T.C.’s precocious storyteller

T.C.’s precocious storyteller
Bridgette Adu-Wadier conducts an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in November 2019. Courtesy photo.

By Will Schick | wschick@alextimes.com

Local journalist Bridgette Adu-Wadier makes covering the news look easy.

In three years, Adu-Wadier has managed to publish a range of hard-hitting stories on everything from race and equity to voter turnout and climate change. Her work has appeared in various local and national publications in print and broadcast form, and it has made her one of the most well-respected journalists in the city of Alexandria. And Adu-Wadier has yet to finish her senior year at T.C. Williams High School.

Adu-Wadier, who was named one of PBS News Hour’s 20 under 20 Up and Coming Storytellers in 2020 and awarded a prestigious QuestBridge scholarship to attend Northwestern University this coming fall, said that reporting has been anything but easy.

“I think I’ve felt intimidated every time I’ve been on an assignment,” Adu-Wadier said.

As a student, Adu-Wadier juggles school with her work as a freelance journalist and the challenges of cultivating relationships with tight-lipped public officials while trying to wrangle information from them.

“When it comes to city organizations and schools, it can be really, really, really tough [to get information],” Adu-Wadier said.

According to the budding reporter, producing the news has also been challenging for reasons other than the fact that she is a high school student who doesn’t own a car and takes public transportation to cover her stories.

“I feel intimidated a lot of times because it feels a lot of the time like … I’m the only one who looks like me, who’s in my position, doing this type of work. And it’s just been, at times … really frustrating,” she said.

Adu-Wadier, the first-generation child of immigrants from Ghana, works in a field that remains dominated by white men, even at the local high school level.

A photo of student journalist Bridgette Adu-Wadier
Bridgette Adu-Wadier poses with a mask and sweatshirt with the Northwestern University logo. Courtesy photo.

According to the Pew Re-search Center, newsrooms in 2020 remained less diverse than the overall U.S. work-force and continue to be places dominated by white men. Although nearly three quarters of the T.C. Williams High School student population is made up of students of color, Adu-Wadier is the only person of color on the staff of T.C. Williams’ school newspaper Theogeny, where she currently works as an editor.

When asked why she thought the industry and her student paper lacked diversity, Adu-Wadier said she believes it could be due to the way minority journalists take flak for covering issues that deal with race.

“The newspaper industry, in general, is very white and not very welcoming of minority journalists,” Adu-Wadier said. “And I often find that even the minority journalists that are there, they take a lot of heat for the stories that they cover, [especially if] they cover a civil rights story, or something related to racial issues.”

Adu-Wadier cited how PBS News Hour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor was belittled by President Donald Trump during press conferences. In the spring and summer of 2020, Trump repeatedly responded to questions from Alcindor by admonishing her to “be nice” and calling her questions “nasty,” “threatening” and “racist.”

Adu-Wadier has also met with such challenges first-hand. Her stories, which have appeared in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, The 74 and PBS NewsHour, often deal with the intersections of race and identity. Covering these subjects has, at times, riled some public officials. One school official, she said, had even once told her that her reporting was “adversarial.”

But the challenges of reporting have not stopped her from covering these issues.

Adu-Wadier has been a storyteller since childhood, when she would spin tales to her younger siblings, but it wasn’t until high school that she found her passion for journalism. Adu-Wadier said that she wanted to invest her time into her high school newspaper and local journalism because she felt they were underrated and underappreciated.

“I want to start conversations and say things that people may not be courageous enough to say, especially when it comes to young people and minority students,” Adu-Wadier said.

The first news story she published when she was a sophomore in 2018 examined the types of books students were assigned to read as part of their English curriculum. She said the motivation behind this story was sparked by her desire to know why they were reading material primarily written by white men.

A photo of Bridgette Adu-Wadier reading to her brother.
Adu-Wadier helps her younger brother Arthur, age 7, with his reading homework.

Mark Eaton, an English and journalism teacher at T.C. Williams High School, has known Adu-Wadier for four years and said he knew Adu-Wadier was an exceptional student early on.

“I think I recall that as a freshman, Bridgette was reading The Economist, which is not what you would expect a ninth grader to be reading,” Eaton said.

Eaton credited Adu-Wadier and her work ethic and talent more than any mentor for the young journalist’s success.

“Everybody recognizes that Bridgette is very talented and works very hard. But I don’t think there’s a single person out there that would begrudge her the recognition that she’s achieved,” Eaton said.

Encouraged by Eaton, Adu-Wadier ventured into the world of freelance journalism during her junior year in 2019, where she started to get paid for her writing.

“[Writing as a freelancer has] been daunting, but at the same time, it’s also been an empowering experience,” Adu-Wadier said.

Adu-Wadier has found some mentors in the local journalism community too, including Michael Pope, a reporter for Virginia Public Radio and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. Pope met Adu-Wadier in 2019 through his colleague, Dan Brendel, a former Alexandria Gazette Packet reporter who also participated in a local news panel show hosted at the high-school called “Behind the Headlines.”

After meeting Adu-Wadier and other T.C. students during the show, Brendel offered to help interested students learn to write and publish local news stories. Brendel said Adu-Wadier was the only student to take him up on his offer.

Adu-Wadier ended up contributing to a number of Brendel’s stories at the Gazette and continued contributing to the paper even after he left to write for the The Coast News in Oceanside, California.

Pope said he considers Adu-Wadier more like a professional colleague than a mentee. Pope explained that most of what he has done for Adu-Wadier is recommend sources to her from time to time.

“I started working with her in 2019, and I was immediately impressed by her. Usually, when you have an intern, or someone who’s sort of new to the industry, and you’re helping them out, they require a lot of hand holding,” but Adu-Wadier was different, Pope said.

“She kind of already knows what to do, which is amazing,” Pope said.

With Adu-Wadier departing for Northwestern University in the fall, Pope warned of impending gaps in local news coverage due to Adu-Wadier’s critical role in covering the Alexandria community, particularly local schools.

“She’s actually going to leave a journalism hole because she is such a prolific journalist,” Pope said. “Having someone who has been part of the ACPS system and who had the ability to know the key players and see how this stuff worked from the ground up as opposed to from the top down was … amazing.”

Adu-Wadier said that she doesn’t plan on leaving those kinds of stories behind. As she moves on with her career, she is most interested in writing stories about the experiences of low-income minority students trying to navigate the education system.

“I’m really excited to write those types of stories because they enlighten people about what people don’t really talk about in education, or just the experiences of students who feel they are being disregarded and not heard,” Adu-Wadier said.