New Season – 2018

In the past, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone who knows me well to hear that I’d moved to Jordan to learn Arabic or that I flew to  South America for a month to write the stories of people I come across who are doing amazing work in their communities.

That’s because once I figure out what I want to do, I go after it 110 percent. Fear generally doesn’t hold me back where passion is concerned.

So, what does that look like now that I’m making long-term plans?

First and foremost, I really want to engage with my local community and find ways to improve life for those who live in my area. Second, I have a passion for supporting teens who are aging out of the foster care system and want to find ways to make that transition easier and less traumatic. Third, I would love to tell the stories of people I know who are doing amazing work locally, nationally and abroad.

I know that many believe that I’m a whiz at organizational management and administration but I’m also naturally inclined to want to make a difference, bridge the communication gap and show the world how we’re all connected.  My time in university taught me strategies for management, effective communication and the importance of having people skills. Living and working abroad taught me to challenge assumptions and mindsets, the power of adaptability and the importance of building relationships where you are.

Here’s hoping I find work in an organization that allows me to use my entire skills set and positively impact the community I love so much.

Let the adventures begin!

 

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Criticism

There was a time in my life when I didn’t handle criticism well. I would take it personally and think that there was something innately wrong with me if someone pointed out my shortcomings and deficiencies.

I’m really glad that I lost that tendency somewhere along the way to graduate school.

Critiques and criticism are integral parts of the creative process. Learning from criticism is one of the ways we grow here at the J-school. From the first story you write for the newspaper to the first set of photos you turn in, someone is critiquing it and offering advice on how to improve it. It might be a student editor, a beat editor or a classmate. They warn you during orientation to be prepared for it. One professor tells her classes each semester that people sometimes cry when she edits their work.

I think part of the reason why the criticism doesn’t bother me is that I’m very realistic about the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing. While I do place high expectations on myself, I know that I’m here to learn because each step in this program takes me deeper into unfamiliar territory.

The other part is that I know the people whose criticism I welcome have my best interest at heart. They don’t criticize just to be critical, but rather have a desire to see me grow as a writer, photographer and storyteller.

It doesn’t always feel good, though. Yesterday I had a critique of a photo project that I spent 20-plus hours working on. There were mixed reviews – my professors and peers loved some of my prints, but thought that each one could be improved if I did this or that.

To be honest, even though just about everything in the photography world is subjective, I’ve learned a lot. Even though we’re only halfway through the semester I know that the criticism I’ve received of my work has already made me a better photographer and storyteller.

Mission accomplished.

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Privilege

Journalistic relationships are quirky.

We introduce ourselves, immerse ourselves in your life, gain your trust, ask probing questions, tell the world about you, and then move on to the next person. Over and over again.

This semester, I decided that I wanted to focus on Columbia’s aging community. They are a segment of the population that is under-represented in the media, and I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to get them to talk to me. (Think how many times you’ve heard some variation of, “When I was your age I had to walk in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways to get to school.”)

Since I’d established some contact at the Columbia Area Senior Center last year, going back made sense. It’s a social hangout spot for the over-65 crowd here. They have scheduled activities like bridge, pool tournaments, line dancing, and wood carving. You can also grab a lunch that includes entree, with two sides, drink and dessert for six bucks.

Since my first visit two weeks ago, I’ve been drawn to the group of men who play pool on a regular basis. They’re all old-time, country-bred folks who grew up on farms and worked with their hands. They listen to country and bluegrass music. They rib each other every chance they get. They move at a slower pace than the rest of us.

Every week that I sit down and watch them play game after game of pool, they become a little more familiar with me and I become a little more familiar with their stories. I hear about the 86 year old veteran who retired from bricklaying at 80 whose nickname is “Rifle” because he wouldn’t know how to hit the cue ball softly if his life depended on it. I learn about the “pool shark” who has to settle the slight shake of his hands before taking his shot, a result of the two strokes he’s had. I get questioned about whether or not I’ve visited this spot or that in Missouri from the chatty commuter who drives 30 miles twice a week to play with these guys because he used to do it when he brought his deceased wife into town for her chemo treatments.

That last one came from my newest guy, Gilbert. He talked about how his wife found this senior center for him because she didn’t want him to get bored waiting for her while she underwent chemo at the local hospital. Over time, she got to meet all of the guys he plays pool with and on their drive back to Fulton, he’d tell her everything each guy said that day.

“Even now, when I’m driving home after playing with these guys, I think I’ll get to tell her what John said or what Ja said today,” Gilbert told me. “It’s only when I get home that I remember she isn’t here any more.”

He went into some detail about her illness. In addition to the sad times, Gilbert talked about how great a match they were, how many interests they had in common and how they’d seen the 48 contiguous states over the course of their lifetime. I can still see the way his eyes lit up when he talked about the woman he’d cared for and loved for 57 years.

Every time I sit and listen to their stories, I can’t help examining my life and wondering if I’m missing out on one of life’s greatest adventures. They draw me into times gone by and make me examine if I have my priorities straight.

When I think about the fact that this is my job for right now, I’m amazed. I go out into the community and find stories, then figure out the best way to tell them. When I dwell on this instead of the 60 pages of boring reading I face each weekend, it puts a smile on my face.

What a privilege.

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Mountains Beyond Mountains – A must-read book

For an assignment in one of my classes, I had to choose a book-length piece of journalism and share practical lessons that students could take away from the author’s storytelling. Here’s what I wrote.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder chronicles the life and medical quest of Dr. Paul Farmer and his associates at Partners in Health to provide optimal healthcare for the world’s poorest citizens. He takes his audience on a journey from the classrooms of Harvard Medical School to the homes, prisons and medical facilities of people infected with tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in Haiti, Peru, Cuba and Russia.

From the very beginning we learn that Farmer “narrates” Haiti for those he comes in contact with. He explains the culture through the lives of the people there brings context to the circumstances, beliefs and actions of those who now – or once – called the island nation home. Kidder does the same for his audience in three ways that stand out to me: he uses of all of his senses to paint moving portraits of people, places and circumstances; he organizes Farmer’s story in such a way that keeps the reader engaged; and he weaves a web of complex characters that, in the end, “narrates” Paul Farmer.

1.    Kidder uses all of his senses to transport his audience into a time and space that many will never experience.

Vivid descriptions bring the book’s characters to life and help navigate the many changes of location occur. As expected, he gives rich visual descriptions of the various settings into which he follows Farmer and his crew. Kidder not only tells the audience about what is there – he also points out what isn’t there. In Cange, Haiti, he paints a picture of a landscape with no trees, a makeshift village with no power lines, an oxcart with no ox. He describes men who ride on starved donkeys and beggars rubbing “concave bellies”. From the beginning, he sets the scene in Haiti in the reader’s mind, signaling this as the main artery from which the rest of Farmer’s crusade stems.

In addition to visual imagery, he uses other senses to engage the reader. In a prison in Moscow, we hear the symphony of coughs from men infected with TB – bass, baritone and tenor. We feel the increased humidity that comes from “many pairs of lungs exhaling” in a small space. We smell what Farmer refers to in Haiti as “the fifth food group” – food presented to them by the poor Haitians they visited – that were “meat filled pastries that smelled like sweat”. By engaging the reader’s senses to experience what he experienced, Kidder draws his audience into the midst of the action and demonstrate the misery that exists in the midst of these circumstances and places.

Kidder also uses robust descriptions of scenes to give context to the history and culture of the places he visits with Farmer. In this sense, he allows the reader the chance to “look around” the place before bringing them face to face with the task of understanding the complex realities they’re about to face. In Cuba, for instance, he contrasts the housing projects and old haciendas with the slums and huts of Haiti. Then, he reminds the reader of the care Cubans receive (medical and otherwise) under communism and shows Farmer’s appreciation of Cuba’s example of a poor country’s ability to provide equitable and adequate medical care for all of its citizens.

2.    He organizes the story in a way that tells the reader where they’re headed and keeps them engaged for the long haul.

Kidder divides the narrative into five distinct parts and tells stories within stories to explain how one chapter of Farmer’s life provides the foundation for the next. He starts with the introduction of “Dokté Paul”, then takes us to “The Tin Roofs of Cange” and the clinic there that is the main artery that feeds the drive for all other projects around the world. In “Médicos Aventureros,” he moves on to the fight to treat poor Peruvians with multi-drug resistant TB, followed by “A Light Month for Travel” where we see Farmer take on governments, academics and non-profits in defense of the poor. In “O for the P” (Options for the Poor) he gives a glimpse of where Partners in Health is and where they’re headed as they work with other organizations.

He frequently gives a bird’s-eye view of an issue, shows how Farmer and his crew worked to solve it, then links the solution to other outcomes. In doing this, he gives context to the complexities of particular issues. For instance, he paints a picture of the misery of poverty in Cange, Haiti, then tells how the people there were forced to flee their farmland when their valley was flooded. He links the children who were constantly battling diarrheal disease and dying because they drank bacteria-infested water to their new location, where they drink stagnant (and dirty) water to avoid the steep eight-hundred foot hike down a hillside to get fresh water. He builds a case, showing cause and effect. Then, Kidder shares that a group of Haitian and American engineers hooked spigots to an underground river that provides clean drinking water for the community. As a result, infant deaths decline.

At times, Kidder also chooses to narrate one of Farmer’s many confrontations to expose the first-world myths behind the arguments surrounding an issue. For instance, during a conference in Cuba where officials and scholars met to discuss the treatment and eradication of TB and AIDS, Farmer debates those who exaggerate the power of poor women to protect themselves from the diseases. He explains that women working in the larger cities in Haiti cohabitate with truck drivers and soldiers because they have steady jobs in a country with rampant unemployment. The men are on the road a lot, though, and are likely to have a woman in many different ports. As Farmer narrates Haiti and Kidder narrates Farmer, we understand that the rise of infections in women is linked to poverty as well.

3.    Kidder uses supporting characters – including himself – to build a multi-dimensional portrait of Paul Farmer and his cause.  

From page one, Kidder weaves together Farmer’s many personal and professional relationships and uses them to give context to his character. He draws on old college friends, coworkers, benefactors, adversaries, his ex-lover and simple admirers of his work to help the reader understand his complexities. The critics are heard as well, who Kidder says seem happy to point out what they consider a chink in Farmer’s armor –that his obsession with his quest separates him from his wife and daughter.

Kidder also gives close-up shots of Farmer’s character through the perspectives of those who know him best – his co-workers, Ophelia Dahl and Jim Kim. Dahl confirms that Farmer is in fact insecure about his efforts and seeks approval from those closest to him regarding his work with the poor.  While discussing one of Farmer’s rare rants at Kim’s expense, Dahl says that she feels it’s healthy for Farmer to have this place to vent his frustrations – where it cannot jeopardize Partners in Health or care for the poor. In the end, the two men walk out of the restaurant where the conversation took place with their arms around each other.

Our understanding of Farmer deepens through Kidder’s observation and recounting of his quirks. He paints Farmer as an upbeat, caring, passionate individual, but he also hones in on the minute details of his mannerisms – how he looks away, “as if disconnecting to reconnect fully” when addressing his patients, for example. In another instance, we almost feel the steely glare Farmer gives Kidder when he asks how his feelings about Cuba will be portrayed in the book.

The accumulation of smaller details makes the interactions personal, as though we are experiencing them firsthand. For instance, we understand his sense of using any and all resources available to help the poor when he steals a microscope from Harvard to take to Haiti and calls it “redistributive justice” that helps them not go to hell. As Kidder illustrates the hectic schedule that Farmer keeps and multi-directional manner in which his brain functions, we understand why his staff decompresses by crying after “hurricane Farmer” comes through, creates chaos, and then leaves.

In the end, though, it’s all about the reporting.

The main reason why this book is so good lies with the extensive reporting that Kidder has done to be able to present Farmer’s story with this much depth. As his storytelling draws to a close, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the reader had touched on the lives of at least 100 people. Kidder describes multiple flights to foreign countries he’s taken with Farmer or Kim, countless communications via email or telephone, and near-heart attack inducing treks across Haiti’s arid terrain.

This is what is needed to effectively tell stories within stories. The writer has to be there to describe what is seen, smelled, heard or felt. They have to understand the complexities that are prevalent in human relationships. They have to observe, ask questions, and then ask more. On top of this, it takes time to infiltrate the lives of others to the point that you get at the essence of who they are and what drives them. It’s evident that Kidder paid the price.

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Racism?

Being black, a journalist and in a small town can sometimes land you in some tricky situations.

Last week I spent some time in small town Missouri where I had one of these moments.  The town is home to 17,000 people. I was there to interview high school students for our AmericanNext project.

In talking with Sheryl Ferguson, who runs the high school’s tech center, she mentioned several times that some of her students might have issues with black people, so she wanted to check to make sure that they were respectful and “behaved themselves”. Since the school is 94% white (according to dese.mo.gov), I guess it’s to be expected that some racism or prejudice would exist there. When people live amongst people who are just like them, understanding and relating to the “other” isn’t necessary.

During the course of our conversation, she told me about prior students who had issues with black people. She gave reasons for why stereotypes are perpetuated in her area. She talked about interactions within her own family and challenges she’s faced in her own community.

I had no problems with any of the students, including the ones she thought might prove problematic. They all were easy to interview and gave good insight into their hopes for the future, how they planned to accomplish them and the obstacles that might be in their way.

But what if I had?

As a black journalist, I sometimes wonder if the color of my skin will be an issue for those I approach for sourcing stories. I wonder if I need to let people in on the fact that I’m black when I call them for interviews, just so they’re not caught off guard when they meet me. I know, in this day and age, it shouldn’t matter. The unfortunate truth is that for some, it does.

I’ll admit that at times I don’t know what to do with this. Past experiences and encounters with people who subscribe to stereotypes and fear means that I should feel more prepared for the possibilities. The truth is, I think I tend to forget about the perceived differences until I’m reminded of them. Unfortunately, I feel like the longer I live here – in the U.S. and in this small town – the more aware of these perceived differences I become.

I don’t always expect to run into racism, but thoughts of it settle in the back of my mind as I step into this strange new world of journalism. I’m not sure how to manage that just yet.

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Interviewing

I figured out today that I feel best about my role as a journalist when I’m interviewing people. Leading up to the interviews, I’m a bit jittery. After the interview, I’m still in processing mode. During interviews, however, I’m in the zone.

On Friday I drove to Kirksville to do some reporting for the Public Insight Network project. Our focus has become “Generation Next”, which is talking to young people about the changing face of the American Dream.  I had three interviews lined up when I left Columbia, but planned to drum up at least three more throughout the course of the day.

Once I was on the ground in Kirksville I found that I loved being a journalist again. I found that this time around – probably because of Jacqui Banaszynski’s Interviewing Essentials class – I purposed to really listen to what people had to say and managed to ask pointed questions to get at their deeper meaning. I wasn’t so focused on getting the information I needed or making sure I captured good soundbites that were clean and usable for audio clips. As a result, I think I was able to fully engage with my interviewees.

Being in the field felt more comfortable to me than being in the classroom does. When I’m in the classroom, I oftentimes wonder if I’m really cut out for this. I know that what I’m learning prepares me to be more effective in the field, but it also makes jumping out there and putting those things into practice seem like an impossible task. When I’m actually out there doing it, it feels like the pressure to perform to standard is off and I’m doing what I was meant to be doing all along.

I’ll be in the field again this weekend – Friday in Hannibal, Saturday in Columbia. It will be an exhausting weekend, but I’m looking forward to putting even more of what I’m learning into practice.  I know the time invested will help me become even more accustomed to this role of active listener and storyteller.

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NYC for New Year’s 2012

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I had the privilege of ringing in the new year in NYC this year. I’d never done that before and, since I had a few friends from South Africa who planned to be in the Big Apple around the same … Continue reading

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