BEHIND-THE-SCENES with Courtney Smith

Behind-the-Scenes with Courtney Smith

[Editors' note: to learn more about the Storymakers project that Courtney participated in, read our behind-the-scenes interview with its organizer, John Biewen]

Why did you decide to participate in the Storymakers project, and what did you hope for from the experience?

I was actually kind of dragged into Storymakers without having gone to any of the sessions that were being held around Durham. Mya Hunter who works with SpiritHouse and is a friend of mine had thought I had attended a session and passed my information along to John Biewen, who was overseeing the whole process. After explaining the mix-up to both of them, John thought I would be a good fit for the project because I was familiar with the Center for Documentary Studies, have ties to the local organizing community, and an interest in learning more about documenting through audio.

I really didn't know what to expect from this whole process, looking back I trusted Mya a great deal, because I really wasn't prepared for this journey with Storymakers. As the process went along, I wanted to learn the skills necessary to bring back the technical side of recording and preserving stories in my community here, but I also had a desire to shed some light on some of the complex issues we're facing here in Durham. I'm grateful for the mix-up and for Mya having faith in me to be able to go through Storymakers and create a story without any experience. I'm also grateful to John, because he also trusted Mya and felt there was something there even though he had never met me before.

The conversations with your coworker and with your sister are so different – and combine to create a very moving whole. Can you talk about how you worked to structure the piece?

Finding this story was a bit of a challenge, because my original ideas weren't working out. I would share some of what was going on with Storymakers with Noah, my coworker at the bakery, and we had some really good conversations about the process and what is going in here in Durham. I learned some things that he had never shared with me before and those conversations stuck out to me. I told John about our conversations, and he suggested I record Noah and myself. We covered everything under the sun, but something that eventually stuck out to me was the fact that there was this idea both of us had when we were younger surrounding race that proximity to others outside of your own race was all it took to do away with racism. I could tell that for Noah, there was this sadness on where things started falling apart with his friends of color that he had not fully dealt with, but for me I remember having to face those issues much earlier on and had processed it at an earlier age.

I decided to try and talk to my family and try to jog my memory about some of our experiences that led to us leaving our colorblind ideology by the wayside. I ended up recording my sister Erika, and we talked about our experiences growing up as black kids in white culture, which quickly became a somewhat painful road down memory lane. I originally didn't want to share the part of my conversation with Erika where I got emotional, but without it, it was hard to convey how harmful parts of our upbringing were. It turned out to be what I needed to give an understanding of how lasting the effects of racism are and how faith in colorblind ideology doesn't last as long as a system set up to view folks of color as inferior, eventually that will come out and pull at you.

Once I had all of the pieces together, it didn't take me too long to figure out the flow of the story. I felt like everything just fell into place really quickly once I started cutting the pieces of audio down and arranging them, I just kind of went with my gut on the flow. I showed John a rough draft and he understood where I was going and helped me polish up the piece. We recorded some narration and then I was pretty much done. The final stages happened in just a few days, I was amazed at how quickly it was done. Once my story aired I had to learn to let it go because I kept wanting to change little things, but I now think that it couldn't have gone better, considering this was my first ever radio piece.

What was the trickiest part of making your first audio story? The best part?

Recording levels were tricky for me at first. Cutting things down was really hard as well, I was shooting for a five minute piece and ended up with a piece over eleven minutes. That was the hardest part because I'm telling other people's stories as well as my own, and I wanted to honor that as best as I could.

The best part was listening to the recordings before I had to edit them. To hear what was said and to just process what you just heard unfiltered was pretty great. Hearing people's emotions is so powerful to me, there is something special about just listening without distractions.

What’s next for you? Are there any more audio stories in your future?

I'm hoping to record my family who live in the western part of North Carolina, I think that would be an amazing story. I also would like to continue learning about creating audio stories and record people in East Durham to highlight what is going on here. I don't want to lose what I've learned so far, we'll see where I go from here.

In adddition to making radio, you're a chef and baker. Favorite meal to cook?

That's a tough question, I have so many favorites! But right now I've been cooking with my mom a lot and we've been cooking the food my great-grandmother used to make when she was alive. We've been making creamed corn, stewed cabbage, steamed turnips, and things that are reminiscent of our southern upbringing. I also can whip up a good pound cake, which is something else my great-grandmother used to make. But I'm always down to make anything with lots of flavor!