Maya Eaglin: Journalist, activist, ally

by | Oct 30, 2016

“Who do you hope looks up to you?”

 

“I wouldn’t say that anyone shouldn’t look up to me or anyone should look up to me, but for those who do, I’d love to help them and show them that they have the potential and talents and gifts within themselves to create the best opportunities.”

This question was the one that stumped Maya Eaglin the most, but her answer revealed something special about her character: Maya, a sophomore at Elon University, figured out her talent early in life, with the help of the people she looks up to. Now she wants to pay it forward.

“[My grandmother] has really dedicated her life to service and shown me what leadership really looks like,” Maya said. “She’s always shown me that you can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You need to advocate for yourself, you need to advocate for others and assist others in creating their access — don’t show them the way, let them make it for themselves.”

Maya put her passion for advocacy into action as early as high school, when she was involved with the Black Student Union (BSU). In her Montgomery County, MD school, which was half black, there hadn’t been a Black History Month celebration in six years — until Maya and her fellow BSU leaders took the reins.

“A lot of the faculty had pushback,” she said. There were requests to pre-approve scripts and constant skepticism of the plans, but eventually, the students created a show complete with professional African drummers, auditioned spoken word pieces and six videos Maya produced herself. In an environment that was designed for them to fail, the BSU led the charge in what Maya called “one of the most rewarding experiences I had at my high school.”

This progress with faculty demonstrated the BSU’s — and Maya’s — perseverance for the second time that school year. Just weeks before, an incident between the basketball team and the school principal called into question administrative support for students of color.

 

Trickle-down social (in)justice

bsu-1During the early weeks of 2015, amid national protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the Blake High School basketball team stood together in solidarity: they wore black shirts that read, “I can’t breathe” during warm-ups. After parents from the opposing team objected, Maya’s principal told players and coaches to take the shirts off.

This did not go unchecked by Maya and other BSU members. A private sit-down with the principal led to a community-wide town hall where he made a formal apology.

When asked whether she could foresee this kind of incident happening with the president of Elon University, Leo Lambert, she replied, “I personally don’t think he would [do that]. If he did, I think he has the conscience enough to apologize if he made that misstep. But he was out there protesting with us and has proven to me that he’s pretty tolerant and open-minded and willing to hear people out.”

Maya was referring to the silent march that Elon students organized after riots broke out in Charlotte, NC in response to the death of Keith Lamont Scott. With Charlotte in turmoil just two hours southwest of their school, Elon community members came together for a short rally in the student center, followed by a silent march across campus.

Even though Maya is an active member of Elon News Network, the student media organization on campus, she participated in the march instead of covering it.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” she said. “I made sure that my producers and news directors knew it was happening because I think I heard of it pretty early on, and I wanted to make sure that there was coverage, but I knew I had to be there.”

This was her first experience of large-scale protest at Elon, but Maya is no stranger to demonstration — she participated in protests in D.C. last summer after back-to-back shootings of unarmed black men (Philando Castile and Alton Sterling) around July 4. But this silent march at Elon, Maya said, was different.

“I’ve never been to a silent protest before,” she said. “But there was something special and introspective about it being silent.” Coincidentally, Maya attended the protest the day after she had an argument in class about race. “I was very frustrated, I was angry, I was sad. So being able to have that time to be with other people and see how many allies we had in the community was something that I was so proud and happy to be in.”

 

Educator by association

One roadblock in fostering intersectionality in social justice movements is the need to educate allies. This burden often falls on the shoulders of the group the movements are meant to protect and empower. Maya admits it is exhausting to experience oppression then have to explain it to those who benefit from the oppressive system. But, she says, it’s a burden she gladly accepts.

She saw an opportunity for this advocacy in one of her classes, which resulted in the argument she had just before the silent march on campus. An Indian student expressed pride in his culture, but said he didn’t want it to be the first thing people saw about him.

7Maya was confused by this contradiction and told him, “You don’t really have a choice whether someone does see that first in you or not. I would argue that race is the first thing that anyone recognizes about you.”

That’s when things took a turn. A white, female classmate raised her hand to disagree: “She said, ‘Um, I’m gonna disagree with you right there, I think that gender is the first thing that anyone recognizes about you,’” Maya recalled.

As a woman of color, Maya was almost amused by this privileged thinking — in her opinion, people view her as a black woman before anything else; the identities are intertwined, but the race portion is never overlooked. Even with backup from a “woke” professor, she had to make this known.

“I was the only woman of color in that room,” she said: “I felt as if [I was] a spokesperson, which is exhausting, but, at the same time, I personally cannot let those conversations go one-sided, or stay silent.”

 

Reporting while black

That conversation came up in her TV newswriting course, after the professor offered guidelines for when journalists should report on race, and when it is prejudiced to do so.

As a student journalist, Maya can expect to come across these ethical issues throughout her career — issues that will be exacerbated by her blackness. “It’s hard to remove something that’s so central to your identity from the opinions that you form and how you go about covering it,” she said, “but I guess that is part of being a journalist: how to be non-biased, how to be neutral.”

So far, Maya has exposed herself to many of these tough lessons: she anchored the ENN (formerly ELN) morning show last spring and now she anchors for the evening newscast. Though most Elon journalism students do not move up the ranks this quickly, Maya has a big advantage: she’s felt at home in the studio since she could walk.

mom“My mom used to work at a TV station,” Maya said, “and she would use me and my sister as free talent in all the commercials for the station. So I‘ve been in front of the camera majority of my life.”

After that early exposure, Maya sought out more opportunities: she read morning announcements in fifth and eighth grades, performed in musical theatre productions in her early high school years, then returned to television studio work for 11th and 12th grades.

With such a great start to her journalism career, Maya could take some time to enjoy this early success, but like a true planner, she’s already looking ahead: “This year I’m really trying to look at the producing side and almost the business side as well, and that is a journey in itself,” she said. “All I’ve ever done since fifth grade was be in front of the camera. I still love it and I could still totally see myself doing that for the rest of my life, but I want to open my horizons a little.”

You can catch up with Maya on Twitter.

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