Legacy of listening

Trey Rivera interviewing Khiari Benson in 2013

Trey Rivera interviewing Khiari Benson in 2013

Devote part of the curriculum to listening.

The concept was a radical one for 4th and 1 Football Camp—a free, weeklong camp that provides football, college prep, and life skills training to at-risk teens.  After all, there was just too much to teach and never quite enough time.

When The Recollective came to 4th and 1 in 2012 to record audio interviews of our student-athletes and volunteers, they turned our fast-paced camp on its head.

Our student-athletes were solving math and verbal questions, taking diagnostic exams, honing their handshakes and interview skills, practicing yoga, and running football drills 16 hours each day. There was barely enough time for three square meals.  Would devoting some of that precious time to listening exercises be worth it? Frankly, I wasn’t sure.

Student-athlete, Heath Holt

Student-athlete, Heath Holt

The Recollective scheduled me for an audio interview with student-athlete Heath Holt, a linebacker who had been coming to camp every summer since 2010.  The Holts were a cheerful family, always among the first to show up, en masse, to drop off Heath at camp.

“Why is your family so tight-knit?” I asked during the interview. A simple question but, it occurred to me, one I had never asked in all the years I’d known the Holts.

“Well, actually, it’s because of my little brother, who was born with Spina bifida,” Heath said.  “When my younger brother passed away, our family became even closer, because we found out what we had, and we realized we should enjoy what we have when we have it.”

How was it that I didn’t know this about Heath?

Over the course of the week, The Recollective collected stories from our student-athletes about topics as wide-ranging as being raised by a single mother, surviving Hurricane Katrina, loved ones who had passed away, gun violence, and race relations.

Overcome adversity.  It was a mantra we repeated at 4th and 1, but until The Recollective began listening, we didn’t know, concretely, what “adversity” actually meant to our student-athletes.

“I play football in memory of my father,” a reserved fifteen-year-old Ralph Trey Rivera, III explained in his Recollective interview.  Trey was so quiet that he’d allowed me to call him Ralph for three days until he corrected me.  “Actually, Ralph is my dad, so everyone calls me Trey, or Big Trey,” he said.

Trey, who had watched his father collapse from a heart-attack in their kitchen when he was just nine, couldn’t think of just one favorite memory of his dad.  “Every memory is a favorite memory.”

The Recollective’s audio interview became, for Trey, a distillation of his motivations and dreams, and Trey fell in love with radio as a medium.

In 2013, Trey picked up where The Recollective left off by collecting audio interviews of his fellow student-athletes during his second year attending 4th and 1.

Trey had also spent the year thinking about how he’d struggled after his father passed away, he told me, and here’s what he was going to do about it—start his own camp, one similar to 4th and 1, but for 8-12 year-old kids.

Ralph Trey Rivera III with student athletes at Camp Strive

Ralph Trey Rivera III with student athletes at Camp Strive

“When I lost my father it was the hardest time for me,” Trey said during an audio interview we recorded in 2013.  “I didn’t care about school, I wasn’t the nicest kid, and I was always bullied. It was the hardest time in my life, because I didn’t know who I was anymore.”

As a legacy of The Recollective’s work at 4th and 1, student-athletes now sit in small groups with mentors and talk at the end of each day.  Just listen to them, I instruct our mentors.  That’s the most important thing you can do.

Or, as Trey put it:  “It’s very hard to talk about sometimes, because, you know, just as these student-athletes that I want to serve through my camp feel like there’s nobody there to listen to them and be there for them, I also feel like that sometimes.

But then, I look at my supportive family, and I look at my mentors and these people around me who are opening doors that I would not have known about if I had not gone to 4th and 1 Football Camp. It’s really an opportunity when you’ve gone through such hard things, and you go to one camp and you regain your self-confidence. You regain everything.”

HeadshotGuest blogger, Vivian Chum is Executive Director of 4th and 1 Football Camp and an attorney in Washington, DC.



Ralph Trey Rivera, Radio Rookie

Ralph Trey Rivera at 4th and 1 Football Camp in Mt. Pleasant, TX.

Ralph Trey Rivera at 4th & 1 Football Camp in Mt. Pleasant, TX.

In the summer of 2012, the Recollective went to 4th & 1 Football Camps in East Lansing, Michigan and Mt. Pleasant, Texas to teach workshops on photography and radio as well as interview the student athletes; one of those student athletes was Ralph Trey Rivera (Trey). Trey loved radio and was game to be interviewed and he asked lots of questions about radio. In the summer of 2013, Trey took over our work at the camp in Texas, and learned how to record and edit interviews with his peers. He edited a short piece from his recordings and has posted several stories on Cowbird. He even recorded an interview with the camp’s Executive Director, Vivian Chum, about his dream of creating his own non-profit.  Trey’s radio work at 4th & 1 caught the attention of the folks at Radio Diaries (some of the master’s of the art of radio, documentary). Trey was chosen out of over 800 submissions, as a semi-finalist in their Teenage Diaries Project. We are all wishing him the best as he pursues his dreams! So from the Recollective Radio Rookie desk, here’s Ralph Trey Rivera:

The Recollective: How did you first get interested in radio? What about radio excited you?

Trey: My first radio experience was at a camp called 4th & 1.  I was interested how they were able to take the stories of the campers like myself and communicate them to an audience.  It was exciting because you could speak to different groups of people and learn about them and each story was a new adventure for me.

The Birds and the Cows

The Recollective had a great time this summer at the 4th & 1 Football Camps.  Back in August we shared a sample of the stories we recorded at each of the two camps.  Listen to the student-athletes in Mount Pleasant, TX right here and watch an audio-slideshow from East Lansing, MI right here.

After we packed up our gear and returned home, Vivian Chum, the Executive Director of 4th & 1 went one step further and began posting excerpts of the recordings on Cowbird.  And what, you may ask, is a Cowbird?  Wikipedia defines Cowbirds as “…birds belonging to the genus Molothrus in the family Icteridae. They are brood parasitic New World birds which are unrelated to the Old World cuckoos, one of which, the Common Cuckoo, is the best-known brood parasitic bird.”  But producer Annie Correal has a very different definition and she shared it with us in a recent interview.

Annie: Every group has a different approach to Cowbird — but they all ask us about the name. So here’s the answer: We’re slow and thoughtful like a cow, quick and light like a bird.

The Recollective:  So how did Cowbird get started?

Annie:  Jonathan Harris is an artist and computer scientist known for projects like We Feel FineI Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt that incorporate vast amounts of data to create new forms of narrative. He spent two years developing Cowbird at art residencies around the world, and in a small beach bungalow in northern California.

He built this storytelling platform from scratch. It looks simple, but there are a quarter million lines of code underlying Cowbird. We launched in December, 2011 and to date around 20,000 people have joined us. They can tell their stories using photos, audio and text, folded into beautiful stories that can be shared across the Web.

Screen shot from the Cowbird website

The Recollective: What is Cowbird’s mission?

Annie: Our goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons. When you tell stories on Cowbird, we automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others, forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.

The Recollective: Is there a guiding philosophy behind Cowbird?

Annie: We build the world’s simplest and most beautiful storytelling tools, and we offer them for free to anyone who wishes to use them. By doing this, we hope to build a community of people interested in telling deeper, longer-lasting stories than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web.

We want to be as inclusive as possible, and are finding ways to extend this tool to people who are often written about, but who haven’t had a way to share their story in their own words—like the residents of a Native American Reservation in South Dakota, who told their stories as part of our first partnership, with National Geographic, the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project.

We’re interested in the kinds of stories like these, that will continue to resonate in 100 years. We’re not interested in selling data about people’s behavior, or using people’s stories to advertise products. Cowbird is completely ad-free and independent. We offer a premium account, which we call Citizenship, for people who want to support what we do.

The Recollective: Is Cowbird looking for specific kinds of stories or themes?

Screen shot of a story by Lisa Biagiotti

Annie: We welcome all kinds of stories.  I would personally love to see more playful stories, by which I mean pieces that play with the narrative possibilities of combining image, text, and audio. I like illustrationsfound sounds, stories that transform how you see an image, so that you undergo an actual change in perception by listening to them or reading them. Lisa Biagiotti does that in this story. Scott Thrift does that in this one. A lot of people who are starting to work in multimedia haven’t seized these possibilities. Too many people think multimedia means jamming several media in one space. The key is to make media speak to each other, to integrate them.

The Recollective: How can people contribute and in what forms?

Annie: To contribute to Cowbird, all you have to do is Join. Once you create an account, you can tell unlimited stories that can include image, text and audio. As an independent producer, I’m hoping to get a lot more storytellers who are comfortable working with audio. Cowbird is a fantastic place to post short audio pieces, to create a gorgeous portfolio of your work (I’m sorry, but no one is looking at your website) and to share these pieces individually over Facebook and Twitter. We’ve had Cowbird stories picked up by Snap Judgement, Marketplace and Re:Sound. You can tell stories for free. If you’re a Citizen, you can tell these stories using multiple pages, and in your own handwriting font.

The Recollective: What trends have you seen in terms of subject matter?

Annie: What you’d expect from people sharing personal stories, I guess—birth, love, loss, death. I think the most interesting trend, for me, is that there are a number of stories by young people about detaching from technology, stories by 20-somethings interested in creating a new way to live that’s more connected to physical presence, the world outdoors, tangible things. This story kind of sums that up.

Screen shot of a story by Mark OBrien

The Recollective: Have you been surprised by who has contributed stories or by the stories themselves?

Annie: Absolutely surprised. We have people in every corner of the world telling stories on Cowbird, including China, where Cowbird seems to have flown under the radar. And we have stories about virtually anything you can think of — check out our DNA Search and you’ll see what I mean. Of the 50,000 stories added to Cowbird to date, there are of course thousands about family, love, and travel. But we also have 155 stories that mention a bomb, and 28 stories that feature a ladybug.  I’m surprised every time someone chooses to share a secret on Cowbird. And kind of honored, actually.