I’m Donna Ladd, a writer, journalist and editor from Philadelphia, Mississippi. I write about racism/whiteness, poverty, gender, violence and the criminal-justice system. I regularly contribute long-form features and essays to The Guardian, and I’m the editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press, which I co-founded in 2002 after returning to my home state after 18 years in exile. I also write occasional columns for NBC News Think.
I am currently a Logan non-fiction fellow with an upcoming writing residency at the Carey Institute in upstate New York in March and April 2018 to work on a book about race in Mississippi. This builds off my recent work for The Guardian on race, and particularly whiteness, in the American South.
Recently, I was a Quattrone Center investigative reporting fellow, focusing on systemic breakdowns and race/gender disparities in the U.S. criminal-justice system, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellow. I founded the Mississippi Youth Media Project, in which Jackson-area teenagers produce award-winning rigorous, solutions-focused journalism on problems in their communities.
Using two John Jay College of Criminal Justice fellowships and two Solutions Journalism Network grants, I and my team produced an award-winning archive of solutions-based reporting focusing on preventing crime and violence in Mississippi and beyond.
Violence Prevention and Policing
I work to uncover and write about the smartest policing and violence-prevention practices and reforms in a balanced, solutions-oriented fashion by telling rich and honest stories about the people on the front lines of crime and violence in communities of colors and in rural white areas, as well as the men and women who police them.
My current reporting focus is on policing strategies, expanded sentences under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and (mis)classifications of alleged gang members, as well as systemic breakdowns in the criminal-justice system that allow systemic racism and disparities to continue unabated. I’m also a believer in solutions journalism and spend time traveling in the U.S. to report on the pros, cons and realities of a variety of violence-intervention strategies. My specialty is combining rich, shoe-leather reporting and deep conversations with a wide variety of sources and evidence-based research.
I’ve also done deep research on the perhaps-unintended consequences of “Broken Windows,” quality-of-life policing, stop-question-and-frisk and other policing methods and decisions on communities of color. I explore the possible links between policing strategies and the deaths of unarmed people, especially in non-violent encounters. Through a John Jay College “Preventing Violence” fellowship, and a Solutions Journalism Network grant, I specifically examined police and community strategies for reducing violence among young people of color in New York City compared to other cities in the U.S.
One of my oldest beats was covering protests and police practices in America, including the police riots in Tompkins Square Park and the ensuing months of protests against kicking the homeless out of the park back in the late 1980s. For the Village Voice, I covered the anti-war Iraq protests in New York City, and the protests in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in West Palm Beach during the disputed 2000 presidential election. I wrote extensively about burgeoning neo-Nazi and white supremacy and cyberstalking on the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the Village Voice. I also research and write about scientific racism and those who push it.
Awards and Recognition
My work at the JFP, especially on civil rights-era murders and Mayor Frank Melton (our reporting sent him to both state and federal trial), has been featured in national media, including Glamour and Reason magazines, CNN, NPR, Canada’s CBC, CBS Radio, the BBC, al Jazeera, the Rachel Maddow Show, among other outlets. In addition, my investigation of the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore was successfully used in the conviction of former Klansman James Ford Seale. My work has been discussed in many books, most recently “Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders” by Renee Romano (Harvard University Press).
I’ve been fortunate to win many awards for columns, political columns, editorials, feature writing and investigative work. I’ve also shared in a number of public-service journalism awards with the talented members of my staff for our collective work in Mississippi on difficult topics including abortion, LGBT rights, the death penalty and race murders.
In addition to journalism awards, I was honored with a Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award in 2011, a Dress for Success Women of Strength Award in 2009 and the 2009 Angel Award from the Center for Violence Prevention for my work against domestic abuse. I’m the recipient of the 2006 Friendship Award, along with Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, from Jackson 2000, a racial-reconciliation organization. Southern Living Magazine named me an “Innovator Changing the South” in 2016.
Education and Fellowships
I’m the daughter of illiterate parents, but my mother pushed me to overcome our background, and I received my B.A. in political science from Mississippi State University in 1983, becoming one of the first people in my family to get a college degree. In 2001, from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I studied journalism with a social-justice focus, focusing on the effect of zero-tolerance discipline and policing against young people of color, over two years in a mid-career program. I explored the intersection between criminalization and social justice, especially affecting young people of color, at Columbia through studies in Teachers College, the Columbia Law School and the Institute for Research in African American Studies with the late Manning Marable (where I researched 1960s media narrative on race for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented”).
In 2001, I received a six-month Packard Future of Children fellowship to study the discriminatory application of school discipline on children of color and kids with disabilities, and the creation of a cradle-to-jail pipeline. During this fellowship I moved back to Mississippi, and the work has informed a great deal of the reporting I’ve done on issues affecting kids and teens, as well as criminal justice, in the Jackson Free Press and elsewhere.
In 2014, I was named a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Leadership Network fellow. I’m currently going through a three-year program of training, learning and studying the status of vulnerable children in Mississippi and America, intersecting with the organization’s race equity and wealth inequality focuses and its new emphasis on policing reform in America. My particular interest is how to rework the media narrative into one that provides more balanced, proactive, solutions-oriented journalism that helps solve the continuing problems associated with racism and wealth inequality in the United States.
I used that fellowship, and my expanded network of experts due to it, to help improve the media narrative and to build context around how young people (of color, especially) are presented and discussed in the media, especially in the criminal-justice arena, and how more solutions-oriented journalism can bring about positive, systemic change in American cities as well as in rural states like Mississippi.
Editing, Managing, Teaching, Living
I helped found the Jackson Free Press in 2002 in order to bring a progressive, diverse news source to my home state, and I serve as CEO and editor-in-chief of the paper, BOOM Jackson magazine and a daily news website.
I’m also a teacher and speaker, offering talks to journalism and writing students, from Columbia, Medill/Northwestern and Adelphi universities to nearly every college in Mississippi. (See Selected Clips and Links.)
I teach my Writing to Change Your World narrative non-fiction workshops and seminars in our offices in Jackson as well as to remote students via the Web.
I’m the former diversity chair of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and I’ve taught workshops on diversity, writing/reporting and opinion writing at Northwestern and Columbia universities and at conferences around the country.
While I’m spending a great deal of time in New York and other cities and states these days, I live in Jackson, Miss., with my partner in life, big ideas and business, Jackson Free Press Publisher and technology author Todd Stauffer, two ornery boy-cats—RIP King Eddie Ladd, 2002-2018—and the screen porch where I return to do most of my writing.