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November 30, 2016

Feature article by Elena Espitia, student

On July 5, 2016, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot, and the whole nation watched through cell phone footage during the aftermath of the shooting.  Unsurprisingly, the shooting was on everyone’s mind the next day on campus. A handful of students and staff found themselves in Dr. Erica Ciszek’s office, where a candid conversation began about officer involved shootings and racial tension in the United States.  It was a very open conversation that also touched on the Orlando mass shooting and other police shootings around the country.

The conversation also focused on the state of society and how social media impacted the way these events were reported and viewed by the public.

“A lot of ideas came out of that conversation,” said LaRahia Smith, the communication manager of the Valenti School of Communication who was in Ciszek’s office during the conversation. “It was very emotional and it was very raw, but it was also very real.” 

According to Smith, who says she has rarely seen a conversation of that caliber happen in a workplace setting, that discussion was beautiful thing. It became the inspiration for the Valenti School of Communication’s newest lecture series, Big Talk.

“Having that conversation with students and faculty made me realize that in being silent and not actively encouraging these types of conversations, the Valenti School of Communication  would be doing a disservice to the members of our school ,” Smith said. “There seemed to be a hunger to participate in these types of open discussions.”

Birth of the Series

The Valenti School of Communication’s leadership team went to the drawing board. From it, the Big Talk series was created.

Once the parameters of the series were set, Dr. Temple Northup, director of the Valenti School of Communication, an avid fan of Very Smart Brothas , reached out VSB editor-in-chief Damon Young. VSB is a daily digital magazine that was founded in 2008 by Young, Panama Jackson and Liz Burr. The magazine reports on news, pop culture, race and sex through commentary, essays and humor.

Young expressed great interest in participating in the first Big Talk. He agreed to talk about race and media. Big Talk on Race & Media was a conversational interview between with interpersonal communications senior Deyontrius Sims and Young in front of a live audience.  The talk revolved around how media outlets portrays race and how they deal with issues of race.

 Over 300 University of Houston students and employees and members of the Houston community attended the talk. The buzz created on campus and at the Valenti School of Communication reaffirmed the need for the series.

“I liked how we interacted with him and I liked the topics,” said advertising junior Vikki Glosson. “I like being confrontational and discussing things that people usual don’t talk about. So if we had more events next semester I think it’s a really good program to continue having.”

After Big Talk on Race & Media, the Valenti School of Communication proceeded to host a Big Talk once a month.  The next talk covered intersectionality, the interconnected nature of our identities and how they sometimes overlap to create systems of discrimination. It featured a panel of professionals from Mayor Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board: Melanie Pang, Fran Watson, also a member of the Houston’s LGBT Political Caucus, and Ashton Woods, also a member of Black Lives Matter.

The final talk of the semester featured political cartoonist and five time Southern California Journalism award winner Lalo Alcaraz for the Big Talk about politics. Alcaraz focused on the election and how media professionals should tackle their roles in today’s political climate. All three talks were open to UH and the Houston community and well-received by both groups.

“For communication majors, I want them to understand that it is okay to talk about controversial issues in their professions,” Smith said. “It’s okay to address them directly, and I hope our speakers have given them some ideas on ways to do so. “

According to Smith, the Valenti School of Communication understands that diversity is crucial to the field of communication and it’s important to highlight these differences to communication majors. This series of talks that focus on controversial issues helps to showcase the diversity in the industry of media.

“It’s to get the student body to discuss current events and things that are taboo that most people don’t want to discuss,” Glosson said.

Future Big Talks

The Big Talk series will resume in the spring of 2017 and feature noteworthy personalities such as Jamilah Lemieux, Vice President of News and Men's Programming-Interactive One; JaNeika James and JaSheika James, writers from the TV show Empire; Mayra Moreno, UH alumna Mexican American news anchor for ABC13; and Minerva Perez, an award-winning journalist, creator and executive producer for “Latina Voices: Smart Talk.”

 “Honestly I don’t see the need for these conversations to ever go away,” Smith said.  “It’s not just something that’s a reaction to our political and social climate right now, these are a human and societal conversations that needs to happen.”