Media file: William
Lifeline for Success member Will raises questions about the electoral college. Lifeline is a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated men and women in Memphis, Tennessee. Most members of the community are disenfranchised. Video still by Lorraine A. Ustaris for Andrea Bruce's Our Democracy project.

Each year, the Pulitzer Center partners with the Catchlight Fellowship program to support the work of one of its photographers. The 2018 Pulitzer Center-Catchlight Fellow is award-winning documentary photographer Andrea Bruce.

Bruce has traveled across the globe photographing some of the world's most harrowing stories and social issues. For eight years, she covered the Middle East as a staff photographer for the Washington Post, focusing on the war in Iraq. Her experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan during and in the aftermath of the war, inspired her latest project Our Democracy. Tasked with the challenge of defining and explaining American democracy to citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bruce realized that the concept was one that required much deeper exploration and examination in the United States.

Our Democracy is Bruce's two-year open study of democracy that "looks beyond politics and inquires into the everyday conditions that underpin our society". She hopes to create a record of this moment in American history that centers on the question "What does democracy look like?" Pre-reporting for the project began during Bruce's Neiman Fellowship immediately after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and her investigation will continue on the road over the next two years. Each month, Bruce and her team will move to a different community, where she will photograph democracy on a local level and facilitate discussions about democracy along the way.

Bruce's first stop on this journey was Memphis, Tennessee, where she visited with Lifeline for Success, a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated men and women offering support through faith services, job training and counseling.

22 states across America disenfranchise felons during and/or after incarceration. In this introductory discussion, Bruce asks Lifeline members about voting rights in the United States and localizes her exploration of democracy through a conversation about community change.

Video Transcript

Andrea Bruce: Wars happen all around the world, not even in war zones, but everywhere. There are places even in the United States that I would consider almost a war zone. And people die from every side, in every war, and it's heartbreaking in every way. And that's the stuff I cover.

So I met this amazing woman, her name is Halla. She's a prostitute. This is the reason why she does it. During war, prostitution goes up, because a lot of men die, and especially in places like Iraq where women can't support themselves in many other ways, they become prostitutes to support themselves and their families. So, Halla was the first person to ask me a question that made me feel really stupid. She asked me, 'so, you Americans, you came here to Iraq and you kept talking about this word democracy. What does that mean?' And I was like, 'well, I guess it means like, voting, and I guess it means representation of the people, and the people are basically supposed to be in charge of basically the whole country.' And it made me embarrassed, because it was my country that was going there and trying to tell everyone that democracy was the answer, and we do this in lots of different countries, and in lots of different countries people are fighting for this word, and you know what she thought democracy meant? She thought democracy meant wealth. That we were gonna make all Iraqis rich.

I kinda want you to think about what you guys think that word means yourself, or what it means in your own life, do you think it even exists in the United States?

Andrea: So I'm going to start with a really simple question, and I'll pass around the microphone if you guys are okay with that… Okay. So what do you guys like about Memphis?

Jim: Memphis does have a lot of opportunity to say, like, when you're trying to get out and do something better for yourself, you have the opportunity because there's a lot of places out there that wanna see you be better. In the most case, the reason why I'm here is cause I'm in a gang, and I recently joined a gang, like, a year ago, so they- the reason why I'm here is because they gave me the opportunity to stay out of the streets, that way I won't get in so much trouble [2:58] if I wasn't in this room with all these good people, I'd be somewhere else, dead probably, who knows.

Andrea: So the next question I'm gonna ask is what do you think should change about your community? What do you wish could change?

Participants: The killing. Murder rates.

Andrea: The murder rate?

Participant: People with felonies, to get a job. That should change.

Andrea: So, someone who is coming back into society like you guys are, you think it should be easier for you guys to have a job.

Fallon: I don't say it should be easier, because they do have to learn to trust us again, because we did mess up our life. But you gotta look at it though, look at all the people messing up, they just didn't get caught. There's some messing up now, they just ain't get caught, we just so happened to get caught. [3:40] You know what I'm saying? But I feel we no different than other people, once you gain the trust in us like Mr. Brown do, then we should have the opportunity to try again.

Andrea: And what kind of jobs?

Participant: Giving somebody a job, ain't gonna change their mind being negative, ain't gonna change the murder rate by giving them a job.

Andrea: That's exactly where I'm going with all this too, because my next question is- how? How would you change all of these things? How do you, individually, think you can change any of these things?

Will: First you gotta have conversation. It's like a taboo here in America, to have a conversation about how to actually change something. Then when they do have those type of conversations, half the people have money and power, and the other half don't have as much. It's frustrating to me, like how can you not see the systemic racism that this country has against black folks? And people literally, people will argue with me about this not being real. How could it not be real?

Adrian: Most of the people in power, they family probably are really affluent and have money. Most of them don't know what it feels like to be impoverished. But you still want us to be positive when we live in this dangerous neighborhood, something almost like Iraq. Something like that.

Participant: And we in war.

Adrian: You can't leave the house without your guns. I'm not… so they don't understand, they just think we're just wild.

Wendy Thomas: The people with the money and the power, and the people that are engaged in the systemic racism, who are those people? Like do you know their names?

Participant: We really don't know. That's the problem. We can't have that conversation with them because we don't know who they is.

Will: Like in America the only time you really see a black man meeting a politician is when they are going to jail for killing somebody, or drug trafficking and all, I literally had to sit and think like why, the only reason why people care about my story is because I got a green shirt on. To me that's crazy. But I'm glad that I could put this green shirt on so somebody could care about my story. So it's two ways.

Andrea: Another question I had was are any of you guys eligible to vote? No? Not any of you guys are?

Participant: I will be this year.

Andrea: You will be? That's right because you're young.

Participant: Some people.

Andrea: Right. I mean but because you guys were- what do you think about that?

Fallon: It really doesn't matter because I feel like in this situation they're gonna do what they're gonna do. I think they tell us we got the right to vote to make us feel important, because it doesn't matter, because I've been watching repeatedly like what they do with the prisoner situation, like one minute it's this, next it's this. It really don't matter to me, I just hate that they took their power from us.

Andrea: Did most of you guys agree with that? You seem excited about being able to vote next year right?

Jim: From the presidential election, I watched Donald Trump get it actually, when he was in the election, him going against Hillary Clinton. And, I still do want to vote because I know that a big part of being part of it, not just in America, but everywhere. I want to know for myself if it actually mattered because I'm not in that higher level. When I think of it, I'm not in that high level situation to know.

Will: What's bad though is like, our ancestors actually dies to get the right to vote, right? But then, with the presidential election, it was like it didn't even, like it didn't even matter. Because what, because I'm still trying to figure out what is the electoral college for?  What is that? I don't know what that is. Hillary Clinton won, [8:00] but Donald Trump had won the electoral college vote. So you telling me the electoral college vote is worth more than the people's votes. So if that's the case, why did my ancestors die, why did my ancestors die to get us to vote, if that result don't matter in the end? That's what I'm trying to figure out. So I don't know if my vote will count anyway, because if they died for something that in 2018 don't even matter.

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