How media makers can authentically tell community narratives
Yoruba Richen (left) talks about her film “The New Black.” She’s joined by Ozioma Egwuonwu.
Genevieve is a reporter for The Epoch Times in New York City and an Images & Voices of Hope freelancer. She can be found on Twitter at @Genevieve_Long.
If you ask Ozioma Egwuonwu, newly-appointed ivoh board member and founder of BurnBright International, the voices of those typically pushed aside are often the voices with the richest stories.
Egwuonwu, a motivational speaker and success coach, was a featured speaker during the recent ivoh Mindful Media summit in the Catksills. She was joined by As part of a session that examined community narrative, she recounted her experiences working in crime-riddled Newburgh, New York, and the repeated lesson: Everyone has a story to tell.
What truly made it hit home for her was an incident during a community event when the mayor and Egwuonwu were on stage and a heroin addict came up and grabbed the microphone. It became apparent that the man only wanted to have his say.
“He said, ‘It’s hard out here, but we have to believe,’” and then quietly walked away. The experience had a profound impact on Ozioma and led to questions about how to bring these types of stories out.
“How can we bring these stories to the forefront, and honor them?” she asked. The most obvious answer is also an age-old journalism principle: There is no substitute for getting out on the street and talking with people.
Nobody knows that lesson better than San Francisco staff writer Kevin Fagan. He has spent months at a time living with the homeless of San Francisco in order to tell their stories, and he doesn’t sugarcoat it.
“It let us really get to know that community — the community that’s shoving a needle in its arm and puking at 3 a.m.,” said Fagan, who was one of the session speakers. He and Egwuonwu were joined by filmmaker and director Yoruba Richen and moderator/ivoh board member Michael Skoler.
The recipient of more than 80 national and regional journalism awards, Fagan has also written about the mentally ill and war veterans, and is an avid musician. But he has one true love.
“The thing that’s been the most consistent and closest to my heart is homelessness,” Fagan said. “You have to spend time with people to get down to what’s really going on.”
During his time working as a reporter embedded with the homeless in San Francisco, he began to find that he could tell different stories. Perhaps more meaningful stories.
“One of the most compelling and dysfunctional groups of people we met lived on a traffic island,” he recounted of his days on the streets. “We tried to show the depth of what happens when you’re truly homeless.”
Though Fagan said that in his line of work, “you cry a lot,” it has never stopped him from telling the stories he encounters. Sometimes to good effect.
Mayors and policy leaders have called him to get more perspective and information. Some of his reporting led to supportive housing for the homeless to help them back on their feet. One woman he lived on the streets with was reunited with her family from his coverage and became healthy and healthy again. Another managed to get a home, but lived there only one year before she passed away. Fagan noted that this can happen to the chronically homeless after the stress of living on the streets catches up.
Through it all, he has remained clear about his role as an observer.
“It wasn’t like we were advocates or activists; we just spotlighted it,” he said. “You have to be human. You can’t not care about people when you’re reporting on them.”
Richen, who created the film “The New Black,” shared similar thoughts, and explained the importance of telling community narratives authentically. It’s important, she said, to give people a chance to share their own voice.
“For me it’s very important that the community be a part of telling that narrative — people telling their own stories,” Richen said. “And not only the subjects. I am very interested in hiring people in the community to work on my projects — empowering them to tell their own stories because that’s how I also think that these narratives are authentic.”
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