What am I doing lately?

In short, it’s been a crazy few months at Plucky Pen Headquarters.

I got a crash course in video marketing with a project from Nine Lakes Wine Festival. I traveled to 20 wineries in East and Middle Tennessee and created videos for each of them. I know, I know…people keep asking me where I found that kind of gig, and all I can say is that it fell in my lap. Big thanks to Rick Riddle of Nine Lakes Wine Country for having a little faith in me. You can find the a bunch of the videos on YouTube and under the videos tab of the festival’s Facebook page. It was a wonderful project, and I met so many kind people. I also drank a lot of great wine!

In April, the corporate overlords fired my boss at Shopper-News. Shortly thereafter, same corporate overlords killed the Union County edition of the Shopper, which I had founded. It was a really tragic move for the folks in Union County because, to be honest, they didn’t have another good, professional news source. I followed former Shopper publisher Sandra Clark to her new project,, where I’m covering news for Fountain City and Halls and shepherding the social media aspect of the business. We’re all online except for a quarterly mailer that Sandra is doing, so no waste, no soggy papers in people’s driveways. And we’re covering great news as soon as it happens. Lots of fun!

But what about Union County? Well, J.T. Russell and his son Aaron have stepped in with They’ve been selling ads and getting news together, and just recently they asked me to start writing one story per week. I’m overjoyed! I was so worried about my friends there, and it’s good to know we won’t lose touch.

I’ve also got a few stories into the Knoxville alt weekly, The Knoxville Mercury, and I’m still writing and proofing for Braxton-Bragg’s Slippery Rock Gazette. Good times all around, and still room to grow! Thank you all for following this stage of my career. Here’s hoping for more good news to come!

Community Journalism, Writing

There’s Nothing Like a Good Cause

Well, I took a little break.

Union County High School’s GSA is on good footing these days, but things were touch-and-go for a little while. Shortly after the club had its first meeting of the school year, we received word that the new sponsor, a guidance counselor, decided she could not sponsor the club. But, after a tense day or so, Stuart Turner, the sponsor the students wanted, was allowed to take over.

When last I heard, the club’s president was working on meeting twice a month and after school.

Time for some reflection. This ain’t my first rodeo. I’m a sucker for a good cause. Some I’ve won and some I’ve lost. It’s a pattern of behavior, and not one I’m likely to give up anytime soon.

In college journalism classes, you hear a lot about being impartial, about not taking a side. But my first job as a journalist was under someone whose guiding philosophy was that a newspaper should drive the community forward. You could call this advocacy journalism. You could also call it poor ethics. Call it what you will, permission to crusade was granted, and crusade I did.

So, if you’re ready, jump in the Wayback Machine with me to my days as a cub reporter and causes I have known.

REACHS story, part 1, Union County Shopper-News

REACHS story part 2, Union County Shopper-News

Sincere apologies for poor picture quality.

I had been on the job at the Shopper-News for a year when publisher Sandra Clark shoved me out the door to start a Shopper in Union County. I covered news, sold ads, delivered papers, and practically ran ruts in the highway between Halls Crossroads and the Union County seat of Maynardville.

This cause landed in my lap during a County Commission meeting. The county was going to evict REACHS, now known as the Union County Children’s Center, with no discussion of what the center actually did.

I knew what they did. I’d just graduated from Leadership Union County, and we had toured the center as part of one of our class days. There at REACHS, children who had been abused could receive evidence-gathering examinations and counseling in a non-threatening setting. And the center was about to be tossed out on its ear.

After the commission meeting, I angrily approached a commissioner of my acquaintance.

“Do you even know what REACHS does?!” I exclaimed.

He laughed and replied, “REACHS? I thought they said Ritchie.” He later told me he was joking, but whatever. As they say today, it was on like Donkey Kong.

I wrote the above story while I should have been in sick in bed. The community’s outcry caused the commission to reverse its decision and lease the space to REACHS for just $1 per year. I still have the thank-you note from REACHS in my clippings book. It’s a treasure.

REACHS conclusion, Union County Shopper-News

I never got a thank-you note for the next one, but it’s still one of my favorites.

Smoking story, Union County Shopper-News

County seat, Maynardville, Tennessee. Maynardville is a small municipality that contains a water company and police and fire departments. I started covering meetings of the Board of Commissioners around 2006-2007, and the fact that the meetings were “smoking”…well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

This isn’t in the article, but I was at the time and still am a former smoker. In the misspent days of my youth, I was a pack a day. So, believe me when I say that the smoke in that courthouse on meeting nights rivaled all the bars I’d ever been to.

After this article came out, the commissioners made the building non-smoking, and I was treated to a fun scene at the next meeting. One of the commissioners (a non-smoker) lobbed a value-pack of Juicy Fruit gum down the table at his colleagues. In an unintended-consequences turn of events, meetings started lasting longer because the commissioners took smoke breaks.

I guess you win some, you lose some.

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA, Uncategorized

Union County High School Does the Right Thing

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks in the history of the Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance. Heck, I think the club’s history as a whole has been a bit of a wild ride. But at this moment it seems like the school’s administration has done the right thing, and the club is on a good path.

At the beginning of August, I posted that the GSA still had no sponsor to replace Chris Richeson, whose contract was not renewed for another year. The next week, I announced what I learned from my editor at a local newspaper where I freelance, that the GSA had a new sponsor assigned. And the week after that, Richeson and many GSA students were decrying the choice of sponsor. You can see Richeson’s post on my Facebook page. They said the sponsor had many harassment complaints, that it was an attempt to “chill” participation in the GSA.

Here’s a quote from one female student who spoke with me via Facebook:

“There have been about three instances of where I wore a dress to school and I was unfortunate enough to cross his path. I can only describe the way he stared at me as absolutely lecherous. It was unnerving and repulsive to say the least. …Honestly, I and many others are considering not going because the guy is so creepy. I’ll probably still go, but I’ll definitely be wary.”

To make matters worse, a teacher sponsor who volunteered and would have made a much better choice according to students was told he could not because he had a homeroom.

This requires some explaining, for which I reached out to Richeson. According to him, while he was teaching at UCHS, clubs met during the homeroom period, 30 minutes starting at 8:15 a.m. Clubs are assigned Club A or Club B, and every other week Club A or Club B would meet on one day that week.

For this reason, he said, he was told that he could not sponsor the GSA because he had a homeroom. However, he said, other clubs had teacher sponsors with homerooms and met in those homerooms.

I checked this out with sources at the high school, and they told me that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Science Club both have sponsors with homerooms. In fact, they said every club except the Beta Club had a sponsor with a homeroom. My request to principal Carmen Murphy for comment on this topic went unanswered.

So, was the GSA being unfairly targeted by this rule that didn’t seem to apply to anyone else? I started flexing my typing fingers for another blog post on the subject.

But, around lunchtime last Friday, I got a message from Richeson. GSA students contacted him saying that they’d had their first meeting with a totally different sponsor, this one named Jennifer Pointer, a guidance counsellor at the school. They said that principal Carmen Murphy and assistant principal Lance Lay attended the meeting, that they had elected officers, president Josh McBee and vice president Briana Crowley, who granted me an interview earlier this summer for the Voices from the GSA series.

Soon after, Josh McBee sent me an email confirming what Richeson had said. He said the meeting was positive. He said he wants to get the GSA on both Club A and Club B so they can have more meetings per month, that he wants to get last year’s GSA activities going again, and maybe plan some after school activities. With his permission, I gave his email address to some folks I’ve met through all this at GLSEN, PFLAG Maryville and the ACLU, people with resources, people who can help.

And I asked him if it was OK for me to stay in touch. And I will.

I’m optimistic, and you should be, too. In rural East Tennessee, it’s not easy to be LGBTQ, and it’s also not easy to be seen as an ally. In many people’s eyes, that’s just what the UCHS administration are by allowing this club to continue. It took courage and a heart for kids to do what Mrs. Pointer, Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Lay did on Friday, and they deserve encouragement and support. Also in need of kind words are Josh and Briana, and all the GSA students. I hope their year will be full of fun and learning.


No sponsor yet for UCHS GSA

You read that right. The Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance is without a sponsor, according to club president Brady Blanton.

I reached out to Brady via text message to ask how things are going. He said the group has no sponsor yet because, “no one has responded.”

The club cannot meet without a teacher sponsor. Brady said he’s asked to speak with new principal Carmen Murphy about the sponsor issue, but has not gotten a time slot with her yet.

School started in Union County Aug. 3.

I reached out to Murphy via email and will add her comments when she responds.

The club’s former sponsor, Chris Richeson, was non-renewed for the 2016-2017 school year. If you are concerned about the lack of a teacher sponsor for the UCHS GSA, here is a list of suggestions for things you can do.


A note about Casper

Friends, I just received an email from “Casper,” the disabled student from the most recent Voices from the GSA post. She is concerned that detail in the story about her disability will draw attention to her personally. I have hidden the post from view for now until she and I figure out how to proceed. I’ll post more info later. 

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA

Voices from the Other Side

About a week after Chris Richeson and several GSA students spoke to the Union County school board, I got into a Facebook discussion with someone who thought I wasn’t hearing “the other side.” In these screenshots, the commenter was defending the Union News Leader’s coverage of the event, which I criticized.

Screenshot 1Screenshot 2

Maybe I’m dense. Or maybe I was a bit caught up in the moment. You see, this is a question of journalistic philosophy that I struggle with sometimes. I have no problem championing a cause as a journalist. I have many times, but never on this scale, and never with this much attention. The closest I got was getting smoking banned in Maynardville City Hall, and that didn’t even hold a candle to exposing what appears to be the attempted destruction of the Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance last school year.

Continue reading “Voices from the Other Side”

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA

Voices from the GSA: Briana Crowley

Note: This is a continuing series of interviews with students from Union County High School’s Gay Straight Alliance in Maynardville, Tenn. For a little background on the history of the GSA and their non-renewed teacher sponsor Chris Richeson, please read this post.

Briana Crowley was a sophomore at Union County High School last year when she experienced hate alongside her friend Brady Blanton. Brady, president of the school’s new Gay Straight Alliance, had rainbow bracelets promoting the GSA and was giving them to interested students.

“At lunch, a guy came up and asked if he could have one,” said Briana. “Brady said yes. The guy takes it and breaks it right in front of us and throws it on the table. It made me feel angry. I want to know why he couldn’t just let it alone. He didn’t have to come up to us and start any type of drama.”

This incident was just one piece of what Briana describes as a culture of discrimination and hatred against LGBTQ students at the school, students going out of their way to let the GSA know that it wasn’t welcome there. And, she said, many teachers did nothing to stop it.

When the GSA posted flyers for an after-school showing of the movie “Philadelphia,” students opposed to the GSA waged a campaign to tear the flyers down. When students tore the posters down, GSA students put more in their place.

One day, Briana and her friends caught an opposed student in action.

“The guy came up to the posters are we were about to walk away. He ripped the posters down and tried to walk away as fast as he could,” she said. “We asked him why he did that. He started yelling negative things at us. I don’t remember what exactly, but there were cuss words. There was a teacher walking down the hallway, and all she said was, ‘Girls, go to class.'”

As the year progressed, Briana saw more and more backlash against the GSA. It leaked onto social media. Briana felt that the GSA was unfairly blamed for unrest at the school.

“The GSA was in trouble because we were told we were spreading violence,” she said. “Even though we were the victims we were treated like we were doing wrong. We were accused of spreading violence or telling people they were wrong for not supporting gay rights.

“It was really awful to see because a lot of it came from the adults that are supposed to look out for us.”

Briana did not have Chris Richeson’s classes, but she remembers him being a positive influence on students in the hallways, finding positive ways to warn students against bad behavior.

“He was always extremely accepting of everyone,” she said. “He genuinely cared about every single student. He treated you like a person. He wasn’t afraid to stick up for us even if it meant losing his job.

“He is literally one of the best teachers at the school. They just had no logical reason whatsoever to fire him. I think it’s really bad because I don’t think the school board really cares about the students and what they have to say. He had a huge impact on our lives. He helped everyone.

“If the school board doesn’t see that, then they don’t deserve to have him in their school system.”

Briana was in the audience during the school board meeting in which Richeson and GSA students addressed the school board. The school board affirmed that the GSA could continue at UCHS, but they did not respond to student requests to rehire Richeson.

“I think that it was a great thing that all the supporters of the GSA were there and standing up for something we believe in,” she said. “The speakers were courageous, but I don’t think the school board cares what we have to say. I think they let us speak because they thought if they didn’t they would get some backlash for that.”

School in Union County starts in just a few weeks, and so far no teacher has volunteered to sponsor the GSA. After what happened to Richeson, Briana is worried that no teachers will come forward.

“I’m worried that we won’t have a sponsor, and if we don’t I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “If we do get a sponsor, that would be great just to keep spreading awareness and love and do what we started out to do.

“Even though we don’t have (Richeson), we still have each other. We’re going to continue to fight for what we believe in, no matter what.”

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA, Uncategorized

Voices from the GSA: Brady Blanton

Brady Blanton is possibly the most resilient and positive-thinking young person I have ever come across. He is a rising junior at Union County High School and the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance.

GSA B&WThings have been tough for Brady, who was outed against his will in the 8th grade. At the time, he didn’t have words for the fact that he had romantic feelings towards both genders. He confided in a female friend, and she told him he was bisexual. But somehow, word got around.

A classmate stole Brady’s phone and texted all of his contacts, including his mother, about his sexual orientation. His family sent him to “Christian counseling.” While Brady only attended five sessions, the experience was hard to take.

“The counselor said it was some kind of deformity, but I didn’t really listen. I tried not to listen because I knew he was wrong,” Brady said.

“I kept to it, stayed out and didn’t go back in the closet. I stood strong as best I could. I knew it wasn’t a mental disease.”

It’s important to note here that Brady does not harbor hard feelings towards his mother. In the years since Brady was outed, they have come to a kind of truce on the subject.

“I love my mom,” he said. “I know she wants what’s in my best interest, but that wasn’t it. Things have gotten better with my family. They’re not accepting, but I’m their son and they always support me.”

But Brady was facing harassment outside his family life. At school, it was all verbal, he said, mostly name-calling of “dyke” and “fag.”

“I went to the principal and assistant principal and nothing was done,” he said. “I gave them names of people that were harassing me in class and in the hallways and everything, but they did nothing.”

The worst incident is difficult for Brady to talk about. It happened outside the school walls, but the perpetrators were older students. Brady was a freshman and they were “probably seniors,” he said.

“I was just walking on the sidewalk heading to the grocery store, and there was a gang of guys walking past me. They said ‘What’s up, faggot?’ and just walked by, laughed, and walked behind me and tugged on my shirt, saying ‘Talk to us,’ but I kept walking.

“A guy just pushed me and then I fell, and they just crowded around me and started laughing. They started hitting me. It wasn’t bad, but it was on the side of the road. There were people driving by and no one did anything.

“I usually don’t talk about it. I don’t want to be perceived as weak.”

But even in the face of harassment, Brady said he does not dread coming to school.

“The most important thing is my education,” he said. “I remain steadfast and try to go through every day with a positive mindset. Today is going to be a good day.”

It was the end of Brady’s freshman year when the UCHS GSA had its first meeting, and Brady said his involvement in the club has changed his life.

“I felt a sense of security, like once I walked into that room I was accepted for who I was. There was no bad talk or anything. It was like I’m accepted and wanted, and I think that goes for everyone else, too,” he said.

He asked teacher sponsor Chris Richeson if he could run for president of the club, and he won.

“It’s a lot to handle, taking the position of president of a club that most people don’t feel is right, but there is acceptance in the school,” Brady said. “The teachers are OK, but the mountain of support came from the people who came to the meetings.”

GSA meetings typically attracted 30 to 40 students, around 50 at the highest.

“Just seeing that many people come for support, it showed me that we’re getting somewhere,” he said.

Brady kept his positive attitude through the height of tensions in the school last March surrounding posters for a GSA-sponsored showing of the movie “Philadelphia.”

“A lot of people tore down the posters, and we just hung them right back up. It was all we could do,” he said. “Mr. Richeson had this ideal of be like MLK, and that always stuck with me, and that’s what I did. I didn’t say anything negative against anybody even though their mindset was different than mine. I tried to remain positive, and I kept going.”

Being president of the GSA had a positive impact on Brady’s life, helping him take steps towards overcoming his social anxiety and teaching him public speaking skills.

“I’ve gained more friends because of it. The people from the meeting, we’re most certainly friends. We’re like a family. That’s what it’s come to be now. We always stick by each other no matter what,” he said.

With the start of school just a month away, Brady is anticipating a “different” kind of school year. While he’s sad that Richeson’s contract was not renewed, he has high hopes for the GSA’s future.

“Just because Mr. Richeson is gone, it is not the end of the GSA at Union County High School,” he said. “It’s going to remain strong for as long as I am part of UCHS. I am going to find a new sponsor and do everything in my power to keep it together, because it is very, very needed in that school.

“I want people to feel like they are needed and wanted in this life, that if they are part of the LGBT community that they do not have a mental disease, that they are fine individuals and they should be proud of who they are.

“This is not the end, most definitely.”

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA, Uncategorized

Voices from the GSA: Sarah Leuthen

Note: I am still accepting interviews with former and current Gay Straight Alliance members from Union County High School. If you would like to share your story, please feel free to contact me


Sarah Leuthen graduated from Union County High School in May 2016. A charter member of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, something about the school always bothered her. She came to Tennessee from California with her family and attended Halls Middle School in Knox County, then moved to Horace Maynard Middle School, the feeder school for UCHS, in the 7th grade.


Sarah, like many other students, noticed discrimination and hazing in the school, particularly towards LGBT students or students of color. When black students came to UCHS, “you’d see them for a little bit, and then they’d leave.”

“High school can be the best years of your life, if you’re white and straight,” she said.

She describes a culture of bullying and hate at UCHS. People with an off-beat style or girls with short haircuts were on the receiving end of verbal slurs like “dyke” and “fag” in the halls.

“A close friend of mine was aggressively bullied for being who he is,” she said.

This student was involved in theater. When he took the stage during in-school performances, Sarah said she often heard things from the audience, loud enough to be heard throughout the auditorium. Students called him a “fag” and boo’ed him.

“No one did anything about it,” Sarah said. “There were plenty of teachers in the auditorium, and I have never once had a teacher say stop. They didn’t care.”

She took non-renewed teacher and GSA sponsor Chris Richeson’s psychology class after her boyfriend Gus Simpson recommended him.

“He’s not like any other teacher,” she said. “He engages his students. He respects you. He’s just different in a good way.”

When Sarah joined the GSA with Gus, things were quiet at first, and she advocated keeping quiet.

“We didn’t really get it at first,” she said. “People would talk about ‘let’s get the word around.’ I’m just like, let’s not be too abrupt. You know where we are. If you start hanging up flyers right away, things are going to get bad.”

And they did get bad. In March 2016, the GSA sponsored a showing of “Philadelphia,” and principal Linda Harrell would only allow the GSA to post signs on glass, limiting them to the lunchroom area.

“Other clubs were allowed to put things on the walls,” Sarah said.

Although Sarah did not witness disturbances in the lunchroom when anti-gay students ripped the posters down, she definitely heard about it. The talk was all over social media.

But on top of restrictions on the placement of their posters, Sarah said the GSA also faced discrimination from Harrell when it came to fundraisers. The club decided to sell Skittles to raise funds. According to Richeson, the plan was to “to get the group some startup money so that they could move towards running events, sponsoring homecoming candidates, etc.”

Richeson said he got verbal permission from Harrell for the GSA to sell Skittles. He bought some candy so the club could get started, and then permission was withdrawn when he filled out paperwork for the fundraiser.

“The excuse was the school snack store,” said Sarah. “We were told that we couldn’t compete with the school snack store. But the cosmetology club was selling nachos, doughnuts and drinks during lunch when the snack store was open.”

My request for comment from Harrell and Director of Schools Dr. Jimmy Carter went unanswered.

“We were going to make T-shirts, but most of us were really scared because people against the GSA were very hateful and weren’t afraid to show it,” she said.

Sarah said Richeson sheltered the GSA students during this time.

“Out of all the teachers, I believe he was the one that was everyone’s guardian,” she said. “I believe he was the one that was everyone’s guardian. Some people in the GSA would verbally fight back, but Richeson would say, ‘Let’s not do that. We need to be peaceful.'”

Sarah feels that Richeson’s contract non-renewal was unfair.

“I don’t know what they (the school administration) are doing,” she said. “If they see a teacher who is doing his job very well, why would you get rid of that? He was exactly what a teacher needed to be.

“You don’t get that a lot at UCHS. There are not a lot of high standards. They really lost someone great. There are so many students who wish they could have him, and they don’t get to because he stood up for something.”

Sarah said she fears for the safety of GSA students in the coming school year, particularly those who came out as LGBTQ.

“I wish I could tell them that you are safe there, but I can’t say that because I don’t truly believe that,” she said. “There is just so much hatred in the school, and I don’t know why. The school is just amazing, but not in a good way, in a bad way. I am truly scared. There are other good teachers, but Mr. Richeson was a safe haven for a lot of people.”

Community Journalism, UCHS GSA

Voices from the GSA: Tameka Chesney

Tameka Chesney was in the audience at the Union County school board meeting June 23, and she is shocked by the lack of comment by school board members.

“I just can’t believe after all the things that were said and done, the board members didn’t comment at all,” she said.

Tameka graduated from Union County High School in May 2016. Right now, she’s working in retail to help pay her way to the University of Tennessee this fall. She is starting as a sociology major but wants to transition to computer science as soon as space opens up in the program. Non-renewed teacher and former Gay Straight Alliance sponsor Chris Richeson encouraged her to go for UT instead of a community college.

Tameka was “born and raised” in Union County and identifies as heterosexual. She took Richeson’s sociology class, where she learned about privilege, “things you can do every single day that other people can’t do.”

“For one, straight privilege,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about being bullied for my sexuality in school. There’s a whole list, like white privilege, stuff you never even think about.

“I never realized that some people get bullied for these things, which is why I joined the GSA.”

Tameka said harassment of students for sexual orientation was rife during her time at UCHS. She saw and heard a lot.

“It was kind of hard not to, and really if you said anything about it then you could get bullied,” she said. “I tried to help, but I had a lot of friends that would get called ‘gay’ and ‘faggot.'”

According to Tameka, there were differences in how former principal Linda Harrell treated the GSA when compared to other clubs. For instance, posters for the GSA showing of “Philadelphia,” which brought tensions to a head last spring, were only allowed on glass surfaces, which restricted them to the lunchroom area.

“We couldn’t put them up anywhere else in the school,” Tameka said. “The reasoning was that the tape would damage the painted walls, but other clubs put things in the halls. Right next to our signs, there was a sign from another club about selling nachos, which had been up for a month on the walls with tape.

“Which was why I didn’t think the tape was the real reasoning. There was a difference in the way we were treated by (Harrell). It was obvious that she didn’t want us to hang our stuff up, but any other club could.”

Tameka colored more than 100 flyers for the GSA movie screening.

“I worked really hard. We kept putting them up, and they kept getting ripped down,” she said.

One day, she asked a student why he ripped a poster down.

“He said, ‘That’s a poster saying that we all need to be gay.’ They weren’t reading the posters, just ripping them down. So many people in this school are against homosexuals because they were raised to feel that way.”

On another day, Tameka and some friends put new posters in the lunchroom. Two minutes later, they heard cheering as someone ripped the posters down.

“I cried,” she said. “I’m a really emotional person, but all the hard work that I poured into those posters and they didn’t know what they were meant for. They were just doing it blindly. It was horrible, heartbreaking really.”

During this time, many GSA students avoided school altogether, Tameka said.

But even with the events of last spring, Tameka is glad she joined the GSA.

“I feel like it’s made me more open to the fact that there are different sexualities and different genders,” she said. “I didn’t even know that trans people existed, but right now one of my best friends is a trans male. I am more accepting, and I just feel like it’s helped me as a person because I can think outside the box now.”

Tameka said support for Richeson is not limited to GSA members.

“A lot of people who I thought hated Richeson are like no, that’s not fair,” she said.

She encouraged the GSA to remain strong. While the school board affirmed the GSA’s right to exist at UCHS, no one on staff has yet stepped forward to sponsor the club.

“I think they need to continue with fighting for their own rights, but in a calm and orderly way,” she said. “Just like Richeson said, ‘Words not fists. MLK is the only way.’ As long as they stick together, it will be OK.”