To my neighbors,
When I first dreamed of “telling true stories,” I was working on a farm in Hawthorne. (Specifically, I was working on a door laid across two filing cabinets in a hot garage.)
I’d witnessed enough in the farming industry to know it wasn’t fair. The people who put food on our tables were exempt from the federal rights that protect every other worker.
Unfairness has always kept me up at night. I wanted to change unfair things. At least, I needed to try.
The way I saw it, there were two routes: I could go into law, or I could tell stories. Most problems seemed to stem from a lack of good listening, and all great solutions started with it.
The debate was short-lived – storytelling seemed much more fun than law.
I started telling stories on Gainesville stages, and was eventually invited to record the pilot episode of a podcast for WUFT News.
One of its former editors with a generous way of seeing potential listened to me explain my dream.
He said, “What you’re describing is journalism.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I’d never work in news. So boring.”
I am so grateful he convinced me to give it a go.
Growing up in the central Florida woods without a newspaper, I didn’t really understand what journalism was. I only remembered reporters coming to my hometown twice – once for a double homicide and again for a meth lab explosion.
Why consume the news if your community isn’t reflected in it?
Being in the newsroom put the power in my hands to change that – to reflect communities historically distorted or ignored by traditional news coverage.
I will never forget the people I met, the stories they told or the courage it took.
I witnessed the final days of Melina Farley-Barratt, who became the first openly transgender person to run for Florida Senate.
I spent months with a Dignity Village resident trying to hold onto her home as local officials closed the tent camp.
I broke manakish bread with a Syrian Uber driver who’d been waiting eight years to plead his case for asylum.
I fell in love with the power of radio to cut across distances and through walls when pregnant women at Lowell prison heard their own voices broadcast inside the very place they were challenging.
For every problem, I met people who’d been working for years to fix it. I toured a real-life magic school bus and the new apartment of a man I’d met in a homeless camp.
I witnessed so much horror and so much joy, often in the same week.
In his yard, over red ice from the ice cream truck, I sat with a man who was mauled by a police K9 after he ran from a traffic stop.
With a cast on his hand, 12 stitches near his temple and a newly vacant eye socket, Terrell Bradley told me: “I can’t build up no coldness in my heart towards the police . . . You got to make lemonade out of lemons.”
In the weeks after I listened to Black neighbors shout for justice at the walls of the police station, insisting into the megaphone that Bradley was a child of God, I sat in the classrooms of a remarkable school the principal called “Wakanda.”
I watched the students defy the largest achievement gap in the state.
“I know I can,” a chorus of small voices declared each morning. “I am a winner. I am somebody.”
I was asked, more than once and by people who did not live in the neighborhoods I covered, if I was “scared” when I went out reporting.
That question grieved me.
Who, exactly, were they afraid of?
Were they afraid of Mrs. Elnora Payne, the 100-year-old “Candy Lady of Sugarhill” who raised hundreds of children and fed everyone who crossed her path?
(The secret, she told me, is this: “Whatever you have, if you put it the right way, you have enough to share with everybody.”)
Did they fear John “Ronnie” Nix, the gentlest man I’d ever met, who was fighting to hold onto rapidly disappearing Black farms?
Or Fred Fisher, a Vietnam veteran applying for a marijuana growing license, who had to take a break during the interview because post-traumatic symptoms still take his breath away?
I believe if those who asked this question met the people I met and listened to their stories – if they got to know their neighbors – there would be no more room for fear.
I hope my stories gave neighbors the chance to know each other that way.
Florida has been my home for 31 years, and Gainesville for nine. I love my home.
North central Florida deserves great journalism. It was an honor to try to bring that to you. The moments spent sitting across from you, listening, were some of the most sacred of my life.
Every story was the result of shared effort with my colleagues and community members. Thank you for your voices, ideas and time.
Above all, thank you for your trust.
It is bittersweet to leave. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the stories left untold and people who still haven’t been heard.
My editor, Ethan Magoc, consistently supported my work. You can contact him at email@example.com or 352-392-1525.
I hope you reach out to him, or to one of the many talented student reporters at WUFT, with your stories.
I hope you support local journalism, which is so vital to the health of our community.
But more than anything, I hope you listen – really listen – to each other.