Real experts for real life

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Not long ago, I wandered into a deep debate with myself after listening to Gimlet’s excellent podcast Startup. As usual, they were offering a peek into how they make their own sausage as a podcasting company. They’d been approached about the idea of doing branded podcasts for outside companies. I found myself as puzzled as them about how to tell a story responsibly when you’re being contracted to do it, and how to do as much as you can to prevent it from interfering with your journalism.

The two big fish making a splash in this very new pond are The Message, a sci-fi serial sponsored by GE, and the whole series of work/lifestyle podcasts that Slack has funded called The Slack Variety Pack. Both projects are pretty fun to listen to from the little bit I’ve heard. And crucially, as revenue sources are declining for old media, companies are willing to pay to create engaging podcasts that have their name attached. It gets people thinking positively about them.

Well, last month I got to dip my own toe into that world.

The Coles Notes version is that the Alberta College of Social Workers (which accredits all the social workers in the province) puts on events every year to celebrate Social Work Week at the beginning of March. They’ve done in-person events and print ads in the past. This year, they wanted to try reaching a new audience, and tell more in-depth stories about what social workers do. So they asked me to create a short podcast series for them. We called it Real Experts for Real Life.

I was very fortunate to have the help of my radio/podcast friends/colleagues Trevor Chow-Fraser and Marcelle Kosman in creating it. The timeline was short but I think we put together three pretty engaging stories to listen to. One focused on an Indigenous social worker named Brianna Olson who sees love as an essential tool in serving inner city kids. One asked how playing around with Lego and puppets can help kids in counseling. And one looked at how a social worker originally from China uses her own experience to serve new immigrants.

This is Brianna’s story:

So how do you balance the need to make the client happy, and portray their “brand” well (in this case, the whole field of social work) with a general journalistic commitment to the truth, and the need to maintain trust with people who listen to your journalistic work?

Well, for one thing, I’ve put my name on the project, so I’m not hiding anything from people who follow me as a journalist. Hopefully disclosure helps with that trust bit. I imagine I’ll be veering away from social work-related reporting for the time being. It wasn’t really an area of focus for me anyway. If I’m doing a story that features somebody with a connection to the Alberta College of Social Workers specifically, I’ll need to mention that or hand the story over to someone else.

As far as balancing my desire to tell the truth but also stay on message, this was a really pleasant experience though. My main contact with the ACSW was helpful and responsive the whole way through, and followed my lead when I thought we needed to shift focus to reflect the tape we really gathered, and when I pitched a new story at the last minute. If I’d been approaching this as a reporter, I might have dug into different issues, but I think listeners will understand that this isn’t investigative reporting, it’s a series of portraits of the field.

The hardest part was trying to portray the lives of the social workers and their clients accurately, but also protect the clients’ confidentiality. But that’s something that comes up in my journalism work too.
Surprisingly, the biggest difference between this and the work I do for radio is that I got to be way more finicky with the editing! I usually don’t have the luxury of getting to do a third or fourth draft before getting something out for broadcast.

So in summary I’d say my first foray into “branded” podcast work was rewarding. I hope any future projects I pursue are this ethically straightforward, and about subject matter as meaningful as this was.

You can listen to the whole Real Experts for Real Life series here.

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Onward

So it’ll be easier to type this online than it was to say it all teary-eyed on Friday night.

When I started Shareable Neighbourhood in 2012, it was literally just me and a clipboard and a dream to encourage the folks in my community to feel like they could make it a better place. It has been so, so humbling to watch it grow over the last three years. And now it feels like it’s culminated, and it’s bittersweet, but mostly I just feel proud of what we’ve done.
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There were always two objectives, running on parallel tracks. One got to ride above ground, and that was the mission to get people to share something they knew about Old Strathcona and Mill Creek through walks and workshops. The one that rode mostly silently underneath was to build up people’s confidence that they actually did know enough to have a voice in its direction, and build up the network and infrastructure so that they felt confident seizing opportunities to do something about all these issues they were passionate about, like urban agriculture and climate change.

That manifested first in walks about backyard gardens and foraging in Mill Creek and the history of streetcars in the area. And eventually it felt like we had the volunteer strength, experience, and passion to pursue a project together. That led us to create the Old Strathcona Greening Project, getting composters and rain barrels out and giving people the tools to make them work in their own home, and building a living wall together at Roots on Whyte. It was a really long process, but it was so gratifying to see the relationships people built, and to hear about the first time they got to water their gardens from a rain barrel, and to see kids and seniors getting dirt on their hands and building that wall of plants together.

So now that we’ve completed that project together, it feels like the right time to move on. We’ve decided that Shareable Neighbourhood is, at least officially, wrapped up. But there have been so many volunteers working together behind the scenes over the last few years, hand-drawing our plants of the river valley guide, trucking rain barrels all over the neighbourhood, and poring over tree guides together. Those connections feel like a solid legacy to leave behind. And I’m sure they will manifest in new projects together down the road.

The other thing I’m proud of is that by sticking to a grassroots model of basically being a group of friends who care about the neighbourhood, we proved that you don’t need permission to make something happen. You don’t need a degree or a politician or even a grant to get started. When you see a need, you can look to the people around you and do something about it.

I love Old Strathcona. I love the artists and writers who make this place so rich to be in. I love walking through Mill Creek Ravine and looking for the overwintering birds and edible burdock plants we learned about. I love the spirit of the people who ask about each other’s gardens, swap zucchinis, and take care of each other. I am so proud to have been a part of an organization that has made it a little greener and a little more tightly woven together.

The Facebook group will stay up as a place to gather online.

I look forward to seeing everybody around the neighbourhood.

Shareables levels up

So it’s been a long time since I’ve written about Shareable Neighbourhood, and it’s grown a lot over the last year. As you might know, it’s the little volunteer-run community group I started back in 2012 to get people sharing knowledge about local history, nature, and culture in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona/Mill Creek area. When it started, we were leading backyard garden tours, foraging walks through Mill Creek Ravine, hosting local filmmaker showcases, that kind of thing. But the plan has always been to “level up” everyone participating, by taking on projects together.

I’d say we’ve definitely achieved that this summer.

Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers
Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers working on our summer greening project

With the support of the City of Edmonton and the Rotary Club of Edmonton Whyte Avenue, we came up with a Greening Project┬áto get rain barrels and composters out to more people in the neighbourhood, for very cheap ($20). We created workshops on composting and rain barrel basics for the participants since most of them were newbies, and got tools they could borrow to install everything themselves. In exchange, they’ll be sharing what they learned on one of our public tours, and putting up signs announcing that they’ve become a Mulch Master or a Water Warrior.

It’s been tremendous fun so far. Putting together a grant proposal, making distribution maps, finding suppliers, and getting reimbursement cheques hasn’t exactly been riveting. But seeing the look on people’s faces when they finally get their big honking new composter is so satisfying. Today Finn and I led the first rain barrel workshop, and it felt so good to live the Shareable Neighbourhood spirit of being a proud non-expert, and still sharing what we know and helping other people feel more confident installing one themselves.

Next month, we’ll be doing the public tours, and then at the end of the summer we’ll host the last part of our project: building a living wall together in the Roots on Whyte community building together with Axis Mundi. We’d love for you to take part. It’s such an honour to be in the company of a group of volunteers and community members who care so passionately about this place, and want to make it better.