Lessons learned from Project 500 assignment

By Paolo Cisneros

Being assigned to write this series was a humbling and, in many ways, intimidating experience.

Forty years had passed since the implementation of Project 500, so my editors knew they wanted to run at least a couple of stories to commemorate the anniversary.

Initially, we had planned on writing them with the focus on the project and what it meant to campus at the time. But as I started the reporting process, it became clear that the story of Project 500 couldn’t be told without also telling the story of race on campus today and what the situation might look like in the years to come.

My work began about a month before the series actually ran on a dreary Saturday morning in the DI newsroom.

I spent the day digging through editions of The Daily Illini from 1968 hoping to learn as much about Project 500 as I could. As it turns out, a single day wasn’t enough. During the course of that weekend, I spent upward of 15 hours digging through hundreds of 40-year-old newspapers. By the time Monday rolled around, I was ecstatic to finally be able to take it easy and go to class.

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Once I had learned all I could from printed sources, I began contacting the people who were directly involved with the program that still live in the area.

One of my first interviews was with Clarence Shelley, the former director of Project 500. I spent an hour sitting in his office listening to him recount his role in the initiative and what he learned from it.

Shelley spoke slowly in a pensive and baritone voice. In speaking with him, I learned an incredible amount about the black community’s struggle for civil rights in a way that was, for me, very tangible and genuine. I left his office humbled.

When it came time to report the story of race on campus today and in the years to come, I had a bit more trouble. Racial tension at the University certainly exists, but it wasn’t easy getting people to talk about it.

Eventually, though, I was lucky enough to meet people who were willing to share their stories with me. In doing so, I got a private look at an aspect of campus life that many people never get the chance to see.

The challenge, however, was making my writing reflect what I had learned.

During the course of my time at The Daily Illini, I’ve had the opportunity to cover some pretty big stories. But this one was different.

For this series, there was no “news” so to speak. As the reporter, my job was to tell a story that few people knew about but one which continues to impact campus today.

The work was tiring, and I can honestly say that this series was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write.

When it finally ran, the reviews were mixed (which I had been expecting), but seeing it in print was easily one of the most satisfying moments of my journalism career.

This series was a complete team effort. Without the help of every one of my editors and my partner Melissa Silverberg, it would have fallen apart very early on.

My stories were far from perfect, but I’m happy to say I somehow managed to pull it off. During the history of this campus, there have been certain stories that managed to change it forever. Project 500 was one of those stories.

I can only hope that, in the end, I managed to do it justice.