Making Media Making Change Student Blogger Study USA

On The Story Of Us

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Darby Ottoson (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Making Media, Making Change this spring. She is student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Strategic Communication, minoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, Management, and Interdisciplinary Design. Read on for her last post!

With each passing week of March, April, May, the virtual version of MMMC felt more normal and less forced. As we relaxed into a new rhythm, the distraction of digitized versions of ourselves and lagging screens faded from focus.

 The old mechanisms of class didn’t translate directly due to the dynamics of mute/unmute conversations and video fatigue. Our program director, Raechel, frequently grounded us with hopeful check-in exercises, like what we were looking forward to eating for dinner or what we did over the weekend that felt good (we always had trouble recalling days past but did our best). We overall talked a bit less than we did face-to-face and shared links to cool pieces of media more. Our co-instructor Joua’s advanced video camera tutorials quickly shifted into “how to make the most of the iPhone camera” tutorials. She showed us a few neat films shot entirely with cell phones. In addition to DIY filmmaking, we covered topics such as how media outlet structures or ownership shape coverage of social issues, the necessity of collaboration and the meaning behind emergent strategy.

image of zoom screen featuring 8 faces of MMMC cohort.
Screenshot of MMMC class. Photo credit, Darby Ottoson.

Rockstar Raechel was still able to bring incredible virtual visitors to class each week. Each guest that joined our grid of face squares brought insightful knowledge and distinct histories as media makers. This allowed us to compare things like Niko Georgiades’ experience working for Unicorn Riot (a non-hierarchical media collective) to the experiences of Dan Bergin and Maribel Lopez who work within the large non-profit struct of our local PBS affiliate.

One week, we were graced by writer and editor Lucy Diavolo, who spoke about how Teen Vogue hass been publishing notably fresh and deeply political writing lately, as well as the fact that the magazine is owned by the massive media conglomerate, Condé Nast. We asked how Teen Vogue writers present information in a way that challenges dominant narratives of mainstream media while remaining legitimate in a journalistic sense. She said to look at fact-checked reporting by mainstream sources and to trust their facts but not always their framing, a sentiment that stuck with me as a journalism student. 

Another guest, Ricardo Levins Morales poetically explained the concept of “preparing the soil” for new ideas before planting seeds of change, which are more likely to succeed with a web of support and suitable conditions for growth. While taking us through his life as an artist and activist, he used language draped in imagery and metaphor that made the concepts easy for anyone to grasp.

D.A. Bullock, filmmaker and past MMMC instructor also joined us to share work and feedback of our “Story of Now” video drafts. After presenting mine, embarrassed by its lack of structure and rough collaged look, D.A. reassured me that he saw a distinct style in the way I stitched the little footage I had together and encouraged me to “run toward the poetry” of that stylistic editing. D.A.’s advice to not worry about matching the look of a traditional documentary stuck in my head as I assembled my video in earnest. My focus was on learning how local food systems had been affected by the pandemic. Whetstone Farm graciously talked with me about their experience as a no-till organic farm located in rural Wisconsin. I interviewed owners Emily and Klaus over Zoom and wove that recording together with clips of my yard, Instagram screen recordings and footage of their farmland, shot with permission from far away with a large shaky zoom lens. The final result looks closer to a creative assemblage of found footage than a polished documentary and I’m into it. 

Sheep covering snowy ground

Close up of sheep at Whetsone Farm.
Photos taken (at a far distance) by me at the beginning of April at Whetstone Farm while making my Story of Now video. Photo credit, Darby Ottoson.

Click here to watch Darby’s Story of Now Whetstone Farm.

We gathered to watch our final Stories of Now on a Wednesday of who-knows-what-month. Well-deserved applause (displayed silently, with jazz hands) followed every video. Each took a different look at people in our community navigating this time. After viewing all the videos together, we left with a better idea of what was unfolding around us, through the eyes of essential workers at target, an anti-war committee, a sociology professor imagining a degrowth economy, and a pair of farmers.

Those videos were created with whatever recording devices we had at home of course rather than with the array of audio and video equipment stashed in storage at St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN). Even with essential social distancing rules that led to remote work, our internship supervisors continued to make us feel supported by and engaged with SPNN. Reimagining my Community Productions internship felt like trying to invent a new internship from thin air, as the basis of my work was assisting with productions made in SPNN’s studios. As my supervisors, Bianca and Steve, brainstormed with me, they reminded me that they’d help me see any ideas through and to only take on what I had capacity for. That open and supportive framing let me propose a series on how local artists are holding up during quarantine and what resources exist for artists like them. I wound up with only one complete video for this series, on the experience of a local band, but Bianca and Steve assured me that if I wanted to make more after MMMC wraps up, they’d happily help me out with that. 

The third and final MMMC project, the “Story of Us” video, would have been a client-based group project if this were a normal semester, but it took on a new meaning for our class this spring. We reimagined it as everyone creating a short video and poem based loosely on this prompt, “Wouldn’t it be a better world if-”

Yellow tulip opening in bloom
Screenshot of our Story of Us video. Photo credit, Darby Ottoson.

Our last week was a series of send-offs that left me feeling tender for everyone I connected with and the knowledge I gained from and with that web of people. 

With Tuesday came a Zoom meeting with the staff and interns at SPNN to exchange thanks and wistfully talk of reuniting when possible. The very few employees who occasionally enter SPNN for necessary reasons repeated how off the building’s energy felt now that it sat empty.

Wednesday brought our last day of class which would have been hard regardless, but overall felt like a fitting farewell. We shared recommendations for poems, powerful people and music that felt meaningful to us as well as warm regards for each other. As she did during our very first class back in February, Raechel grounded us with some guided deep breathing at the end of class. Her voice that had taught us so much throughout the semester slowly went over what we did in this program before listing each of us by name and encouraging everyone to reflect on their memories with that person.

Then Thursday arrived with a community gathering for all the HECUA classes to connect and share about their semesters. In lieu of the large potluck that typically takes place at spacious SPNN we gathered on a massive Zoom call of 75+ HECUA folks. While watching the recorded 10-minute recap videos of each program, we felt in community through our shared experience of real enriching educational moments, the mid-semester loss we grappled with, and how our programs became an important source of comfort this spring. The stories of the Northern Ireland, New Zealand, and Ecuador programs painted a picture of how HECUA’s attention to interconnectedness and continued focus on social justice played out in powerful ways beyond our local community as well this spring.

For me, this felt in some ways like the worst and the best semester to be in a HECUA program. Many of our plans and projects fell through as we stayed home to stay safe. Students abroad returned abruptly in March. Some of our internship projects halted and remained half-complete. But at the same time, I felt incredibly lucky to navigate an impossibly complex web of emotions and a rapidly changing reality within the framework of MMMC’s topics of conversation, guest speakers and weekly check-ins. I don’t yet know all the ways MMMC has shaped me, but I’m looking forward to watching how what I’ve learned will play out in my life and relationships. 

20 individual faces dancing in a zoom screenshot.
Screenshot of HECUA Community Gathering Dance party. Photo credit, Darby Ottoson.

It seems fitting to end my correspondence with a piece of MMMC original media. Our final project, entitled “Dreaming Together: A Story of Us” is an ode to both our real and ideal relationships with the world around us structured in a way that also acknowledges the relationships we built with each other.

Click here to watch the Story of Us (link.)

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