Breaking and overcoming barriers: Interning at OPB and becoming a black journalist in Oregon

Story and photos by Meerah Powell

Growing up as a black woman in the predominantly white city of Eugene, Oregon, I have often felt limited and even, at times, invisible. It made me realize I am in a very unique position — a position that has made me hyper-aware of my surroundings and of not only what I see in the media, but what I do not. This situation has ignited my curiosity for looking outside mainstream media and into other overlooked and underrepresented stories, and it has made me want to tell my own stories as well. That’s what brought me to journalism.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be a journalist in the UO School of Journalism and Communication. Though I dabbled in journalistic writing before attending UO, I never felt as much confidence as I have now as a senior in the journalism school. The SOJC has given me the baseline of skills I need to be a proficient journalist, confident in the work I am producing and ever-willing to expand my experiences.

At first, my journalistic work was rooted deeply in art and music. I wrote and photographed for the Daily Emerald, mostly covering concerts and other aspects of the Eugene music scene. I also did music podcasting and videography for the Emerald. I became an intern for the Eugene Weekly’s Arts desk this past spring and continued much of the same work there.

So when I got the opportunity to do a full-time summer internship in Oregon Public Broadcasting’s newsroom, I was both very excited and very intimidated, to say the least. Although I was nervous about jumping into covering news, far away from my comfort zone of arts and culture, I dove right in.

When I first walked up the stairs to the OPB newsroom, it was everything I had ever dreamed of: desks of reporters hard at work, flat-screen TVs on various news channels, conference rooms and huge glass windows peering out on Portland. This was what being a working journalist was like.

One of the first pieces I worked on my first few days in the newsroom was coverage of a court case for one of the defendants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover that occurred in Eastern Oregon back in February. I had to drive over to the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in southwest Portland to meet another OPB reporter and sit in on a scheduled change-of-plea hearing.

This was the start of feeling truly independent as a journalist. Although I had covered many stories in and around Eugene by myself, I had lived there my whole life, so I was at no point outside of my comfort zone. In Portland, although I had visited many times, I was in a new city. It was a city I had a chance to explore all by myself, and OPB gave me the opportunity of doing that.

I pushed myself to learn. I explored new audio editing programs, how to work a soundboard, and how to write and edit for radio. I got up early and stayed in the office late, sometimes working 12-hour days. I got to know the reporters I had heard on the radio so many times throughout my life, which was an awesome and humbling experience.

I entrenched myself in all things Portland news for two months and wrote a number of stories about city council meetings, police bureau happenings, court cases, transportation issues, local social justice activism and more.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales addresses the public in a press conference about police violence following the shootings in Dallas. Photo by Meerah Powell, courtesy of OPB.

Before I knew it, I was voicing my own stories on the radio, something I had never dreamed of — especially since I had no prior experience in broadcast journalism. This is something I know I never could have done without the consistent support I was receiving — support from the OPB newsroom, the SOJC and my colleagues, family and friends.

I finished my OPB internship a few weeks ago, but I'll have the skills I've learned from it for a lifetime. Although most of the work I've done since has been back on the arts and culture beat — I just photographed the Portland music festival Project Pabst for the Emerald — I'm definitely not looking to leave my news experience in the dust.

Growing up as a black woman in Eugene without a doubt whittled my confidence down as a young adult, but a more pressing fear that interfered with my pursuit of a journalism degree was not having the money to do so. My preconceived notion about the SOJC was that all of the best students must have the best gear — the best cameras, lenses, audio recorders, laptops, etc. Even though a lot of them do, I was so happy to realize that I didn't need those things to succeed. In attempting to branch out in my skills, I gained a ton of experience using my own gear, which is definitely nowhere near top-tier. And now I feel like I can truly create professional work with whatever equipment I have.

I also had the notion that I needed a professional network to be able to do anything higher-profile in the journalism world. That’s why the OPB internship means so much to me — because I achieved it with no prior personal connections, knowing that solely my hard work and determination got me there.

The comfort and confidence I felt at OPB was a strong reminder of why I gravitated toward journalism in the first place: my need for community and my desire to tell others’ stories in an attempt to make them — and myself — feel recognized, validated and a part of something larger.

Meerah Powell is a senior in the SOJC who plans to graduate this winter with a degree in journalism. She is digital managing editor at the Daily Emerald and an intern for the Eugene Weekly. This summer, she completed an internship with Oregon Public Broadcasting, for which she will freelance on projects in the future. She will be traveling to Sri Lanka with fellow SOJC students and faculty in December to document the recovery efforts of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the country’s recent natural disasters. You can view her work at and follow her on Twitter @meerahpowell and Instagram @yoyo_byebye.