The power of stories

Campus is relatively deserted now, and watching all my senior friends walk across the stage at graduation has gotten me thinking about what I’ve learned here at Whitman over the past semester. This semester in particular, my classes and extracurriculars all interacted in a complimentary way. Weirdly, the big idea I’ve gotten out of this hasn’t been some academic theory or new conceptual framework for viewing the world. It’s a really simple thought—that the stories we tell are fundamentally important for understanding, constructing and changing society.

Right now, you’re thinking, Yeah Rachel, duh. I know, it’s not the most original thing in the world. But over the past four months, I’ve explored the idea of narrative and story from enough angles that I think there’s a deeper edge to my understanding.

I only had three real classes this semester—Political Ecology, Environmental Communication and The Nature Essay. Aside from school, most of my free time was spent writing for the Pioneer, telling stories about campus life. This combination created a lot of tension in my head, possibly due to the different expectations each of these classes came with:

Political Ecology: It’s easy to get seduced by good writing, so be careful of that and learn to deconstruct the author’s assumptions.

Nature Essay: We’re going to learn to seduce readers with our writing.

Environmental Communication: We’re going to analyze stories to see what they’re really saying and how we can use rhetorical practice to get our message across when talking about the environment.

The Pioneer: Write stories. Don’t be biased.

I definitely had a few nights where political ecology me got in the way of writing my nature essays, because I was freaking out about accurate representations of everything and the political implications of the words I was using. But all in all, that synthesis has been a really good thing. It’s such a healthy challenge to be critically interrogating language that perpetuates systematic oppression while also trying to write lyrically for a general audience—people who have never heard of things like hegemonic masculinity or gender dysphoria. It’s pushed me to become a far better writer, because I have to constantly think about the subtle implications of the way I’m portraying “reality.”

Stories, to be sure, can be insidious. When something is presented as fictional, it’s easy to not question the social norms it’s reinforcing. And when something is presented as “reality” or “objective journalism,” it’s easy to not look for the biases that shape everything anybody writes. News always involves choices—about which stories to print and not to print, about who to talk to, about how to present the issue in question. And it doesn’t take too many articles like the recent New York Times piecesexualizing and dehumanizing a trans woman who died in a fire to see the ways in which the stories we tell both reflect and shape our societal norms about how people should be treated.

With examples like that, it’s easy to get depressed about writing. But fundamentally, episodes like this reinforce the idea that there is power in the written word. For me, that’s a hopeful and inspiring place to be. I’ve seen this firsthand interacting with friends in the wake of my trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. You can argue facts and logic about immigration policy all day, and you’ll probably get people to agree with you. But it’s in the stories—the human, the personal, the stuff that hits close to home—where people actually listen. I’ve spouted immigration stats to friends who didn’t care much, and then seen their eyes open when I recount a story or show them the essay I wrote after that trip was over. People get it so much more quickly when there’s a narrative. Ditto with my articles about rape on the Whitman campus. I guarantee that the dialogue we’ve had on campus about sexual assault didn’t happen because of the statistics about how many reported sexual assaults occur every year. They happened because some incredible women were brave enough to share their stories with me, and those stories connected with people in a way that numbers can’t.

I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of being a writer. With the world so screwed up in so many ways, trying to make a living stringing words together seems silly and self-indulgent. And it is, to an extent. Writing won’t be enough to solve the world’s problems, and I don’t want it to be my whole life. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that those stories aren’t meaningless. In the written word, there is both the power to define and shape reality, and the responsibility to do it fairly, accurately. In writing, I see the seeds of radicalism, of building something better. It’s not enough, but it’s definitely a place to start.


Reflections on a career in journalism (stage one)

For those of you who don’t know, I’ll be taking over the reins of my beloved college newspaper, the Whitman Pioneer for the 2012-13 school year. I’ve just finished hiring all of my editors, managers, and general people-in-charge-of-running-stuff. So this editor-in-chief title is starting to feel real, and it’s put me in a bit of a reflective mood.

I joined the staff of the Pio freshman year with no real journalistic experience. I say real because in 5th grade, I was the founder, editor and main writer for my class newspaper, the Outer Mongolian Press. I put out a weekly paper, though to call it that might be a stretch. The entire thing was written in Papyrus. Articles were just stacked on top of each other—no columns. I didn’t even bother to justify it. If that counts, though, then this was my first news article ever:

Rooms 108 and109 are about two-thirds done with our famous 5th Grade Research Project. We just finished writing a rough draft from our outlines and are working on title pages and citations. Some of our fabulous topics are Women’s Suffrage, the Oklahoma Land Rush, the Trail of Tears, and Irish Immigration. These projects are due on April 4, and are going to be excellent according to Ms. Zoog and Ms. Jones. Until then, good luck on your projects.

Seventy-eight words of pure glory, and in true professional journalist style, my project topic was one of the ones listed (the Trail of Tears, incidentally). I remember distinctly when Carl, who was in room 108, started a rival newspaper for his class. He’d used Publisher to make something that looked like an actual newsletter, and he asked me to team up with him. I refused him, because I knew that while his paper looked way better, mine had far better content. And more people read mine, in spite of the Papyrus.

Middle school made me take a break from my publishing career, though I did maintain an angsty Livejournal. I actually applied to be staff on my high school’s paper, the Garfield Messenger, and was rejected. I was trying to be a photojournalist back then, so I’d applied for both that and writer. They turned me down for both, which I still attribute to the extreme cliqueness of high school (I was on the Executive Committee for our outdoor program, and we didn’t mix much with the Messenger staff).

Instead, I wrote a few columns for the Watchdog, a political opinion magazine/newsletter type thing that a few classmates started. My only serious one took on the accelerated program I was in from 2nd through 8thgrade (it was called APP). Though the program ended in high school, the (largely white upper and middle class) students in it got automatic placement at Garfield, a magnet school which also served a neighborhood population in a largely black area. The result was an essentially segregated school, made worse by the fact that the school district had decided to cut yellow bus service for all students except those in my program. I wrote:

If the district is going to allow APP students to come from all corners of the city to attend Garfield, they need to make sure that neighborhood students who live near Garfield are not being left behind in their own school. While APP students may be scattered all over the city, we knowingly chose to go to a school far away from our houses, and we shouldn’t be given special treatment because of that. Even for routes where there is extra room, the district could have allocated it in many other ways to be fairer to non-APP students living far from Garfield. They could have sent out a notification to all Garfield students letting them know about buses and allowing students to sign up if they were interested. They could have given first priority to students on free/reduced lunch, or students living furthest from school, or students with the longest Metro routes to school. They could have asked upperclassmen with access to cars to opt-out of buses and make space for people who can’t drive. Regardless of the way they go about it, the district needs to make sure that transportation is assigned on the basis of who needs it most (students furthest from school), not on the basis of enrollment in an academic program.

There is one more solution. The district could reinstate yellow bus service for Garfield. They’re not saving any money by giving us Metro passes—according to Stephanie Bower, head of the APP parent advisory committee, it’s just as expensive as yellow buses would be. If the district doesn’t want to do this—if they’re serious about “creating a generation of public transit users”—they need to make sure the policy applies to all students equally. If my non-APP friends living three blocks away from me don’t get a bus to school, I shouldn’t either. If my friend chooses to go to Garfield even though she lives three blocks from Roosevelt, she can deal with getting on the overcrowded 48 every day after school. If the school district can’t provide a yellow bus for every student at Garfield, then the APP students need to find another way to get to school, just like everyone else.

I got a lot of reactions to that piece, and it generated a pretty heated Facebook discussion about privilege in the APP program.

Senior year of high school, I also took part in a photography class at Northwest Photo Center. I’d taken four quarters of classes with Youth in Focus, a program which provided free instruction and supplies to urban youth. After exhausting all of their offerings—beginning, intermediate and advanced black and white, plus advanced digital—they paid for me to take a real class with adults.

Our final assignment was to produce a portfolio of work organized around a theme. Around this time, the Seattle School District was closing a bunch of schools to cut costs. Almost all of them were in the south of the city and predominantly served people of color. I decided that my project would be photojournalism—covering the meetings where these decisions were being made, as well as some of the culture that would be affected. I spent a good portion of my time after school hanging out at protests and school board meetings with my trusty Nikon D80. And while I’m no expert photographer, I’m proud of some of the scenes I was able to capture.

Freshman year at Whitman, I went to the activities fair with a purpose in mind. I’ve never been the type to make friends quickly, and I knew that my non-drinking, non-partying self needed to find an activity to get overinvolved in or risk social isolation. So it was my nagging insecurities about being too nerdy that propelled me into journalism for real. The Pio staff people looked nice, and I figured since we got paid to write, I could give it a try.

I just pulled up my application for my original news reporter position, and I’m kind of proud of my 18-year old self. I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing, but when they asked me why I wanted to write for the Pio, I said:

I think news reporting is one of the most important aspects of society—it allows people to stay informed and engaged in their communities and the wider world. I love to write and share my opinions, as well as being attention to things people might not otherwise think about.

My first assignment ever was to cover a transit board hearing about potential service cuts to the bus system in Walla Walla. I biked three miles to the meeting and felt like an undercover agent. I got quotes and interviewed people, and all I could think was, “All I have to do to get these people to talk to me is say I’m a reporter!” I didn’t feel like one, but I wrote my first article, and it was put on the front page. I almost quit after my first semester since the job was taking over my life and my editor utterly failed as regular communication, but a very drunk copy editor yelled at me in the kitchen of some upperclassmen’s house at our end of the semester party. “Rachel, you can’t quit! Your articles are so easy to edit!” So I stayed.

Since then, I’ve done things I never would have imagined. I’ve interviewed Dan Savage one-on-one (while I had vaccine-induced typhoid), attended a farmworker rights march in Pasco, ridden in the back of the mayor’s car to go see election results printed off at the county elections office and had the executive editor of the Seattle Times call my story on campus rape “hard-hitting.” I’ve spent a month as a reporter for a rural Ecuadorian newspaper and sat in on a live Skype chat with Bill McKibben and a bunch of interns at The Nation in New York City. I’ve used the skills I’ve learned as a journalist to write better papers, ask better questions on field trips and learn more about most of the issues I care about.

Next year is going to be a challenge for me. In my heart, I’m a reporter. I want to be cracking skulls, following leads and exposing corruption. But I know I have it in me to lead, to take pride when people on my team are able to write those stories and put them on the page in a way that makes it impossible for people to ignore. I have the rest of my life to speak truth to power and bring the U.S. government to its knees. For the next year, my job is to make the Pio the best damn paper it can be.

NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!