Deck The Halls

Trawling around the twittersphere this morning I came upon this photo taken in Dongguan, China.

Marilyn Santa dances his Xmas joy.

Marilyn Santa dances his Xmas joy.

This got me thinking about this time last year when I spent Christmas in China. In fact I spent Christmas not too far from where Marilyn Santa now coyly stands.  I remember walking  past stores selling all of the mass produced Christmas balls and bells and baubles that you and I see hanging from trees in living rooms across America. I saw legions of mechanical Santas caroling their mechanical tunes. Now admittedly, I don’t celebrate Christmas but I love it. I love the songs and the smells and the ornaments. So I felt very much at home in China amidst the kitsch. In the spirit of that kitsch The Recollective has collected some quick stories from folks about their favorite Christmas decoration.  Click on each name to hear that person’s story.

Yangzhou Wells Imp. & Exp. Co., Ltd.Made in Jiangsu, China

Yangzhou Wells Imp. & Exp. Co., Ltd.
Made in Jiangsu, China

Amy Adsley, Eric Douglas and Nicki Berger share their memories of  homegrown holiday traditions.

Jeremy Helton talks about his first “authentic” Christmas ornaments while Billy James Dean talks about holiday consumption.

Susannah Chovnick and Scott McCraw describe their favorite decorations.

And Jasmyn Belcher and Whitney Henry-Lester discuss the good, the bad and the crusty of holiday baubles.

A big thank you to everyone who shared a story.  What’s yours?  Jot down your favorite or most meaningful memory of Christmas decorations and post it right here!

Logo Emblem Industries Co., Ltd.Made in Guangdong, China

Logo Emblem Industries Co., Ltd.
Made in Guangdong, China


Getting in Depth With the Reporter Corps

I recently met Jasmin Lopez, a journalist from Los Angeles at the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. It’s a conference with a lot of schmoozing and boozing and talking about projects. Over dinner one evening Lopez told me about a new project she was heading up in Alhambra, California (not too far from where I grew up) called the Reporter Corps. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and StoryCorps facilitator naturally the name intrigued me and then when I heard more about the program — training young journalists to report in a hyper-local way on their community (Listen to what the Corps reported about Thanksgiving) — I had to learn more and share.

The Recollective: Why/how did you become a journalist/media-maker?

Lopez: Growing up in a low-income immigrant family, I became familiar with the challenges and barriers that exist in the lives of residents in underserved communities, both in the U.S. and Mexico. While living in San Francisco in 2007, my family’s experiences inspired me to create Project Luz – a collaborative effort that seeks to empower youth to share stories within their communities, utilizing audio and photojournalism techniques. In early 2008, I hopped into a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle with three photojournalists and headed on a month-long road trip through Mexico. We decided to stay indefinitely and ran storytelling workshops for youth in Ejido Hermosillo, my family’s hometown, and Nezahualcóytl, a city and municipality of Mexico state. During this time, I was fortunate enough to work with many journalists and media-makers who became my mentors, then colleagues. In 2009, I was unexpectedly propelled into a career in journalism when I was asked to report for documentary projects about families and communities affected by the H1N1 influenza in Oaxaca de Juarez, and those affected by the disappearance of the Colorado River in northern Mexico. Since then, my passion for community-based journalism has not ceased.

The Recollective: How did the idea for Reporter Corps come about?

 Lopez: Daniela Gerson, editor of Alhambra Source and director of the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, saw the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community. Reporter Corps was launched on October 15, and is led by Daniela Gerson, Nasrin Aboulhosn, and myself.

Members of the first Reporter Corps

The Recollective: How did you get involved in this project?

Lopez: While freelancing in Los Angeles, I recognized the need for community among LA area radio journalists and producers out of my own sense of loneliness in this field. I reached out via the Association of Independents in Radio (they’re amazing!) and dubbed the first group gathering as ‘Listen Up, Los Angeles’. Through Listen Up, Los Angeles, I met Daniela, became familiar with the Alhambra Source, and accepted the position of Coordinating Editor for Reporter Corps in Alhambra and South Los Angeles.

The Recollective: Tell me about the community of Alhambra. Why pilot this program in Alhambra?

Lopez: Alhambra is a predominantly Latino and Asian immigrant community in Los Angeles county. As with many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. The suburban city of about 85,000 lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers slashed their coverage of the area. The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.

The Recollective: Why are local/community-based stories important?

Lopez: In my opinion, local/community-based stories are important because they give community members a voice – an outlet they wouldn’t normally have access to. As you might know, under-served communities often lack exposure to public media or are overlooked in general. And, as journalists, we work so hard to tell a story and get our work to the “right” outlets, but often struggle with or ignore the need to reach the very community whose story we are telling.

The Recollective: What did you look for when hiring reporters?

Lopez: The first class of Reporter Corps members were selected based on their connection to Alhambra, growth potential, and determination to address social issues within their community. Often, this determination came from personal experiences – which provided them with unique insights into local issues. Since launching the program, the team of young reporters have already exceeded our expectations by applying lessons in communication research, multimedia reporting, and city government to their community and reporting.

The Recollective: What types of stories have your reporters covered that have been missed by the mainstream press?

Lopez: Reporter Corps launched on October 15, and recently began publishing work based on an assigned curriculum that addresses community needs, as well as the reporters’ questions about their community. For example, one hired reporter discussed her frustration with business/development issues in her community during her interview – she is now the business development beat reporter. Reporters are assigned to beats that cover business development, city government, education, environment, health, police/fire, transportation, and parks and recreation.

Reporter Corps takes on Alhambra City Hall

The Recollective: What stories have surprised you?

Lopez: The reporters are only in their second week of reporting but have already managed to impress the editorial team with their efforts. Most recently, they shared Election Day coverage with their community which led to a collaboration with KCRW.

The Recollective: How has social media and the internet influenced these young reporters ideas about reporting?

Lopez: Social media was not on the minds of the reporters until we introduced them to KPCC’s social media editor, Kim Bui, who led a workshop on social media. The reporters quickly began to incorporate social media into their reporting, and have most recently tweeting news from city council meetings to lessons learned during their workshops with local journalists. Check out the hashtag #ReporterCorps to follow them.

The Recollective: Many of the reporters you are working with are first generation Americans or immigrants themselves. How have you seen the immigrant experience influence these reporters?

Lopez: The young Reporter Corps members — all immigrants or children of immigrants — serve as natural translators for a multiethnic city. In addition, they are in great need of opportunities: Community college students are enduring cuts and recent graduates facing a challenging job market. With Reporter Corps, this often-overlooked group is developing skills and providing reporting on their community that a professional journalist could not achieve.

The Recollective: What have been the biggest hurdles in getting the project started?

Lopez: From creating curriculum to hiring the reporters to enlisting mentors to organizing the launch party, the program came together quite nicely in just a month. There were a few bumps along the way – we’ll call them lessons – but all fell into place. I think the most important thing to remember – a lesson I learned through Project Luz – is to always share what you’re doing and ask for feedback, keeping all parties in mind: the community, the reporters, the mentors, the supporters, and most importantly, your team.

The Recollective: What’s next?

Lopez: The first class of Reporter Corps will continue for the next five months, then welcome a new group of reporters from both Alhambra and South Los Angeles. Since this was the pilot, it is up to the current reporters and mentors to provide feedback on the program so that it is strengthened and can be replicated elsewhere.  Personally, I look forward to learning more from my team, the reporters, and this community so that I may apply these lessons to my future work…always to be determined.

Vox Pop-ular Vote?

Vote here! Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

I headed down to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to check out one of the polling places in the area affected by Hurricane Sandy. The polling place was located at the Shorefront Y about one block from the beach. Signs of Sandy’s destruction are everywhere. The apartments surrounding the Y still didn’t have power. The beach was littered with trash, heaps of debris, waterlogged furniture. Midway through the morning a fleet of National Guard Humvees showed up to deliver goods to hurricane victims still eeking it out without heat, power, hot water. I strung together a quick little piece of some of the folks that I spoke with.  I asked them about how Sandy had affected their trip to the poll this election, oh, and whom they voted for. Take a listen.

Seagulls basking in democracy.

The Blooz is Coming to Town

What does it mean to be blue?  Is it okay? How do you stop? What do you do? Children’s writer Caron Levis set out to answer those questions. The result: a subtle and beautiful picture book about what it means to be sad and an adorable embodiment of that sadness, the Blooz. The Blooz shows up one day and won’t go away. He’s a lovable, loathe-able, character, dripping and oozing into your heart.

Levis’ first book, Stuck with the Blooz came out this month to much applause.  And for anyone lucky enough to live in New York City you can come out and hear Levis read from the book this Saturday, October 20th at 11:00am at Greenlight Books in Ft. Greene. For those not in New York, no worries, you can get your very own copy of this beautiful book!  Ask your local bookstore or go online to purchase it.  AND now for the good stuff. The Recollective sat down with author to get the back story…

 The Recollective: The first question we have to ask is the obvious one. What do you do when you’re sad?

Levis: When the Blooz visits me I like to take long walks, soak in the tub, or read a favorite book. Other times I might listen to music, scribble words I like in purple pen, or meet up with a friend. Sometimes the Blooz wants me to slow down and notice things going on inside, other times, it wants me to go out and jump into leaf piles in order to hear the crunch.

The Recollective: What was your inspiration for Stuck with the Blooz?

Levis: The story was sparked to life by a conversation I had with a student one day while I was teaching in an elementary school. She had been quietly crying while walking down the stairs, I pulled her aside and we sat on the steps to chat. Speaking through her sniffles, she conducted a thorough investigation into her sadness. She asked herself questions: was she hungry? Hurt? Tired? Homesick? She couldn’t figure out why she had the blues at that moment, but she could describe what it felt like, remind herself that it would eventually go away, and brainstorm activities that would make her feel better. Her self awareness and courage impressed me. She reminded me of all the folks I know who work to be present with their more uncomfortable emotions. I knew I wanted to share that conversation. A few months later, while I was sitting alone in a large empty house, looking at a cloudy sky and listening to the rain, the Blooz knocked on the door.

The Recollective: What do you think she would think about this interpretation of her experience? (Have you told her?)

Levis: She’s a teenager now, so I doubt she’d remember me, let alone one short stairwell conversation! While our conversation and her plucky, smart questions inspired me to the idea, the book is not about her and the character is entirely made up. I haven’t yet been able to get in touch with her or her family but it would be fun find out what she’s up to now. She was a smart, joyous, and creative kid, so I imagine she is pretty great now.

The Recollective: You have a knack for getting down to a child’s level, not condescending or heavy-handed teaching, but understanding. How do you step into the shoes of say, a 4-year-old when you sit down to write?

Levis: Thank you so much for saying that.  I honestly don’t think about shoe stepping much. I’ve been working with kids since I was in high school and though I do love my groan-up friends, I have to say, I enjoy talking with–and mostly listening to–kids the most. So, when I’m writing, it’s just me talking with kids, or hearing them talk to me. That said, if I could fit into four year old shoes, I would so get me some of those adorable lady bug and crocodile galoshes they get to wear.

Caron will be reading this Saturday, Oct. 20th at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn

 The Recollective: You write both for children, young adults and adults, how does your process differ for each? Does it differ?

Levis: For the most part I work on ideas as they come to me, make sense, and become urgent somehow. Whether it’s something that ends up being for kiddos, teens, or adults doesn’t matter. Nope. My process is slow and messy no matter who I’m writing for;) But I think I let myself eat more ice cream when writing for kids, because Jane Yolen, a children’s author told me to. (In her book about writing.)

The Recollective: What was it like working with an illustrator?

Levis: I feel like the luckiest first time picture book author ever. Sincerely. I know it isn’t always like this and I am so grateful. My editor, Adah Nuchi, got Blooz from the start and found the perfect illustrator in Jon Davis. She sent me his character sketch and I had a happy-dance party in my living room because I knew it was going to exceed my highest hopes. So, the process for me was a delight because while Jon was hard at work, I just awaited with total excitement. He lives in the UK and we’ve never met. We didn’t correspond until after the book was mostly finished, which makes the whole thing even more wild. Jon took hold of these ideas in my head and drew them into pictures more amazing than anything I could have imagined. He is so incredible at evoking emotion through body language, space, and color. Putting Blooz in that old timey striped suit was brilliant and perfect and made me want to hug him (him being Blooz AND Jon!) Some of the details Jon chose to create made me feel like he’d been to my house or knew me. And the last scene…see I use acting exercises when I write and in order to find the right ending, I kept making a certain gesture with my arms to embody the feeling I wanted the words to convey. I never told anybody about it of course, certainly not Jon, yet there that gesture is on the last page of the book. He’s an incredibly perceptive and talented illustrator and I still can’t believe my luck.

The Recollective: How old were you when you started writing?

Levis: I’d have to look back at a long line of journals to find the date, but I remember it was after reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books that I decided I wanted to be an author. My elementary and middle school was wonderfully supportive of writing and handed journals out every year. Though, I think writing really starts with reading, and I have this amazing tape recording of my mother reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to me when I was about two. It was obviously one of my favorite books, and on the tape you can hear me “reading” along, often beating her to the next words. Listening to it, I can recall having the sensation that I was actually making the story happen by calling out those words. (four strawberries! …cherry pie!…still hungry!) Those studies we sometimes hear about, that explain the importance of reading to kids?  Absolutely true in my book.

The Recollective: What do you hope readers will take from reading the book?

Levis: Kids, just like adults, feel sad sometimes. As adults we try to send the message that ‘it’s okay to cry’, but we don’t like to see people we love, especially kids, feeling blue so the instinct is often to make the sadness go away. Sharing the experience of being sad is tough, but once a conversation is started, kids, aren’t afraid to explore their emotions.  I guess I hope the book can help start the conversation about emotions–in an enjoyable, fun way. When we can get a little distance, there’s often humor to be found in our gloom. I think sadness is mostly considered a scary, unattractive, and mysterious emotion that is best to block out, hide, or fix as quickly as possible. It can definitely be scary, but it can also be beautiful and lead us places if we let it.  My intention was to have the story work at different levels and Jon Davis made this possible by creating such a squishy, goofy, huggable Blooz. You don’t have to have to talk about the blues to enjoy Jon’s gorgeous and joyful drawings. I’d be delighted whether conversations happen between parent and child, teacher and students, inside a single reader’s mind, or if they just float around the beautiful blues of Jon’s skies while kids are busy giggling at the way Blooz bounces.

System “D”

Journalist Robert Neuwirth just did a really interesting TED Talk about the informal economy, or the black market, or the DIY economy or however you want to name it. Neuwirth calls it “Système D,” a French term that refers to the ability to think fast and adapt. According to Neuwirth two-thirds of the world’s workforce lives and works within System D. As a freelancer, peddling my skills for whatever I can, I wonder how much of my day-to-day is a version of System D.

“The United Street Sellers Republic — the USSR — [would be] the second-largest economy in the world after the United States,” says Neuwirth in his talk. He spent four years researching this other global marketplace and wrote a very interesting book, “Stealth of Nations.” Part of his research took him to Guangzhou, China and into Little Africa.

Check out his talk. It’s well worth a listen.

The Stars at Night Are Big and Bright

4th and 1!!!!

Deep in the heart of Texas there is a little football camp that could and did. It’s Friday and it hardly seems possible that an entire week has passed. The student athletes played their final scrimmage this morning. It was a perfect morning for some football, not too hot, not too muggy just blue skies and fat cumulus clouds. Afterwards as is football tradition the students all “took a knee” and Coach Ryan gave them one final pep talk. Then to the amazement of the counselors and coaches a few students spoke up.  They thanked each other for the week, they called each other brothers and they left Chaela and I in a puddle.   Tonight is the final banquet. We put together a quick little audio postcard from the week. Take a listen:

Bright eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,

Chaela & Nina

Friday Night Lights

So, you might have smiled when you learned that Chaela and I were going to a football camp in East Texas. Admittedly we know nothing about the sport (we have been sneaking in an episode of Friday Night Lights before bed each night). However, everyday we have learned something new. Today we learned that there is a position called “split tackle.”  Who knew? We are still a bit unsure of what the split tackle does, but it sure is a nifty name.

Heath at morning practice

All kidding aside, it’s been an adventure this week learning from these student athletes. Last night was the talent show and this is indeed a talented bunch. We had jugglers and singers and rappers and even some kung fu.

Athletes serenading the “grown-ups” as they call us

The highlight of the night was a dance off.  Imagine if you will, giant linebackers getting down, and I mean getting down.  One of the offensive linemen, Ralph, got his groove on  break dancing.  He shocked the entire camp, which erupted in a chorus of hooting and cheers.

Ralph (on the right) getting his yoga on