the closing of stores during the height of the recession,” Dara says. “A lot of that has bounced back. One of the first stories I did was about stores closing on Piedmont Avenue, and most of those storefronts are full now.”

Oakland North has changed, too, she says. When she started out, she says, finding people to interview was tough. “I’d have to really bug people and call them a lot. Nobody wanted to talk to me very much because they had no idea who we were. The idea of hyperlocal reporting and blogs weren’t very big yet.”

Now, she says, hyperlocal sites like this one have a place in the local media ecosystem. “When people ask me to describe Oakland North I usually call it a ‘news magazine.’ We’re not too much about breaking news—some stories maybe—it’s more about analysis and people, which I think the community appreciates,” she says. “I don’t think it’s best to do what newspapers are doing because that’s getting done and people will always go to their local paper for those quick news bites. I think a successful hyperlocal would be more in-depth. We also cover a lot of things that local newspapers wouldn’t.”

As Dara’s fellowship ends, a new one begins—this week we’re welcoming Ryan Phillips back to the Oakland North team. Ryan is an East Bay native, and served a stint on the sports desk at the Santa Cruz Sentinel before coming to the J-School. He was a part of the spring 2010 Oakland North reporting crew, and has worked as an advisor for Oakland Tech’s student paper and helped teach an undergraduate journalism course here at UC Berkeley. Ryan brings with him a deep background in investigative and public-records based reporting, as well as an interest in improving Oakland North’s high school and local recreational sports coverage. You’ll be seeing his byline appearing here soon.

In the meantime, Dara, please throw your hat into the air and let us give you a round of applause. Congratulations on all that you’ve achieved at Oakland North, and thank you for taking us all along for the ride.

7 Comments

  1. Just my luck to discover such a wonderful writer on her last day! Nice knowing you, and good luck!

  2. Dara, thanks for your smart, interesting and really exceptional coverage of Oakland. If you’re not reporting here, it will be a loss for the city.
    Alex Katz
    Communications Director, Oakland City Attorney’s Office

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