The thing I loved about being a journalist from the beginning was how quickly it rewired me to value stories people around me had to share.
I always enjoyed a good story, but for some reason, I believed that really good ones were carefully packed in easy-to-consume forms such as movies and books. The rest of them, I thought, weren’t that exciting. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
All of us have amazing experiences along our journeys. We are made of them, we live them every day, and we are not always aware of how unusual and interesting these stories of ours are. Most importantly, how many of those exciting stories about twists and turns of lives and people around us we know or even care to know?
When I first came up with the idea for the digital journalism project My America Without Prejudice (prejudice-project.com) the goal was to find people with interesting insights into life in the United States. This country is so beautiful in its diversity, and I was up to creating a corner in the Internet where some of this diversity could have been carefully displayed on virtual quote-cards. Each card was to have a quote starting with “My America is…” followed by some interesting insight.
The plan of painting the portrait of America with handpicked “My America” statements crashed within a half an hour of the first interview for the project I sat down to do. I thought, incorrectly, that having a half-hour conversation about hot political topics would get me a juicy and insightful statement.
As the result, I walked out of the interview knowing that I could never describe America and its diversity without telling stories of regular people living here – the statements by themselves weren’t enough.
The biggest challenge for the project from the beginning was to find people from different states and backgrounds to interview. West Virginians’ America would be very different from — let’s say — Californians’ America. A black man’s America is different from a white woman’s America. So, on and so forth.
I asked around, and soon, one of my friends put me in touch with two amazing people who agreed to talk to me about their American experience.
The interviewing process had two steps. First, I helped a person I was talking to figure out what their America was and how they saw their nation. Second, we found a story or stories from his or her life to illustrate their point of view, not necessary in that order.
The first person I interviewed was a woman who we will call Gwen. This is a pseudonymous she picked for the story we published on the project’s website. What a story it is! Gwen lost and regained the ability to walk, found herself in an unhappy marriage and broke free from it, fell madly in love with a Pakistani man she met in Kuwait and who was killed by his friend. The murderer was hung with six other prisoners in an execution that received international news coverage.
Gwen blew my mind and opened me up to the idea that regular people have insane, sometimes better that-a-movie kind of stories to tell, if only we ask and listen.
If I thought that Gwen was a jewel and I couldn’t find anything to measure up to it, soon I was interviewing a guy who was held at gunpoint by police for no reason other than being black. Next, I talked with a girl who fled Ivory Coast war when she was 5 and saw a lady being cut open by rebels for the sake of a bet.
The more I talked, the more I learned to listen to the people who surround me every day. A friend’s grandfather has stories about the Vietnam War and coal mines (stay tuned, it’s the next story to be published on the project’s website) or a guy who decided to talk to us on a beach about his days as a firefighter and a rescuer ... they all have stories that will find and change us, if we will just let them.
To learn more about My America Without Prejudice Project visit www.prejudice-project.com.