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.
“I wonder if it’s not more beautiful and life-giving when we actually focus on understanding and listening to the stories of others, the stories of people who are not us.”
In our third episode, we talk to Kate Schmidgall, the founder of Bittersweet Monthly, a magazine that tries 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.
We had such a great conversation with Kate that we decided to split it into two parts. This is the first.
James: Thanks very much for joining us today, Kate. I’ve been a big admirer of Bittersweet ever since I came across the magazine earlier last year. But, for our listeners, I was wondering if you could give a brief introduction to Bittersweet, and its distinctive approach to storytelling?
Kate: Absolutely. BittersweetMonthly.com is an online magazine that elevates the work of nonprofits around the world who are solving critical social issues in interesting ways. We have built a group of contributors and creative professionals who volunteer their time and talent to tell those stories, simply because we think this narrative needs to exist.
We all appreciate learning about the social issues and the intractable conflicts that we inherit, and also have created, but we find that in the mainstream story and news channels, it’s harder to find the celebration aspect of the good work being done. It’s also hard to find any sort of orientation to participation — what can I do to help correct an injustice, or live in solidarity with those in poverty or experiencing homelessness, or survivors of trafficking that were abused? I think we as the citizenry need to know who’s leading in these areas and what we can do to align our lives to their work and support them with our gifts, talents, treasure, all of it. So we try to lead in that through story.
James: I love that you put that emphasis on story, and, as I think you said, that these narratives need to exist, or that they need to be told, understood, and heard. It strikes me that the magazine has a conscious and intentional relationship with narrative. The stories I’ve read from Bittersweet share an awareness of how stories in general shape our sense of reality, and how they can uphold certain structures and assumptions that build our individual and collective societal minds. But they also have a sense of how stories can transform these structures and assumptions. I’d like to drill down a little bit more on what is Bittersweet’s take on the power of narrative, and more specifically even, how is Bittersweet attempting to wield that power?
Kate: I view story as something uniquely human. The act of listening and empathizing with another, the opportunity to learn of another’s experience — and be changed by that, be broadened by that, be deepened by that, and enriched by that — I think that’s uniquely human. I think that we live in a time when disconnection and isolation seem to be rising. And it seems like it has risen in parallel with a self-centered worldview, or a self-promoting culture, where it’s all about our story being shared, and we’re so focused on our image, or our personal brand being elevated. We obsess over it, and that’s, in part, an aspect of trickle-down celebrity culture.
But I wonder if it’s not more beautiful and life-giving when we actually focus on understanding and listening to the stories of others, the stories of people who are not us. I think that stories specifically, or narrative, help to translate statistics and facts into real connection in our souls, in our hearts, for the suffering of another. It also helps translate into a sense of what is our unique ability to participate in a solution. But it moves us, the way that statistics and data don’t. That narrative moves us.
It’s interesting, because you can get in a lot of trouble when you’re trying to tell other people’s stories for them. That’s not generally a great approach. With Bittersweet, a unique part of our practice, and we’re hopefully always getting better at this, is that we are intentional about trying to be transparent, like invisible, in the story process. We try to elevate the voices that are not being heard, and elevate the work that’s not being seen, but not put our own selves at the center of it.
We’re not trying to do it in a way that is grandstanding and extracting the stories of others from them, but, rather, we’re trying to climb the scaffolding and re-point the spotlight to find things that will draw us toward a better future, which is usually the examples in the trenches: those on the daily grind who are self-sacrificing and generously concerned for others. And we find them everywhere, so it’s a lot of fun, and it leads to humility on our side. So we try to move the microphone a little closer to the voices that we think need to be heard. That’s how I see it, we just carry the microphone to a different spot, a different vantage.
James: You put that really pithily. But it’s so complex, isn’t it? Trying to have that microphone reoriented, in a certain sense, is a very radical action — to reorient our approach to storytelling, to one that is not extractive of communities that have been marginalized by the wider society.
I want to ask you about this manifesto that Bittersweet just released recently. Because that strong sense of intention, I think, is really reflected, and the manifesto really breathes all these things that we’ve been just talking about over the last few minutes. But they’re sort of distilled into three central tenants, which are very powerfully articulated, I must say. You say that Bittersweet wants to reject cynicism, defy apathy, and celebrate good. So I’m wondering if we could go through each of these, and could you describe their importance to the magazine? I want to know what was it about this triad of values that seemed essential, or indispensable to you, and why not some other triad or group of values?
Kate: Sure. Well, I hope you have four hours, ’cause I can talk about this for a long time. Bittersweet has been doing this work for more than a decade now. We just hit our 11-year mark, and we’ve evolved quite a lot in our thinking during that time. But these three tenets (convictions, really) are what have emerged as essential and consistent. Even though our methodology has changed, our platform has changed, and our deliverables have changed. We started actually in print, with a quarterly zine sold at coffee shops around DC. And then we moved to a broadsheet newspaper that was also sold around DC, and then we transitioned into an online magazine. We’ve seen some different iterations, but anyway, those tenets have remained consistent in all of that varied expression.
Starting at the top. Reject cynicism. I do think that rejecting cynicism is an intentional choice that we all must make, and we must make it on a daily basis in our culture. And that’s not just the American culture, I wouldn’t say. I think this idea has resonated globally. Everywhere that I have gone, people have felt a numbness, to some degree, or a sense of being overwhelmed by the range of issues, the enormity of issues, and hardship. When you’re talking about war, entrenched conflict, poverty, systems of injustice, exploitation and abuse, or even devastation — these are not small things, and the weight of them is incredible.
I think we have to keep choosing to believe that these forces are not winning. We have to choose to be part of a lighter narrative that keeps hoping that things can be better, and that we can be part of that. But this choosing is incredibly intentional, and it’s an act of resistance. Just that rejection of the popular narrative, which would say that, “My little is not enough. The drops will never fill the bucket. Sure, I can do something on this issue, but then I know there are a hundred other issues, so what does it really matter in the end? Is anything meaningful?”
It’s certainly easier to believe that your life is about you, but I think it’s a lot more joy-filled and fun when you can begin to exercise a different intention, and that requires a rejection of the popular narrative that is of despair, confusion, and fatigue. But you’ll get sucked down that trail pretty fast, if you just allow the streams of content to wash over you constantly without any real muscle put into stopping that, and saying, “Yes, and there’s also this other world that I need to educate myself in, which is how we eventually get to the good.” How does that sit with you?
James: It certainly resonates with me, and I would even think that, apart from resistance, it’s also an act of construction, of building another lighthouse among the many lighthouses that are out there, and drawing people into a community of appreciation and engagement with what’s actually good in the world. And I think that’s a very important act to participate in, and to draw others into participating in, both as readers and storytellers and people interested in hearing about these things.
Kate: It’s interesting to think about our contributors as an example of this. They get a lot of life out of applying their craft and applying their artistic expression to these stories. They’re given free reign and full autonomy to create, which is what they were, in some ways, made to do. They have these artistic gifts and talents, but they’re not often invited with full permission to explore and play.
James: Right, you just have to join the despair factory.
Kate: Exactly. And get your paycheck. Which is great, we all need paychecks. But there’s also another way of creating, and when you can do it in community, I think it’s really powerful. We’re not just a small shop trying to produce our own content. Our work is an open invitation to those with creative skills and gifts to apply themselves to a different narrative that can stop the overwhelming deluge of despair, and build something else to counter it, to push back and offer another perspective.
“If you feel yourself weighed down by the content that you consume, then I would ask, ‘How can you apply yourself to building a different narrative?’”
James: Yeah, and talking about building something, it seems we naturally get into defying apathy.
Kate: This is the idea that we can’t be passive. There’s a multi-billion-dollar media machine, creating the content that you consume. If you feel yourself weighed down by the content that you consume, then I would ask, “How can you apply yourself to building a different narrative?” We have to invest ourselves in this work. It’s not going to be done for us. So, we need to give ourselves our own permission to create this counter-narrative, because we need the oxygen. We need to know who’s doing what, where is there hope, and how can I align ourselves to it? We need to know that there are others, that doing that work takes incredible effort and discipline. It’s not easy to keep doing it. There’s a lot about it that’s a grind.
James: Particularly when it’s running against the current of so much of what’s modeled.
Kate: And what gets paid for. Defying apathy is action. First, we have our conviction that there has to be another narrative. What follows from that is accepting responsibility for building that narrative, and committing ourselves to it when it’s hard and not sexy, and not making the top ten of any list. But we know it’s the disciplined, intentional work that needs to be created, because it does orient us toward hope and towards change. And over time, we hope that it can also grow and influence, and just give life. It’s a constant giving narrative. So, in that way I feel like it’s a joy.
James: And that leads us right into your last one, which is “celebrate good”.
Kate: See how we do this? This is great.
James: And what I love about that, too, is that the first two ones are comments on what Bittersweet is trying to avoid, what’s preexistent and what you don’t want to do. And then this last one is saying, “Here’s what we’re about. We’re about celebrating the good.” What does that mean to you?
Kate: “Celebrate good” is that reorientation. It’s the question, “What do you find worthy of your words, what do you find worthy of your best effort?” If you’re going to apply your craft, your attention, your money, and other people’s money if you’re a nonprofit, as we are, what’s worth putting in your mouth? What’s worth expressing? We look for the worthy, the dignifying: the narrative that pulls us together and celebrates our shared humanity, that counters nihilism with love, meaning, and purpose, that’s totally inclusive and ever-expanding. That’s what’s worth our time, and what’s worth our investments of self and life. This is the definition of what is a Bittersweet story, compared to any other type of story.
Stay tuned for the second part of this conversation, coming in our next episode.