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Bard Features

Telling the Difficult Stories: Gretchen Wilson ’97

Photo by Candace Feit
In the Bardian

Alumni/ae devotees of American Public Media’s Marketplace will be pleased to know that the show’s Africa correspondent is Bard’s very own Gretchen Wilson ’97. Wilson relocated to Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2004, after graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She recalls, “Both my lease and my relationship ended, so I decided to pursue my dream of being an overseas radio reporter. My coworkers couldn’t believe I was moving to Johannesburg to freelance. People asked, ‘Are you crazy? You’re moving to Africa without a job—and you don’t know a single person?’ However, it was clear to me that this was my next step.”

During the last eight years, Wilson has established herself as a political reporter who tackles serious labor, economic, and social justice issues. Her earliest efforts for Marketplace were her reports on the Zimbabwe national elections in 2005. Subsequent stories have taken her to Somalia, Tanzania, Botswana, and other African nations. Wilson is proudest of the stories that are the most difficult and dangerous to complete: a report on the brutal labor conditions at a Chinese-owned copper mine in northern Zambia; another on the Western corporate interests that are supporting economic development in Sudan, despite the government’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region.

Yet Wilson maintains a sense of duty toward the people whose situations could benefit from worldwide media attention. She says, “I love this job. I’ve been arrested in Tanzania, under surveillance in Sudan, and nearly beaten by an angry mob in Botswana. I’ve had to sweet-talk border officials in Swaziland, and talk myself into and out of more places than I can remember. I’ve even had a face-off with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe about the food shortages in his country at a press conference after the 2005 elections. But what I really love are the moments of connection with people—sharing tea with refugees in Kenya, or laughing with farmers in the mountains of Lesotho. Everywhere I go, I meet ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They are role models in their communities and role models for me.”

A native of Woodinville, Washington, Wilson attended Bard on an EEC (Excellence at Equal Cost) scholarship. Wilson and other Bardians participated in the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer program in 1996, in which she learned union organizing skills. While she completed her Senior Project in sociology, she worked with the Student Labor Coalition to help the food service workers on Bard’s campus organize a union. (The workers voted to unionize in spring 1997.)

After graduation, Wilson moved to Seattle; in early 1998, she partnered with temporary workers and contractors at Microsoft to launch WashTech, the nation’s first union for high-tech workers. She says, “To build our organizing campaigns, we often wrote our own investigative stories about labor practices in the high-tech industry. What struck me was how our only real leverage was through the media. When we addressed a company directly, they ignored us. When we shared stories through the media, we were able to transform corporate policies and change people’s lives.”

Continued activism, during the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in 2001, led Wilson to obtain a formal education in journalism. She says, “I was enthralled by the early citizen journalists of Indymedia and their mantra: ‘Become the Media.’ Indymedia is a grassroots network that uses media production and distribution to promote social justice.” After 9/11, Wilson found a tape recorder and began interviewing people. She also took classes in radio journalism at a Seattle community college. In 2002, she applied to Columbia’s journalism school, and began the master’s program there that fall.

Of her reporting in South Africa, she says, “My preference is to record a piece that hasn’t been broadcast anywhere else. I’ll get leads based on offhand things someone will say to me, for example, ‘The situation at the detention facility in Musina is very bad.’ That’s the beginning of my story.” After the initial tip, Wilson conducts research, then sets up interviews. “Those are often quiet moments,” she says, “just my recording equipment and me in someone’s home, as I listen to his or her story. When I have a series of interviews, I write a script, edit the story, and upload the piece to Marketplace.”

Although a member of the media, Wilson finds U.S. news programs problematic. “When I come back to the States, I’m shocked by the sensationalism, the jingoism, and what to me seems like so much frenzied yelling on cable news. I know a lot of extremely dedicated journalists who work in television and I feel that their important work in the field can get lost, sadly. I’m often surprised by a glaring, unapologetic absence of considered analysis and objectivity.”

Wilson thinks that viewers may be overwhelmed by this type of media news, which can create a disconnect with the public. “From my own professional perspective, it’s frustrating when I put myself and other people at risk to produce a story that I feel is important, and then I don't hear anything from the hundreds of thousands of people who have probably heard the broadcast. It can feel like the story has had no impact, even though Marketplace is broadcast on more than 330 stations in the United States. The people I featured go on living their lives. Injustice continues. And I need to go on to the next story. I ask myself if there’s another way I could be making a difference.”

This past summer, Wilson was on maternity leave so that she could take care of her new son, Theo, born in November 2011, and his three-year-old brother, William. She is considering moving into television journalism, having done occasional stories for the BBC and other networks, and long-form magazine writing. She also hopes to not only report on social inequities but also help correct them. “I’ve done a lot of side research and writing about social entrepreneurship—using entrepreneurial and market-based ideas to affect largescale social change—and I may pursue some type of work in that field.”

Read the fall 2012 issue of the Bardian:

Post Date: 01-11-2013