Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 19, 2011

Talking with Henrietta

Award-winning journalist and Meadow Park resident Henrietta Burroughs says communication is the key to community

by Sue Dremann

Ask Henrietta Burroughs what makes a neighborhood cohesive and invariably she returns to one word: communication.

An award-winning journalist and resident of Palo Alto's Meadow Park neighborhood, she has garnered an Emmy in addition to several other awards, and in late July she won a national award for best informational talk show from the Alliance for Community Media for her cable program, "Talking with Henrietta."

The program is produced by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto, which operates local channels 26 through 30. Burroughs received the award for an episode about strengthening the bonds between fathers and children.

Burroughs' folksy-titled cable show belies the serious topics she has covered: police use of Tasers, financial literacy and payday lending, sexual assault, the foreclosure crisis, the dissolution of unions and how cities can build healthy economies for the future.

Burroughs has been involved in major movements in communications since the 1970s, beginning as one of the early minority reporters at a time when national television stations were looking to engage in minority-represented journalism. In 2003 she started East Palo Alto Center for Community Media, which spearheaded the creation of media outlets in the underserved East Palo Alto community. That led to the founding of East Palo Alto Today, the city's first continuously published newspaper in 20 years.

A resident of Meadow Park since 1977, she served on Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission in the mid-1990s.

Regarding East Palo Alto, Burroughs said she thought she would find a community that starkly contrasted with politically engaged Palo Alto. But she found people in East Palo Alto very much like her neighbors, she said.

"Palo Altans are very vocal and involved in their community. Somehow I didn't get that sense that that exists on that level in East Palo Alto. I was really surprised," she said.

Burroughs wanted to give East Palo Altans a way to have their issues and concerns represented in the media from within their own community. She wanted to portray community life — its issues, successes, innovations and cultures that make the city a vibrant place, she said.

"There is so much energy that the residents have in terms of improving their community — there are so many positive things going on. You would never get a feeling about that reading about it in the news.

"I wanted to do more than just cover the potholes and the fires — where you could do something that you could sink your teeth into," she said. In East Palo Alto, "I'm as close as I could possibly get to doing what I've wanted to do as a journalist."

Burroughs said she realized immediately that to be part of a community means having and sharing information.

"The importance of communication — you can't very well build a community, or at least the residents can't — without having adequate information, truthful information. How do you choose priorities? How do you make the right choices of those priorities, and how do you know whom to elect?" she said.

Burroughs grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a homemaker mother and a father who worked at the U.S. Government Printing Office. She attended D.C. public schools, "where we were taught to compete on anybody's standards," she said.

Her interest in journalism began with the high school newspaper and continued at Howard University, where she received an award for "best newcomer" for her work on the college paper, she said. She earned a master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a certificate in Broadcast Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Burroughs moved to New York City for a United Nations-related job and wrote for the New York Post in the 1970s. She later worked as a television news reporter and on several news shows, including the "Evening News" at WNBC TV and "The 51st State" at WNET TV. She hosted a weekly show, "Dateline New Jersey" and produced syndicated stories for Newsweek's Broadcasting Unit, she said.

As editorial director at KNTV in San Francisco, she won an Emmy more than a decade ago and a Golden Medallion for Distinguished Reporting from the California State Bar Association. She also received an honorable mention from the Alliance for Community Media for her show about the late East Palo Alto community activist David Lewis.

Her first foray into cable television began in 1996 while she was a Palo Alto Human Relations commissioner. She and then-Palo Alto Human Services Director David Martin broadcast "Peninsula Currents," which provided the public with information about organizations in the city, such as nonprofits. She began "Talking with Henrietta," in January 2002, she said.

But despite her dedication to journalism, she said some of the most important news can't be found in a newspaper or on television. Sometimes, the most important news is found on the street.

"I have a neighbor who recently died. I didn't know about it until three weeks later when I was talking to a neighbor on the street. We were talking about it, and we said we didn't know about it and we're right here," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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