2020 Second Place Writing Winner

Hannah Denham

Second Place
Washington & Lee University
$7,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Profile | Spot Assignment

News Story from Interview

Judge Hidalgo defends right to protest, but fears resurgence in COVID-19 cases

As Houston faces widespread protest over the killing of George Floyd, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fears that the crowded demonstrations could spur an uptick in COVID-19 cases, she said in a Monday press conference.

“It’s real that black and brown people in this country need to know that they’re heard and they’re valued,” Hidalgo said. “We’re just teetering on the edge of an outbreak. I am nervous watching people come together.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster and activated the Texas National Guard on Sunday, May 31 after demonstrations sprung up across the state. At least 400 people were arrested in Houston between Friday and Sunday, but local officials said the protests have been largely peaceful.

Under Hidalgo’s leadership the county ushered in a landmark victory with a bail settlement in July 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported. Thanks to that settlement, Hidalgo said on Monday, protestors arrested over the last few days who are charged with low-level misdemeanors should be released within 48 hours and have their bail nullified if they can’t afford to pay.

George Floyd grew up in Houston. His nephew, Brandon Williams, worked with local rappers to organize a march to City Hall on Tuesday, joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, and nearly 60,000 others, the Chronicle reported.

“I respect [Hidalgo’s] decision to not be at the rally, but I know that her heart will be front and center,” Garcia said in a press gaggle on Tuesday before the march. “I am an old beat cop at the end of the day, so I tend to run toward things that most people run from.”

Turner echoed Hidalgo’s health concerns in a Monday press conference.

“As people return to work this week and participate in demonstrations in memory of George Floyd, it is more important than ever to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene,” he said. “We do not want a surge of COVID-19 in our community because we dropped our guard and failed to adhere to the health warnings.”

Before she was elected in November 2018, Hidalgo joined protests like the ones consuming cities across the U.S. today.

“I’ve done the ‘you lay on the ground and say you can’t breathe’ and I’ve done the sign holding and the marching,” Hidalgo said on Monday. “I ran because I felt like we needed change on the inside.”

During a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans and increases by 100 cases every day in Harris County, Hidalgo is encouraging her constituents to participate virtually when they can. Working on policy from the inside — and staying inside — is her best bet, she said.

“We have a deeply broken criminal justice system in the United States,” she said. “You can’t just fuel that fire. You have to figure out really why it’s not working.”

Zoom press conference with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday, June 1
Zoom press gaggle with Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia on Tuesday, June 2
Press release from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Press conference with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Reporting by the Houston Chronicle: “Here’s what you need to know about today’s George Floyd march in downtown Houston,” “Funeral information for George Floyd released,” “Harris County reaches landmark settlement over ‘unconstitutional’ bail system

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For Lina Hidalgo, first female Harris County judge, the work is never done
When Judge Lina Hidalgo faced her constituents at her first state of the county address last November, she knew some in the crowd wanted to see her fail.

A year had passed since she’d won an upset victory to become the first woman and Latina elected as county judge in historically red Harris County, Texas. She was just 27 during her candidacy, with no formal experience in politics or management. Her critics — state officials and constituents alike — said she misunderstood the role she campaigned for. “The face of government overreach.” “AOC of the South.” “Socialist.” “Lina loca.”

Her first year had been punctuated by crises that would have challenged a career public servant, let alone a newcomer: three chemical fires, two floods, 11,000 barrels of gasoline spilled in the Houston Ship Channel. But even long-time fans of her predecessor had praised her level-headedness and transparency.

So when she took the stage at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel, she felt that her work spoke for itself. The Colombian pop song “Soy Yo” bumped through the speakers before she paced TED Talk-style and outlined her $5 billion dollar budget to improve the lives of five million residents.

Y no te preocupes si no te aprueban / Cuando te critiquen, tú solo di…

These were more battles she was prepared to fight, that could boost the county’s most marginalized residents: Early childhood education. New polling sites. Public transportation.

She knew these problems couldn’t be solved in four years, and she was still learning the limits of her office. For most rookies, tackling such stubborn social ills wouldn’t be worth the risk — but Hidalgo didn’t run for office to spend her days worrying about reelection.

“People who try and threaten me, that I’ll lose power… They just have nothing on me because that’s not why I ran,” Hidalgo said in a Monday press conference. “I just want the legacy to be that we prioritized human life, and if the legacy is really short because I lost, that’s okay.”

Soy yo.

Before she landed in Harris County in 2005, Hidalgo and her family fled government corruption in Colombia to Peru and Mexico. She graduated from Seven Lakes High School and went on to study political science at Stanford University. Later, she’d advocate for press freedom in Thailand, volunteer as a Spanish interpreter at Houston’s public medical center and support immigration claims at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Hidalgo could’ve stayed the course and continued to make an impact behind-the-scenes. She could’ve avoided the criticism that comes with overseeing the third largest county in the United States.

But when presidential candidate Donald Trump kicked Univision reporter Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, something in her stirred. She was a graduate student at the time, enrolled in a dual Masters and J.D. program with Harvard and New York Universities. She called Ramos, asking what she could do.

After attending a Harvard Kennedy School panel of young elected officials, she figured it out.

But before Hidalgo ever entered what she calls “the inside” of politics, she served in Stanford student government, helping to shape a program that boosted students into public policy positions like the one she holds now.

Kelsei Wharton worked with Hidalgo as a Stanford student government leader. Even at 19, he said, she was prepared for every meeting. She was someone you could count on to show up — for just one person, or for 15,000 students.

“I am so not surprised that Lina’s making the impact that she is today,” said Wharton, who is now an Obama Foundation community associate.

When Michael Cruz lost his chief of staff to a study abroad program halfway through his term as student body president, he found Hidalgo. They met every single day for the rest of the term to find solutions for issues like sustainability, Title IX and resources for first-generation students.

Hidalgo aced difficult courses and worked diligently on her honors thesis on military intervention in protests in Beijing and Cairo during their time working together, even though student representatives could opt to lessen their course loads. She still found time to think of others, Cruz said, even those she served alongside.

Now a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, Cruz said he knew in 2012 that Hidalgo was a servant-leader. He donated to her campaign in 2018 because he wanted others to know it, too.

Hidalgo’s campaign attracted national attention: the cover of a January 2018 issue of Time Magazine, out-of-state donations from names like Reese Witherspoon, Isabel Allende and Jennifer Garner.

She unseated a three-term Republican incumbent who was the face of Hurricane Harvey recovery, Ed Emmett, by less than 2 percentage points. It was the first time Democrats held the majority on the Harris County Commissioners Court in nearly 30 years — the crest of a blue wave that shocked Texas tradition.

“There was this sort of Democratic backlash, and people voted straight-ticket,” said Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston who researches local public policy. “A lot of people were surprised to see the county judge change.”

But Hidalgo wants her legacy to be known for its transparency — an unpopular approach in Texas, where county governments don’t warrant much scrutiny, Craig said.

She pledged to refuse (lawful) political contributions from any individuals or companies with or seeking county contracts. Craig said it’s typical behavior for Houston area officials, so Hidalgo’s pledge to diverge from that was “a big deal.”

“That’s where some institutional change could be helpful,” he said. “But you can’t count on the state to bail you out. You have to tend your own garden.”

Hidalgo’s all about planting seeds and watching them grow.

Despite the pressure, she’s still running as Lina, whether it’s to the same Bomba Estéreo song during the Houston marathon, or to the heartbeat of her community when she seeks a second term in two years.

After that, she said, who knows.

Así soy yo.

Zoom press conference with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday, June 1
Interviews with Dr. Steven Craig, Michael Cruz, Kelsei Wharton
2019 State of the County Address
Campaign Finance Report, filed July 16, 2018
A Year Ago, They Marched. Now a Record Number of Women Are Running for Office
Ballotpedia: Lina Hidalgo
ABC 13 Houston video, “Democrat Lina Hidalgo defeats incumbent Ed Emmett for Harris County Judge”
Reporting by the Texas Tribune: “How Lina Hidalgo is navigating coronavirus and conservative backlash in Texas’ biggest county,” “Harris County’s first Latina county judge takes the helm”
Reporting by the Houston Chronicle: “Hidalgo lauds progress on flood control, criminal justice in State of the County”

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Spot Assignment

Local photographer snaps front porch portraits to raise funds for those without homes

LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA — Cliff sat in the rocking chair in his best khakis, home from work on his lunch break. His wife Amy perched in her jeans on the arm of the chair, her arms around her husband. Luke proudly wore his Sewanee hat, where he’d attend as a freshman in the fall, standing next to his parents. His sister, Ella wore plaid, standing one step down in front of them. And click: the Jarrett family on their porch, in front of their red front door with an Easter egg wreath.

Amy Jarrett said the last time her family sat for a professional portrait, her kids were two and four years old. But sixteen years later, when she saw a social media post advertising a local front porch portrait project to benefit the area’s biggest poverty relief organization, she realized it was time for another one.
Kevin Remington stood in the intersection of Jackson Avenue and White Street, wearing black from head-to-toe, per usual, with a messenger bag slung over his shoulder, Nikon in hand. Before the pandemic, he ran around Washington and Lee University’s campus every day of the week, snapping photographs of student life and events, or documented weddings and conferences. Now, he’s bringing a familiar service that’s turned somewhat foreign in the pandemic: portraits of families — with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The corner was as busy as a neighborhood can get in a rural town of 7,000, as drivers rubbernecked and walkers paused and watched from a distance as the Jarrett family posed on their porch for a portrait.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit during Remington’s busiest season as a photographer. Normally, during graduation season, he works 10 hour days, seven days a week. And summer is primetime for weddings, especially in scenic Rockbridge County among rolling mountains and Virginia vineyards. He usually photographs six to eight weddings per year, but all but two were postponed, he said.
At the beginning of March, Remington, 47, was on a staff sabbatical trip in western Nepal for a portrait project he had proposed to benefit the Oda Foundation, an organization that provides medical services and education in the rural Kalikot District. Paired with a translator from Kathmandu, he took portraits and interviewed residents, Humans of New York style, to later display on campus and sell as a fundraiser for the organization.

But one morning at 9 a.m., through the spotty internet, Remington got word that European borders were closing in response to the growing spread of the coronavirus. Three hours later, he said his goodbyes and made a several-mile trek to the closest road, took a 10-hour Jeep ride through the mountains, and flew for more than 20 hours to get back home to Lexington.

He spent 14 days in self-quarantine once we arrived, locked away from his wife and children in a single room.

“I’m not one who sits still very well, being locked in a room,” he said. “I would not be a good astronaut. That would not work for me.”
With nothing to do but wait, Remington browsed social media and came across an idea for his next project.Six photographers in Charlottesville were taking portraits of people on their front porches, calling it the “Front Steps Project,” inspired by another woman doing the same thing in Massachusetts.
“That’s something that could be fun to do, especially when my work is going to stop,” Remington thought to himself. He called Jen Handy, the executive director of Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA), to see if she wanted to partner for the project.
Handy said a lot of people wanted to help their neighbors during the economic fallout that came with the pandemic, but didn’t know what to do. RARA had to limit the number of volunteers on site to maintain social distancing and moved to a drive-in model for local residents to pick up food. So when Remington called her and pitched her the project, she said yes.
“When we are stuck at home or can’t, it’s really hard to sit when you want to help,” Handy said. “What Kevin was able to do and a lot of people were able to do is use that time to be creative. ‘What can I do to raise awareness? How can I use my own talents and skills to bring awareness to this?’ …I think that’s just as valuable as someone coming to shop and help in the food pantry as a volunteer.”
She asked Remington to earmark the donations for eviction prevention and rapid rehousing — the most expensive outreach that RARA does, the hardest to explain, and also the most important, Handy said.
This project offered a way for RARA to talk about rehousing needs in the Lexington and Rockbridge area community by photographing neighbors in their own homes.
It also addressed an urgent need, Handy said. The organization has received more calls for help with housing costs, as unemployment levels rise and working families lose hours to childcare. And as courts open back up, she’s expecting to see more evictions. Current shelters won’t accept new residents, Handy said, so RARA will use the donations to cover emergency motel vouchers and security deposits for a month’s rent.
“It’s hard to take a picture of not homeless, and we refuse to take a picture of a person,” Handy said. “That’s not our brand. We’ll take a picture of a kid with an apple, not a hungry kid.”
They decided participants could decide how much to donate, up to $200. Remington pledged to donate half of the proceeds to RARA. And with Handy’s go-ahead, Remington reached out to one family for his first portrait on April 1, walked over to their home, and posted one of the photos on a new Instagram page for the project to see what would happen.
It worked. Within a day, people sent portrait requests to his email. He took two or three portraits a day the first week, and was ready to keep the steam rolling — until a tree fell on his house and his family had to move out and find a temporary place to live.
“That kind of threw a wrench in my dedication to it at that point,” Remington said. “But it did still keep me busy.”
Jarrett said Remington still scheduled her family’s portrait in the midst of relocating.
“He obviously cares enough about this community that he came to us when his life was in disarray,” she said.
As the Instagram page (@lexporchpix) grew in popularity, graduating Washington and Lee seniors who were still in Lexington living in off-campus houses wanted in. Remington also lined up group portraits on the empty campus in honor of virtual graduation to benefit the project.
During the first three weeks, Remington said, he brought in $4,000 in donations, giving half to RARA. Handy said it’s hard to keep track of how much the organization has received in total. Some people have donated directly, some have left a note on their PayPal transfer indicating the project, and some gave money to Remington for him to pass along.
Remington said managing the project’s Instagram page taught him marketing skills he didn’t have before. And now that his family moved back into their home this week, he said he’ll continue taking portraits, as long as he gets requests.
Quarantining — no matter the size of the town — can get lonely. Remington said he’s appreciated the chance to reconnect with neighbors he’s gotten to know through living here for 18 years. Portrait sessions have lasted 30 minutes, when factoring in time for conversation, he said.
“The whole thing, in a challenging time, has been pretty fun,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed photography and it’s just kind of evolved into a profession. I’ve been very very lucky.”
Not even Remington, whose job it is to have his ears to the campus ground, knows what his job at Washington and Lee University will look like in the fall. It’s no secret that the university is planning for in-person classes with an adjusted academic calendar, despite a move in higher education to brace for extended virtual instruction, as long as the pandemic lasts.
Remington said he expects to document whatever happens — even if it’s empty classrooms, like the photos he took in April when students had resumed online classes from home.
“It will probably be a whole lot of documenting,” he said. “Maybe not such a strong focus on admissions, with people wearing masks and whatnot, but documenting for historic purposes.”
Jarrett said she’s grateful her family could be included in that documenting. She just put one of the portraits in a frame. When she posted the photographs on social media, the compliments poured in.
“It is not us. It’s Kevin. He does such an amazing job making us look good,” she said, recalling what she told others. “It’s all the porch and the lighting and Kevin.”
Interviews: Kevin Remington, Jen Handy, Amy Jarrett

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