“My job as a journalist is to help”
Terrell on the streets of Lviv
Terrell Jermaine Starr gets out of a taxi.
Strapping his phone to a short selfie stick as we talk on a WhatsApp video call, he roams the streets of Lviv, passing the Corinthian columns of the city’s opera house. Less than two weeks earlier, he had helped relocate a woman named Iryna from kyiv to this city, so that she could leave her country. Irina has cancer. Looking for a safe place for treatment, she found Starr.
He drove a shotgun as they traveled a day and a half by car, a trip made longer by checkpoints and the rush of people fleeing war. On the road with Iryna, her husband, their 5-year-old son, Ivan, and Starr’s friend Andriy, he streamed live on MSNBC to a success with Ali Velshi. Starr spoke first, then handed the camera to Iryna as they drove. At the end of the segment, Velshi thanked Starr for his “remarkable” brand of reporting: “You’ve blurred all the lines between diplomacy and analysis and journalism, and I say that in the best way.
“You just do what you think is right.”
What Starr believes to be right has set him on a singular path in journalism. He’s more Oprah than Walter Cronkite, he says. “Oprah was a trained journalist and covered local news. She was relegated to a talk show because she was seen as too passionate, too biased.
“Having a heart and being compassionate – I model myself after her.”
In his early twenties, Starr decided to make Eastern Europe his part-time home and area of expertise. Now 41, he has found himself at the center of a war he considers senseless and tragic and rooted in a racism that reminds him of his country. He is black, from Detroit, and identifies as queer. He was a member of the Peace Corps and recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, speaks Russian and conversational Georgian, and serves on the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council. He says he pursued this work because of his faith. His pastor in Brooklyn sends him scriptures every morning. He wrote on his therapyhis experience as a black man in Ukraine, and says he channels some of his income to various causes, including the Kyiv Independent, an English-language Ukrainian media outlet; Lifeline Ukraine, a suicide prevention hotline; and the Ukrainian Armed Forces, giving directly to a crowdfunding campaign to support the country’s army. By his own description, he is very opinionated, and more than just a journalist: he is working to start a Ukrainian fashion resale business and a fur accessories business, sourcing hats and scarves from from a family in Uzbekistan. He hopes the sales – supplemented by donations from subscribers and supporters – will support his freelance work and the podcast he publishes every few weeks.
When he entered journalism school in 2006 at the University of Illinois, social media was new and reshaping classroom discussions about “what should and shouldn’t be journalism.” Starr was 26, older than his mostly white classmates, and he wasn’t “sucked up in traditional newsroom notions,” he says. “With my style of journalism, people feel threatened, which I find incredibly bizarre.” He started out covering local politics for Illinois Public Radio and went on to write about two presidential campaigns, first for Fusion in 2016, then the Root in 2020.
“I understand white supremacy. I understand cis-heteronormative frameworks and how oppressive they are, and so I have a very complex view of systems of oppression,” he says. “And that helps me look at Ukraine with the sympathy I have.”
In Lviv, everyone around him is white.
People stop to take pictures as we speak. “I get this all the time,” he says. “Because I’m reporting, because I’m black — there’s a whole bunch of reasons.”
An older man walks up and, in broken English, asks if he’s a journalist.
“I’m a reporter and I’m talking with another reporter,” Starr replies.
The man said, “Putin to hell. Russian idiot. Idiot Russian President.
The two shake hands and part ways.
“It’s kind of normal for me.”