Meeting the “Other” America

Much of this year’s rhetoric has attempted to persuade us that the “other” — communities and people that are different from us and with whom we’re not as familiar — are not trustworthy or important; that they don’t deserve a through-line in this story that is the American Dream; that they can be minimized to a footnote or a short stand-along chapter not to carry through till the end.

Lucky for me, complementing my interest in learning about and from different cultures both abroad and in the US is my job as Producer, which can take me to New York, population of 8.4 million with people from every culture and background, one day, and to Newbern, Alabama, population of 184 with a less diverse population group, the next. These experiences open up my world and connect me with incredible and capable people and united communities. Though the places and people we visit for our campaigns are all different, my purpose stays the same: to share the positive impact that all people can have in their communities when given the tools and the trust.

“You’ve gotta bloom where you’re planted”, Francis said to me during our 10-mile drive up from Newbern, Alabama, to a bakery in Greensboro to pick up a pie. Originally from Alabama, she lived in Mississippi for a few years during university before coming back to settle in Newbern decades ago. She pointed at her friends’ homes, each about two or three miles from one another down the same road, nothing but trees in between. That afternoon, after we’d wrap the interview for our short film, she had plans to head over to one of her friend’s house to work on a weaving project. She kept herself busy; She seemed happy with her life.

A staple of the Newbern community, Francis was recommended to us to interview for a short film I was there to produce about the positive impact that the Rural Studio, an architecture team made up of students and architects, had had working closely with the Newbern community to construct essential resources such as a Library and a Fire Station. She had been advising the Rural Studio team for many years, serving as a direct advocate for the Newbern community, and instilling some compassion and understanding in the students who came from all over the country to live in and work alongside the small community.

I often think about transition and the opportunities that come with being in a new place or handling unforeseen situations. Francis’s blooming advice has stayed with me, encouraging me to take uncertainty as opportunity. Feeling comfortable in a new place or with new people can take time, and yet, I was able to become part of the community in just a few days thanks to both their and my willingness and enthusiasm to get to know and understand one another. Newbern welcomed me warmly. We co-existed in a small, precarious community which was rich in life and history. Most notably, this was a community that looked after their own and their guests.

Like Francis who opened her doors, invited me into her life, and shared some heartfelt advice, there were several people who did the same.

The afternoon of our second shoot day, it started pouring. I haven’t experienced as strong of a storm in years. I live in San Francisco, after all. Unable to shoot outside, we took the opportunity to do an interview inside the Red Barn, the main drafting space for the students. While the film crew was prepping, I stepped outside to breathe in some fresh air. Johnny looked up from his ribs and motioned me to take a seat next to him on the bench against the barn’s wall. He was a quiet man, and to be honest, I appreciated the silence. All we exchanged for a long while were sighs as the two of us enjoyed the raindrops hitting hard against the tin cover above our heads. Just sitting next to him made me feel relaxed. He offered me some ribs and I tore a piece and savored the best ribs I’ve had. They had been cooking just 20 feet away in the wood fire pit outside the mercantile since the crack of dawn.

Saying he had the deepest light blue eyes I’d ever seen might sound slightly cliché, but when we made eye contact on our first day there, I instantly felt drawn to him. Johnny is a beautiful man of 50+ with distinct facial features, white hair, perfect teeth, and lines around his eyes that give you a brief outline of many lessons learned.

“I always tell the students, there’s nothing you can do in the sunshine that you can’t do in the rain. Gotta figure it out,” he said pretty matter-of-fact. Johnny wasn’t a teacher, and yet, he has been around Rural Studio since its beginning in 1993, giving a hand to professors and students on their complex projects. He is a handyman who appeared to know everything. Johnny, I learned from others and eventually saw for myself, comes and goes he pleases, his dog Boo Boo always by his side, but is never too far from it all. Students talked about how, whenever he was needed, he’d appear out of nowhere without anyone calling him. I guess it’s not too hard to do in a small town, but then again, it might be one of his super powers.

As we started chatting about what we were filming, Johnny told me to stop running around like a chicken with my head cut off. This comment made me chuckle — a typical defense mechanism to hide my shock and embarrassment. I pride myself in typically being focused and composed during shoots — and I hardly ever run. “Gotta slow down and enjoy what you’re living,” he said. “Nothing guarantees there’ll be a tomorrow, but that’s not reason to not take it easy as you go, taking it all in.” Truth be told, I felt humbled by having Johnny share that advice with me. My personal perspective about myself as a “city girl” who was “chill” was completely different for him, a contemplative man from a small town who lived a slower life than I could ever understand and spoke slowly and calmly. I didn’t quite get where Johnny was from or what he’d done before Rural Studio, but from the little he shared, I realized he had lived many lives in many places and experiences several ups and downs, and it appeared he had found contentment and relaxation after all.

Johnny didn’t speak much with anyone, but had a warm presence all the same. For the majority of our time in Newbern, I’d see him walking up and down the one block where everything in the town was: the Mercantile, the Red Barn, the Fire Station, The Library, The Town Hall, and the Building room, drinking a coke, having ice cream, or sitting outside — sitting and looking out to the road, the trees, the newly built structures, watching the students come and go from the barn to the building room. When he wasn’t in sight, I assumed he was helping someone. I, too, appreciated knowing he was around.

He continued. “The best way to learn about the community is not with cameras and lights in front of people, but doing exactly what we were doing,” he said to me. “To just sit, forget about work, and enjoy the company and the place for what it is.” I had to be open to let the people and place teach me without me asking. I intended to follow his advice.

After we wrapped our third day, satisfied with the outside shots we’d captured since the rain had stopped, a couple of my teammates and I hopped on his truck without cameras and alongside his dog Boo Boo, and let him show us his part of town, ready to experience it all. I didn’t ask where exactly we were going — and it didn’t help that reception was bad — , but we trusted we’d be fine. Were we entranced by his super power?

We drove about 15 minutes down small winding roads that led to slightly larger open roads surrounded by lakes and greenery populated by cattle. We breathed in pure air.

When we arrived at our destination, we became part of the beautifully organized mess that was his home. Random trinkets and antiques were spread on his garden and piled up against the walls of his home. Hanging from a tree was a wild boar skull that he had killed, and hanging from his front porch were little plants he had planted. We are complex individuals. Behind his home was a lake which made his world even larger. A circle made of chairs and swings facing the lake was inviting, and the beer bottles on the side told us Johnny’s place was a home to those who needed it.

But most striking of all to me was a wooden sign hanging from his yellow mailbox, so perfectly describing the essence of his life, “On a path that leads to nowhere, I sometimes find my soul.”

I realized he hadn’t invited us to his home because he wanted to be our host. In fact, his only responsibility that afternoon was to feed his chickens and cows. We just happened to be his company and were thrilled he had chosen us to come along and get a glimpse into his more personal life. After he fed the chickens, we hopped on two UTVs and headed to feed his cows and bulls about a mile away. In this environment, and with no cameras around, he seemed much more comfortable.

I had the absolute best time riding along with Johnny and listening to whatever his heart felt like sharing. Of course I had a million and one questions, but I also knew that whatever I could have asked would not have been as important as what he decided to tell me. I didn’t take his willingness to open up and share his world with me and my friends for granted, but I would like to think it happened because we showed an honest curiosity to understand him and an excitement to learn whatever he had to teach us.

And so when our trip to Newbern came to a close, our SD cards were not the only things full. Our hearts and souls were filled with a rich experience, new friends, and most importantly, lessons that we could have only learned by hopping on the car with Francis or the UTV with Johnny, by opening ourselves to live moments that might not have made sense on the film, but which added a depth and context to our experience that made all the positive difference, allowing me to become slightly more whole.

May we find opportunity in uncertainty and growth in the uncomfortable. May we open our minds and hearts to different beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences. For we are all part of this messy and beautiful journey, and must take care of one another.

You can watch the film we produced here. And professional photography by my good friend Keith Isaacs here.