Writing her own story
Aspiring journalist Gabriella Hall wins scholarship, addresses race and injustice in her writing
Gabriella Hall didn’t consider her race a “big deal” growing up.
But she still felt “different” from her peers.
She said she was the only black person in some of her prestigious International Baccalaureate program classes at City Honors High School.
She didn’t understand why, but moments like these inspired her to explore racial injustice.
This year, Hall, a freshman communication major, won the Carl R. Allen Memorial Scholarship for her independent research on black farmer land loss. Hall also examines the Massachusetts Avenue Project through UB Food Lab and researches how racism has influenced food distribution in Buffalo. Through the lab, she co-authored a chapter in a book on Buffalo’s Black Food Movement.
Hall, who just turned 19, says the scholarship infused her with confidence to pursue journalism and helped her feel more included in the black community.
Finding and accepting her identity has been part of her journey. Hall said being biracial caused her to feel like she looked different from other kids. She said she was never able to fully identify as black or white, and people often thought she was Hispanic.
“That’s something I’ve been making peace with for a really long time of feeling more connected to my community and [receiving the scholarship] was just a moment of like, ‘I am, I am,’” Hall said. “It was just a moment of clarity. The world sees me this way, I see myself this way, we’re finally in unison.”
It was clear to Rod Watson, president of the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists and a columnist and urban affairs editor at the Buffalo News, and the five-member scholarship committee that Hall was a “clear standout.”
“Gabriella’s research work really stood out, both in terms of its quality and what it says about her commitment to [use] journalism to spotlight issues of particular concern to under-covered communities,” Watson said.
When she decided to pursue journalism, Hall says she made a “beautiful marriage” between writing and her passion for racial justice.
When Hall started interning for the UB Food Lab, Samina Raja, a professor of urban and regional planning who leads the lab, told Hall about black farmer land loss –– the injustices black people faced in losing farmland they earned through reparations. Hall needed to know more, and decided to research this history.
Hall intended to write a series of blog posts, but her work soon became a 14-page research paper she spent a year producing.
“I found so many stories within stories, I found so much history, I found so much passion in the history that I was finding,” Hall said. “It got too long and I was like, ‘It’s clear, this is not going to be a blog post, I don’t feel comfortable with it being a blog post.’”
In October 2018, UB Food Lab was commissioned to write a book in honor of food systems planner Jerry Kaufman. When a researcher was looking for someone to co-author a chapter, Raja suggested Hall.
“I was like, ‘I should immediately accept the opportunity because I want to be a writer,’” Hall said. “I mean, that’s life-changing at 18 years old.”
Hall, in the chapter, wrote about Adam’s Food Market, the convenience store her grandmother owned on Buffalo’s East Side in the ‘60s. Her grandmother’s store was among the few places people on the East Side could safely get food.
“It was actually like a safe haven, there was no violence, nothing,” Hall said. “There were other convenience stores down the street, where they were constantly being robbed, people were being murdered, [but] nothing ever happened to her store because people felt so comfortable.”
Last summer, Raja made Hall the lead researcher on the Massachusetts Avenue Project, a non-profit organization and urban farm located on Buffalo’s West Side. Hall and her team’s job is to document “how well [MAP] serves youth and residents through its services.”
Although this was a proud moment for her, Hall couldn’t understand why she, an 18-year-old undergraduate, was chosen as the lead over graduate students.
“I was completely shocked,” Hall said. “I didn’t feel qualified in any way.”
Yet, Raja felt differently. She saw Hall as a “good writer” and “thinker” and knew Hall was the perfect fit for the role.
“I always sensed that [Hall] has more potential than she gives herself credit for,” Raja said. “So one way to test that out, or to let people feel that, was to actually put them in those roles and that’s why I picked [her].”
But Hall couldn’t help being self-conscious, as this wasn’t the first time she has struggled to recognize her capabilities.
After high school, Hall was accepted to Boston University. For Hall, college was always the “end goal.” Her parents didn’t go to college and she wanted to make them proud.
She also wanted to show off her success to everyone who said she was only accepted because she’s black.
“There were a couple people who didn’t get into the school and somehow [found] a way to make sense of what happened: why they didn’t get in, but I got in,” Hall said. “Someone literally came up to me and told me that it was affirmative action.”
But Hall couldn’t attend because she could not afford BU’s $54,720 tuition, so she instead took a gap year for 2017-18. She felt like she had missed her dream. She thought BU was her only chance at a career in journalism, as it has one of the top journalism schools in the U.S.
The gap year paid off as she used it to come to UB and work for the lab.
Now, Hall has a new ticket: self-confidence.
Because of Raja, Hall honed her research interests and gained self-confidence by leading her team.
“[Raja] has entrusted so much respect, ability and so much faith in me that now I just feel full of it,” Hall said.
Awarding Hall with the scholarship was “gratifying” for Watson, not only because of Hall’s quality work, “but because of her humility.”
“She kept saying how honored she felt to be selected,” Watson said. “That attitude is an indication that she will continue to work hard, not take anything for granted and be the type of journalist we can all be proud of.”
After being so self-critical, Hall is proud of her accomplishments, especially her scholarship.
“I’ve looked at myself as a research assistant [and] I felt like a journalist last year, but I never really called myself one,” Hall said. “To win a scholarship that basically says, ‘You are a journalist,’ was humbling and affirming, in a weird way. That’s like, ‘Wow, I guess this is the role I’m starting to settle in.’”
Hall is setting the bar high for herself. She hopes to intern at NBC, continue doing research and to either have her own column or work for “a diligent, well-rounded news source.”
“I just want to keep writing pieces, particularly [covering] women of color, people of color and I’m not afraid of saying that’s my focus,” Hall said. “I know people are like, ‘I don’t know if you should say that’s your focus,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, someone, somewhere is going to have to write about these things, because they’re important,’ and I would like to be one of those people.”
Alexandra Moyen is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AlexandraMoyen.
CORRECTIONS: Hall said initially she didn't consider her race a big deal, not race in general. She said she was the only black person in some of her IB classes. The food market is named "Adam's Food Market" and not "Uncle Adam's."