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Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin on media, community engagement and how we account for power

Chelsea poses in Rackham wearing orange

Thursday, 02/09/2023

Emerging from a journalistic background, Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin is fascinated by the ways in which Black women, femmes and queer people engage with information and build community. 

Most recently, she was named a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she’s building upon her research and working as an assistant professor. Before joining UMSI, Peterson-Salahuddin was pursuing a media, technology and society PhD at Northwestern University. She obtained her PhD in 2022. 

Tell us about your research interests and career trajectory. 

It's been a bit of a windy road, I suppose. In undergrad I was a media studies and political science double major. And when I was coming out of school, I didn't 100% know what I wanted to do. So I applied to jobs that were generally in media and then also paralegal work because I was interested in legal studies.  

Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin
Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin

The first paying job offer I got was in New York as a part of a national news program which is a standard program that most networks have for people who are trying to enter into the media field. And I ended up being at the national desk page where we collect national news stories for all network news shows. After being a page, I got a job at the network’s morning show, where I bounced around a bit, and when I left I was the editorial associate producer. Our job was about finding stories, pitching stories, finding people and when breaking news happened, we would be the ones to send journalists to talk to people. 

I was doing this work and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t go to journalism school and I was learning how to be a journalist on the job. And I think I had a lot of questions about journalistic norms. Why do we do things a certain way? Why are some stories more newsworthy than others? And the answers were often ‘This is just how we do it. This is how we were trained in journalism school.’

I wanted to think about these questions more deeply, so I pursued a media, technology and society PhD at Northwestern University. I wanted to think about equity and what I landed on was thinking about the way Black women, femme people and queer folks are bringing in Black feminist theory into the production of information content through independent news sites and other channels. 

What does that practice look like and how is it different from traditional journalistic norms and reporting practices? These questions expanded into thinking about information seeking within racially marginalized communities. For example, how is information within these communities shared in social media spaces? And how do we create more equity in the information space? 

Additionally, another component of my research is thinking about the technological infrastructure of these spaces. How algorithmic biases come into play and how this shapes user experience on these platforms. 

You graduated with your PhD in 2022 from Northwestern University, and now you’re at the University of Michigan School of Information. Can you talk about how your work is connecting to Michigan, and more broadly, the current political and social movements in the U.S right now? What are you most looking forward to? 

Something I talk about a lot in my work is what I call Black feminist journalism. These newer models of journalism that Black people, femme people and queer people are creating are trying to get at the heart of questions such as how do we account for power? How do we create more equitable information models? Some of these models are hyper local, or they don’t follow traditional funding models for news organizations, but I think they’re important interventions. 

The next foray I’m moving into is looking into how Black women and queer folks are using community resources as well as technologies to find important information for their lives and what that means for their social participation and political participation. How does your experience of using technology or using community resources get you to a place where you can empower yourself? 

I’m hoping to do some community engaged work. There are a lot of really great organizations in the Detroit area that are trying to service informational needs for historically racially marginalized communities in different ways. 

How are people tapping into local resources, either in person or through online spaces? How does that differ from using larger corporate platforms like Google or Facebook? How are people accounting for this or not accounting for this? And what does this mean for the health of their information ecosystem? 

I have some smaller projects I’m working on but I think this is what I’ll be digging into over the next five years.

Do you have anyone in the educational field who inspired you to pursue this type of research? Or maybe a book or moment that influenced you? 

I don’t know if there’s a specific person, but I will say there are a ton of people whose work inspires me. I’m thinking of Black feminist theorists like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin and Catherine Knight Steele. 

I am constantly looking to their work for inspiration for the type of research and scholarship I want to produce. And I also think about the importance of what they’re saying and how they’re pushing the communication and information fields forward. 

Once you finish your fellowship at UMSI, you’ll be transitioning into a teaching role. Could you reflect on a favorite teaching moment and what you most enjoy about teaching? 

I think it’s always really great when your students are getting something out of your course. My favorite moment is a little stereotypical, but I did have a senior student last year email me and tell me my class was their favorite course in college and they’d found the content so interesting they wanted to continue exploring the content more deeply. They were thinking about going to graduate school and digging deeper. 

I think the material really resonated with them and sparked something. And that’s the goal, I think. You want your students to feel like they’re taking something from your class. You want them to feel engaged with the material. You can’t touch every student, but it’s fun to see a few of them come out with something that really transforms their lives. 

Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin
Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin

What do you see in your most successful students? 

I think I see students who are engaged. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect student, but you can tell they did the readings, are engaging with the material and are putting in effort to think through the content. 

Additionally, I love when students ask for help and ask questions. I’m the type of person who tries to make myself available to students as much as possible. I reach out to students. We’ll schedule a meeting, we’ll check in. 

You recently moved from Chicago to Ann Arbor for this position. How’s the transition going so far? 

So far it’s going well. Ann Arbor is definitely the smallest place I’ve lived in. I grew up in New York City and I also lived in Chicago. I’m used to the city pace, but I think Ann Arbor has a lot to offer. 

Lastly, what are people surprised to learn about you? 

Hmmm. There’s definitely things I did in my former lives that I don’t talk about as much. But I did really intensive dance from maybe age three to 23. I was on a competition dance team. I danced in college. And it was ballet, modern and jazz mainly. 

I’m still a huge fan of dance and professional dance performance. It’s still a passion of mine, but I don’t do it as much anymore. 

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Learn more about Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin by reading her faculty profile.