The Bridge the Gulf Project Gives Residents A Voice
By Tina Antolini
For those of us who live in small towns, national news of coverage of something happening near our home is a relatively rare thing. And when the media does come to town, often drawn by some crisis or natural disaster, it can be a surprise what they do —and don’t— pick up on. This has been a theme in many of the towns SOTRU has visited that have weathered hurricanes or tornadoes, oil spills or destructive mining practices: the version of the story told to the American public is one heavily filtered through an outsider’s lens.
For residents, it often doesn’t feel like their story, the one they would choose to tell, if they were the ones with the television cameras and the microphones. On the Gulf Coast — a region so battered by disasters in recent years that the national news media is nearly omnipresent — some residents decided to seize those cameras and mics for themselves.
A group of community leaders, led by documentary filmmaker Leah Mahan, started Bridge the Gulf, a citizen journalism project intended to give residents more ownership over the telling of their stories. The project has been around for just over a year now, and has seen contributions from up and down the Gulf Coast. SOTRU’s Tina Antolini spoke with Bridge the Gulf’s Ada McMahon about the difference the project is making in the region.
SOTRU: Bridge the Gulf (BTG) was created to give Gulf Coast residents a voice in bringing their stories to the greater public. Now that the project is a year in, what range of perspectives has the Project given voice to, which might otherwise have gone unheard?
Ada McMahon: The perspectives on Bridge the Gulf are mostly about environmental issues and social injustices, and what community leaders are doing to create a more sustainable and just future. The site covers the impacts of the BP disaster and community organizing for environmental justice, and also discussions about the prison system, housing issues and workers rights. At BridgeTheGulfProject.org you can read the story of a casino waitress who quit her job rather than serve seafood from the oiled Gulf; you can watch a video about formerly incarcerated people who are learning legal skills to help their loved ones in the prison system; and, you can hear why people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina are still living in Houston.
Covering these stories is important, but equally important is how they are told and who they are told by. The casino worker wrote her story herself with editing support from Bridge the Gulf. The prison video was made by a community organizer who helps run the legal training program and learned how to produce a video through a Bridge the Gulf training session. The interviews with displaced Katrina survivors were conducted by someone who was evacuated to the Houston Astrodome during the storm.
It’s important to Bridge the Gulf that each community has an opportunity to present stories from their own perspectives. So on the site you’ll see fishermen and environmentalists, you’ll see contributors from Texas and from Alabama, you see African American, Native American, white, Cajun, Vietnamese and Latino contributors. The site is not just about the stories. It is about giving ownership and control of media to Gulf Coast community members. It provides a platform where they can use their stories and experience and expertise to make an impact.
SOTRU: How do you feel Bridge the Gulf has contributed to the coverage of ongoing events in the Gulf Coast region, like the impact of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?
Ada McMahon: Bridge the Gulf contributes a unique voice – that of people and communities who are directly facing social injustices and environmental issues.
For readers, it is a refreshing alternative to the mainstream media. For members of impacted communities, it is an opportunity to say what’s really going on, in their own words. In the case of the BP disaster, mainstream news is routinely based on BP press releases, statements or reports. Bridge the Gulf’s coverage is centered on the people who are most impacted by the disaster – commercial fishermen, response workers who are falling ill from chemical exposure, coastal residents who are still seeing dead turtles and dolphins wash up. If we want to know how the Gulf Coast is recovering from the BP disaster, aren’t these the people we want to hear from?
SOTRU: Is what’s being covered on Bridge the Gulf related to the oil spill providing a different perspective than what’s in the mainstream media? How so?
Ada McMahon: You can get stories on Bridge the Gulf that you just won’t see elsewhere — commercial shrimpers like Mike Roberts and Tracy Kuhns, who live on the bayou and are trying to protect their waters and their livelihood. Andre Gaines, who saw so many safety and environmental violations as a supervisor on the clean-up operation and has fallen ill from his exposure to toxic oil and dispersants. Cherri Foytlin, the mother of six and wife of an oil worker who walked to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about the ongoing disaster.
Immediately after the BP disaster, the mainstream media covered some of these people and issues. You could find a few good stories about commercial fishermen, some good investigations into poor safety regulations. But a lot of the coverage was focused on technical aspects of capping the well – remember “junk shot” and “static kill”? Once the well was capped, mainstream media began to act like the story was over, which was the message coming from BP and government agencies.
Now, the mainstream media rarely covers the BP disaster. You won’t find many stories about the health issues – seizures, headaches, memory lapses, nausea – that people began experiencing after being exposed to BP’s oil and dispersants. You won’t find stories in the mainstream media that are based on the lived experiences of communities on the Gulf Coast. At Bridge the Gulf, we build our coverage on the stories and experiences of Gulf Coast communities, from people who have direct experience and knowledge of ongoing issues and events.
SOTRU: What sort of impact has Bridge the Gulf had on communities in the Gulf Coast? How can you measure such things?
Ada McMahon: We’ve seen material impacts, like community groups getting donations because someone read about them on Bridge the Gulf. Bridge the Gulf has also had an impact by connecting to larger media outlets. For example, State of the Re:Union and the BBC picking up on stories from Gulf Coast communities and getting them to a larger audience. We measure our web traffic, so we can say 1,000 people visited this blog post, 20,000 people saw that video. But we also measure our impact by just asking people how we are doing.
We just finished an evaluation of our first year, based on in-depth interviews with community members who contribute to or read the site. They talked about being empowered by having their points of view valued and shared. They talked about concrete skills they gained through one-on-one training and editing support – video production, writing, web editing. For some, telling their story has been a first step, leading to deeper community organizing, advocacy and leadership. Bridge the Gulf also has had an impact for communities by connecting them to each other, keeping them informed of each others’ struggles and stories and issues and perspectives. It has been surprising to me how much Bridge the Gulf has really helped strengthen a movement for social and environmental justice on the Gulf Coast, by connecting people across geography, background and issue.
SOTRU: What are the Project’s goals going forward?
Ada McMahon: Our goal is to multiply those impacts. To grow. To reach more communities, cover more issues, train and support more community journalists. Another key goal is to build our readership. We want hundreds of thousands of people to engage with our contributors and their views. We also want communities to be empowered to affect change. The story is just the beginning. Once someone documents an injustice, how do they use that documentation to get justice? Our goal is to have a project that is influential, so that community members have a strong voice in public debate.
How do we get there? We’re figuring it out as we go, but in the next several months we are working to build new partnerships, improve on our beta Website and expand the support we provide to community media-makers.