SJL, B’ham Times experience became much more than a writing internship

By Kiara Dunlap

When a young woman from California moves across the country for college and lands an internship with Southern Jewish Life magazine and the Birmingham Times, she quickly learns a lot about rich, deeply rooted history here in Birmingham.

I am Kiara Dunlap, a recent graduate of Miles College, a Birmingham-area HBCU. Through an innovative joint internship, I interned for the two publications, writing stories of interest to both the Black and Jewish communities.

Through this experience, as well as my four years at Miles, I gained valuable perspective on the history of each community and the ways they have worked together, especially during the Civil Rights era.

The internship included meetings with editors from both publications — in conference rooms and coffee shops. These mentors have given me professional development advice and helped me become a better writer. They also have become my friends.

Sitting side by side with Barnett Wright, executive editor of the Birmingham Times, and learning how to structure a story was a great experience. Working with Richard Friedman, associate editor of Southern Jewish Life, and going over my story word by word, taught me to write from the heart.

The Birmingham Times highlights Birmingham’s Black community. Southern Jewish Life, based in Birmingham, covers a four-state region — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and NW Florida and has recently expanded to reporting on the broader South.

My first assignment, covering a program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Black-Jewish relations and hearing panelists share their stories, was eye-opening. The interchange was inspirational. Both the Black and Jewish panelists reflected a deep respect for each other’s community. There were different perspectives, but those differences were appreciated. There also was a willingness by the participants to be corrected and educated by their fellow panelists.

My second story was on the N.E Miles Jewish Day School’s celebration of Black History Month.

Walking through the school, you could feel the impact that learning about African-American history had on the young students and how much they respected the achievements of the Black community. And the students were not just white, as one may have thought; there also were students of color.

This also was the day that I visited the Levite Jewish Community Center for the first time.

Falling in love

Walking through its colorful corridors, I was told that the LJCC is open to everyone. I learned that in the Jewish tradition, “welcoming the stranger” — embracing those from outside of one’s community — is one of the highest values. This was reflected by the diversity of people I saw. I also learned that in the 1960s, the Jewish Community Center challenged Birmingham’s segregation culture by opening its doors to all races.

Through the stories I have written and the people I have met, I entered new spaces. I had never known a Jewish person until my internship. I have fallen in love with the Birmingham Jewish community and developed a great admiration for the people I met. Their values, warmth and appreciation for other communities made a deep impact on me.

My additional stories included a feature on the friendship between an older Jewish couple and a younger African-American leader, and a concert at Temple Beth-El by a Black and White singing duo, both of whom were Jewish. It was a wonderful evening that began with a Havdalah service, a beautiful ritual that marks the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath.

In addition, Southern Jewish Life editor and publisher Larry Brook invited me to his home for a Passover Seder, a traditional meal and celebration that commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and their freedom from slavery. Not only is there an obvious linkage to the Black experience of slavery, but it was especially meaningful to me, as a Christian, because my church’s vision is, “Leading People Out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Freedom.”

Then, after writing these stories, I had the incredible opportunity to spend just under two weeks in Israel. This experience beautifully tied together my understanding of what it means to identify as a Jewish person and the importance of strengthening ties not only between the Jewish and Black communities but also the Christian and Jewish communities. In addition, it drew me more deeply into my own Christianity in a way that I believe will affect and guide me for the rest of my life.

It was especially meaningful to travel with a group of young Black leaders organized by Philos Black, an Atlanta-based organization that strengthens ties between Blacks and Jews and educates Black leaders about Israel. I wrote two stories based on my trip — one an overall story on the experience and the second on my encounters in Israel with Ethiopian Jews, Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Africa.

Along with exposure to the Jewish community and Israel, my internship and time in Birmingham deepened my understanding of the struggles my community faced during the Civil Rights period. As a young Black person, I believe this additional appreciation is important. The more knowledge my peers and I have of these difficulties and triumphs, the more we can appreciate who we are and the importance of my generation’s role in leading our community forward.

Sessions at the Birmingham Times helped lead me to this enhanced awareness. Not only did the Times play a critical role in keeping the Black community informed during its period of struggle, but the paper also plays an important role today in highlighting the success of local African Americans.

New Framework

My Miles College experience has strengthened my identity and elevated my confidence as a young Black woman. I had planned to attend college in my home state but that fell through, and I wound up applying to schools in other parts of the country. One of these was Miles College. Once accepted, Miles kept “pestering” me to enroll. I am thankful I did!

After growing up in a mainly white California community, attending a historically Black college in the Deep South has immersed me in the culture and history of the African-American experience far beyond anything I had previously encountered. Being surrounded by Black educators, administrators, friends and sorority sisters has created a new framework for me.

Though I don’t know where my life will ultimately lead me, I am glad the first phase of my journey has taken me from California to Birmingham. Although California will always be home, Birmingham will remain special for me. Not only has it been a place for me to learn about the Jewish community and develop a deeper appreciation of the historic struggle of my own community, but it is also where I experienced a deep Christian awakening, a process people sometimes refer to as being “born again.”

As I look back on my life in Birmingham so far, I believe all three experiences are intertwined and nothing has been more rewarding than growing in my identity as a child of God and embracing and trusting His purpose for my life.

Although this was an internship for a news publication and magazine, I have learned so much more than writing skills. I’ve learned more about the world and communities around me. I learned the shared and personal history of two culturally significant communities. I’ve learned so much more about myself and I’ve learned how to tell a story effectively. I hope I have done just that in telling you my story.

Now for a final PS…

My journey in Birmingham has taken an interesting turn. I’m now working at the LJCC. I feel at home at the LJCC as a young Black woman, because our membership is so diverse, drawing people of all faiths and backgrounds from across the metro area. I also feel at home because of the attachment to the Jewish community and Israel I developed as a result of my internship.

Most of all, I have discovered a new me, anchored in belongingness.