Finding stories in the shadows
New journalism project seeks to give voice to communities in the shadows
The thrum of thunder surrounds me on a rainy day, and golden lights warm the living room. From the stereo, there’s frantic, melodic finger-picking on an acoustic guitar. It’s Canadian rock band The Weakerthans playing “One Great City!” – it’s one of the band’s most beloved songs and one that I’ll probably never master on the guitar.
The track is a frustrated love letter to the band’s hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In each verse, the narrator portrays various working class residents making it through another humdrum day. But, whether it’s due to a car breaking down or rising gas prices, the sting of injustice pushes them to a point where they mutter to themselves the song’s refrain, “I hate Winnipeg.”
In December 2021, I found myself feeling like a character in that song. More than that, I found myself wanting to leave Durango – to erase myself, since it felt like that’s what the city was telling me and other Indigenous folks. That December, the Durango Arts Center abruptly cancelled a panel discussion on racist mascots. It was later revealed that the Toh-Atin Gallery, infamous for its own racist statue, pressured the creative district to make that move. In a leaked e-mail from Toh-Atin, they referred to the people involved in the event as “not representative of good Native people.” I was set to be a part of that discussion, and I guess that makes me one of those “bad natives.”
I felt disenchanted going into the new year. At that point, friends of mine were moving, and I also contemplated doing the same. But my stubborn heart insists on putting love into the most hopeless moments. I chose to stay. Because even though the settler community tries to push me away with both hands, the mountains are my relatives; they remind me this land is part of me. They also remind me this city is my city.
On the last verse of “One Great City!” the narration shifts. It depicts a member of the business class loudly exclaiming love for the city. Yet, he has a wrecking ball aimed at the poor part of town, ready to induce more gentrification. His actions belie that statement (or perhaps he only loves a specific sector: the white, wealthy area).
What I love about the song is its honesty. Even though it’s easier for working class folks to vocalize anger toward their hometown, they wake up every day and put time and energy into the city’s daily life. Perhaps it happens begrudgingly or out of survival, but in any case, they’re putting heart into their community. This is in stark contrast to the hollow platitudes offered by the ruling class. The only time they lift a finger is when it’s time to bulldoze a neighborhood, razing and supplanting the culture and history that once existed there.
I’ll never truly understand the important moments in my life, but in early 2022, my stubborn heart resisted the desire to leave. And then one day my friend and co-conspirator Jamie Wanzek and I were dreaming out loud about being independent journalists, giving voice to the stories in the shadows of Durango.
For a while, we’ve been following the story of Westside Mobile Home Park residents buying their property as a co-op. While doing research, we were pulled into a local group seeking to document the rich BIPOC communities that once thrived in Durango but had been tragically erased by the expansion of highways and parks.
We saw parallels between Westside and these older neighborhoods, and there are even Westside residents who are exiles of these displaced communities. More and more, it felt like these threads of history were waiting for us to embrace them. More and more, Jamie and I couldn’t stop researching and conducting interviews.
Oftentimes the history of nation-states doesn’t contain much history. Myth-making is prioritized, and that only serves to reinforce the prevailing order of white supremacy, giving way to crude fantasies about cowboys and Indians and “how the West was won.”
In a 1963 speech, James Baldwin said, “Part of the dilemma of this country is that it has managed to believe the myths it has created about its past, which is another way of saying that it has entirely denied its past.” Speaking of denial, Jamie and I have been continually amazed and shocked by the diverse history tethered to Durango that isn’t recognized enough in the collective narrative.
As outraged as I’ve felt doing this research, I’ve also felt empowered. Bearing witness to the city’s ghosts has made me feel full of life. Perhaps that stems from knowing I have ancestors and BIPOC relatives who have helped cultivate the landscape of this region. They have a remembered presence here, and we have been working on honoring those stories.
It was out of this fevered storm of empathy and a passion for journalism that the Whole Histories Project was born: a multimedia storytelling initiative, seeking to give voice to BIPOC communities hidden in the shadows. When the Durango Creative District was accepting grant proposals, funded by the Lodger’s Tax, Jamie and I submitted an application. It’s an understatement to say our dreams came true when they approved funding for the project.
When “One Great City!” ends, the finger-picking slows. You can hear the smile on singer John Samson’s face as he croons, “I hate Winnipeg.” At that point you know those who care for a place are those who show up for each other.
For me, the song’s end coincides with a radiant sunset colliding with the mountains. When you love a place with honesty, you recognize its darkness and complexity. Without that raw recognition, the map of Durango is incomplete. At its core, that is what the Whole Histories Project aims to do: fulfill the map by sharing these vibrant stories from the shadows.
– Kirbie Bennett