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Monica Potts of American Prospect Wins July 2012 Sidney

July, 2012

Monica Potts of the American Prospect won the July Sidney Award for her portrait of poverty and enterprise in Appalachia. 

Potts spent two-and-a-half months reporting in Owsley County, Kentucky. Her story, "Pressing on the Upward Way," chronicles the trials and triumphs of the Christian family as they struggle to get ahead financially through education, opening a small business, and playing live music. The story was the centerpiece of the American Prospect's special issue on poverty. 

Forty-year-old Sue Christian went back to school to become a teacher after being laid off from her job at a data entry company. Her son Kody took over a T-shirt printing shop with his father, J.C., after spending time on the road with a Christian rock band. Daughter Ciara is poised to start college in the fall. 

The Christians' story illustrates how many impoverished Americans live. They strive, and might make some progress, but often end up sliding back. 

Owsley County is caught in a vicious cycle of depopulation and unemployment. Young people leave because there are no jobs, and most businesses won't set up shop there because there aren't enough customers. The Christians are determined to create opportunities for themselves in their home town, but it's a challenge.

"Potts' thorough reporting and sensitive storytelling provide a window into the lives of Americans whose experiences are too often ignored by the media," said Sidney Judge Lindsay Beyerstein. "This story is a testament to Potts' reporting prowess and the American Prospect's commitment to excellence in socially conscious journalism."

The American Prospect recently held a fundraising drive in order to keep publishing their magazine. They originally asked for $700,000 to maintain the publication until the end of the year, but ended up raising $1.29 million, ensuring a longer future.

Monica Potts is a senior writer for The American Prospect. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Connecticut Post and the Stamford Advocate. She also blogs at PostBourgie.

1. Your story follows one family, struggling to get by - and maybe get ahead - in one of the nation's poorest counties. How did that project take shape?

When our new editor, Kit Rachlis, came aboard in April 2011, I knew that he wanted to design a special issue around poverty in America. From the start I wanted to go to one of the poorest rural counties in the country, and after a little research I decided to go to Owsley County because the poverty rate was so high. I wanted to see how, if at all, the Great Recession, the rise in poverty, and other national trends had changed anything in places like Owsley County.

2. How did you go about winning the trust of the Christian family?

I first met the Christians in my second week there. I knew that Kody, the son, was starting a business, and I decided that I wanted my reporting in Owsley County to try to answer the question, "How do you create opportunity here?" I was very honest with the Christians about that angle, and about how I was interested in their family because they were all trying to answer that question in different ways: Kody with the T-shirt business, Sue trying to be a teacher, J.C. working for himself as a handyman, and Ciara going to college. I promised them, and everyone else in the county, that the story wouldn't be a "Look at these Hillbillies!" kind of story, which I think they all felt like they'd seen done before.

3. Tell us about the process of reporting the story. How much time did you spend in Owsley County?

I spent two-and-a-half months in Owsley County, living in a trailer The American Prospect rented. I spent a lot of time at the Christians' shop, and interviewed many other people around the county. I also travelled around Kentucky in my spare time, which was informative, and went back, briefly, in May, to see Ciara graduate from high school.

4. Your story puts Sue Christian, the mother of the family, front-and-center. What does her example suggest about the role of women in overcoming poverty?

I've actually thought a lot about this, because I didn't go there intending to write a story about women, but did end up concentrating on Sue. I think what the story of Sue and her family shows is that there were more opportunities for Sue to get steady work that she was able to do for a long time. J.C. is a hard worker, too, but a lot of the jobs available to men in Owsley County are dangerous, physically exhausting, and don't pay enough to justify the risk and exhaustion. Just because there are few opportunities doesn't necessarily mean that people should have to put up with bad ones. The fact that J.C. was able to build a business with his bare hands says a lot about how hard Sue and he worked, together, on behalf of their family, and they really helped each other in a lot of ways.

5. How are the Christians doing? How is business at the print shop? Is Ciara still working towards a career in broadcasting? 

Sue just sent me an email update last week. The events in the story take us almost all the way to the present, but there is still some news: J.C. and Kody have changed some of their prices to make them more "competitive." They say their shop has been doing well, and J.C. and Kody are going to travel to surrounding counties to do a sales push. The Christian band Kody plays in, "Our Hearts Hero," has released a new album, and Kody will tour in Canada this fall - in the past they have played for big churches and youth camps across the U.S. Ciara tutored math at the elementary school this summer, and she's using the money for clothes and special stuff for her dorm room. She is still excited and now plans on becoming a 4-H agent, and Sue has said she is - mostly - not worried about her. Ciara starts August 17.

Sue will start her parent outreach effort before school starts. She is planning a big back to school event for middle and high school students, modeled on one the elementary school does. Sue wants the children of Owsley County to be proud of their home and to see it as a place with potential, as she does. She is really touched that so many people found their lives interesting and are wanting to know how they're doing, but added, "please don't feel sorry for us that we struggle some."

6. Is there anything else that you wish you could have included in the story?

I ended up being really happy with the story in that it concentrated on Sue, who had the most history with Owsley County. I wish I could have spent more time helping the readers get to know J.C., Kody, and Ciara. There's one person who didn't make it into the story, a 27-year-old man named Kelly. Kelly is a new father and is training to be an electrician and handyman under J.C. through Kentucky's welfare-to-work program, and J.C. has sort of taken him under his wing.

7. If you could make one policy change to improve the prospects of families like the Christians, what would it be?

This is a hard question, and I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. I do wish more policy people spent more time living everyday life in a place like Owsley County to learn about the boring, unsexy projects that they need to make things easier. For example, it really is true that the roads in Owsley County are abysmal. The county also doesn't really have a local person to inspect and enforce building codes - they come from out of town - so building housing that's up to state standards is really difficult. That affects how easily they qualify for state funds designed to help low-income families build and buy homes. [Ed: Projects don't qualify for federal assistance unless a building inspector certifies that the project is up to code.] Like people everywhere, people in Owsley County want to feel like they're solving their own problems, so I wish there were more efforts to leverage that.

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