Interview: Bridge the Gulf Project Gives Residents A Voice

The Bridge the Gulf Project Gives Residents A VoiceEditor's Note: Bridge The Gulf was recently featured on the State of the Re:Union website, in an interview about community journalism on the Gulf Coast.  Check it out. By Tina Antolini, State of the Re:Union.  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.

Photo: LaTosha Brown of the Gulf Coast Fund and Derrick Evans of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives visit Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou on a video shoot for Bridge the Gulf

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 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?The Bridge the Gulf Project Gives Residents A Voice

Ada McMahon: Bridge the Gulf contributes a unique voice – that of people and communities who are directly facing social injustices and environmental issues.

Photo: Ada McMahon with Bridge the Gulf contributors (and fishermen's advocates) Michael Roberts and Tracy Kuhns

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?

Read the rest of the interview on State of the Re:Union web site.