This article was first published on Medium and is republished here with permission.
When you provide a space to deeply listen and a platform for people to tell their own stories, it opens a world of possibilities.
In August of 2020, KPCC/LAist gave cameras to 12 child care providers, early educators, and caregivers across Southern California. We wanted to learn about the people who take care of Southern California’s youngest children and see things through their eyes.
We were already deep in the pandemic, and knew child care was a big deal. Parents were working from home and taking care of their own children (including me, for a while). Family, friends, and neighbors stepped up to take care of kids so that parents could work. Many child care providers and preschool teachers kept their doors open the entire time, and had to take on extra responsibilities to keep families safe and stretch their resources. The majority of people caring for young children are women of color.
Distributing cameras to child care providers and caregivers gave us extra eyes and ears on the ground. As we’d done the year before, we looked to participants to help us better understand the experiences of people we couldn’t be with physically.
This was our second year doing this type of project. But it wasn’t just a repeat of our first version, Parenting, Unfiltered. This time we had more ambitious plans. Together, early childhood reporter Mariana Dale, visual journalist Chava Sanchez, and I (early childhood engagement producer) — along with many, many others from our newsroom — built a multimedia project that gave the world multiple ways to explore what child care really looked like over the past year. Along the way we learned so much about how to enrich our storytelling, broaden our relationships, and spark conversation. These are our biggest takeaways.
1. Design for impact
While a news story can have a big impact at the time of its publication, it is sometimes hard to extend the life of the reporting. It’s hard to keep attention on an issue over time. For this project, we wanted to design for impact.
The result was Child Care, Unfiltered, an immersive, #nofilter look at child care, including who early educators are, how they adapted to the pandemic, the economic challenges they face, their impact on children’s lives, and how they stay motivated.
In addition to reporting online at LAist.com (in English and Spanish) and on-air at 89.3 FM KPCC, we decided to build on the engagement that had defined both years of the project. We organized five in-person photography installations around Southern California, hosted our first fully bilingual virtual event in English and Spanish, sent postcards via direct mail to drive people to the photography installations, and created a social media strategy to activate existing audiences and reach new ones.
This project showed what is possible when engagement is deeply integrated into all aspects of a project. It improved our relationships with community members as well as the quality of the stories and products that we produced. The method and rigor of this project was similar to an investigative reporting project, with engagement at its core. It was a marquee effort that went beyond just the reporting team, inviting collaboration across departments.
2. Art sparks conversation
As Southern California was just starting to open up, we decided to look for creative ways for people to experience the images in person.
We had originally imagined printing 12 large photos and putting one on a prominent wall in each of the neighborhoods where the participating early education and care providers live or work. Instead, as we began to search for locations, we found that cultural institutions and hubs were enthusiastic to collaborate with us. We did not anticipate this going into the project, but it made sense — arts and cultural institutions share a similar mission of engaging the public on a wide scale and using storytelling to provoke reflection.
We switched gears and chose five locations that could each display a collection of photos: Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Promenade, Crystal Stairs Evergreen Head Start site in Compton, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, and the Lancaster Museum of Art and History.
Every installation had its own unique character and focus. At each location, we showcased the images of the participants who lived or worked closest to the site.
As we installed the photos in Compton, neighbors walking by came up to us to strike up a conversation about the project. Teachers at the site posed for pictures with the mural. At the opening reception for the exhibit in Lancaster, we met parents and child care providers who remarked at how refreshing it was to see images of people they actually knew on the walls of a museum.
3. Equity requires doing everyday things differently
The majority of child care providers in the region are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. We wanted the cohort to reflect the workforce’s diversity as well as the different types of providers, including preschool teachers, family child care providers, nannies, and family, friends, and neighbors. Southern California is also a vast geographical area, and we wanted our cohort to include early educators throughout the region.
To accomplish this, we needed to identify and address obstacles that these early educators face in participating in a project like this. Child care providers and early educators often work long hours and have little free time. The cohort also included people living in Oxnard, Lancaster, Los Angeles, and Orange County. We had to make participating as easy as possible for people in the group.
We decided it would be more accurate this year to consider the cohort members as contributors, and we offered them stipends for their participation. We learned from the first year that project participants’ were not just sources. They spent hours documenting their lives and participating in discussions about their images. This was a way to recognize their work and make the process more equitable.
We met by video chat — not surprising given this past year, but the format also fit well with this particular group because of the time and geography challenges. Most meetings took place in the evenings after the kids went home. We also provided simultaneous interpretation in English and Spanish.
One-on-one support was at the core of the project. We communicated with people through their preferred communication channel, which was often through text messaging. We met with each participant to train them on how to use the cameras. Building on lessons from last year, assistant producer Nubia Perez also mailed each participant a camera and pre-addressed envelopes so they could mail back the SD cards.
Equity also meant building in Spanish-language versions of all of the products we created. We built a Spanish website, translated all photo installation text, and held the organization’s first bilingual live virtual event.
We had to build in extra time for each part of the project to accommodate time for edits and technical issues. For written copy, a translation company did the bulk of the translation, and then a core group of native Spanish speakers on staff did a back read to check for nuances in meaning. For the event, KPCC/LAist’s events team conducted extra tech checks to ensure all participants could use the Zoom interpretation function.
4. It takes a village
Child Care, Unfiltered required deep collaboration across the newsroom. And I mean deep.
In addition to the core team of Mariana, Chava and me, assistant engagement producer Nubia Perez took the reins and produced the project while I was out on maternity leave. (Oh yeah, did I mention I had a baby in the middle of all this? Another reason the team effort was key.)
And at some point, this project touched nearly every part of our organization.
Each person on the engagement team had a hand at some part of the project, whether building online forms to ask community members for stories, buying paint rollers and wallpaper glue, or designing the layout of sites. Knowing the target audience for the virtual event was one outside of those currently served by the organization’s events, the events team studied platforms to identify which would be most accessible and allow for interpretation.
This project also required shifting many of our organization’s operating procedures, so we worked closely with the administrative and legal side of the organization to draft legal agreements, process payments, and deal with photo permissions. The marketing team designed social media assets and placed street-level advertising posters on buildings and construction sites around Los Angeles. The institutional giving team secured funding to make the project happen. Other colleagues stepped in to produce and edit on-air promos.
We once had a video call that had 11 people on it, each person representing a different aspect of our work in the newsroom. On the day — and night — before the project launch, the dedicated project Slack channel of 19 people across the organization was buzzing with people jumping in for edits to photo essays, working out the technical kinks and giving suggestions for Spanish translations.
Seeing so many people across the organization work together was inspiring. It helped us all learn more about how different parts of the newsroom work.
It was also necessary for the project’s success. Given the multiple components, it would have been impossible for a single reporter to take on something like this on their own. We needed the many, many people in our organization who jumped in to support.
Luckily, each person we worked with was genuinely receptive to the project and excited to contribute. I think it speaks to our organization’s comfortability with engagement (we already had a history) that we were open to an all-hands-on-deck effort.
5. We need a nap
Also, now that we did all these things, we need a nap … and a vacation.
This was a complex project. It was a testing ground for many different types of engagement tactics. We listened to community members from beginning to end and centered their voices, from the application process to identifying which themes to highlight in the photo essays and photo installations.
The process was fun. We bonded as epiphanies struck about the details that connected the cohort member’s lives. After over a year of not seeing each other in person, getting together to build the exhibits was a wonderful way to reunite. We spread out photos on my backyard table and matched them by theme. We took a break from installing 7-foot images with wallpaper paste and paint rollers to eat Thai food together, outdoors, under tall trees.
And at the same time, the level of deep involvement in each aspect of the project gave us a real understanding of the true capacity it takes to pull off something like this. Just reviewing the photos was a massive endeavor. (One child care provider alone submitted a total of 4,422 photos.) During the last month leading up to the launch, each of the project’s core team members (Chava, Mariana, and myself) all logged overtime hours, as did my mom, who cared for my two kids while I worked.
In the future, we hope to home in on the most impactful elements of the project. Rather than a condensed timeline to produce multiple reporting products with a single publication date, next time we would spread reporting publication over time. We would also work with a smaller cohort to reduce the project material and be able to explore each participant’s story in depth.
The BIG takeaway
Child Care, Unfiltered demonstrated how integrating art into reporting can deepen our storytelling, broaden our relationships, and spark dialogue.
Participants told us that being a part of the project created a feeling of community during the pandemic, particularly in a field where early education and care providers often work in isolation. “When we do our Zoom meetings, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, these are all other people that are going through the same thing,’” said Sofi Villapando, one of the nannies in the project. She shared with us that this was the first time she was in touch with a network of other caregivers.
Many also commented on how powerful it felt to have their stories elevated with the multiple elements of stories online, on air, and in installations around Southern California. “Me dejaste sin palabras con toda esta información,” family child care provider Susana Alonzo said. She said she was speechless. “It’s sensational, I’m very moved … the project is incredible.”
Following this group of early educators over the course of nearly a year unearthed insights that we wouldn’t have stumbled upon in a typical reporting context. The act of taking pictures, of using art as a starting point, put the participants in a different kind of headspace. It revealed the depth of their jobs, the quiet moments that keep them going, and the complexity of their lives.
Taken together, all of the engagement during the process shone through in what we created. It humbled us and it deepened our reporting. We have kept in touch with the parents who participated in Parenting, Unfiltered and plan to stay in touch with this group of early educators as well, with the hope that they can continue to inform KPCC/LAist’s early childhood beat. I can’t wait to see where this effort takes us next.
Stefanie Ritoper is an engagement producer for KPCC’s Early Childhood Education coverage.