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Illumine America is a podcast created by the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. It explores some of the major issues facing American society, such as economic inequality, racial justice and race unity, the sustainable development of our planet, and more.

Just as much as we’re troubled by the challenges inherent to these issues, we’re also inspired by constructive approaches to them that we see being piloted everyday. Our podcast highlights, or illumines, the work of some of the individuals, communities, and institutions that are bringing fresh insight to these urgent conversations.


Note: edited for clarity and brevity.

“We were combating our own cynicism. This is definitely our own journey of defying apathy and rejecting cynicism.”

Welcome to our fourth episode! In it, we’re continuing our conversation with Kate Schmidgall, the founder of Bittersweet MonthlyBe sure to check out Episode 3 if you want to be brought up to speed.

As a quick refresher, Bittersweet Monthly ia magazine that seeks to present a “counter-narrative” to traditional ways of telling stories about social issues and social change.

Bittersweet recently released a manifesto in which it commits itself to three values: refusing cynicism, defying apathy, and celebrating the good.

James: I want to take us from this current moment that Bittersweet is in, and go right back to the beginning, because I feel like behind every media startup, there are probably hours and hours of passionate late-night conversations in people’s kitchens about what’s going on in the media ecosystem or sphere right now. What can we contribute that’s different? And these conversations give rise to projects like the one you’re embarking on with your colleagues. I’m wondering if you could take us back to some of those early conversations that were had, when the genesis of this idea was just taking root in your mind. Could you describe what some of those conversations were like for you, and for those who were supporting you? What were they about? Because, again, Bittersweet’s work is trying to fill a void in the way that it exists in the current media ecosystem. So maybe those early conversations, help shed a light on that as well.

Kate: Yeah. That’s a lot of history to cover here. I should start by saying, the vision for what is now Bittersweet is something I felt begin when I was young, very young, like 18. It’s why I chose a journalism major, and it’s what pulled me into the creative industries world. It was several years of these conversations before I actually started Bittersweet in 2009. And those early conversations were difficult, because I didn’t have the vocabulary, or the self-belief to know exactly what it would look like, exactly what hole it would fill, or how it would pay for itself, or anything like that. When we started, I just felt like the tables had turned, and I needed to take steps. However, in the very early years, one very important conversation was with Amanda Lahr, who is a longtime friend, and, at that point, was working on the human rights portfolios for a Congressperson. I remember we sat down for coffee, and I just shared the vision for an artistic, documentary-style magazine that tells the story of God in the world, the way that I see it, which is this unifying spirit of love, essentially, bringing all things together and restoring. And yet, we wanted to go through all these issues we needed to reconcile, come to face, truly face, and dig into. And it was that moment that we created this masterplan of distilling, of breaking the world into regions, and then issues. We came up with four broad themes, and that governed our early work. They were: defending human rights, cultivating community development, improving public health, and economic empowerment, actually. So, everything that we featured fell into those four categories, but that was an important conversation because it set our framing — it clarified for everyone what we would be covering, where we feel the most urgent work is being done. But it was crazy, I guess, to think that we could begin to wade into all those waters and offer anything of value to anyone. We were combating our own cynicism. This is definitely our own journey of defying apathy and rejecting cynicism — played out for everyone else in a publication.

James: Right, because these things are internal forces as well, and not simply externalized.

Kate: I felt my own fatigue. I felt paralyzed by awareness, and not empowered by it. And that’s a problem I needed to fix for myself, and then I brought others down with me, or up, I don’t know.

“Bittersweet is, like I said, more of an exercise of desperation, to solve a problem inside my own self, of fatigue and despair. And the practice of paying attention, to choosing to find and pay attention to other things that are life-giving, and light, in every community around the world. That has brought me to life.”

James: Well, ten years later, I’d say it’s a decisive up.

Kate: Yeah. There was another important conversation around “how does this make money?” We don’t have advertising, no organization pays to be featured, it’s all funded by Bittersweet. And the early, first half of our life was funded by Bittersweet Creative, our for-profit agency. But there was a critical moment halfway through our life, where my board was like, “We need help. Bittersweet needs help affording this, or for it to do more. We need help.” So, we reached out to our readers, and asked just for monthly contributions of anything… 10 dollars. And some people have been giving since that time — 10 dollars a month, which is huge for us, but we also then began a pitch night, where we built a family of supporters. And that was like, “How are we ever going to grow, if it depends on the net profit of a very small business?” You’re sinking both ships simultaneously. So, that was a huge conversation and it ended up just catapulting us into a new chapter of excellence and consistency, actually.

James: Just rethinking the business model aspect of it?

Kate: Inviting help. That was huge, and I think that speaks to my own shyness, not wanting to ask anyone else to do something that I don’t fully understand or don’t know how to do myself. I’m just shy. But it was a game changer, strategically. But all that to say, and I just want to clarify this one point, there was never a moment in time where I looked at the media landscape, took inventory of everything existing, and found a niche that was missing, and decided we were going to solve that. It wasn’t like that. That’s like an external approach, a strategic plan to solve a market need. Nothing wrong with that, but Bittersweet is, like I said, more of an exercise of desperation, to solve a problem inside my own self, of fatigue and despair. And the practice of paying attention, to choosing to find and pay attention to other things that are life-giving, and light, in every community around the world. That has brought me to life. So, it was much more of an internal — a response to internal need, I guess, than a response to external need.

James: I want us, if you don’t mind, to take a minute and do a little imaginative work together. I want us to project into the future, however long it may be in the future, and I want us to imagine a future where media and journalism, as a system, as an ecosystem that we live in, has embodied the values that you’re trying to learn about through your work. And I want to know what that media system will look like, and what it’ll take to get there.

Kate: Hmm.

James: It’s a very easy question.

Kate: I mean my mind goes to, imagine for yourself, who do you think are the most influential media voices? And then, some people, I think, will have very positive voices to point to. Most people will not. They will probably point to the most mainstream channels that focus on general despair. Or, urgent news. Also important — still usually despair. So, what would it look like for Bittersweet to play at that level, with that amount of force, and maintaining our intention? There would be a TV or visual streaming presence, that both educates on issues, and also elevates those leading in those issues. It would be content accessible to children, to those defining their futures in high school, and those in the professional realm, that are leading in advocacy and reform. There would be a visual content channel that plays at the level of Netflix and Amazon, or any other. There would be a publishing house that champions voices from the margins. And I think there are many publishing houses like this — they typically have an important slice of the pie, like they focus on a particular narrative. If there could be a Bittersweet version of that, then it would be a global human story, and we would publish books, picture books, coffee table books, actual issue explorations. But if the system itself were to change, then there would be a way to tell orienting, hope-building, human-centered stories that don’t feel like fluff and human interest. They’re not token and simple, they’re rigorous and engaging.

“Bittersweet is the thing that I cannot not do. It’s my ‘cannot not’, and others might have a sense of what that is for them, and I think that’s enough. That’s your permission. Don’t stray from it.”

James: Let’s talk about that even a little bit more, because that’s a confusion that many of us in society tend to suffer from, is that confusion between fluff and the 6 o’clock news thing — cat rescued from a tree — versus the type of deep hope that you’re trying to get at. A joy, rather than a mere happiness or titillation.

Kate: That’s interesting, that’s a good way to say it. It is. It’s like titillation or distraction. We treat positivity, or positive stories even, as a little distraction from your norm. And that’s how it is at the end of the news hour, this tiny little hit, to give you some adrenaline, dopamine, belief in humanity, or whatever. But it’s a fraction of the attention, and time and effort, that went into everything that preceded that little moment. What if it were flipped? What if there was equal weight, orienting us toward a way of life that is centered on others, and not yourself? That is the dream, I guess.

And the difference between fluff and rigorous hope. We have to be honest. No one is trying to avoid the issues that exist in our world, and the problems that we face. We’re trying to go deeper into them, not further away from them. We’re not trying to avoid them, they are actually where we find the greatest hope. You just have to look really hard, and spend time in it. And the more you seek, the more you look, the more you end up finding. Even when you start out, it might seem bleak. There are some truly inspiring people and efforts in the DRC, for example. We find a lot of life and hope springing up there, even though it’s been deep in conflict for many decades. So, we can keep telling that story of the DRC, and dismiss it as dark and difficult, or we can take a second, and really ask where’s the life here, and let’s all respect that with time, resources, and understanding.

James: And that reframing is very useful to me, because I want to pose this to you. I think that, sometimes, staying at the level of despair, and saying that that’s what’s real, and having a realist approach to this despair that we encounter, might be a way of further ‘othering’ and distancing ourselves from the very real kind of pain that’s part of this picture that we’re trying to contemplate. It’s dismissing it as intractable, or banishing it from our everyday worldview, and not engaging with it in this deep way, that eventually, I feel, will lead to this hope, this sense of joy and purpose and a deeper contemplation of these things. Would you agree?

Kate: Absolutely. I also think that it’s self-preservation in some ways. It’s a way to keep yourself isolated from responsibility. The problem is that then you’re isolated, and you feel disconnected, which brings us back to our first point — that being a spiritual condition for us in this moment. I think the fear is that if you were to be confronted with the humanity of another, then you might feel responsible to that humanity as well. And I think that is the thing that is most necessary, and does actually set us free to full life, this interdependent, interconnected sensibility, seeing yourself as the part of that reality, the positive reality. We can all be connected to that, and the more we’re connected in it, the stronger it grows, and the less foothold the narrative of despair will have in your life and in your heart, and in your community.

James: Right. And I think there are, I hope that there are, probably a lot of brilliant people out there that are contemplating doing something similar to what you’ve been doing and trying to make this distinctive contribution to media and journalism that’s oriented toward hope. And maybe they’re toying with the idea of starting something themselves. So I want to provide an opportunity for you to give these folks advice, who might be listening, and maybe point out any pitfalls that you might avoid. What would you say to these people, these budding media company owners, or vocation-obeyers?

Kate: Vocation-obeyers, I love that! It is about obedience, and that’s a good word. It is about obedience, to this call you might feel, and don’t let anything distract you from that. First of all, you need to give yourself permission. It’s not going to come from anywhere else. Meaningful permission will not come from anyone else. It has to come from within, but then you need to be faithful to that. You know, we sometimes wait for funding to give us permission, or we wait for grants or accolades to give us permission. I think you need to create, before anyone else gives you the permission to do so. I think that’s where you’ll find the greatest challenge, and the most refining opportunity to really explore for yourself what’s inside of you that needs to be expressed. And, you’ll get to understand if and how it’s a gift to the rest of the world.

Everything we do should be contributing to a virtuous cycle, I think, and something that gives inherently, and doesn’t take. So, give yourself permission, and I would also offer that sense of obedience to a call. Another way to say it, for me, is that Bittersweet is the thing that I cannot not do. It’s my “cannot not”, and others might have a sense of what that is for them, and I think that’s enough. That’s your permission. Don’t stray from it. Just keep it front and center, be diligent, and the sooner you cannot worry about if other people see it, if other people understand it, if it resonates broadly, the better. There might be many years when it doesn’t seem to resonate at all. But it’s in you to do. So do it. Just be faithful to that.

James: Thank you so much, that’s so beautiful.