How Capital Public Radio fosters meaningful community conversations

It was 2014, and jesikah maria ross had a challenge on her hands.

Her employer, Capital Public Radio, was embarking on a new, long-term project for its documentary series, “The View From Here”. This time, it would tackle an issue as underrepresented as it is prevalent: food insecurity.

About 245,000 people in Sacramento County, California, find themselves without enough food to eat every month. ross was a part-time community engagement specialist at the time, and her job — to help the radio station bring this issue out of the shadows — was daunting.

Sure, she could organize a community meeting. But those tended to be starchy affairs, held under fluorescent lights and in foldout chairs. “We didn’t necessarily want to have panel discussions and feedback sessions,” ross told ivoh in a recent phone conversation. “So how do we do it differently?”

jesikah maria ross

When she was young, ross said she came to understand what it felt like to be “silenced.” Her mother died of cancer as she entered kindergarten. “My family did what many families did in that time, which was to try and protect me and my brothers from the pain by not talking about my mom,” she said. But instead, she felt “torn up inside.”

“The message that I picked up was that something happened to the person most important to me. That I have been abandoned in some way, and it’s not okay to talk about it,” ross said.

At the same time, at school, teachers were asking her to write with her right hand — something that, as a leftie, she had a hard time doing. She found lowercase letters easier to handle, and when she got older, she chose to write her name in all lowercase: jesikah maria ross.

“It really comes out of an experience being forced to be someone I wasn’t, and at a certain point, using this small little tactic helps me visually represent myself in a way that feels most like me,” she said. Ross readily admits her experiences pale in comparison to greater injustices, like the disparities afflicting black men in the U.S. But those experiences nevertheless fueled her desire to bring people together to end the silence surrounding America’s most troubling issues.

When she first arrived at Capital Public Radio, she felt like an “outlier” in what seemed to be “a pretty traditional public radio affiliate.” But she soon discovered that she and public radio had “shared values and shared missions.” Its founding commitment to the “genuine diversity” of American society drew her in.

Nevertheless, there were still hurdles to overcome. She started to observe the immense strain journalists were under, due to tight deadlines, budget constraints, and the need to compete in the 24-hour news cycle.

“I think public media journalism right now has really been about, ‘How do you quickly and efficiently tell stories?’ And there’s usually a focus on problems,” she said. “We have a system that works in a particular way very well and very efficiently, but I don’t think it’s getting us to our public service goals, or actually reflecting the diversities of our communities.”

“The View From Here” offered ross an alternative to the typical journalism model. This was a program that devoted months, even entire years, to creating multi-platform documentaries. ross joined in, devoting herself to expanding the program beyond its on-air and online platforms.

She aimed to bring a live, in-person component to “Hidden Hunger,” the documentary “The View From Here” produced about food insecurity. Public conversations weren’t simply a tool to rope in more listeners, ross said. To her, they were a “form of art.”

She would organize “rough cut screenings,” where journalists would play clips of their work before it airs. The goal was to see what worked for the audience, and what didn’t.

She also installed pop-up StoryBooths in vulnerable Sacramento communities, to allow ordinary citizens the chance to share their experiences with food insecurity. Freelancer Megy Karydes covered the project for nine months ago.

Since then, ross has instituted her latest innovation: a public conversation that worked like a “mash-up of a civic meeting, a literary salon, and a dinner party.” She pulled it off with funds and support from organizations like the Sierra Health Foundation and Village Square. The first was held in May, during the Sacramento Hunger Coalition’s Hunger Awareness Week.

Fifteen tables, bedecked with black table clothes and flower vases, were set up in the Clunie Community Center’s ballroom. Food was ready and waiting on each one. And at one end of the ballroom, ross and her team had set up an information zone, where attendees could pick up extra material.

An illustration that came out the event. Click on the image to see a larger version of it. (Courtesy of Capital Public Radio)

The public conversations avoided overtones of advocacy, ross explained. Her objective was simply to bring together different viewpoints. “It’s not that we were advocating for a position or a resolution or a policy. We’re advocating for a process. And that’s a process of involving, engaging, and including diverse voices,” she said. “That’s the idea of democracy: a free circulation of diverse ideas. That’s the cornerstone.”

The event was free, but each attendee had to register in advance, identifying their role in the community. ross said she used this information to decide who sat together, “like at a wedding.” She wanted to make sure people didn’t cluster in their usual social groups.

An illustration from the May event. Click on the image to see a larger version of it. (Courtesy of Capital Public Radio)

Each table included a host to guide small group conversations, and a person impacted by food insecurity. “I dipped into our grant stipend to bring people who were food insecure,” she said. “So it wasn’t like, ‘Let’s talk about hunger,’ and there’s no one there who has been hungry.”

The two-hour program showcased the radio documentary and live presenters, including civic leaders. At the end, attendees were invited to write a postcard about the event. ross said she collected the postcards before they left. Then she sent each attendee their postcard a month later, as a reminder of what they experienced.

That kind of personal touch is what brought Amaya Weiss into the “Hidden Hunger” project. Weiss had worked for eight years in schools throughout Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood. Noticing the hungry students at her latest school, John Still K-8, she decided to open a “Hope Closet,” full of food and supplies for the kids.

The “Hidden Hunger” project profiled her work in one of its segments, “Far From Plenty.” Weiss remembers how reporter Julia Mitric followed her at work, day after day, even coming home to meet Weiss’ family. Students and parents alike grew comfortable in Mitric’s presence, Weiss said.

But Capital Public Radio’s engagement didn’t end with the interview. The radio station hosted a family night, where they handed out fresh fruits and vegetables to students. ross herself was there, vegetables in hand.

“Many of my students have never heard of Capital Public Radio. So when were there serving our students, hanging out, playing board games, engaging, physically seeing them, I know that’s what makes a difference,” Weiss said. It was also a “game-changer” for Weiss’ own efforts. Donations have poured in since the “Hope Closet” was featured on air.

“I got $500  in gift cards from a woman in Florida who said, ‘I heard about what you’re doing. I believe in the work that you’re doing. Don’t give up,'” Weiss recalled. “I would have never gotten that.”

Inspired by the “authenticity” she observed at Capital Public Radio, she joined the station’s coordinating council. The council gives feedback and guidance on the station’s reporting, and advises the station on how best to engage the community.

Weiss’ biggest advice for the station is to simply keep going. “Capital Public Radio needs to continue to go out into those vulnerable populations and those vulnerable families, because those families can’t get to them. Capital Public Radio station might as well be in Guam if you’re living like that. Nobody has cars, nobody’s driving on freeways, nobody has money to take buses,” Weiss explained.

ross, meanwhile, just started a full-time position at Capital Public Radio in August. She is now the senior strategist for community engagement. But with her new role comes even bigger hurdles. “The View From Here” is already delving into its latest project, on undocumented immigration. It’s a topic far more controversial than food insecurity.

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge to think about how to design public conversations and participatory storytelling — the two pieces I’m really responsible for,” she said. “How do I do that with something so polarizing, in a way that really brings people together, even if they disagree?”

But those concerns aren’t stopping ross. She’s already planning Capital Public Radio’s next outreach project, complete with a possible museum exhibit.


Interested in hearing more about jesikah maria ross’ work? She will be attending a Journalism That Matters/University of Oregon event from Oct. 1-4 in Portland, Oregon. ivoh is a planning partner for the event and will be leading a Restorative Narrative workshop on Oct. 1. For more information, click here.  

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