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Behind-the-Scenes with Meribah Knight


For our feature on The Promise: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, we went behind-the-scenes with producer Meribah Knight. We wanted to know: what were the main ingredients - could be inspirations, motivations or challenges - that are baked into this podcast?

#1: Cayce hasn't always been given a fair shake in the press

I was drawn to report this series of stories because they felt so familiar. This is a story about Nashville, but it's really a story about our country. About a widening income gap, rapid gentrification, the people left behind and the people fighting to make things better.

The community I cover in this podcast, the James Cayce homes, is 63 acres of public housing lodged in the middle of the city's most vibrant real estate market. Homes selling for $700,000 are butting up against public housing. It's a strange scene. And Cayce hasn't always been given a fair shake. It's usually portrayed as this foreign place, this isolated, dangerous place.

One thing that really shaped my approach was looking at a past project done by our local newspaper, The Tennessean. In 1994 they did a month-long series about Cayce. Thirty stories in 30 days. To get the stories they had two reporters and a photographer go in undercover, and live in an apartment just adjacent to the project. They changed their names, their identities, their clothes. I was shocked when I learned of the paper's deceptive methods. It probably comes as no surprise that the community was as well. I think the newspaper's approach spoke volumes about how this place is perceived by the city. I wanted to make sure I didn't make the same mistake, or give any indication that I was taking a similar approach.

I made it my mission to report this series with honesty and be myself the entire time—no code switching, no trickery. Just listen, question and have empathy.

#2: Mentorship from Alex Kotlowitz

Another big influence for these stories is a reporter named Alex Kotlowitz. He's been a mentor of mine for some years and his guidance was invaluable to this series. Some might know his book There Are No Children Here , about two kids growing up in Chicago Public Housing. Or his award-wining reporting with This American Life for their Harper High series about a school on the South Side of Chicago grappling with gun violence.

I also was influenced a lot by David Isay, Studs Terkel, The Kitchen Sisters, Anna Deavere Smith, Ousmane Sembène, to name a few. They all have this remarkable ability to not just tell good stories, but to ferret out such authentic voices and people. People are so surprising. They are complex, imperfect, contradictory. I learned from Alex, and others, to embrace these elements. They're what make us stop, listen, and pay attention.

#3: Big Man

When I first met Big Man I was completely struck by him. First, he seemed like a total character. Dropping zingers right and left. Now, that worried me initially. I didn’t want him to seem one dimensional. But pretty soon he started to let his guard down and I saw some real vulnerabilities. His struggles to be a good dad. His dual frustration and devotion to his neighborhood. His inability to accept bullshit in any form. I knew there was something good there.

Part of what I loved about Big Man was how much he kept me on my toes. He always questioned me, called me on my BS and pushed my thinking to evolve. Whenever I said something that he thought was perceptive or spot on about the neighborhood, he'd proclaim, "Tadaaaa!!!!" Like I was finally getting it. I liked how he challenged me. A great dynamic evolved between us that was essential for the stories.

#4: Taking time

As far as the components that went into this episode: time, time and time. So once I settled on wanting to get to know Big Man more, I just started coming around. A few times a week, I'd knock on his door and we’d hang out. The weather was nice so we'd usually sit on his stoop and talk. I'd record the coming and goings of all the people who came to him for one thing or another—a cigarette, a vent session, a bit of gossip, a laugh.

About two months into that, I stopped by one Friday afternoon. As I turned down his street I was greeted by a police blockade. I knew then that something had happened. And that afternoon became the architecture for this episode. The thing is, I had two months of back-reporting with him. So suddenly, we were in the middle of this super stressful event and Big Man was able to be honest, forthcoming. I think that is part of why this episode has so much good tape. Not just because there was inherent tension built into the narrative, but also because Big Man was comfortable revealing things to me that he hadn't been just a few weeks earlier. I am very thankful for that.