How Everyday Boston empowers people to tell their own stories about the city
Mechelle Merritt, of Dorchester, talked to story ambassador Gabbie Follett about how she found strength in starting a Double Dutch group for young people in the neighborhood. All photos courtesy of Everyday Boston.
Many media groups cover communities from the outside in. Everyday Boston offers a refreshing alternative model. The site features stories produced by or with the help of residents and natives of Boston who want to share their insider perspectives with others.
Everyday Boston defies stereotypes with stories about people who may not otherwise receive media attention. With the tagline, “A portrait of the people of Boston, by the people of Boston,” story ambassadors shed light on the many narratives of a city that is often portrayed through a singular negative lens.
ivoh recently interviewed Everyday Boston founder Cara Solomon about her project’s journey and her hopes for the future.
Gloria Muñoz: What was the impetus for the project? How did it move from an idea to an actual collaboration?
Cara Solomon: It’s been a long journey, but I’d say the turning point came a few years ago, when I was reporting a story in a Boston neighborhood known too often for its violence, and an older woman recalled how an African American teenager asked her: “Why does everyone hate us?”
I couldn’t get that story out of my head.
Based on my past experiences as a reporter, and really just talking to people around town, I felt a real pull to try to address two problems: First, that the popular image of Bostonians is narrow, outdated and full of stereotypes (and that has a damaging ripple effect for all of us, particularly in these divided times), and second, that people who live or grew up in Boston neighborhoods often feel powerless to do anything about it.
So I came up with this idea to teach people who live or grew up in Boston how to interview, so they could go out into the city they knew — rather than the city they saw reflected within the limits of the mainstream media and movies — and capture the stories of people they found interesting and important. Story by story, we [began] to craft a richer and more representative portrait of the people of Boston. A portrait that would reflect the city they see.
At heart, it would be a community-building project; we would just use journalism as the tool.
I vetted the idea with advocates at a few grassroots nonprofits, they connected me with possible story ambassadors, and we had our first team meeting in May of 2015.
Muñoz: On its site, Everyday Boston is described as “a multi-media project that pushes back against the stereotypes that divide us, and uses stories to connect us.” In what ways does the project break barriers and stereotypes specifically?
Solomon: When someone goes to our site, reads the story of a stranger, and reacts with phrases like “I never thought that…” or “It’s nice to know that,” I think it’s a pretty good indication that a stereotype has been challenged. That’s happening a lot right now. And in a city that remains among the most segregated in America — by race and by income — we need far more of it.
In a note about why she wanted to join the project, Theresa Okokon, our newest story ambassador, said this: “We as Bostonians have a lot more in common than we realize, and learning tidbits about who our neighbors are makes our neighbors feel more human, more real, more accessible, more like ‘us.’ It is hard to battle against someone who fits into your concept of ‘us,’ so the collecting, telling and sharing of stories is a specific and direct way to create a community that has decreased and diminished internal battles. Stories build community.”
Beyond the website, we’re also bringing people together in real life — starting with the team, now comprised of six story ambassadors, ranging in age from 22 to 77, from different neighborhoods, races, ethnicities, religions and lifestyles. Soon after we met as strangers a year ago, Carmen Pola, our matriarch, started calling the group “the family.” We’ve essentially become the community we want Boston to be.
And every time we go out into the community, and sit down to listen to a Bostonian we don’t know, we’re building a bridge. On a recent visit to East Boston, where he hadn’t been in years, story ambassador George Powell got to talking in a barbershop with Cathy Russo about one of the most sensitive subjects in the city: the racial tension of the ‘70s. She told him a story of visiting his primarily black neighborhood, Roxbury, as the only white girl in the group. It remains George’s favorite interview experience. And when I talked to Cathy later, her first question was: When’s George coming to visit?
She wanted to show him around her neighborhood.
Muñoz: The site is very interactive and user-friendly. How are stories shared otherwise? What does the team do to make sure a wide range of people, including those who are not regularly checking the site, are able to access the stories?
Solomon: It’s a challenge. These narratives are not necessarily as tight or polished as the public is used to consuming — and deliberately so. We’re trying hard to preserve not just the exact words people used, but the essence of what they were saying, and the feeling with which they said it. That means it may take us longer to grow our audience.
For a while, we relied only on social media to deliver the stories. Now we’ve added an email subscription list, since we don’t publish on a regular schedule. We’re exploring the idea of a podcast. And increasingly, we’re bringing stories directly to the community.
On a small scale, this means delivering a printout of a story to a woman we interviewed who doesn’t have a computer or a smartphone. On a larger scale, one of the story ambassadors is hosting our first Everyday Boston event this November at her branch library, bringing together people we’ve interviewed, and their friends, for an evening of readings, music, food, and socializing.
We’d also like to explore partnerships with local media; that would raise the profile of the voices on Everyday Boston and give strained newsrooms another way to reflect the diversity of the city.
Muñoz: What kind of feedback and response have you received from Boston community members?
Solomon: It’s been pretty great. More than a year later, the story ambassadors remain completely committed and enthusiastic. In terms of the larger community, my best gauge is Tony Lewis, someone we interviewed early on, who was very skeptical of me as a journalist. After the interview, I told him we’d come back to his street, and we have- easily more than a dozen times. The first time, we showed up at Ripley Road’s annual BBQ, interviewed some of his neighbors, and the next morning, Tony called to tell me “the reviews were good.” Several people in the neighborhood had thanked him for bringing us in.
Since then, we’ve volunteered at a Thanksgiving luncheon Tony helps to organize and talked about developing a storytelling curriculum together for the kids in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago, when a young man was killed on Ripley Road, and I texted to see what we could do, Tony suggested we listen to one of the people who loved the man, and share that story on Everyday Boston.
Muñoz: What’s on the horizon for Everyday Boston?
Solomon: Now that we’re in the rhythm of the project, we’re going to focus more on partnerships — with high schools, where we think the stories could serve as a learning tool on a few different fronts; with journalism schools, where students can both learn from the story ambassadors and support them; and with nonprofits, who are interested in using a basic interviewing guide we’re developing to help craft the narrative of their own communities and causes.
Recently, the City of Boston’s Chief Resilience Officer reached out to us, saying she found our project powerful, which was really heartening. We’re meeting with her next week to talk about partnering on a video project.
Sometime soon, we’ll need to form a nonprofit and find some funding, since we’re all doing this in our free time, on a budget of zero. That’s not sustainable if we want to scale the project, with story ambassadors in every neighborhood, and maybe, down the line, in other cities. But we’ll get there.
And we’ll get there our way. It might be easier to get local firms to help us pro bono with website design or marketing materials. But as soon as we get funding, we’re going to hire Resilient Coders, which teaches Boston youth to code, and Artists for Humanity, which trains youth in graphic design. And we’ve already got a team of marketing students at Bay State College working on a social media strategy for us. Because when we grow, we want to grow from the ground up — with the support and the strength of the people of Boston.
Solomon shared a quote with us from story ambassador and longtime community advocate Carmen Pola. Here’s what Pola had to say about her experience with Everyday Boston:
“I was completely freaked out (in the beginning), and part of it is because I didn’t know the people in the group. I thought: I’m going to make a mess out of myself publicly. I’m a product of the 70s and the situation in this city. When I heard Kathy was from Charlestown, I thought: oh, God. And then these other women are college educated, and I have a high school diploma and a public library card from Mission Hill.
But it turned out to be great, with the help that I got. You don’t need a Masters from Harvard. You don’t need to have a doctorate from anywhere. You just need to love your community. You just need honesty and some principles about how you want to present your neighborhood.
When you see Everyday Boston on the internet, what you’re going to see is reality. Reality on Calumet Street, reality in Dorchester, reality in the South End. Because it is our neighborhood. And we know it. And we want to talk about some of the issues that we have, but we also want the positive activities that goes on in our neighborhoods, which has been forgotten by the main press.
I always say that I do have a dream, since I was a teenager, to see people get along with each other, past race and finances. And I believe—I honestly believe—that this project could be a main tool to accomplish those goals.
Resources are extremely limited on this, and the idea is so great and so promising that we need this whole city behind us. And not just the city—it doesn’t matter where you’re at. If you believe in neighborhoods directing themselves, this is why you need to support us.“
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.