How State of the Re:Union explores 'the ways people transcend challenging circumstances'
(Photo of part of the State of the Re:Union team with interviewees in Hawaii, courtesy of Tina Antolini.)
How does an entire city, where people’s self-interests and narratives are disparate or fundamentally conflicted, cohere and grow?
That question is at the heart of a longform radio project called State of the Re:Union. The stylistic stepchild of This American Life, State of the Re:Union seeks to explore “how a particular American city or town creates community, the ways people transcend challenging circumstances and the vital cultural narratives that give an area its uniqueness,” according to its website.
“The stories are built to give you a real sense of that place, to evoke what it’s like to live there,” says senior producer Tina Antolini, who was in Hawaii doing research for an upcoming episode during our interview. “In concentrating on what’s bringing people together, State of the Re:Union inevitably stumbles upon the uplifting and the solution-oriented, a focus ‘This American Life’ doesn’t have.”
The State of the Re:Union team digs deep into stories and sometimes produces Restorative Narratives — stories that show how people and/or communities are learning to rebuild and become resilient after experiencing difficult times.
Host/executive producer Al Letson and his team of producers have to really work to achieve that depth, doing hours of research and investigative reporting with the intention of uncovering diverse and often conflicting narratives in communities. Their goal isn’t to highlight conflict, however: they embrace the diversity of communities in each locale, demonstrating that diverse modes of contemporary life can be reconciled into a cohesive narrative through communication.
Take for example a recent episode, “Portland, OR: A Tale of Two Cities.” State of the Re:Union detail the contrast between a largely white population that thrives in a progressive, eco-friendly, non-corporate idyll and the socio-economically depressed, predominantly black population of North Portland, which struggles to overcome various obstacles – including missing sidewalks along highly-trafficked roads and a lack of nutritious food options.
“The story we were focusing on for most of that episode was that of a bike lane which goes through a historically black neighborhood,” says Antolini. “That [bike lane] catalyzed the community to enter into a dialogue with some of the newcomers into their neighborhood.”
It was a long and awkward road to get there, however. Letson, et al, use the first part of the episode to detail the seemingly innocuous influx of mostly white college graduates into Portland over the last three decades. Many of them sought Portland’s slower pace as an opportunity to reinvent themselves with less full-time employment and more project-based creative work. In the episode, the State of the Re:Union team also highlight long-time black residents of North Portland who wished to block a city proposal to create a new bike lane.
Why? The black community of Albina was drawing a line in the sand, protesting the presumptuous prioritization of the needs of a new demographic, when long-time residents couldn’t manage to get the city to fix potholes. The fight for this bike lane uncovered an unfortunately substantial history of institutional racism in Oregon.
As the State of the Re:Union story explains, black people were originally banned from owning property in the state and it wasn’t until the creation of the city/community Albina (in what is a now-incorporated portion of North Portland) that black people had a place with a vibrant sense of community without the threat of racial persecution. Tensions had been mounting for a long time and the pressure for the aforementioned bike lane, however well-intentioned, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The solution? A multi-racial committee that would hear all voices and perspectives on the issue. Talks were tense, uncomfortable, even hostile, but they were at least happening. A dialogue was broached and the process reached its zenith when Portland mayor Sam Adams became involved, promising to do right by the historically black neighborhood and its oldest residents. The bike lane ended up being the best kind of compromise, a landmark that presented the history of the area like an outdoor museum while providing a degree of safer access to bicyclists.
These “how did I not know about this?” stories are what rings the bill for Antolini and the State of the Re:Union team. Turning up soil, asking citizens how they define their place, and “getting away from Google” are all crucial parts of the investigative process for Antolini.
This also means sometimes digging into “stories that don’t have a firm resolution,” such as State of the Re:Union’s “Re:Defining Black History” episode, which explores ignored threads in the superficially unified narrative of black history.
Antolini says she tries to avoid sources with agendas and instead focuses on the people whose stories surprise her. Her primary research tool is “a breadcrumb trail” of conversations, the best way to create the organic narrative sense that will connect water rights, the economy of sugar plantations, and the local Pidgin dialect in their upcoming Hawaii episode.
And people are listening. Since State of the Re:Union began in 2009, Antolini says “the show’s listenership has grown exponentially…We just learned that 323 [radio] stations are now airing ‘SotRU,’ which is about a hundred higher than our last count.” NPR and PRX co-distribute the show, which is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and WJCT Public Broadcasting.
In an era when journalists find themselves increasingly embattled on the fronts of funding and principles, it’s refreshing to see a show like State of the Re:Union thriving while increasing awareness of neglected narratives.
Have story ideas you’d like to share with us? Email them to ivoh managing director Mallary Tenore or share them with us on Twitter (@ivohMedia). If you’d like to learn more about Restorative Narratives, consider registering for our media summit this June in the Catskills.