Guest post by Adriana Diaz (opinions reflect that of the author)
It’s been a week, and I’m still riding high from the warm, fuzzy feelings I garnered from the love-fest we call the Studs Terkel Community Media Awards .
As a fairly new addition to the staff at Community Media Workshop, I was asked during a staff de-brief Tuesday, to share my thoughts on last week’s ceremony. I found myself choked up as I tried to report back what I felt after attending my very first Terkel event.
It had been such a great party, the culmination of our staff’s months-work of planning and prepping. Mostly though, the remnants from the presenters’ and winners’ speeches still resonated with me; a sure sign of powerfully good messages. It’s like Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
These moving speeches, also made me reflect about some of the lessons we teach at the Workshop. When we coach others in their nonprofit communications; or provide custom spokesperson training , the Workshop promotes methods found in good storytelling: like use examples to help get a more general point across; use colorful words and contemporary references; create relationships.
It struck me that the messages that were delivered on Terkel night reverberated within me, not only because they contained the elements of a good speech (i.e. catchy intro; informing; inspiring), but because the speakers used stories, and found ways to engage the audience. Each of the speakers spoke with poise, deep humility, and warmth.
Megan, Fernando, and Dave are wonderful writers and engaging storytellers, but ultimately they’re connectors. They listen. They build relationships.
It’s like 2006 Terkel winner Mark Brown related in his introductory speech for Dave Hoekstra the night of March 14. Mark chuckled about the envy he often feels when he reads Dave’s work, wishing the subject had told him the story, “But they didn’t tell me. They told Dave.”
Please read excerpts from some of the night’s speeches and let us know how this text speaks to you. If you were present for the speeches, how did they make you feel?
2009 Terkel winner Alden Loury, introducing Megan Cottrell:
As many of you are aware, as a nation, we’ve grown from a time when we wore our racism on our sleeves to a time when we hide and protect those feelings like our life’s savings–with the exception of the time when we log on and make anonymous comments on blogs spewing the n-word, racial epithets and other divisive language. Just about any news story with a hint of a racial undertone usually descends into a litany of comments that make you question just how far we’ve progressed.
We think about race, poverty, inequality and privilege all the time–all day, everyday. We just don’t talk about it. We don’t openly share those feelings. We’re too scared or too ashamed. But we still have those feelings.
But Megan Cottrell has helped bring down that wall, not all the way but enough for people to dialogue about our differences and gain some level of understanding about people of other racial or ethnic groups. As I was recently telling a colleague, in her blogging and reporting particularly about public housing, Megan has done well in reaching folks who are typically invisible and weaving her own perspective and experiences with those of her sources to pose compelling and sometimes uncomfortable questions about race and class.
She ran a successful blog of her own for awhile before joining The Chicago Reporter where I worked at the time. I was truly excited about her coming on board having followed her work. I thought she’d do wonders for our blogging and her impact was clearly apparent in her first six months. She has shown herself to be a 21st Century Terkelian journalist by telling stories and engaging readers online.
Please join me in congratulating the compassionate and courageous Megan Cottrell.
Excerpt from Megan Cottrell’s acceptance speech:
A couple of months ago, I was asked by a nonprofit in Chicago to give a lecture to a group of people who would be tutoring kids in Cabrini Green. They told me I had about 45 minutes to give the new tutors a complete overview of public housing. There was obviously a lot of history and detail I could have gone into, but I tried to focus on telling the stories that had been told to me.
I talked about Audrey Johnson, the resident of Ickes Homes, who remembered the wholesome after school classes she took – sewing, folk dancing, cooking. It cost her family a dollar for her to go every day after school for the entire school year. She talked about her step dad dressing up as Santa Claus for the building Christmas party. I looked at a building and saw a place I wasn’t sure I was welcome or safe. She saw her history, her family, her entire life.
I told these new tutors about Doreen Ambrose, who had grown up in Cabrini Green. She remembered her third grade teacher reading her Langston Hughes, which inspired her to become a poet. She remembered living on the third floor of 325 W. Oak Street, the smell of her mother’s cooking wafting through the apartment while her dad watched TV after work and she scribbled poems in her notebook.
These women had sad stories too. Audrey’s stepfather was murdered when she was a young teenager just a few floors up from their apartment. Doreen remembered when the stable families started moving out and more and more troubled families started moving in. She could distinctly recall a young man, a classmate of hers, being murdered blocks away and the terror that she felt when it happened.
After I spoke about this for awhile and played clips of these women telling their stories, a young woman raised her hand at the back of the class. She said, “I think I get it now. I always looked at those buildings and thought, ‘Why would anyone want to live there? And why would anyone be sad if they tore that place down?’ but now I see – these were people’s homes.”
That moment was a little victory for me. That’s all I really want out of my career. I hope that something I write helps bring people’s experiences to life in a way that makes them real to my readers, real enough to understand their point of view.
In short, I want to create empathy in the world. That’s a word that makes most journalists nervous, because it borders on advocacy or editorializing. But in my view, empathy is what creates change — change for the better. We cannot take care of our neighbors until we understand them, and a well-told story can help us understand them in ways that lists of statistics or news briefs will never do. We don’t have to agree with someone or say that they’re right, but we can listen to them and understand where they’re coming from.
We live in a world where empathy is not widely regarded. Studs talked about how we have national amnesia. I think we also have a national empathy deficit. Our news, our politics, our discourse is so polarized that we are quick to talk about “those people” and how we could never understand them or be like them. In a world of sound bites and constantly scrolling headlines, we have no room and no time for empathy.
But we desperately need it. I stand in a room full of people, who despite claiming to be unbiased and objective, all deeply care about their city. That’s why we do what we do.
Studs Terkel once said “I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be.”
These days, people don’t talk to each other. They don’t want to. Maybe they’ve forgotten how. But we can tell their stories. We can bring people together, even when they don’t think they want to be brought together. That’s our job. That’s our legacy. That’s our gift.
Read Dave Hoekstra’s full acceptance speech, reprinted here .