Finding America: Making story to make change

The following remarks have been adapted from a speech by Sue Schardt, AIR’s executive director, who spoke on Sept. 21, 2016, at PRPD, where AIR hosted a plenary session with the full Finding America team in Phoenix, Arizona.

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The world is demanding that we open ourselves to new realities. That we rise to a new calling. Today, I want to talk to you about just one thing. Love. Time is short, and many of you, like me, have spent most of your careers working to build this fantastic enterprise we call public media. What we have known in the past is not what we have today.

On this stage are 31 of the most gifted talent from AIR’s network of more than 1,100 independent producers and our station partners. They set out last November to the far corners of 15 communities to build something new. From Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans, to Good Hope Road in Anacostia, the streets of Tulsa, Baltimore and Milwaukee, to the Ensley neighborhood in Birmingham and the far arctic reaches of Alaska. Nine months in the places where most media coverage succumbs to the redundancy of headline-driven news. Communities defined by violence, or poverty, or despair … the “otherness” of what’s happening “over there” on the other side of the bridge, or across that road.

Public media is complicit in this, but we are finding new ways.

Our team started out not knowing what they would find. What we did know was that we were determined to open the margins. To invent a new kind of storytelling with and for the people we met.

The first step in the Finding America assignment is to leave the microphones and cameras behind. To recognize that we’re going into places where we don’t necessarily look like the people living there … may not speak the same language. So the first step is to leave behind what we know, and go in with humility. With open eyes and ears, to spend time observing and absorbing to discern the rhythm and flow of the place. Who are the people that make the place tick?

We began our work with open hearts, and with an intention of feeling the connections between the people there. In the stories our producers will share with you today, and on our documentary site, you’ll hear how they became integrated into the lives of the people with whom they worked.

One thing we discovered is the primacy, not of social media platforms, but of social platforms. Bible study groups, circle dances, food pantries, hot dog wagons … places where people share their stories of joy and grief, their dancing, cooking, celebration, mourning. The things that we all know make up ordinary living.

These are the places where we will build a new public media.

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he said our job was to bring enlightenment. The paradox we’ve discovered is that working in this way, we’re bringing enlightenment to worlds just up the road–those already familiar with our work. With the power of public media, we pull from one side to the other to bring these disparate and divided parts of our communities together into an integrated whole. To tie. To bind. Indeed, to heal. We call this radical love*.

It is a fantastic time of remaking. I’m so proud to be working with these new pioneers. I hope you, too, will follow where they lead.

We are Localore. We are Finding America. Now is our time. This is our purpose.

*Hodari Davis, Program Director at YouthSpeaks, introduced the concept of “radical love” at AIR’s 2015 Public Media Lab at MIT’s Open Docs Lab in Boston. Watch his conversation with Sue Schardt here.

Thank you to Jody Evans and the board of PRPD for inviting AIR to be a part of the conference. Thanks to CPB and the Wyncote Foundation, who have been with us since we started this work in 2010, and thanks to MacArthur, Ford, and the NEA, without whom we would not be here today.