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Keona Gardner

Interview by Maddie Jones.

Audio Transcription

Keona Gardner  0:00  
Yes, Keona Gardner. 

Maddie Jones  0:02  
Perfect. This is Maddie Jones interviewing Keona Gardner on March 25, 2023. Keona, I'd like to ask your permission to use this recording for potentially a podcast episode.

Keona Gardner  0:13  
Yes, you have my permission.

Maddie Jones  0:15  
Thank you. So, as I said earlier, what we're doing is an oral history account of your time with the Teen Appeal and your involvement with the paper. So, before we get into your involvement, would you like to tell me a little bit more about your life before you came to the teenage appeal? You know, what high school were you a part of? What kind of piqued your interest in journalism, so a little backstory, if you don't mind?

Keona Gardner  0:37  
I'm born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, came from a single parent home. I was the middle child, one of second and third. I started the Teen Appeal was my senior year in high school. I went to East High School. I heard about it after the first issue came out through my friend, April. Kibler, well, she's Thompson now, April Thompson now. And she came in with the papers and showing me about it. And I decided it's something I was interested in, I always had a love of reading and writing and the arts. So, I just wanted to kind of figure out, Okay, what's next for you know, getting ready to graduate, and I didn't know what I would be doing next, you know. So that was my entry into finding a career in journalism.

Maddie Jones  1:43  
That's awesome. So how did you feel when you were first selected to be a part of the staff? Were you excited?

Keona Gardner  1:48  
I was excited. I was trying to remember what happened, how it came about. But what I do recall, I was, gosh, I just remember, they said anyone who wanted to interested in writing to show up for the first meeting, and it was like it was a pizza party, all of our staff meetings or first meetings was always at a pizza party, where we would meet and talk and that was when I met Dr. Grusin. And Tara Milligan. And Amy Edmondson who was the second behind Tara, and the rest of the staff of that that first year. So it was, it was fun to meet everyone I was, I was happy. I didn't know what to expect. But it was it was fun to be able to just start start something. Um, I met Dr. Grusin. And we would talk, and she would give, give, give me tips. give me tips on things and Tara was a good buddy. So, all of that was, was fun for me. Trying to remember so much. Oh, gosh, she's been so long ago. I remember the bus passes. Because Tara would give us bus passes to get home whenever we would come into the office to work on our stories or for staff meetings. And East High School was near the campus near the journalism building. So sometimes, you know, we would catch, April and I would catch the 50 Poplar. To gosh, what was the I can't remember name that street, and we will walk it was a neighborhood street and we will walk down into the journalism building to get there and Tara would be there. And there always be snacks and a lot of different jobs, students from different high schools and everyone would be you know, laughing and talking and writing our stories.

Maddie Jones  4:15  
I love that. What was it like working with people from these other schools in the area?

Keona Gardner  4:22  
It was fun. Yeah, we were. I wasn't into the whole sports rivalry and I'm still not a huge sports fan type deal. So, it didn't bug me that they went from they were from White Station or Craigmont or Central or anything. They were just high school students you would meet and talk with and have fun and laugh and talk about you know, what's happening with whatever TV show you was watching or music you was listening to at the time or you know how your your siblings get on your nerves. And your parents just don't understand. So, you wouldn't ban, talking about that. And then also talking about your plans for the future? What do you hope to go? And, you know, what do you hope to accomplish and things of that nature? So that sounds okay.

Maddie Jones  5:17  
Yeah. Did you, you know, hang out with any of the other staff members outside of school and, like, make any friends in the process? Hopefully?

Keona Gardner  5:25  
Um, no, I have a lot of responsibilities at home. So, I didn't have a lot of time for extracurricular activities. So, I was pretty much limited and limited with, with time and with funds and things of that nature. So, I didn't do a lot of hanging out with them afterwards. You know, sometimes we will call and talk on the phone or some I wouldn't maybe meet up every now and again with April. I've been knowing her since seventh grade. So, it wasn't like a lot. I had a lot of home responsibilities to deal with as well, yeah.

Maddie Jones  6:17  
Totally. So, when you first started there, did you undergo any kind of training? Or did you? Do you think you showed up with the right skill set?

Keona Gardner  6:26  
Absolutely not. Um, my first story I wrote was about the human-interest story. A high school girl student at East High School, who overcame Bell's palsy. A rare paralysis, facial paralysis that she had. And she was most popular, and she didn't let any any of that her her Bell's palsy condition stop her. She was always kind and nice and friendly to just anyone. I wrote a story about her. And if I was thinking about that story. I realized now that it was probably structured in a horrible way. And Tara was grasping at straws to say something. Because the only thing Tara said was, I liked you did a very good job with your punctuation and your quote marks, you realize that the comma goes inside the quote. And

Maddie Jones  7:48  
Nothing about the actual content.

Keona Gardner  7:56  
She couldn't come up with anything. My 17-year-old mind just thought that was like, oh, omen or a talk from God, just directing me to journalism. 

Maddie Jones  8:09  
That is so funny.

Keona Gardner  8:11  
Now that I think about it. Because she gave the story back to me. I had to rewrite some stuff. And then, I think it went through several rewrites. 

Maddie Jones  8:20  
That's okay.

Keona Gardner  8:21  
And, um, I was like, when Tara said that about my punctuation and the comma going inside the quotation marks, I was like, this is a sign from God. I should pursue journalism. Oh, boy, looking back on it now I was like, you know what Keona, maybe it was not a sign from God. So, I just took it and ran with it. I was like, Okay, this is what I have to learn. And, and nobody would think they gave us like some handouts. and things of that nature and also at that time, at East High School had just started a newspaper there. Um, it was not of the cal- It was not of the format of the Teen Appeal. But because I was good with, in my English class, the lady who knew at that time it was Mrs. Pete. Mrs. Pete. She asked me to be on the staff and then she made me editor which I probably shouldn't have been, but hey, oh, we'll work it out. Anyway, 

Maddie Jones  9:40  
Somebody had to do it. 

Keona Gardner  9:42  
So, we write stories into stuff at that time. So, I was on the staff of two papers. But I learned the most from the Teen Appeal, talking about how to organize your thoughts and I was used to the five paragraph, English style of writing, and they were teaching me, okay, here's APA style, and this is the style newspapers. This is how they word some phrase that they like to use. And I began to embrace that and more and more. And then I applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, received a scholarship and in the fall of 98, went there and graduated from Mizzou.

Maddie Jones  10:38  
That's awesome. So, when you're working at the paper, can you kind of walk me through what your typical week looked like whether that was, you know, gathering information for a story, whether it was editing, whether it was, you know, copying photos.

Keona Gardner  10:52  
it was gathering information for story, Tara would give us these point and shoot wind up cameras, disposable cameras, and we could take pictures of, of different events, fashion, talking to students about fashion, what they like to put on and things of that nature. So, during the week, I lived in North Memphis, the area by what was formerly it was the Klondike area, but it was near what was formerly what is formerly Northside High School. So, I would catch the city bus, two city buses to school and two city buses home. So normally, it would be I would try to get to the Teen Appeal probably maybe like maybe once or twice a month to turn in my to turn in my stories. And so, it will probably most likely be like on either Thursday or Friday toward the end of the week. I'm trying to try to remember I think it was a Thursday or Friday. And so yeah, normally throughout there I would interview students in during homeroom or lunch or after school. Or, or maybe they give me their phone number, and I called them to interview them. But most of the time, we always found time. I always found time, like either after school or during homeroom or lunch to do like a quick, you know, 10, 20 it's probably not even that long, probably like five- or 10-minute interview or something like that.

Maddie Jones  12:47  
That's awesome. Did you ever have any stories that were controversial? Or maybe just your most memorable story besides the Bell's palsy story?

Keona Gardner  13:05  
I think Yeah, I did one. I interviewed a classmate. I did one on teen pregnancy. 

Maddie Jones  13:12  
Oh, wow.

Keona Gardner  13:14  
Christina what was Christina's. Oh, goodness, I cannot remember Christina's last name. But Christina, she was she was an honor student just like me. We were in the same medical technology class at East High School. And we were both members were like participant of HOSA, something like that. And so, she was there in, you know, she was pregnant. Her stomach was, you know, showing and I just started talking to her, she was always kind and nice, but, and she just started talking to me about her, her life and what it's like being a teen mom and I interviewed her, and I interviewed her family. I interviewed her boyfriend who was not the father of her child, the father of the child I think was not involved. If I can remember correctly. And so, it was a great story about you know, the support and how she was, you know, still trying to determine to make it and things and I know she did get some scholarship offers and then there was another one I did on interracial dating. In the school, I think one of those I think Tara had to get clearance from the Memphis City Schools. I can't remember which one. I think it was the teen pregnancy one. But I wasn't sure. Can't be 100% certain. So long ago. Yeah, they let me write I did a book review too about a story. I can't remember what that book was about, though I remember doing a book review. 

Maddie Jones  15:08  
That's so funny.

Keona Gardner  15:09  
And it was it. What I liked about it was it introduced the whole Teen Appeal program introduced me to a career and a career opportunity that I was always interested in. But I didn't know how to go about, you know, getting a job as a newspaper reporter or journalist. My first, I guess, touch with journalism was in second grade back in 1987. My, they had a career day at Caldwell Elementary School, and Michael Donahue, who would cover the around town and featured what's happening for the Commercial Appeal came and talked to us. And I just remembered, oh, my goodness, he gets to stay up late. Because you know, at seven, my bedtime was like eight o'clock, or 7:30 or something like that. And he's talking about, he's staying up past midnight, and I just thought, oh, wow, I'm missing out. Oh, and so that thing, that was my first one. And I just remember Michael sounded like he had so much fun. And he had, you know, the big hair, which probably think he still does have a big curly hair. And I was like, wow, he looks like he's having so much fun. And we were asking him questions. And when I asked my question to him, I had guess I had my head down looking at the floor. And he was like, Okay, your first thing you got to remember when you ask people questions, you got to look at your paper, remember your question, and always look him in the eye. And I was like, and so even when I started my career in journalism, that was one of the things I would always do make sure I always look everyone in the eye. So, thanks Michael Donahue.

Maddie Jones  17:20  
You're taking that one with you forever.

Keona Gardner  17:23  
You know, some things like that does help because yeah, my mom was a CNA, my dad was not in the picture. And so, you it's good to have influences. 

Maddie Jones  17:37  
Yes, for sure.

Keona Gardner  17:37  
That are just not your family. Good to have a great family background, which I did. Raised in love and support and but my mom knew nothing about being a journalist. And so, it was good that I had all these different you know, from Michael to Tara to Dr. Grusin and everyone helping me out sowing in me and investing in me. You know, to start a career path that I knew nothing about.

Maddie Jones  18:07  
Yeah, that's great. So, walk me through, I guess. So post-Teen Appeal. Your career in journalism. Where did you start? Where are you now?

Keona Gardner  18:17  
Okay. Um, see, after I when I was in college, I was at Mizzou, Missouri school of journalism. I during the summer I got internships at the Commercial Appeal. Otis Sanford was a huge supporter of the Teen Appeal. Getting the students involved in internships and I worked in a neighbor's desk under Jerome Wright. Jerome was just an excellent editor for setting high expectations and expecting you to just knock it out of the park every time. After my I did an internship also through Coca Cola scholarship, and I interned at the Church Times in London, England for summer. Yes, that was fun.

Maddie Jones  19:14  
It sounds like it. 

Keona Gardner  19:16  
That was fun. Then I would say after I graduated high school after I graduated college, I got a job and the one then it was called The Press Journal in Vero Beach, Florida. Now it's owned by the net like most newspapers in the countries are and it's under the Treasure Coast Newspapers and from 2004 to 2020. Yes. What 16 years I worked there in various capacity that the city government reporter, as the school’s reporter, as a database reporter, public safety crime reporter. Yeah, did a little bit of whatever they asked me to do. And so, it was fun. My, what the first what two weeks there is when it got hit by Hurricane, Hurricane Frances. And then two weeks later, another hurricane came. Hurricane Jeanne.

Maddie Jones  20:24  
Oh my gosh.

Keona Gardner  20:26  
And here am I. First job, panicking, trying to keep it all together. But I was panicking because I still hadn't found a permanent place. I was renting a room out of a mobile home park. 

Maddie Jones  20:43  
Wow. Wow.

Keona Gardner  20:45  
While I looked for permanent residence. And I found it, you know, after the second hurricane, luckily, you know, we still had buildings standing.

Maddie Jones  20:56  
Yeah! Honestly.

Keona Gardner  20:59  
So, yeah. It was it was, oh, my goodness, yeah, covered fires and mayhem and government and roads. And so it was, it was a great experience, you know, and then I left there, you know, journalism is so many different things happening. And it was just time for me to go. And then now I am in Denver, Colorado, working as a web communication specialist for the Denver Regional Council of Government.

Maddie Jones  21:31  
Cool. So, what do you think the Teen Appeals impact was or has been on your journalism career now?

Keona Gardner  21:41  
I, it all started with the Teen Appeal, I would not have the career that I have now. I don't know what I'd be doing now. Because I, my family life, no one was people was there to support me. And there was an expectation of me going to college. I was in honors classes, and I scored very well on the ACT. And so, I was getting scholarship offers, but I didn't know what direction to take.

Maddie Jones  22:09  

Keona Gardner  22:11  
Getting that experience with the Teen Appeal taught me there, there is direction out there. There's this whole career, not only if you wanted to, to write what if you wanted to take pictures or be a graphic designer, or news producer, you want to go into magazine, book publishing, or even what I'm doing now, with web communications when I'm writing a lot of text to go on the web, putting it in a conversational tone, so that everyone can understand these very complex road projects. So having a foundation on how to write well opened many avenues and doors for whatever career you're looking at pursuing. And I would not have had that without the Teen Appeal. I just remembered when you said hanging out. Amy Edmondson when I went to prom, me and my best friend Regina went to prom, and Amy lived near where I live in North Memphis and Amy bought a corsage and pinned it on me and-

Maddie Jones  23:37  

Keona Gardner  23:37  
Gosh, I wish I still had my prom pictures. I don't know, it's been over 20 years you know, so I don't know where that picture is. But I do remember that Amy was a really good friend and a good person to bounce ideas off of.

Maddie Jones  23:54  
That's sweet. I love that. 

Keona Gardner  23:58  
The Teen Appeal was essential. For me having the life that I'm having now me being able to go to London and have fun, you know, for. I spent a summer in London as a 22-year-old. Me being able to take a drive from Memphis to Florida and then work in a newspaper industry for 16 years. I would not have done that without their guidance without you know, calling them even, you know now as an adult still getting different type of advice from Dr. Grusin. And Tara about okay, what's happening, whatever you think about this and even keeping in touch with some of the students. Marcus, Marcus Matthews. Dr. Marcus Latrell Matthews. Ah, it's great. Um, so as April I keep in touch with her. Seeing the work that Tony, Tyrone Tony Reed is doing in Jackson and watching Kenny and the the work that he do behind the scenes, and I should probably send Kenny a message but seeing him jump from newspaper photographer to communications director for the city of Jackson, kind of put the bug in my ear to start looking at opportunities. 

Maddie Jones  25:36  

Keona Gardner  25:36  
So, thanks Kenneth Cummings, Mr. Kenny!

Maddie Jones  25:40  
That's awesome. So, as you may know, the Teen Appeal is not around anymore. They essentially lost their funding and, you know, the whole process. So, what do you think students in the Memphis area are missing out on by not having the Teen Appeal, as you know, an outlet for journalism?

Keona Gardner  26:00  
They are missing out on having a publication that is strictly for their interests. Um, something that they can go to that has that says what teens in the Memphis community are thinking about not just regarding what people think are typical teenage stuff regarding prom and sports, but issues today that are affecting teenagers, when whenever you're talking about things like textbook selections and banned books, whenever you're talking about what classes to add to the curriculum, when you're talking about social issues, especially when you're looking at suspensions in schools and how that predominantly affects black and brown students. When you're talking about English as a Second Language classes, for students, for students who are enrolled in those and how those, and then test scores and what's happening with how teachers are, feel like they're trying to, to teach to the test, you look at school safety, you look at school shootings, teens are missing having a voice. That is what the Teen Appeal gave to students, this was your newspaper, you will tell us what's important, we will follow the issues that are important to you, and things that are impactful and things that impact you. That's what they're missing out on. The social part of it, too. Learning how to, if you're a participant in teen in the Teen Appeal, different avenues of journalism, and we need those voices in journalism, we need people who are coming from single parent homes, we need students who are who are black and Hispanic. Students who maybe they are they're teen parents themselves. We need an array of voices to be able to tell these different stories instead instead of having one point of view, where everyone who's in journalism, they're, they come from a two-parent home and everyone takes every summer takes a family vacation to to the Grand Canyon or, or something like that, you know? 

Maddie Jones  28:29  
Yeah, absolutely. 

Keona Gardner  28:31  
Having those different points of view. It is, it's a loss for journalism as a whole.

Maddie Jones  28:38  
Yeah, I completely agree. Do you think it's something you know that we could eventually resurrect? Or do you maybe align more with the thought that social media has become so convenient for so many people for news consumption? Do you think there's even still a place for the Teen Appeal in this city?

Keona Gardner  28:57  
I do think there's a place, but I don't think it will be in its former reincarnation, it wouldn't be as it was with a print product. Number one, we, you know, the former journalist, journalism has been slow to embrace new media. Any new Teen Appeal will have to be a digital-only publication or some type of app. It would have to embrace the video and the broadcast component of it because that is what we use our phones for. Now, we look at we stream so many videos, you know, so whether it's going to I don't see it going back as a monthly printed newspaper publication, but I can see it being as an online magazine or, or a news site that has video. I mean, it's essential. You have to have have a video component because people are not going to go to your, your site to just read text. It that's just not, that's just not happening anymore. So, what would happen is we're going to need some kind people who want to invest in teens, you're going to need someone who can relate to teenagers, who teenagers trust. Someone who has a love for young people who can talk to them on their level without being condescending or talking down to them. And someone who and someone who sees that the teenage years need some type of publication, these people need a voice. And you need some people with some money to willing to back that. And who is willing to give them creative independence, not telling them oh, you can't write this. Oh, you can't say this. No, you cannot have that. That was one of the things that made the Teen Appeal successful. I'm not, I can't remember any article that was denied publication. Maybe I don't have that knowledge. Maybe someone else does. But we were always encouraged to to find stories that the people at our age group wanted to read about and to pursue those.

Maddie Jones  31:34
That’s awesome. What do you think the Teen Appeal’s legacy is in Memphis now, and, you know, what part do you think you would play in that?

Keona Gardner  31:47
Hmm Teen Appeals legacy. Oh, gosh. Teen Appeal’s legacy. Teen Appeal legacy would have to be one of I would say it was one of they, it it's supported the youth community, the teens. It was a legacy of you don't have to come from money, you don't have to have a family who are your parents are college educated. You have to have hustle, grit, which Memphis is known for. Dedication. I do feel good because I was in the first staff, crop of people that they put this experiment on and I guess we did so well that they just kept it going. And yeah, I'm happy that I played a role to, that I that that I do did I did something that something to make other people decide hey this is a program want to invest and this is a program that is worthwhile, so I feel good knowing that. But the Teen Appeal’s legacy is is to me it's inspiring. To me, it's something to be built upon. People should look at it and say, “How can we take this further? Okay, we did it with print, what can we do now with the next type of media for for for teens and to give them that opportunity, give them that and to reinvest in young people?” Young people, even me and my age of you know early 40s I don't want to sit down and have people just sit and just talk to me. I want I want people to invest in me, take notice and interest, and say “You know what, you're worth something and this is what we're going to present.” And then let the teens take it and run with it. Give them that confidence. Give them that voice. That's another thing that the Teen Appeal gave gave me confidence. I can actually go and write a story that people want to read and look at. I can I can I can create change I don't have to be an old adult. You know when I started out in 17, and so I don't have to be an old adult. That's what I used to think to do things, you know. Teenagers do have power to create change and to make their community stronger and better.

Maddie Jones  34:53
I completely agree. Listen, that would be a great note to end this on if you don't have any more final thoughts.

Keona Gardner  35:01
Nope, I don't. That’s about it from me. I was trying to think of something else.

Maddie Jones  35:07
Well, this has been great. I mean. I think your story is a really important one and I'm really glad you're able to contribute to our our project that we're that we're putting together. Yeah, I mean, this has been awesome. I I'll be in touch with you after this, following this. I would also like to let you know we are compiling basically every single issue that we can find of the printed papers, and we've been scanning them on like a huge digital scanner for months now trying to, you know, put them in order and like find the missing issues for the months that we, you know, can't track down for some reason. But once all of those are uploaded, I would love to be able to share those with you and they’ll just be, you know, held online which will be great for. I mean, a lot of the people that we've talked to in this project are like “You know, I wish I could see some of the issues like I'd love to go back and read some of my first stories, you know, that I've ever written and, you know, see how far I've come.” Especially with the people who work in journalism, now. But I would love to be able to share that with you once that's done.

Keona Gardner  36:11
Yeah, definitely keep in touch and let me know, you know, when the final project is complete. I would love to view it. 

Maddie Jones  36:17
Oh absolutely. Yeah, we're currently in the process of we're putting together a website, you know, for more promotional activity. And yeah, we're gonna hopefully have it done, maybe in a month and a half? I graduate in May so that's really, that's as far as I'll be going with it but I do think it's something they will want to continue post- you know school getting out. But yeah. Again, thank you so much for your time. This is awesome. If you don't have any anything else, I can, I can let you go.

Keona Gardner  36:47
Nope. That's, that's all I can think of. That’s all I can think of but thank you so much for including me.

Maddie Jones  36:54
Of course.

Keona Gardner  36:55
I can’t wait to see the final project.

Maddie Jones  36:58
Yes! I'm, I'm excited. I'm glad you're a part of it. 

Keona Gardner  37:01
Have a good one.

Maddie Jones  37:02
Yeah, enjoy your weekend! Bye.

Keona Gardner  37:04


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