The mail and the U.S. Postal Service is likely to be a big topic again this week, so let’s take a look at what’s happening in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So far, officials in both states plan to proceed with a mail ballot system while President Donald Trump openly works to slow down the post office and hamper mail-in voting for his political benefit.
Also today, we chatted with reporter Stephanie Farr on the Inquirer’s “We the People” profile series, and how she goes about finding stories.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with reporter Stephanie Farr on The Inquirer’s “We The People” series.
The "We the People" series is meant to shine a light on ordinary people who might be overlooked. What are a few of your favorite profiles you've done recently?
I was really moved by my conversation with Philly native and wildlife conservationist Corina Newsome, who is working to inspire young people of color, particularly those from urban communities, into the wildlife sciences. I’ll never forget how she explained her love of birds to me. Corina said birds are fragile and hollow-boned but can often fly hundreds of miles without ever resting on land during migration.
"To think that something seemingly so frail accomplishes such a massive physical feat is incredible," she said. "At the moments when I feel the most weak, the most incapable, the most fragile, when I see a bird it reminds me that does not disqualify me."
I don’t think I’ll ever look at a bird — or myself — again the same way.
Another interview that really stood out for me was Herbert Hawkins, a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther who was arrested and stripped naked in front of news cameras by Philadelphia police during a 1970 raid of Black Panther offices at Commissioner Frank Rizzo’s command. Herbert invited me into his home — during a pandemic — to talk about his memories of that time, race in the United States, and his thoughts on the protests today. Nobody has to grant me an interview, but he trusted me with his story and that’s a trust I never take lightly.
And, as someone who is a big fan of silly, I also loved profiling Dolly Broadway, an 86-year-old South Philly grandma whose ridiculous videos about her love of White Claw hard seltzers have garnered her more than 1 million social media followers. During a time when we could all use a laugh, Dolly is providing them by the case-full.
What is a profile that has stayed with you for much longer, maybe something from around when you started this project?
I’ve been lucky to interview a lot of people, but nobody has touched me quite like Kambel Smith and his family. Kambel, 33, is a self-taught artist from Germantown with autism who builds intricate building sculptures out of cardboard. When his dad, Lonnie, ran out of money for paints and canvases, Kambel didn’t let that stop him from creating. Instead, he took cardboard he found in the trash and made massive sculptures of Independence Hall, City Hall, and other Philly buildings. For years, Lonnie tried to get his son’s work noticed, to no avail. That is, until a neighbor passed Kambel making one of his sculptures on his front yard and posted pictures of it to Facebook (which is how I first learned about him). That neighbor was able to connect Kambel with an art curator who’s gotten him shows in London, New York City, and Atlanta. Kambel’s pieces now sell for upwards of $25,000 each.
But as much as I was moved by Kambel’s talent, it was the story Lonnie created with Kambel and his other son, Kantai, who also has autism, that really touched me. In the ongoing saga, the father and sons tell each other, autism is not a disability, it is a superpower, and they call those who have this superpower Autisarians. Telling this story has not only helped Lonnie understand his sons better, it’s helped Kambel and Kantai view themselves differently, too. They have not let the world define them, they have defined themselves for the world. The Smiths expanded my idea of what I thought was humanly possible, on so many levels. It’s one of the few interviews where afterwards, I just got in my car and wept — not out of despair, but out of hope.
In November, when Kambel had his first Philly gallery show, I was there and it was great to run into another former We the People profile subject, “Hip-Hop Grandpop” Matt Hopkins, at the show, too. The Smith family had some big things planned to help their fellow Autisarians before COVID-19 hit and put everything on hold. I have no doubt those plans will continue when normalcy returns. I’m looking forward to telling that story.
How do you usually go about finding these stories? What challenges do you usually face?
When I first started the series in 2017, I just wandered around the city, looking for the most interesting people I could find. In each installment, we then put a call out for our readers to nominate someone they thought would make an interesting profile — or someone they’d seen around town and wanted to know more about. To this day, some of my best profiles started as nominations from readers, like Pete the Groin Crusher, a hemostasis tech at Pennsylvania Hospital who’s crushed more than 10,000 groins. He was nominated by the wife of a patient whose groin he’d crushed.
I’m also constantly scouring social media and keeping my ears and eyes open for potential subjects while I’m out on other stories. My wonderful colleagues have also been great with offering suggestions, as have people on Twitter.
What has changed in that process since the pandemic hit the area? What are some new challenges you’re seeing?
When the pandemic hit, interviews I had scheduled in person had to be pivoted to phone interviews. As restrictions have eased, I’ve started going back out on assignments where social distancing is possible, always wearing the proper PPE. However, I find a big part of being an active listener and a good interviewer involves using my facial expressions to show interest, excitement, and concern. The masks have definitely made that a challenge.
What is the most rewarding part of writing profiles for “We The People?”
For me, there’s no greater feeling than when something good happens to somebody I write about, no matter how big or small it is. Some of my profile subjects have been offered jobs, others have gone on to appear on the Rachel Ray Show and Queer Eye. That being said, I get far more out of these interviews than I could ever give the subjects of my profiles. I get to know some incredible people who I’d never otherwise meet, I gain new perspectives, and I get a better understanding of the human condition, in its many forms.
What is one thing you wish more people better understood about your work?
I covered crime for a long time in Philly and while it made me a better reporter, it also took a real toll on my heart. In journalism, we have to cover the hard stories, we have to hold truth to power, and we have to ask the tough questions. Those are the highest callings of journalism. But I also think it’s really important for us to remind our readers that Philadelphia isn’t a terrible place and that there are a lot of good people doing really incredible (and sometimes very silly) things here. I know I need those reminders more than ever these days.
I always love a good beach photo, and this one is especially beautiful. Thanks for sharing, @elevated.angles.
Tag your Instagram posts or tweets with #OurPhilly and we’ll pick our favorite each day to feature in this newsletter and give you a shout-out!
For one reason or another, you might not be wearing as many of your clothes as you were before the pandemic hit. That’s okay. But your unused items don’t have to just sit and take up space. This is a great time to reevaluate your wardrobe. My colleague Elizabeth Wellington talked to some experts to get the best tips on how to do it.
“Good article. I’ve always wondered. Assumed it was the fact that you couldn’t take 95 straight though Philly.” — bmcnulty, on Why do highway signs on the way to Philly only point people to NYC?