How community engagement strengthened Capital Public Radio’s reporting on ‘hidden hunger’
Capital Public Radio interns Joanne Serrieh and Lester Robancho record River City Food Bank volunteer Nancy Hasdovic as part of the station’s StoryBooth project. Photo by jesikah maria ross.
By Megy Karydes
Megy is an Images & Voices of Hope freelancer who lives in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @Megy.
The documentary, which aired on Dec. 5, focuses on people who are struggling with poverty and hunger in some of Sacramento’s most overlooked neighborhoods. It’s part of Capital Public Radio’s “The View from Here,” a multimedia documentary series that explores how people are responding to challenges in their lives.
The series stands out because of its good storytelling — and its emphasis on community engagement.
Many journalists and news leaders say they want to engage their communities, but don’t always follow through or don’t know how to do it effectively. “Hidden Hunger” offers good lessons on how to go about it and why it’s important.
Catherine Stifter, producer of “The View From Here,” is responsible for bringing in ross to help build the community engagement aspect of the series. Stifter had been leading the documentary unit at Capital Public Radio for about a year and wanted to figure out a way to extend the use and life of these documentaries.
“She knew [community engagement] was something that I did in my community media and public media work as creative director of my company Praxis Project, so she brought me in to talk with their news director and some of their senior management,” said ross, who spells her name using lowercase letters.
Some Capital Public Radio staffers were intrigued by what ross would do to build community engagement. Others worried about involving the public in their reporting process and wondered whether they would lose editorial control in doing so. Part of what ross wanted to do was show them how community input could inform their reporting.
ross began the “Hidden Hunger” documentary project by bringing community leaders together to “begin to think about how we, as the community…can improve conditions of community life.” Community voice platforms are an integral part of The View from Here’s documentary process, she said, because they help the work go back out into the community.
Using the World Café dialogue model, ross convened community leaders in one room to hear their thoughts on how to combat issues of hunger — and the stigma and shame that surround it.
“Their single goal was to raise awareness [about hunger],” ross said. “I was surprised because that was such a modest goal. Most people are looking for change in a more concrete way. I was so shocked that was all they wanted … to just raise awareness.”
The group that ross created meets monthly to help create a community engagement plan. They create the plan in collaboration with Capital Public Radio, rather than being told what to do.
“[We] craft up something that makes the community engagement plan of use and benefit to the groups that are participating and of use to us, so it’s reciprocal,” ross said. “We’re public media and they’re the public and we’re working together,” ross said. “We’re [putting the] public in public media.”
The Power of Community Engagement
Together, community leaders, ross and Capital Public Radio decided to create a StoryBooth to help capture the community’s stories.
StoryBooth began as a 10 x 10-foot pop-up booth at five different locations, from food banks to community clinics. Forty individuals shared stories, first-hand, about the Hidden Hunger topic.
“The StoryBooth was a really great way to [get the stories from the community],” ross said. “At each of the five locations we went to we had a community liaison. They had already lined up about two-thirds of the people who spoke to us.”
Their stories were turned into an audio documentary that includes accompanying photos online. Those who didn’t want their faces shown were given the opportunity to share something symbolic around them to stand in for their face. The community responded well to this approach.
In addition to three chairs and a cooler with some drinks, ross and her team offered each person who shared their story a basket of toiletries – something that people sorely needed.
“One of the things we wanted to do was have an exchange. They’re giving to us (through their stories) so what could we give to them? A lot of these people don’t have toiletries,” ross said. “So I organized a station-wide donation of toiletries. We got so much. … Some people were so thankful and yet others said, ‘I have those – give it to someone who needs it.’”
ross was impressed by their generosity and their willingness to share stories that may otherwise remain untold. In talking with them, she was reminded that hunger is often a silent struggle.
“Hunger is an issue that many people take on as a private issue,” ross said. “Fifty percent of the kids in Sacramento County are on food stamps. The statistics are staggering. … Raising awareness is one of the biggest changes we can effect.”
She says she’s proud to be part of Capital Public Radio because the station is allocating resources to make things happen.
“To me, that’s groundbreaking,” ross told ivoh. “They’re saying: ‘what we’re going to do with some of our funds is involve people into the whole journalistic enterprise so that we actually are relevant and of value and make a difference in their lives.’”