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Pulitzer Center Update July 20, 2020

Behind the Story: Lydia Chávez and Sindya Bhanoo on 'How Do We Survive?'

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Image courtesy of Mission Local.

With the economy in crisis because of the pandemic, survival is a day-to-day struggle for millions...

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Multiple Authors
Illustration by Lola Noguer.
Illustration by Lola Noguer.

As the lines at food pantries and pawnshops continue to grow due to the economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Latinx community in San Francisco's Mission District faces a complicated set of challenges.

Exploring the ongoing impact of the coronavirus on San Francisco's monolingual Spanish-speakers, grantees Lydia Chávez and Sindya Bhanoo have led the Pulitzer Center-supported project "How Do We Survive?," a series by Mission Local examining the lived experiences of Mission District residents. 

Marina Walker, the executive editor of the Pulitzer Center, reflected on the project's proposal saying, "With deep roots in the Mission District of San Francisco, Mission Local had the potential to tackle this story in a way that would be illuminating and culturally sensitive. We were right! Through intimate storytelling and illustrations, this bilingual project helps readers connect with and understand the many challenges Latinx immigrants face during the pandemic while also highlighting stories of personal and community resilience and hope."

The following is an edited transcript of Q&A's between Chávez, Bhanoo, and Pulitzer Center General Intern Kirk Henderson. Portions of the text, which focus on the origins, impact, and challenges of the project, have been revised for length and clarity.

On the Idea Behind "How Do We Survive?"

Lydia Chávez: It became clear early on that a big story amongst the pandemic was the collapse of the economy for the undocumented population living in the country. We [at Mission Local] have always been trying to connect with this community, but things were happening so fast and information about the virus was changing so quickly that it felt difficult to get a straightforward message out there. We asked ourselves how we could reach the monolingual Spanish-speaking community in the district and first decided to return to our bilingual roots by translating all of our stories into Spanish as we have once before. We also decided to start a texting service because it would enable us to reach more people, including those who don't have broadband internet or a computer at home. Then, Sindya got in touch with me, proposing that we apply for funding to do a special project on the immigrant community that Mission Local has been focusing on. 

Sindya Bhanoo: I started covering the pandemic for The Washington Post in March and what quickly became clear to me was how privilege and access to resources make such a great difference at a time like this. Then I began thinking about the Latino community in the Mission District that I spent a lot of time covering while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. I talked to Lydia about starting a project focusing on this community when I noticed that the Pulitzer Center was funding work related to COVID-19. My idea was that we track the lives of a few characters throughout the course of the pandemic instead of only doing one-off stories. We felt that having a record of their ongoing stories was important.

On the Goals of the Project

LC: The goal of the project is to document what is happening to people, share important information, and to connect with people and tell their stories in different ways as we cover the economic impact of the coronavirus. For example, we just put up a story that is essentially a graphic novel. And the texting service that we run, which is only in Spanish, communicates important information about resources being allocated throughout the district while also giving our recipients the opportunity to ask us questions. This project has focused on covering stories that are useful for people while allowing us to reach the monolingual Spanish-speaking community. Mission Local's website has now become bilingual again which is an extra expense, but this is public service, and it's what we're going to do. We benefit from it as well because we're connecting to people in ways we haven't before, and we hope to build on that.

SB: This project was an opportunity to make these stories about people and their experiences. I write fiction, and I feel that when you can use your stories to evoke emotion in people, the writing can be very powerful and trigger change. I hope that our coverage of the Mission District can give people that feeling. It would be my hope that this project's stories are not just full of numbers and statistics, and instead give readers a sense of who these people are.

On Community Engagement

LC: Interviewing is the act of having a conversation and right now is a relaxed time in an odd kind of way. People are anxious about their own situations, but they have time as they wait in food lines and many people want to share their stories when we speak with them. We go out to food lines every day there's a line, and we talk and learn about what people are going through.

SB: I'm primarily editing the project as opposed to being on the ground reporting, so Lydia and the rest of her team have been really focused on capturing certain ideas and topics that the Mission community presents to them, or that we think of exploring ourselves. Lydia knows the streets and the community well, and that helps her capture these stories in a powerful and experimental way. 

On the Importance of Collaboration

LC: The Pulitzer Center's funding has had a tremendous influence. We would probably have still done some version of this project without the funding we've received, but it's great to have this reporting be as beautiful and as targeted as it's been. And having been able to hire Sindya, who helps take care of the project and manage it, has been a huge gift.

SB: Reporting on the lives of people from marginalized communities has been really important, and I think there should be a record of their stories. The Pulitzer Center's funding has been really helpful in creating that for the Mission District.

On What's Next in the Project

LC: I have what is almost a magazine-length story coming out covering a group called the Latino Task Force, and they've been amazing in how they've responded to the crisis and how they've provided for people. Every time I go out, I see someone working with the Task Force. Our team is out and about in the neighborhood, so we've been able to see what's happening and it's been essential as we try to cover the breadth of how COVID-19 is impacting this community.

SB: So far, we've done first and second installments on many of the people we've covered and we're looking forward to continuing to follow their stories. Kimberly, for instance, has just gone back to work on very limited hours and we're just going to be following along and seeing what happens. It seems imminent that another one of our profiles will soon see their business permanently close and we'll be covering that. Things are happening every day and things are changing so fast so it's important for us to keep following these stories.

COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools, and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.


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