NY Amsterdam News science reporter Helina Selemon (John Smock photo)

Ethiopian coffee ceremonies aren’t about the coffee for Helina Selemon. She’s roasted and hosted since age 12 to keep in touch with her family’s heritage and enjoy the company of others.

“I’ve always known coffee as a social thing,” said Selemon. “It doesn’t just serve a function. [So I’m a] fan of that. It’s one of the few Ethiopian things I can do.”

But she’s going to need all the caffeine as the new science reporter for Amsterdam News’ Blacklight Investigative unit. Not only is Selemon bringing her long history of reporting on health and New York City, she also boasts experience lecturing at CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and leading audience development for the Health & Science desk at the Associated Press. Oh, and don’t forget her aforementioned coffee ceremony skills. 

Her journalism journey starts in Columbus, Ohio, as one of four children of former refugees who she calls “pillars of their people and community.” Selemon’s parents weren’t reporters, but her father’s job as a bilingual case worker meant informing the public on matters ranging from employment to what an emergency exit sign was. They would take her to community gatherings, where she was encouraged to greet everyone in the room. Looking back, Selemon says her parents were inadvertently training her to become a journalist. She was formally introduced to the profession in the 10th grade. Selemon needed to pick an honors English class, and everyone said journalism was the easier class. 

Back then, Selemon didn’t know her predilection for a lighter course load was planting the seeds for a lifelong career. She was set on studying medicine after witnessing the lack of medical care Ethiopians received when she visited her parents’ home country in 2001, so she majored in microbiology at Ohio State University. She was on track and well on her way in the medical field.

“Until I wasn’t,” said Selemon. “I wasn’t sure this was the path for me and I worked in a lab for a few years. And I realized I like to talk about science more with my colleagues and with people more than I like to do it. I like making it make sense to people. 

“That was the moment I realized, I have to do something different. I have to do something with this. That started a cascade towards finding a way to get to journalism school and doing this work.”

Not only did she get into a graduate journalism program, she now teaches there. For the past five years, Selemon helped develop up-and-coming reporters’ investigative skills through her two courses offered at CUNY Newmark. 

Plenty of work awaits her as a science reporter at the Amsterdam News during an age of pandemics and climate change and how such issues disproportionately affect Black and brown New Yorkers. She’s the first full-time reporter to join the burgeoning Blacklight desk under investigative editor Damaso Reyes. 

“We are very fortunate to have a journalist of Helina’s experience and quality join our investigative unit,” Reyes said. “The depth and compassion of her reporting will benefit our readership and community greatly.”

For Selemon, her new role means an opportunity to return to covering New York City, where she first started reporting on local issues like the environmental risks of a Greenpoint plastics factory. But working at a weekly Black newspaper like the Amsterdam News provides Selemon a grand assortment of new story opportunities. And she can’t wait to start.

“What’s unique about this role and exciting about it is that we can go past day one,” said Selemon. “We can spend a lot of time past day one on really digging in and learning and bringing the issues to light in a way that engages people, equip them with new information, and empower them to do something about it. Empower people with what they need from their health, science, and environmental news. 

“These are areas that are easy to feel out of reach. And communities need people to make it make sense to them.” 
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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  1. I am a senior. The person that puts my garbage out places it on the curb before going to work at 4pm. They steal cans. How do I get the cans back into my yard.My intro to Bklyn was the thief of my high-end garbage cans on wheels. I appreciate the efforts of the sanitation men and women.

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