Field Notes from Revision Street (The Temporary Final Installment)
“The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which she also imprisons reality. On the contrary, the more radical she is, the more fully she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, she can better transform it. She is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. She is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. She does not consider herself the proprietor of history or of people or the liberator of the oppressed; but she does commit herself, within history, to fight at their side.”
—Paulo Freire’s preface to the 1988 Continuum edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (regendered from the original)
Over the last six months, I’ve been traipsing around this city, interrupting people at bus stops, demanding to be let into stranger’s homes, and inappropriately calling on distant acquaintances hoping to prove that the vast rift between the public and public media that had developed over the 40-plus years since Studs Terkel did the same thing could be mended. Challenging the city I’ve lived in on and off for 16 years to surprise me. Relying on its public transportation to get me where I needed to go, on its social services to provide a safety net that would keep my fellow citizens to a certain quality of life, and on its various political and administrative arms to remain, if not responsive, then at least amusing.
More personally, I wanted to challenge myself. I’m kinda little, so wandering around on my own can be intimidating. I’d gotten a bit shy and untrusting, and that didn’t seem terribly productive, nor did it fit into the politics of hope I want to forward.
Yet the most important thing about Revision Street: America is that it wasn’t exclusively about me. I was offered space in a public media environment I didn’t want to fill with pithy observations or suggestions for consumables. I wanted to talk about—through the voices of my fellow citizens—where this city is, in this country, in the world, and in this moment.
Over the course of more than a hundred posted interviews, I did that. I documented both political apathy and community engagement; and spoke with the disaffected, concerned, well-organized, up-and-coming, and justifiably angry. Not to mention had conversations that were articulate, insightful, hilarious, heartbreaking, and all-out mind-blowing. I have loved doing it.
But it hasn’t always been easy work, as I explained to Flood Magazine in this interview, and a fair amount of promised support—financial, editorial, staff, and media—never materialized. Some did, certainly—and it was appreciated, although not common. (WBEZ’s two-month website redesign didn’t help.)
Of course, a lack of support in an economic recession never surprises. Anyway, the purpose of Revision Street: America was to fit the round hole of contemporary media as only a square peg couldn’t. The US, and therefore most global media, have largely abandoned the long-form oral history mode of information-gathering and news-sharing because it doesn’t soundbite. The presumed desirability of the well-polished, easy-to-digest media tidbit has contributed to a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach in recent years: I fear that media has become so disembodied it no longer can reflect the interests, desires, and concerns of people anymore. (Certainly, the continuing struggles of media reform movements indicate more than corporate media’s growing predominance; they may also point to a disinterest in media itself. Which did come up, in interviews with Celi Gonzalez, Abby Smith, and Tom Shepherd.)
So I devoted six months to tracing the contours of the rift between people and one of the primary ways they learn about the world, and was thrilled to undertake it. It’s possible that Revision Street: America will return at some future point, whether as a regular or occasional feature. (I have several amazing interviews lined up and in the can, still, that I’d very much like to share with you.) But to continue collecting and presenting these stories, I will need a media environment that is as supportive as my interview subjects, board of advisors, and readers have been.
What I have learned from doing Revision Street for six months now is how radical can be the act of listening. I’ve developed a profound respect for the people of this city, and now I’d ask my colleagues in the media realm to try to foster one, too. Read through the interviews and find use for them in your own work. Link to them, quote them, and look for inspiration in them. When a news story hits, don’t call up the same source you got on speed-dial for a canned response: find someone new. Avoid experts, press agents, brand names. The comfortable. Seek out those who don’t rush the microphone. When politics happen, don’t take a politician’s word for it, ask the people affected—and those that aren’t. And when what we think of as politics doesn’t happen? Ask someone why not. Chicago unveiled—what I’ve been calling Revision Street: America—is an incredible place. Your next-door neighbor will back me up on that.
In the mean time, I’m returning to Cambodia on a Fulbright for the winter. I’ll be teaching global media and popular culture at Panassastra University of Cambodia, and working on a series of books about gender, social justice, and democracy in Southeast Asia for the independent publisher Cantankerous Titles. You can follow that work at Camb(l)o(g)dia, or here, where I’ll also post updates when I return to the States in February.
Until then, I leave Chicago in your hands. I trust you will take good care of it.