Our Upcoming Podcast Is All About Making Unlikely Connections. Here's Why.
IF YOU HAD TOLD ME that one day I would be trekking to a remote, conservative town in Tennessee to cover a story of radical empathy — I wouldn’t have believed you. But most things in life and art that call us are rarely what we planned. This is one of them.
In order to tell these stories, we need your support. We need to raise $1000 this summer. Can you help?
All donations are 100% tax-deductible. Thank you!
15 years ago, I stumbled across a documentary called Paper Clips, where a group of 8th graders in Whitwell, Tennessee got an idea to collect six million paper clips — one for every Jew murdered in the Holocaust — to help them picture the vastness of this tragedy.
Their idea should’ve failed. They were poor. They were young. They were expected to drop out by middle school. They had no connections to any “important” people. And they’d never met a Jewish person in their lives. They were the kind of kids the media portrays as ignorant, redneck children.
Who would expect them to attempt something like this?
They hand-wrote, addressed and mailed letters to everyone they could think of, asking if that person would donate a paper clip. Despite rejection after rejection, they kept going. Their teachers and school principal never expected them to reach six million (though they never told this to the kids). It wasn’t about hitting a number. They wanted their students to learn the dangerous depths that hate and prejudice can lead to when you don’t speak up.
I NEVER FORGOT THE PAPER CLIPS FILM. As an Asian American female who grew up in the 80’s (we didn’t even call out a problem of representation back then), I had lots of big ideas that never got off the ground, hampered by a society that would say, “Who do you think you are?”
Then last year, I was grabbing coffee with Samantha Curley and told her about the paper clips story and the crazy ripple effects these kids created. We both felt the jolt to turn this into a docu-series podcast, and she encouraged me to host the show. We connected with Elizabeth Windom, a production manager, and hatched a plan to travel to Whitwell and record some stories.
We hit the jackpot. Whitwell happened to be planning a 20th anniversary celebration of the Paper Clips Project last November, where people past and present would be invited to come back to reunite, reminisce and exchange stories—and they invited us as the only media to cover the event.
If we bring these stories to a broader audience, these unlikely connections won’t be as unlikely. Maybe we’ll start to see the other as something to get excited about, rather than something to fear.
With Level Ground’s support, we raised enough seed money to travel to Whitwell for the celebration (during the midterm elections!). Elizabeth and I had a rare opportunity to record sit-down interviews with 16 people over three days, many who don’t even live in Whitwell. The shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue days before put folks in a mixed state of grief and celebration: joy that this impossible project has continued to grow and inspire tolerance and acceptance around the world for 20 years, amidst the sobering reality that despite this, we’re living in a time of rising division and hate.
Whitwell is the last place anyone would have expected to become an important site for Holocaust remembrance. And as an Asian American writer from Philly, I’m not someone you might expect to bring this podcast series to life. But maybe it’s the stories of unlikely connections like this that we need to hear right now. The stories of these students, teachers and outsiders who dared to make unlikely connections with people who were different from them encourages me to be braver. And if we bring these stories to a broader audience, these unlikely connections won’t be as unlikely. Maybe we’ll start to see the other as something to get excited about, rather than something to fear.
WE’RE LEARNING A LOT about what it takes to produce a multi-episode documentary podcast series. We’ve built trust with our main characters, who want to keep talking and sharing their stories with us. It’s the best possible start we could have asked for. But there’s more to learn and do. As much as nine months of research, locations and interviews can go into producing one heart-stirring episode.
That’s why it’s so important for us to hit our goal of raising $1,000 this summer. We’re already well on our way to this goal, but every dollar helps, so please click here and give if you can. These stories, these unlikely connections—they’re counting on you.
At our last meeting, Samantha asked me if I feel committed to doing what it takes. “If you’re up for it, I am too,” she said. Yes, I am.
Let’s do this.