An Oakland Journalist Bartending in Alameda Speaks up for the Oppressed
Cristi Hegranes wants the world to be a better place.
Many twentysomethings share her idealism, but few are as serious, direct and effective as Hegranes, president and founder of The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World, an Oakland-based nonprofit and journalism initiative dedicated to improving the plight of the oppressed in the Third World. Hegranes, 27, chooses not to pay herself from her $281,000 annual budget and works as a bartender in Alameda at the Fireside Lounge so that every penny donated to the institute can pay citizen journalists and support staff in the organization’s “global training sites” in Chiapas, Mexico, and Katmandu, Nepal. A third site, in Kigali, Rwanda, is scheduled to launch Oct. 1. And this summer Hegranes inaugrated the International Media Ethics Training Institute, a domestic training arm of the institute for schools, universities and newsrooms around the world.
When Hegranes talks, “amazing,” “great,” “phenomenal” and “incredible” pepper her speech, implying a certain naiveté. But when it comes to achieving her objectives, Hegranes shows maturity beyond her years, understanding the difficulties of nonprofit fundraising and operating a business in a foreign country.
“She has an old soul, and that was apparent from the very first time I met her, and she continues to tap into that wisdom,” says Kelly
McBride, a former institute board member and the ethics group leader at the prestigious St. Petersburg, Fla.–based Poynter Institute, praising Hegranes for an uncanny ability to keep moving ahead regardless of setbacks.
Hegranes started the institute in March 2006, leaving a job as a staff writer at the SF Weekly, having come there with a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, a master’s degree from New York University, a writing fellowship from Poynter and some experience as a stringer and foreign correspondent.
“That was the job I thought I always wanted,” Hegranes says, perched on a chair in her office under clocks set to time in Oakland, Chiapas, Katmandu, Kigali and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where she has a fall conference. “I had the cover every five weeks. Great pay, great benefits. It was a journalist’s dream—the kind of job they tell you doesn’t exist in journalism anymore.”
What prompted this plucky reporter, who speaks Spanish, French, Nepali and some Arabic, to leave her dream job? Put simply, the type of journalism she was asked to practice every day didn’t fit her definition.
A Santa Fe, New Mexico, native, Hegranes, who has a brother and is the daughter of a retired school teacher and a real estate appraiser, always strived to be a journalist.
“I never wanted to be anything else,” she says. She was the editor of her high school newspaper, and at the Loyolan, her college student newspaper, worked her way up from staff writer and assistant news editor to editor in chief. She was determined to shake things up.
Lane Bove, the Loyolan advisor, confirms as much, describing Hegranes as, “Fabulous! Very smart, very intuitive, and from my view, having worked with editors of our newspaper for over 20 years, she has been our best and most professional and … perhaps our most challenging, because she always tried to push the envelope.”
When asked what she recalls about Hegranes, Bove says, “I remember three things: One, her unyielding commitment to making the paper as good as it could be; two, her zeal to educate everyone on the First Amendment; three, owning her failures and her mistakes.”
It’s hard to believe this capable young woman—Women’s eNews named her one of the 21 Leaders of the 21st Century for 2008, the same year she also earned an Ida B. Wells prize for Bravery in Journalism—has any shortcomings. In her current role, she comes off as an eternal optimist: The institute’s second anniversary party may have been sparsely attended, with few door prizes, but Hegranes looks on the bright side, pleased with who showed and the donations collected.
Hegranes says the institute didn’t start out as a woman-centered initiative. Instead, she wanted it to be a “journalism trainer,” a concept that came to her after she
literally put a pen and notebook in the hands of a village matriarch outside Lumbini, the Buddha’s homeland, with positive results.
“I realized that no matter how long I spent in country, no matter how fluently
I spoke their language, there was a cultural, historical, social and political context that I would just never have. And I think that’s a problem that all foreign correspondents face. You will just never have that kind of contextual access to the story.”
Hegranes investigated how other media-training organizations operate and found most bring practicing journalists to the United States for skills training, “which is phenomenal and so valuable. But I kept feeling that I wanted to go deeper than that.” Further research convinced her to add a “community development angle.”
“I decided to teach people how to be journalists in their local communities and then publish their news in that local community and then also disseminate it internationally, which would sort of fulfill all my goals of training locals to be the ones telling the stories,” she says.
Once Hegranes, long interested in women’s rights, was convinced communities with educated women with skills training enjoy great success, she chose the women’s-issues-oriented central focus and six core coverage areas: HIV/AIDS, violence against women, poverty, reproductive rights, political oppression and community development.
Training sites employ a program director, an executive director and an assistant editor as well as volunteers who train five journalists at a time who undergo two intensive six-month training periods, learning the principles and practice of journalism. Their work appears on the institute’s
Website, www.piwdw.org, and is disseminated for pay, when available, to local and international media outlets, including radio stations, via the institute’s newswire service for reprint, publication and broadcast.
To become a reporter, applicants need basic literacy skills. They’re hired, Hegranes says, based on how they believe journalism and greater access to information can benefit their communities, and they report and write in their native languages.
Hegranes has been thrilled with the support she has received, but she works hard for it. Some days she’s on the phone from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., puts in a few hours at headquarters (which is also home) editing or networking and then pulls her bartending shift. She relies on volunteers and donors to help the institute make ends meet.
“When I found out what she really does, I was just so impressed,” says Jill Turman, a volunteer at headquarters. “She’s making a difference in the world, and, gosh, I can’t do what she does, but I can support her doing it. … My mission is to support her in giving these women a voice, and I think that it’s incredible what she’s doing.”
Patrick Brown, owner of the Fireside and Hegranes’ boss, says he was surprised to learn she ran an international nonprofit.
“She’s very modest and humble about it. I had to catch her talking about it,” he says.
Brown says after a Fireside staff meeting, “we Googled ourselves. Nothing came up for me. There were 18 pages on Google on Cristi, so we said, ‘All right, tells us more about what you do.’ ” (Brown says he’ll now ask customers, “Have you Googled her yet?”)
“Anytime she needs something, we all pitch in. She also always goes the extra mile to repay us,” Brown adds, also complimenting Hegranes on her bartending skills.
Hegranes has made valuable connections over the bar. She met Brett Allen, an Alameda lawyer, when she was tending bar at Ching Hua. The two struck up a friendship, and Allen became a board member. As the father of two girls, he’s particularly interested in women’s rights.
“It was fascinating to both me and my girls that a young woman had the vision, the intelligence, and the energy to run an international company, in places that were not even safe, advocating for women’s rights around the world,” he says.
When asked why he’s such a cheerleader, he says, “There’s a long list I suppose, but it’s her enthusiasm, her ethics and principles and what she’s trying to accomplish. She’s fascinating and intriguing, and you don’t meet a lot of twentysomethings that have that kind of drive [working] for the greater good.”
Clark Bell, the journalism program director at the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which presented the institute with a major challenge grant, shares Allen’s assessment.
“She’s engaging, she’s got a model and she knows how to carry it out. It’s very grassroots,” he says. “How can you argue against the goals of the program, which is a way to empower women in developing countries? It’s a public-service journalism-education program at the grassroots level in the Third World. Every chance I get, when appropriate, I try to spread the word about her to people in the journalism world.”
Hegranes appreciates the kudos, and truthfully, she wouldn’t mind turning
her attention to the institute full time—her ultimate goal is to divide the institute into a for-profit publishing company and a nonprofit journalism training initiative—if some million-dollar donation rolled in tomorrow. That’s why she forges ahead.
“I always had this dream of running my own newspaper in my own newspaper chain where we could really do things my own way,” she says. “My god, this is so much better than that.”
To learn more about The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World and the International Media Ethics Training Institute, visit www.piwdw.org and www.imeti.org.
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Lori Eanes