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Belonging: A New Podcast for Teachers

September 27, 2022
Erica Young and Bill Healy
The new podcast "Belonging" is hosted by Erica Young (left) and produced by alumnus Bill Healy.

When Georgia middle school teacher Erica Young approached a white colleague about her use of the phrase “cotton picking”, the conversation promised to be tense.

The white teacher’s mother grew up picking cotton, and it was a phrase she heard routinely as a child. But even as a history teacher, “I never took the time to think about the roots of the saying,” she says on the first episode of “Belonging,” a new podcast produced by Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy alumnus Bill Healy (MSED08, MSJ10).

“A lot of people think they’re prepared for this huge job of teaching,” Young mused in the first episode of the podcast, “but the truth is we all bring our baggage with us. This podcast is for teachers like this, who think they’re doing OK.”

Hosted by Young and produced by Healy, an award-winning audio journalist, “Belonging” uses narrative storytelling to explore tough questions for teachers, such as:

  • What happens when students’ identities are not reflected in the curriculum?
  • How should Black Americans celebrate Independence Day and the meaning of freedom?
  • How should same-sex couples who work together in a school navigate their relationship?

The six episodes explore inclusivity through the eyes of a Black teacher, her family, and former colleagues. Throughout the show, Young advocates for her 12-year-old niece, who feels left out of the educational process at her predominantly white school.

young person wearing headphonesLike Healy’s previous podcast series, “Somebody”, which was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting, “Belonging” fosters important conversations around social justice issues and can be used a professional development tool.

“It’s meant to spur conversation and get people thinking about Erica’s vantage point,” Healy said. “That’s where its real value is. I hope teachers listen with their colleagues, and parents listen with their kids’ schools in mind.”

Healy worked for several years at Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, producing StoryCorps Chicago. He teaches documentary radio at Northwestern, and recently taught at a class on oral history and podcasting at the University of Chicago.

Before becoming a journalist, Healy taught fifth grade at Our Lady of the Gardens School in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. Later, he worked at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen before transitioning into journalism.

His 2020 podcast “Somebody” investigates the shooting and death of 22-year-old Courtney Copeland and explores the turbulent relationship between law enforcement and everyday Chicagoans. Healy helped create a free 10-lesson teaching guide for high school educators, who want to use the podcast in their English or civics classroom.

“Being a podcast producer is not dissimilar from teaching,” he said. “The job changes every day. With this podcast, it meant coaching Erica on how to be more of herself on microphone, and working with her to really listen during interviews and reflect back on what it all means.”

In the opening episode, Young confronts her white colleague who used the phrase “cotton-picking” in a moment of anger when disciplining Black students. As the series evolves, Young grows more confident. In another episode, she and her wife Daphne discuss their experience as LGBTQ+ teachers, and how they felt excluded as students.

"The podcast is about making sure everyone feels safe to learn at school,” Healy said. “Erica models that for listeners, having difficult conversations with her colleagues and reflecting on her journey.”

While a part of the MSEd program, Healy was a member of the Inner-City Teaching Corps, which placed teachers in under-resourced neighborhoods in Chicago. During the day, he’d teach fifth grade  on the Far South Side. At night, he’d drive to Evanston to take classes at the School of Education and Social Policy. For his master’s project, he explored using creative writing to teach history to fifth grade students.

“My experiences in the education school at Northwestern shaped how I see the world,” Healy said.

As a journalist, Healy has frequently found himself back in school settings. He produced a four-part documentary series for MTV, 16 & Recovering, which followed students struggling with drug addiction at an alternative high school in the suburbs of Boston. The series won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

Healy also created a podcasting club with students in Gary, Indiana. The students won The New York Times’ first-ever student podcast contest and were featured on NPR. In 2013, when Chicago permanently closed fifty public schools, Healy visited each one for a documentary project. The year previous, he photographed Harper High School for the radio program This American Life, which examined how Harper students and staff were impacted daily by gun violence.

“I hope my work can bring more awareness to the world,” Healy said. “And more compassion for the challenges we all face."

What Healy is currently reading:

  • "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen
  • "Last Call at the Hotel Imperial" by Northwestern history professor Deborah Cohen
  • "The Civically Engaged Classroom" by Mary Ehrenworth, Pablo Wolfe, and Marc Todd
What he's  listening to:
  • "Mother Country Radicals"
  • "Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders"
  • "Welcome to Provincetown"