For Daniel Heimpel, the direction for his career came from a most unusual place: coaching lacrosse to inner-city high school students.
With a master’s degree in journalism from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, he started freelancing, trying to figure out where — and how — he wanted to make his mark. This was 2007 when the internet was taking over and journalists were having a hard time finding jobs.
“The field was really grappling with what the web was doing to revenues of the historic pillars of for-profit journalism,” Heimpel said. “And so, it was a very bleak and dire time. I think, in my mind, whether or not I really knew it at that time, I realized that I was going to have to forge my own path. I think USC Annenberg was helpful in crystallizing that thought.”
Talking about the foster care system
As part of a journalism assignment in graduate school, Heimpel wrote a story about a lacrosse team at Manual Arts, a school not far from USC. This led to the basis of his thesis and also inspired him to start coaching the students.
“One day, one of the students [named Chris],” Heimpel said, “was having a tough time and started to get angry, blustery. I asked him: ‘What do your parents say when you act like that?’ He told me that he didn’t have any parents, that he lived in a group home.
“I went to his group home and met six boys and I was just thinking: ‘How are these guys going to make it? They’re just in this house in South Los Angeles without any moms.’ And I saw in Chris a kid who could do great things.”
Heimpel continued to mentor Chris while also looking for places to talk about what was happening in the foster care system.
He kept “jumping on publications” with pitches about child welfare. That led to a meeting of journalists organized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Washington, D.C. His goal was to get the reporters to talk about a recently passed law at the time that would extend foster care privileges to the age of 21.
The experience started to lay the foundation for a career in the coverage of social issues.
In 2012, Heimpel moved to the Bay Area, where he grew up, and created a journalism course for social change at the University of California, Berkeley. He later took that course to the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice and to USC, where he taught at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The class is now available online through Berkeley’s Edx learning platform.
In the class, Heimpel emphasizes to his students that they should “give equal attention to some endemic problem as to its potential solution.” He calls it “solution-based journalism.”
“That’s not to say that one has to come up with the solution or write policy,” he said. “It’s more about here is a problem, what are we, as a nation, going to do to help solve it.”
And in 2012, Heimpel also founded Fostering Media Connections, which became a catalyst for bringing together leaders around the issues of foster care. Now they also train student journalists, policymakers and social workers to use journalism to drive social change. The following year, he launched The Chronicle of Social Change, an online news outlet focusing on issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and families.
“You need to understand the totality of what’s going on,” Heimpel said. “For me, that means showing the journalism world that you can tell great stories about kids and families in crisis without focusing on the most salacious details.
Our belief, my belief, is that there is really a central theme to social justice in this country.
“Our belief, my belief, is that there is really a central theme to social justice in this country,” he explained. “If we can make that clear and tell that broader story, that’s how we can make change happen.”
Heroic social workers
Heimpel has received several prestigious awards for his work, including the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Welfare by the California Social Welfare Archives at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
“Social workers are not really seen for who they are, which I think are really heroic individuals in many cases,” Heimpel said. “They are often paid poorly, work long hours, go through mountains of secondary trauma, just to try to help.
“But many of them are the ones who give us the stories — they’re the ones who see it on the ground and come up with solutions that we cover. So, as an honoree, this is a pretty good group of people to be associated with.”