Monday, August 27, 2007

Renaissance Village--Watch the Video!!

Thanks to the talents of videographer Jacqui Soohen, we now have video documentation of the time we spent in Renaissance Village--all set to the true rhythms of the Gulf. Check it out!

Our Citizen Journalists Take to the Airwaves!

With the 2nd anniversary of Katrina only days away, we're happy to report that WBAI (99.5FM) will be running the documentaries produced by our grantees throughout this week. You can listen online by visiting, if you happen to be in New York, you can listen to the pieces as they air live, at the following times:

Monday, August 27
: 8.10am EST: Coastal Women For Change (CWC)

Tuesday, August 28
: 8.25am EST: Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights (MWC)

Wednesday, August 29
: 6.10 am EST: replay of CWC & MWC

7.25 am EST: Renaissance Village

7.35 am EST: Moore Community House (MCH)

8.40 am EST: North Gulfport Community Land Trust (CLT)

Thursday, August 30
: 6.10 am EST: replay of MCH & CLT

Make sure to tune in!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

One Door Closes... and Another Opens

Leaving friends behind is never easy, and pulling ourselves away from Gulfport was no exception. Friday marked our longest day of work: like any other set of journalists covering a story, the participants knew that they couldn't leave until their stories were done--which in this case ended up being around 9 o'clock that night.

It was a long day--but I think all of these newly minted radio experts would tell you it was worth it. Even given the late hour of our wrap up, and a hard deadline of a rental car return a two hour drive away in Baton Rouge for the teams from Ms. and PPH, we were able to joined together in laughter and applause as we listened, for the first time as a group, to the finished products of our week of labor.

I won't say too much about the content of these stories here, because they are best told, listened to, on their own terms, in the format in which they have been created. And soon enough, you will get to hear them yourself, either
on the radio or on the Ms. Foundation website, where we're planning to run audio clips. Then, you can be the judge. But from my perspective, these finished stories were a revelation: hearing each of these voices that have become familiar shift themselves just enough to adopt the radio announcer's more formal delivery; listening as the stories unfolded with a narrative arc that would put most professional story tellers to shame--it was hard to believe it was possible at the outset, but what we've come away with here are productions that, in my opinion, it would be nearly impossible for the average listener to distinguish from the work of seasoned, professional journalists. What a coup.

Once we'd packed up all our equipment and said our many, many good byes, the teams from PPH and Ms. hit the road. We headed down the dark roads of Mississippi and on to Louisiana for the next leg of our trip. We were expected in Baton Rouge the next day, where we would be met by PPH leade
r Deepa Fernandes and begin the process once again of introducing a community to the power of radio, but this time with a difference: this time, we're working with kids.

And not just any kids, and not in any old location: this weekend we're working out of Renaissance Village, the massive emergency trailer park FEMA constructed to deal with some of those left homeless by Katrina.

Located in Baker, LA (about half an hour from Baton Rouge), Renaissance Village houses approximately 600 trailers, and looking around the Internet I find estimates of the total resident population that range from 1500 to 3000. That's a large spread, but either way, one thing you notice immediately upon entering is how deadly quiet this park is for a place that's filled as far as the eye can see with "homes": the only people you see regularly are the members of a small army of security guards who roam the grounds in their military boots and bulletproof vests.Though they are gracious enough when we entered, I find that their presence instills fear, not safety, in me. It's a feeling that won't leave me, the whole time I'm in the park.

Luckily, though, there's enough to keep me occupied to keep my mind (mostly) off the men and women with the big guns--namely, the children. There are four of them with us who live in the park, ranging in age from 12 to 16. We've also been joined by two young women from the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe from Southern Louisiana that boasts nearly 18,000 members. They, too, were impacted disastrously by the storm, and they're here to learn the basics of interviewing, how to operate the mini-disc player and how to use the editing software so that the stories of their people can be told, too.

There's so much to say about each of these remarkable kids, and how much they and their families have had to put up with over the past two years, and it is my hope to be able to introduce you to each of them over the course of the next few posts. Right now though, it is time to get to work: they're heading out into the field that is their home to interview people about their experiences since the Hurricane. And I find that, more than anything else, I want to be with them. More soon...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Day 5: Building Up to the Big Reveal

It's hard to believe we've been here for five full days--I think most of us feel that in some ways the time has just flown by, and in others it feels as if we've been here forever. The amount of knowledge the participants have accrued since they arrived has been astonishing; the level of hard work they've put into their efforts, a real testament to their dedication to bringing about change.

And when you remember that each of these activists has had to step away from the work they do at their own organizations in order to attend this training--no small feat when staff and budgets are small and the challenges at hand so many--I think you can't help but be doubly impressed by the fact they have shown up here day after day. But show up they have, and more: they have come with smiles on their faces and good will to spare. They have faced frustrations in learning this new technology, and fears about asking probing questions to total strangers. But none have them have backed away; no one here would think of giving up. Because there's too much at stake, they'll tell you. They know their stories--and the stories of their communities--need to be told.

Over lunch today I asked Jason from NGCLT about what he'd expected walking into this, and whether those expectations had been met. "I really didn’t know what to expect," he said. "Honestly, I sort of expected that other people would be doing the work and I’d be on the periphery. But sitting here looking at the story now, I realize that I am the right person to be doing it because I have the knowledge about the situation down here and the groups involved."

Jason was also surprised by how organic the process of piecing together a story can be. "I've learned that he story develops as you’re preparing it… I thought it was going to be this one thing at that was it, but that’s not the case. The stories evolve." And sometimes even continue to grow past their immediate conclusion:
“We’ve already got another one or two stories we can follow up on just from the initial work we’ve done here,” he says.

The community building aspect hasn't escaped him, either. "Getting to know these other groups has been great. And it’s amazing to see how much our stories overlap." The impact of what they've created this week, Jason says, could potentially be felt for years.

We’ve created such a great project here, and we need to make sure we follow up. We need to be reminded of what we’ve done, and [continue to] increase our skills. We need to remember to just keep doing it."

We Are Mississippi

A few of the participants in this week's radio documentary training on the final day of the retreat.

Back row, L to R: Jason Mackenzie of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, Lywanda White of Moore Community House, Will McElhinny of the Mississippi Center for Justice and Cass Woods of Coastal Women for Change.

Front row: Sharon Hanshaw of Coastal Women for Change and Anchanese Levison of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sisterhood is Powerful

Exactly twenty days from today the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will be upon us. Twenty days--that's less that three weeks for anyone who's counting--and, as Irene pointed out a post or so back, a look at the national dailies turns up little coverage.

From what I can see on the front pages of the online addition of the major national newspapers, not a single one (from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle to the Chicago Tribune to The Philadelphia Inquirer) would lead you to believe that we're still dealing with one of the worst crises our country has every faced down here in the Gulf. And that is the perfect reminder, if you need one, of why what's being created in the back rooms of this unassuming house will be so important: it's a way of providing perspectives that the mainstream media can't (or won't) provide; it's a way of telling the story like it really is, and by doing so, reminding those outside of the region that the struggle continues, in very human terms.

Today the participants are for the most part holed up in the office, continuing the process of story boarding, laying down tracks, and in a few cases darting back out into the field to find more voices to flesh out their stories. The time in these close quarters clarifies another central truth about why doing this work matters--because as much as these trainings are about impacting the media landscape, they are also about building community among and between organizers and activists. True, many of the participants who are here this week came into the process knowing one another at some level. But it has been fascinating to watch as bonds between them deepen, information is shared, and alliances form.

At the Ms. Foundation, that's how we believe real social change happens: by giving community based organizations the support and strategic opportunities to allow these important connections to be made and networks to form. That, we know, is how movements are built. It has been moving and inspiring to be part of that building process this week, the evidence of which can be heard in the raucous laughter and teasing that erupts around the lunch table every single day, and in the brief conversations that inevitably crop up as one participant overhears a snippet of another participant's work, and feels compelled to share her own experience with FEMA, or in battling a certain legislator, or wading through the morass of insurance red tape.

So, yes, we have brought these women together to give them the skill of radio production, to elevate their voices, and help impact policy. But we also know that once we are gone what they will need as much as anything else to keep this movement alive is the gift of each other's partnership. From where I sit, on that front as much as any other, this training has already has the markings of a bona fide success.

Meanwhile, if you'd like a look at what regional press and bloggers and activists who have the anniversary in their sights are talking about, here are a few suggestions: Our friends from the Institute for Southern Studies are blogging about the unseating of Mississippi Insurance commissioner George Dale, after 32 years in office (an African-American man, Gary Anderson, upset him to become the Democratic nominee). They also link to Ana Maria from A.M. in the Morning, who blogs from Katrina "ground zero" about the region's search for normalcy. The Biloxi Sun Herald reports that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be back in the Gulf next week, leading a group of 15 House members on a tour of the region, just as she did last year, before the first anniversary. And nearly 6 weeks after Grist blogger Wayne Curtis broke the story, the AP is now picking up on the fact that the water system in New Orleans is severely compromised.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what the President is up to in this critical period leading up to the 2nd anniversary, well, wonder no more: as of today, he's on vacation for the next month.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Piecing Together This History of Loss

After spending most of yesterday afternoon in the field conducting interviews, much of today’s activity here in Gulfport has centered on teaching the grantee partners to edit... using software that loads right onto their laptop computers. Before we delved into the instruction process, though, Saki from PPH (and their Radio Rootz program) checked in with the whole team to get their feedback on how it had felt to be out in the field for the first time the day before, conducting their inaugural interviews.

To a person, the participants seemed to feel not only excited by what they’d experienced, but empowered by it, too. I think each of them had been a little surprised by how much actually goes into not only conducting an interview, but also recording it and checking sound levels and battery power, all at the same time—but it seemed to me that they were equally surprised at how good they all were at it, too, once they got the hang of things.

It was great to hear them sharing their experiences, and offering others advice based on their early impressions. One grantee was quick to share her finding that though it’s great to interview someone you know well, it also presents a challenge when it comes to remaining on topic—and in remembering that no one else will have the kind of information about the interviewee that often gets taken for granted between friends. In other words: make sure you walk into the room with good, specific questions, and be sure to always cover the basics. Great advice for any newly minted citizen journalist.

Then it was time to dive into the technical element of the day: learning to edit. It sounds daunting, and I’m sure it was to some extent, but the folks at PPH really seem to stick by the model of “you learn by doing,”—so within an hour of the start of their presentation of how it’s done, all of the participants were behind the wheel of a laptop, copying sound files, checking levels, and cutting and pasting the tracks they would need for their final pieces. And once they got started they didn’t stop: the entire afternoon was spent slowly and methodically constructing the narratives of the storm they will soon be sharing with all of us.

If the flashes of sound I heard looping through our temporary offices on Martin Luther King Boulevard are any hint of what’s to come, I think we’ll be astounded by the sadness and horror, but also the bravery and spirit that’s driving life down here these days. It is impressed on me more with each passing moment that I am down here, how little we who do not have to live this out understand of what “living” has become since this storm. I know that I, personally, could not envision what losing everything might really look like until just tonight, as I stood next to Sharon Hanshaw in the parking lot of the Imperial Palace Casino (a very different kind of Katrina survivor).

There, with the gravel crunching beneath our feet, Sharon pulled at my arm with one hand while she waved the other back and forth through the air, beckoning to something no longer visible in the distance. “Where’s my house?” she called out, half-jokingly. “Where is it?” Together we peered out across the parking lot. A sea of cars and packed dirt stared back at us. At the far end of the new lot, a row of great old trees held their ground. It seems they were the only things that could. “Over there, by that tree” she said, “is where my house used to be.”

We stared a little while longer at what was not there. Then, together, we turned and headed into the casino for dinner.