Jessica Moulite.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Moulite

Award-winning journalism alumna returns to academia to reshape how stories are told

Growing up the daughter of Haitian immigrants in Miami, Jessica Moulite gained an early respect for journalism — and one journalist in particular.

“My grandma came to America in 1976 and she learned how to speak English by watching the evening news,” she recalled. “I'm one of four girls, and my parents didn't let us watch TV during the weekdays, except for watching the news with our grandmother: the local news and ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.”

Moulite remembers seeing history unfold through these channels: September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As she witnessed the power of the news to both move and inform the public, she also noticed that the stories of people from communities like hers were often told badly, or not told at all. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not that people aren’t able to tell these stories themselves. It’s that a lot of these groups — women, Black people and other people of color, the LGBTQ community —have been systematically silenced.”

Determined to break that silence, Moulite attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, where she majored in communication and women’s studies — with the help of a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that helps universities recruit potential leaders from diverse backgrounds. But it was after she enrolled in the master of science in journalism program at USC Annenberg that her career goals really came into focus.

“I had a class with Laura Castañeda [professor of professional practice], and she told me there is absolutely nothing wrong if I wanted to make my storytelling focus on communities of color,” Moulite recalled. “She gave me the language to express what I wanted to do and emboldened me to go in the direction of my dreams.”

After earning her master’s in 2015, Moulite went on to work at the Latino-driven English-language channel Fusion before joining the Root, where she flourished telling multimedia stories about the diverse Black experience. Now, as she returns to academia to begin her doctoral studies at Howard University, Moulite has been honored with the Ainslie Award, the Posse Foundation’s annual alumni achievement recognition, which comes with a $10,000 no-strings-attached grant.

Moulite spoke with USC Annenberg about her experience as a Black storyteller, and how she hopes to combine her academic work with her journalism background to effect positive change.

After growing up watching Peter Jennings, you worked with another TV legend, Jorge Ramos. What did you take away with your time working with him at Fusion?

I started out as a production associate for America with Jorge Ramos, and just kept going up the chain until I was working with him directly. With everything that was happening with Ramos during that time — the contention between him and the Trump administration, the way he approached his coverage of everything that was happening at the border — I was really able to take a page out of his book. Seeing how he told stories that very much matter to him and his Latino demographic helped me realize how that ethos can be replicated. He taught me to never forget to use my voice and ask powerful questions.

Why did you make the move to the Root as a video producer?

While still at Univision, I had the opportunity to work with the Root on a multi-part series about climate gentrification in predominantly Black communities in Miami. So, once I got this opportunity to join them full-time, I was there. And it was incredible to work for the premier Black publication for voices and stories all across the Black diaspora.

How did you approach your storytelling there?

Oftentimes the conversation surrounding Blackness is either, you know, “This Black child has gotten into all of the Ivy League institutions, how wonderful,” or we're talking about how someone was brutally killed. It doesn't need to only be these two types of stories: Black death and Black exceptionalism. There are so many shades in between, and those stories need to be reflected too. And the Root really champions those stories. One video I’m particularly proud of was a profile of Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, where she talked about her new normal of living with alopecia. I’m very impassioned about telling stories that matter to communities that look like mine — that in the past were often painted with a very flat, monolithic lens.

You worked at The Root until late August, when you started as a doctoral student at Howard University. What’s driving your transition back to academia?

Over the last year, I was so disenchanted as I watched the media industry and how things like the pandemic and the movement for racial justice were reported on. In attempting to be impartial and non-biased, media and journalists do a real disservice to the audiences that they're meant to be serving. If journalism is supposed to be for the public good, then it is ultimately up to journalists to decide what that is, and to make an informed decision. What does that look like? What is the common good? So, I decided that I want to take a step back to get my doctorate in sociology to create knowledge that addresses these kinds of questions. With an emphasis in social inequality, my goal is the idea that if we can start changing these systems, we can change the world little by little, then — hopefully — the media will be able to get there as well.

How can academics and researchers create that kind of change?

I believe that the world can be better than this — and that there are enough people actively working to make it more just and equitable for everyone. It doesn’t have to be this zero-sum game of who has power and who doesn’t; we don't have to live in this sort of society. I really do think that in the classrooms, in the streets, and in the boardrooms, there are so many avenues where we need to not just reckon with the disparities that exist, but ultimately subvert them and change them for the better.

And that’s what this Posse Foundation award I received represents. They’re committed to creating the new face of leadership in the future. And that’s going to mean some tricky, uncomfortable conversations — but you know, I think more uncomfortable conversations will do this world and this nation some good.