July 27, 2021

In January, María Ramírez Uribe reported a story for Charlotte-based public radio station WFAE about a local woman named Martha who was struggling to send remittances to family in her native Honduras. For migrants in the U.S., sending money to loved ones in their homeland is a common practice, but the coronavirus pandemic caused Martha’s financial situation to deteriorate.

Two months later, Ramírez Uribe — a bilingual reporter for WFAE who now also works for the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia through Report for America — found herself resharing Martha’s story with a Zoom audience. The Q&A gave Ramírez Uribe an opportunity to also detail the story behind the WFAE story as part of Local Live(s), a virtual storytelling collective that aims to breathe new life to reported pieces. Supported by a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, as well as Report for America, the project launched last year during the pandemic.

Ramírez Uribe was one of several guests who participated in the partnership event between Local Live(s) and Charlotte’s NPR news source. The theme was resilience and featured other Charlotte locals, including a park ranger. The reporter said she enjoyed participating.

“Personally with the pandemic, especially back in March, we were so isolated and had lost that human touch. Being able to do this event — even though it was virtual — was a really cool way of coming together and doing a community event,” Ramírez Uribe said. “As somebody who works in journalism myself, I think humanizing the work we do but also continuing to tell the stories we already tell in any medium, and in any event, is really interesting.”

Local Live(s) is produced by Back Pocket Media, a company co-founded by McArdle Hankin and Ellison Libiran. So far, the project has partnered with six newsrooms to bring storytelling nights to communities across the United States. And it has plans to expand. Last week, the Brown Institute announced Local Live(s) as one of its winners of its inaugural Impact Grants. The $200,000 grant will allow the project to bring events to 30 newsrooms across the country. 

“Aside from feeling validated, I felt inspired knowing our industry is open to pushing the boundaries of how stories are told and understood,” Hankin said. “We are incredibly grateful to be in a position where innovating and strengthening media is our core mission.”

For its season two, Local Live(s) is currently accepting applications for newsrooms interested in partnering on storytelling events in their communities. There is a $1,500 cost for newsrooms — which includes training and branding — and the deadline to apply is Aug. 15. Hankin noted that they don’t want the cost of the program to be a barrier to entry, so scholarships are being offered to newsrooms that are unable to pay the fee.

Hankin, a recent Stanford graduate, said the genesis for Local Live(s) began a few years ago, around the time when The Moth and the concept of storytelling began to grow in popularity. They also drew inspiration from Pop-Up Magazine. The first few Local Live(s) events were with friends and featured eclectic voices from the San Francisco community. 

Hankin said it was important for them to also include journalists in the shows, to speak from the heart like they would at a dinner party about a story they’d reported.

“We noticed something really interesting when we did that, and that was that people who didn’t care about news that were coming to these shows, were staying late after the show to buy beers for the journalists, to ask them questions about the reporting, and to go deeper on the stories that they had just heard on stage,” Hankin said. “We were like ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’”

Lauren Peace, a reporter with Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, is one of the founding team members of Local Live(s). She said the original focus of the project was on narrative — truthful and accurate stories that possess the journalistic integrity that a written piece would have, but to also be entertaining. They also wanted to build trust between local journalists and the communities they cover.

“I think we realized that a lot of people have no idea what goes into the story that they’re reading via resources or fact-checking processes, or the ethical decisions that we make each day,” Peace said. “The original goal was to demystify that process. And then as we started hosting these events, we also realized that it was a really great way to bring in new readers.”

Hankin said their team were hoping to have a big year in growing the project, but of course the pandemic disrupted that. That’s when they pivoted to virtual events. One such event was held this past May in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. Gloria Imseih Petrelli, an actor, writer and community organizer in Chicago, was one of several non-journalists who participated.

“I was thinking about stories that made me who I am, and one of my funnier, tragic identity stories is the time where I begged my mom, who is a Jordanian immigrant by way of Palestine — so we’re Palestinian — to let me go to a My Chemical Romance concert,” Imseih Petrelli said. “She’s not like, ‘That’s devil music.’ That’s not really her vibe. She’s like, ‘Why are you listening to that? It’s so loud.’”

Imseih Petrelli shared this story as part of a lineup for Local Live(s) Chicago, detailing how her eighth-grade self wrote a letter to her mother to convince her to let her go to the concert. Her dad, who is Italian, offered to take her. They were on the way when they realized they had left the tickets at home. 

“So I was just sitting in the lobby crying, watching all the white suburban teens have armfuls of merch and be there with their friends,” she recalled. “I was just like, ‘Wow, I wish I could live that life. That’s not the life I live. I wrote an essay to get here.’”

That was when Imseih Petrelli said her dad came up to her with new tickets and said, “Don’t tell your mom.” 

As a Palestinian, Imseih Petrelli said participating in Local Live(s) was also an opportunity to shed light on the impending demolition of Palestinian homes.

The response to her performance was really sweet, she said. Some people in the audience shared that they hadn’t listened to My Chemical Romance in years. Others cheered for her dad.

“There were a lot of people who, afterwards, asked me to share more information about what was happening in Palestine. It was very clear that people were listening,” she said. “It’s hard on Zoom and in this digital world. I’m an actor as well as an organizer: both of my livelihoods are so contingent upon community and sharing space with people and seeing how they’re reacting to things. It was really heartening to know that people were listening to all our stories.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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