Alexandria’s DeShuna Spencer wants you to binge on Black culture without the interference.
The founder and CEO of kweliTV has dedicated herself to celebrating and amplifying international Black stories and storytellers. After five years in business, she’s now got 40,000 registered users, with 48,000 watchers of her live channel.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Spencer said. “My goal is to make things better. I want to change the world. I know that I’m only one person, but I feel I at least can do my part with my platform.”
Spencer runs the steaming service from her basement in the city’s Parker Gray Historic District of Alexandria. The content (seen for $5.99 per month or $49.99 per year) includes award-winning independent films, documentaries, web series, animation and children’s shows like Look, Listen and Learn.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Spencer harbored dreams of becoming a journalist, and got a degree in communications and journalism from Jackson State University. She cut her teeth as an intern writing crime stories for the Oakland Tribune, but found the work unfulfilling.
“I didn’t want to know the coroner or the police chief,” Spencer told ALXnow. “I wanted to be in media in a way that celebrates authentic Black stories.”
“Kweli” means “truth” in Swahili.
The live channel launched in 2020, during a period of social, medical, emotional and political upheaval. Spencer said that people needed a positive outlet to act as a safe space, which is what she provides.
Spencer also founded emPower Magazine in 2008, and shut it down in 2017 — the same year she launched kweliTV.
ALXnow: From publishing Empower magazine to today, you’ve been doing this work for years. What was the spark that lit this flame for you?
Spencer: I started as a journalist, I was a writer first. After I graduated, I ended up moving to the (San Francisco) Bay area and getting an internship at the Oakland Tribune. That was the real spark, because I was always the first person to get in the office. I was still sort of thinking it was Central Time, so I was always really early. I lived with six other girls and three bedroom apartment in Alameda, California. I would literally be the first person in the newsroom at like 6:30 every morning just because I wanted to get out of the house. The only other person in the office would be the senior cop reporter, and since I was always there first, he would always give me really interesting stories.
After the internship was over they wanted to hire me full-time as a cops and courts reporter, but I hated those stories about people being hurt, about Black people getting shot. That was pretty much my job, where I would interview someone’s mother whose child was shot… I didn’t want to know the coroner or the police chief. I wanted to be in media in a way that celebrates authentic Black stories.
That’s when I started meeting with community organizers and people who were actually trying to make change. I ended up moving to Buffalo, New York, and I was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. It gave me a different perspective on the work I wanted to do, and I really wanted to focus on those people who were making an impact. I ended up moving to the DC area when I was 24 years old and I became the communications manager for a trade association. They had a monthly magazine that I was put in charge of. I was always a reporter, so I had to learn how to manage people, manage money and manage projects. It was an invaluable experience.
ALXnow: What’s the difference between your streaming service and others?
Spencer: At the root of it, it is really about dismantling what we see as this Black narrative in traditional media. That’s the mission of kweliTV. I truly believe that storytelling is, by changing, can change the world.
For us, number one is for people like me who celebrate ourselves, where we’re not seeing images of trauma and suffering. Number two, this is for people who don’t look like us to understand why culturally they may not necessarily see it in traditional media. Hopefully, we’re able to change perceptions on how we’re seeing ourselves and by people who are not part of our culture.
ALXnow: Is traditional media missing the beat?
Spencer: People have felt fatigued with the media, and I felt that having a streaming service and using documentaries and cultural films to tell stories had a much bigger impact than the news cycle. The path is extremely clear and I’ve always I’ve always focused on social impact content. That’s very important to me. But also, I know that people tend to digest content through watching versus through reading.
Documentaries are our number one genre on kweliTV. We’re not going to have a bunch of reality shows in order to build our audience. We’re going to stick to our guns and may not be for everyone. We know that we’re different. We’re mission-driven and we’re not going to be one of those other platforms, and we’re okay with that.
ALXnow: Are you hoping to produce your own content at some point?
Spencer: A lot of platforms jump out the gate trying to create their own content to compete with Netflix. That’s our goal. Our goal is slow and steady growth to eventually create original documentaries and documentary series. In the future, our goal is to definitely move beyond movies and shows and to also focus on health and wellness content. We really want it to be an experience for an entire family, where they can come for practical advice, or, for instance, if you had a bad day to do breathing exercises. I’m really excited about having conversations with Black wellness coaches and financial experts so we can really expand our platform in a way that can help our community, whether it’s financially, physically or mentally.
ALXnow: Everybody was stuck at home a couple of years because of the pandemic. Was that good for kweliTV?
Spencer: It was. That’s why we started the live channel in 2020. People were suffering financially, especially if they were frontline workers.
ALXnow: You’ve realized that giving away content is valuable part of your business model.
Spencer: Exactly. The live channel is ad-supported, totally free for anyone who wants to watch the channel. We saw it as a bit of a benefit especially during the height of the pandemic where everything seemed so uncertain. It’s been a rough couple of years. My goal is to make things better. I want to change the world. I know that I’m only one person, but I feel I at least can do my part with my platform.
ALXnow: What is your vision for kweliTV? Where do you want it to go at the end of the day?
Spencer: The overall goal is for kweliTV to be a global brand, that when people think about a mission-driven platform that they think of us. I would love to get into farming creatives who are underrepresented to be able to fund their projects. I hope that whatever is the technology of the day, we’re still in it and we’re still evolving to meet new combinations of where the world is.
According to a Facebook post from his brother Jay Hernly, Lee died on Tuesday, July 26.
“Family, church family, friends, colleagues and more, I am posting we lost a good man, former US Air Force Staff Seargant, my bother Lee Hernly on July 26,” wrote Jay wrote.
Jay said Lee was a military vet, serving for seven years and later working gas a Level 2 IT analyst for INALAB Consulting, Inc.
Lee was most widely known as a pioneer in online media in Alexandria, launching a Carlyle/Eisenhower East neighborhood blog in 2006. The blog eventually grew into the popular local blog Red Brick Town, which eventually became Port City Wire.
“When we launched 8 years ago at the old site, the Westin Alexandria hotel had yet to be built, the Carlyle Square Condominiums was in the process of being developed, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark campus was in the final stages of being built as was the Whole Foods Market in our Carlyle/Eisenhower East area,” Lee wrote in 2014. “The Hoffman Town Center plan had been released, and the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan was still being amended. Now, we have the National Science Foundation moving into the area in a few years and Carlyle South community coming online. Our Carlyle/Eisenhower East community in Alexandria, Virginia has come a long way baby!”
As part of Red Brick Town and Port City Wire, Lee expanded the blog into a full news site covering larger swaths of the city. Port City Wire covered everything from movie reviews to traffic closures and shootings, though publication stopped last October.
Photo via Lee Hernly/Facebook
The Alexandria School Board approved changes to their operating procedures on Thursday night (June 16), and updated rules on engagement with the media.
The operating procedures are a guide for Members’ behavior in office — and state that comments made to media by Board members will “likely be interpreted by the public as an official statement of the Board,” and that all statements (when Members are designated to speak on behalf of the board) must be sent to the Board Chair and Superintendent. The changes now state that School Board Members must now avoid directly communicating with ACPS staff “about Division business”, and clarified language to say that Board members will now receive all written responses to media made by the Alexandria City Public Schools communications team.
The Board unanimously approved School Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz’s clarified language on the document. Booz said that the change eliminates confusion — that Board Members do not need to provide their colleagues with any written responses to the media.
“My proposal will be to amend that just so it’s really clear what that whole purpose of that was to just essentially say that written responses from ACPs communications to the media on behalf of the school division will also be distributed to school board members and the superintendent,” Booz said.
On June 7, the School Board conducted a closed door retreat at ACPS Central Office to discuss their operating procedures. The meeting was supposed to be open to the public. ACPS communications has not responded to multiple requests for comment to clarify the operating procedures or explain why the doors were locked.
Per the operating procedures, any questions from media related to personnel, student matters, school programs and exceptional/emergency events should be fielded by Board Chair Meagan Alderton and the ACPS communications team. School Board members are discouraged from discussing division-wide topics, but retain the right to talk to the media as individuals.
The Board also voted 5-4 against a proposal by Member Abdel Elnoubi to table the changes to the operating procedures until this fall, which he said would give the public time to review them.
Elnoubi says that there hasn’t been public discussion on the Board’s operating procedures since the Board retreats are not recorded.
“This is the operating procedures that govern our board, how we’re going to work together, how we interact with the community, everything,” Elnoubi said. “I feel it just serves everyone better if we wait, if we postpone this item… giving the community an opportunity to comment, to react for the sake of transparency, just to make sure that everything is being discussed here in a meeting that’s recorded.”
Board Chair Meagan Alderton, Vice Chair Jacinta Greene and Board Members Willie Bailey, Tammy Ignacio and Christopher Harris voted against Elnoubi’s proposal, and he and Board Members Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson Baird and Booz voted for it.
Board Member Willie Bailey said that Board Members should have brought up their reservations during the retreats.
“I guess I’m a little mixed up or confused,” Bailey said. “I’m sure if there were some serious issues, we probably should have brought this forward during our last meeting, retreat, we had.”
At multiple Board retreats this year, outgoing Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. urged the newly elected Board to not engage with the media by reminding them of their own operating procedures. Hutchings announced his resignation on the last day of school, June 10, and did not attend the meeting. Hutchings is out of the office until June 21.
In March, Hutchings gave the Board a refresher on the operating procedures after Board Members Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson-Baird, Elnoubi, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Chris Harris edited his proposal for the School Law Enforcement Partnership Advisory Committee. Hutchings said that such “behind the scenes” operations raised transparency issues by violating the Virginia Freedom Of Information Act. In that meeting, he also advised that Board Members not talk to the media without going through ACPS communications staff first.
After the fatal stabbing of an Alexandria City High School student on May 24, Hutchings advised School Board members in an email to not talk with the media. Hutchings wrote:
You may receive media inquiries regarding recent events. Please do not speak about the incident. I’ve spoken with our communications team to please refrain from using the term ‘no comment’.
However, please say ‘I will refer this media inquiry to our communications team’ then forward to Julia (Burgos with ACPS communications) and Kathy (Mimberg of ACPS communications). Thanks a million!
Sent from Dr. Hutchings’ iPhone
Alderton does not engage in social media, and her public comments are usually limited to official Board meetings and pre-screened monthly editorials to local newspapers. She recently spoke to The Washington Post and WJLA following Hutchings’ resignation announcement, but when pressed for comment by Fox 5 DC for a story about parents upset over a lack of communication regarding the student’s death, she provided no comment.
Most School Board Members haven’t made a single statement to the press since being sworn into office in January. The only exceptions are Elnoubi, Booz and Rief, who have spoken numerous times on the record with ALXnow.
Beyer Offers Condolences to Family of Fallen Capitol Officer — “Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick gave his life in the line of duty to keep us safe. I mourn his loss, and I send my deepest condolences to his family.” [Twitter]
Governor Making State of Commonwealth Speech Tonight — “Tune in tomorrow at 7:00 PM for my 2021 State of the Commonwealth address.” [Twitter]
Alexandria Sheriff’s Department Mourns Fairfax County Sheriff’s Deputy to COVID-19 — “Our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Frederick “Butch” Cameron and to our brothers and sisters at the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office. We are so very sorry.” [Twitter]
Local Businesses Urged to Register with Health Department for Vaccine Schedule — “Have questions about vaccine distribution? #AlexandriaVA businesses that employ essential personnel are encouraged to register with the Alexandria Health Department so they can be alerted when the vaccine is available for their workers.” [Twitter]
Palestinian Roasted Chicken Restaurant Coming to Alexandria — “The rotisserie-style halal chicken with skin that snaps is brined for 24 hours, then coated with allspice, sumac, cumin, fenugreek, and cardamom before going into a specialty oven imported from Lebanon. Shababi is a takeout-only “ghost restaurant” operating out of Roro’s Modern Lebanese restaurant in Alexandria.” [Washington City Paper]
Alexandria Times Celebrates One Year of Podcasting — “In 2020, the Alexandria Times launched its first podcast, Speak Easy, and over the last year reporter-turned-managing-editor Cody Mello-Klein has spoken with the people who make Alexandria tick.” [Alex Times]
Today’s Weather — “Sunny skies (during the day). High near 50F. Winds SW at 5 to 10 mph… A few clouds overnight. Low 29F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]
New Job: High Volume Servers — “We are BLESSED to Be BUSY! We are searching for Experienced Servers to join our Team at Vola’s Dockside in OLD TOWN! [Indeed]
The Connection Newspapers, like many local news organizations across the country, has been hit with a drop-off in advertising during the pandemic. Now, with the network of local papers on its last legs, the Alexandria Gazette Packet has gotten a groundswell of support from the community it’s covered for around 200 years.
The GoFundMe fundraiser aimed at helping to save the paper has earned $10,982 of its $50,000 goal since it launched on Christmas Eve.
The fundraiser has received support from 174 donors, from an anonymous $500 donation to donations as small as $5.
The Alexandria Gazette Packet, which has a lineage dating back to the Virginia Journal’s founding in 1784, is part of the Connection Newspapers network covering Northern Virginia and part of Maryland. The paper has covered everything from breaking news to local community profiles and has several featured editions throughout the year on things like local pets or a newcomer’s guide to the city.
The pandemic forced Anthony Istrico to think fast. Almost at the onset of the virus, his media production company, Istrico Productions, lost more than $200,000 in work, and Istrico had to act quickly or the business he’d grown from the ground up would be in serious trouble.
“We had almost $200,000 in signed contracts back out,” Istrico told ALXnow. “It was a significant drop in our income for the first two quarters.”
Istrico got on his phone and started calling clients about what help they needed to survive, and he ended up using more data and minutes allotted by T-Mobile in its unlimited plan.
“T-Mobile actually sent me a note saying that I went over the limit, so that gave me hope that I was at least hitting the phones enough for someone to notice, even if it was my cell phone carrier,” he said.
Istrico Productions has been based in Alexandria for the last 10 years and in Del Ray for the last six. The company prides itself on creating visual experiences for clients, but with large, convention-style events not happening it meant a change of direction for his company. Now, Istrico and his staff of eight full and part-time employees and freelancers are making concise video packages to cater to those audiences.
“Our clients are finding that this is reaching more audiences,” Istrico said. “Concise packages — unlike a traditional all-day conference where you wouldn’t mind sitting in a chair for eight hours sitting over session after session, we’re making episodic packages that are 20 to 30 minutes apiece that can be rolled out over time.”
Istrico Productions, which won numerous awards for its 2017 PBS documentary The 2 Sides Project, is also making arrangements for socially distant clients for events like wine tastings with the McLean Community Center. Customers pick up the wine and pairings and then get home and log into a Zoom chat to learn about their drinks.
Istrico has lived in Del Ray the last six years with his wife, Heather Garlich, and their dog, Lionel. He characterizes himself as a hugger, and the pandemic has meant new perspectives for him living in Alexandria.
“I just had a Zoom meeting with a client this morning, and it dawned on me how intimate, yet distant communication is now,” he said. “You are welcomed into someone’s home, but you also have no personal connection. So, we want to improve that with compelling narrative stories. We’re still here for whatever you need, and this too shall pass. We will come out of this, but we will be a different animal with the same spirit and DNA.”
Alexandria Named Second Friendliest City in the U.S. — “Alexandria is ranked just behind Savannah, Georgia, and ranks above Boulder, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Asheville, North Carolina.” [Alexandria Living]
Safeway Hiring Assistant Store Director — “Key responsibilities include, but are not limited to: * Overall management responsibility for operation of retail grocery store, including store performance, control of cash, budget, inventory/security, customer services, and management of staff.” [Indeed]
Over $1 Million in SBA Loans Not Repaid Since 1987 — “@SBAgov has issued more than $1 million in low-interest disaster loans in #AlexandriaVA since 1987, and most of those loans were never paid back in full according to documents received through a #FOIA request.” [Twitter]
Scholarship Fund of Alexandria Puts Out Call For Donations — “YOU can support our Emergency COVID-19 Appeal for Funding for Scholarships for the Class of 2020.” [Facebook]
Alexandria Democrats Conduct First Monthly Online Update — Alexandria Democratic Committee Chair Clarence Tong and Mayor Justin Wilson talked about the upcoming presidential election and what it means for Alexandria. [Facebook]
Zebra Newspaper Goes Online For April, May, Possibly June — “There is no print issue this month. Because many of our distribution locations are closed and likely to be closed for several months, and I don’t want to put residents or my staff at risk to deliver to thousands of individual homes as we normally do, I have made the difficult decision to suspend publication of the The Zebra‘s print edition for the months of April and May, and possibly June.” [Zebra]
VIP Alexandria Magazine Launches GoFundMe to Pay Photographers — “Events were cancelled. Many of our advertisers were forced to temporarily close their doors and our distribution locations are no longer accessible. All of this, combined, has put our Independent Contractors – a team of talented photographers and writers – in a very difficult position.” [GoFundMe]
April 9 Last Day For Community Engagement on Oakville Triangle — “Stonebridge and Inova Health Systems will host a series of online community engagement opportunities regarding the proposed Oakville Triangle redevelopment, which will include recorded visual presentations to accompany materials posted on the project webpage.” [City of Alexandria]
Some of Alexandria’s print news outlets are getting the word out in new and creative ways.
The Port City is home to a number of outlets that have been tied down to the printed word for years. But since the beginning of the year two of them, the Alexandria Times and The Zebra Press, have expanded coverage by launching new online features.
The Zebra, a 10-year-old outlet that puts out an 80-page-plus “good news” paper every month, has made an even bigger push online. The Zebra recently announced that former Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg will host a show on its new Z-TV channel on YouTube. The show, “Conversations With Allison,” will premiere with Silberberg’s interview with Alexandria Living Legend Lillian Stanton Patterson.
Zebra brought on Allison Priebe of Queen Bee Designs (825 S. Washington Street) as its creative director last November. Priebe hosts Z-TV’s “Buzzworthy” segment, which premiered on Youtube on Feb. 1 with the coverage of an Alexandria Chamber of Commerce event.
Zebra is also in production for its new video podcast, The Proxomity Effect, hosted by Paul Friedman and recorded at Raw Coffee Audio in Del Ray. And the paper announced last week that it would expand its coverage area to the “Alexandria section of Fairfax County,” including “Belle View, Fort Hunt, Mount Vernon/Lee, and all points in between.”
Last month, the Times — a weekly newspaper that started in 2005 — launched its first “Speak Easy” podcast. The monthly show is hosted by Times reporter Cody Mello-Klein, who will be joined by editor Missy Schrott in talking about local issues and interviewing interesting Alexandrians.
“This is our first foray into podcasting, at least for the Times,” Mello-Klein said in an introductory episode.
Schrott added, “You’re going to have to bear with us as we kind of get into this new platform of media, but we’re excited to share this with you and kind of explore the news on a new level.”
Mello-Klein conducted a 25 minute interview with Del Ray resident Pat Miller, a longtime Alexandria philanthropist, for the first episode.
Image (top) via Z-TV/YouTube