Our inaugural 12-week community reporting fellowship came to a close this week. The group received training each week from journalists around the region—and each other!—on everything from interviewing to reporting, fact-checking to ethics, community journalism to multimedia.

Then, they chose big questions to answer in a final project, based on information needs assessments in their communities: What do you do when you need to get an ultrasound during a hurricane? Where do you go when you’re an out-of-state student and your college is evacuating due to a disaster? How do you pick up the pieces and secure housing after flooding when there are little to no affordable housing options available?

Our goal was to show how crucial—and beneficial—it is to equip people with the tools they need to get information out in their communities and tell impactful stories. This group made pamphlets, reported articles, made websites and digital guides; they came up with plans to distribute their work through community centers like churches and neighborhoods; and they each have a plan to continue their work or train others in their community to do the same. The expertise our fellows had in their work—whether it was public health, organizing, marketing, film—made their projects stronger.

It’s nothing short of awe-inspiring, and is a testament to how making journalism more accessible can change people’s lives and communities.

We’ve learned a lot in this process, and hope the resources we will continue to share allow other organizations to do this, too. The projects will publish throughout January. For now, read the fellows’ experiences in their own words below, and get a sneak peek of what they’ve been working on since the fall.

Halle Coleman

Project: Digital Disaster Guide for Mississippi Students
Location: Jackson, Miss.

I loved my experience as a Southerly fellow. After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in April, I still wanted to learn. Being a part of the Southerly fellowship allowed me to do just that and more. I currently work in public relations, but I didn’t want to let go of the taste of journalism I experienced during my four years. The workshops and assignments throughout the fellowship opened my eyes to how common and detrimental disasters are outside of my home states, why it’s important to have current, accurate, and relatable journalism on disasters, and allowed me to broaden my fact-checking, editing, and research skills. 

I hope my project does exactly what the name says: “guide.” I experienced natural disasters multiple times during my undergraduate tenure that I almost became immune to them. I never really prepared for them or planned. In a way, I just let them happen to me and hoped for the best. But I hope my guide gives current college students in Mississippi a sense of hope and attainability to prepare, cope, and recover in addition to advocating for change. 

Emily Hudson

Project: Hope for Housing in the Hollers, a story and printed newsletter series
Location: Hazard, Ken.

The two-month fellowship has been challenging, eye-opening, exhilarating, educational, fun and at times frustrating. And what a great field of fellows to become acquainted with! I applied to the fellowship shortly after my county (Perry) along with thirteen other counties was devastated by a 1,000-year flood event. Perry County was one of the four hardest hit counties. I initially thought about writing and reporting on response, recovery, survivor stories and all the different organizations that were helping. I realized my initial approach was too broad, so I narrowed it down to an area that I had an interest in even before the flooding: the housing crisis in our communities.

Finding affordable, quality housing has always been hard in our area. This was a hindrance to some people wanting to move back home: not many decent places to rent or buy. I served on the board of directors for the Housing Development Alliance for many years because I believe in their mission of building homes for families that never thought they could own a home. After all, shelter is one of the basic human needs. So, when the flood hit on July 28, I knew I wanted to report on the housing crisis pre-flood and post-flood.

In interviewing and talking to people with organizations and individuals about their stories, whether it was someone who lost their home, someone with the local Red Cross shelter, or someone in recovery, I felt like I was whisked behind the scenes to see hands working together to address the needs. But housing seemed to be a bigger problem. Getting everyone impacted back into permanent housing will be a long journey.

I’ve been involved in all types of writing, but this fellowship brought me full circle back to my early years as a reporter. The project has helped to retrain my thinking process, so to speak, and thus my writing process. I hope to continue writing about the housing crisis and sharing the post-flood stories of survivors who are displaced and in the hunt for permanent housing. Sharing the stories and updates on the housing issue will help them not be forgotten.

Kayla Alamilla

Project: A multi-translated zine on sexual and reproductive healthcare during and after disasters
Location: Naples, Fla.

Working in reproductive health care advocacy, I have seen the ways misinformation can shape a community. As an organizer, it was my responsibility to distribute the correct information on abortion, contraceptives, sex education, and transgender health care within Collier and Lee Counties, Florida—places which have made headlines for their anti-choice demonstrations, including attempting to implement a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance and committing arsonry to an abortion clinic. Although writing has always been a passion of mine, I didn’t think I had the capabilities or opportunities to produce journalistic work as a queer, disabled woman of color with a non-traditional academic background. Southerly affirmed to me otherwise, and the fellowship would soon teach me that my organizing experience and community reporting can and do overlap. 

I chose to highlight sexual and reproductive health care in my project because of its somewhat invisible place in environmental, climate, and disaster conversations. As reproductive freedom and climate change become increasing challenges in the U.S South, I believe it is important to acknowledge the ways these two issues intersect.

With the help of my cohort and the mentorship of Lynsey and Tajah, I decided to create a print zine on this topic. I wanted to create a zine, specifically, because of its history; zines were originally created by Black writers during the Harlem Renaissance to publish their communities’ stories and literary work without the interference of white elitism. It was then repopularized in the 1990s during the Riot Grrrl feminism movement, which included exchanging health information that would not be published in mainstream magazines at the time. I knew having an unapologetically, judgment-free resource zine and guide on sexual and reproductive health would make a statement. Additionally, due to my community’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Ian coinciding with the fellowship’s timeline, I’ve learned that many digital resources are not accessible to working-class, non-English speakers, and elderly people. With Southerly’s resources, I am able to translate my project to Spanish and Haitian Creole and distribute them throughout my community. 

As for future plans, I plan to host local and online zine workshops for interested community reporters and grow my freelance science communication career. The wonderful people behind this fellowship embodied what community really means; their affirmations, care, and faith in my growth ultimately gave me the courage to enroll in college and look into geography programs to continue my interest in the interdisciplinary study of place—something I wouldn’t have discovered without Southerly. Lyndsey’s and Tajah’s support and mentorship were also a big part of my healing from grief and death in my personal life and post-disaster grief and deaths within my Southwest Florida community, and my completed project is a testament to their impact and compassion. 

Aminah Ghaffar

Project: Reported story on hurricane impacts on housing and community years after a storm—and how community members are pushing for a more holistic approach to climate adaptation
Location: Lumberton, N.C.

The Southerly fellowship has helped me grow as a writer. Initially, I felt intimidated about writing a disaster related story, and I had no idea what I wanted to write about. I knew that I wanted to focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and Florence after volunteering at one of the emergency community shelters when the disaster hit and FEMA and Red Cross had yet to arrive. I had conversations throughout the community about Robesonians still being homeless and living in hotels six years after Matthew, in addition to stories from farmers about drainage ditches and lack of preparation. I heard horror stories about buildings not sanctioned as shelters being used as such, and flood waters rising in the middle of the night sent disaster survivors once again running for their lives. Inequity certainly played a role in disaster preparedness and lack of agency rendering aid, but I did not find the angle until I talked to the members of Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development. Their Disaster Survival and Resiliency School was the perfect community effort to highlight. The school doesn’t just highlight the problems, but also encourages residents of Robeson County to be a part of the solution.

If I was inspired by their efforts, then I knew that other members of the community would also find solace and strength in what these local leaders are doing to educate and empower people to be aware of what resources are available and provide assistance and education to others. I also wanted to incorporate the perspectives of elected officials and environmental scientists to create a holistic picture of the perspectives on infrastructural development of a floodplain, and the overarching concept of whether or not to continue to build in a floodplain. The final story is a result of multiple perspectives that I have had the pleasure of learning and piecing together. This has been the greatest gift of the fellowship: elevating the voices of community leaders, who took initiative after experiencing and witnessing great tragedy, caused by two 100-year floods in two years. Disaster became a catalyst for change through community organizing fueled by love and humanity.

Lavikina Grimes

Project: Are you prepared for flooding? A printed pamphlet on flood preparation in Belhaven, N.C.
Location: Washington, N.C.

Being accepted to Southerly’s fellowship has changed my life. In the beginning, and throughout most of the fellowship, I was very fortunate to meet a group of ladies that refused to let me give up when I wanted to because of my own insecurities. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to put some vital information out into the community of Belhaven, N.C. I had no idea how wonderful it would turn out. I learned some valuable lessons during the fellowship: how to edit, interview, and how to pull the meat of the interview and capture the reader’s attention.

Autumn Jemison

Project: Reported story on the power of community gardens during and after disasters
Location: New Orleans, La.

The Southerly Magazine Fellowship was one I’ll always cherish and remember. I have
grown as a writer, journalist, and leader in learning how to clarify and expand on my ideas. It was great training on how to be a mentor to others who need help in various areas. It forced me to improve my communication and patience with others because everyone starts on different levels with various paces. It was a true reflection of how I react and respond to my own challenges with learning something new.

My project focuses on how farmers’ markets unite rural and urban farmers to build
localized food systems, protect small farmers, and increase disaster relief. When these
counterparts come together, the possibilities are powerful. For example, Annie Moore from River Queen Greens contacted rural farmers to help with their business when profit was scarce for many farmers. These markets provide a primary source for smaller farmers to sell their products without the stress of regulations or finding locations to sell. This encourages community members to come out and support their local farmer, and, hopefully, inspire them to farm as well. When this knowledge is spread, a moral tug is placed upon consumers to help their farmers when extra hands are needed the most. This trickles down in gaining more engagement with the community gardens because people see what it takes. Plus, it’s a great introduction for people who are thinking about entering into the agriculture business to gain a sense of what it takes to be a farmer.

This thought-process did not come easy. It took a lot of conversations with Irina,
Lyndsey, Tajah, and many other sources to gain this theory. I knew I wanted to focus on food in disasters whether it be access to fresh produce, growth of food deserts, or the distribution process. This project taught me the best way to finalize a topic is talk to everyone and let them lead you to the story. It greatly improved my listening because I was able to find the solution in a similarity among my sources. It also taught me how important consistency is because the timeline could have been faster if I stayed on my story weekly.

In the end, I met my goal of creating a story that could serve an array of people in many different ways. Farmers can take from this story. Consumers can learn from these experiences. Government agencies can read what farmers need. Locals understand the importance of buying from your neighbor. I hope this story spreads to multiple platforms on how supporting our farmers only grows community and promotes health.

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