I am sure that most of us have read news accounts about the impact of the COVID-19 on the residents of Charlotte. For the most part, these accounts focus on statistical information, such as the latest trends related to the number and severity of COVID-19 cases reported in the Charlotte area. Statistics, however, only tell part of the story. Behind the statistics are real people with personal and often gut-wrenching stories about their experiences with COVID-19. These personal stories are the focus of a new book titled PANDEM!C: Stories of COVID-19.
A joint project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative and BOOM Charlotte, PANDEM!C: Stories of COVID 19 has the look of a graphic novel. Each of the stories is told by a Charlotte journalist and illustrated by a Charlotte artist, and each of the stories is told in both English and Spanish. Most of the stories are about individual Charlotte residents and their particular experiences with the pandemic. Chapter 1, for example, is about Cedric Meekins, a Charlotte music teacher who contracted COVID-19 while attending a music conference in Cincinnati in March 2020. The story tells about his harrowing experience in the hospital and his long struggle to regain his strength and relearn how to do basic activities, such as walking and holding a pen.
Many people contributed to PANDEM!C: Stories of COVID-19, but the project was coordinated by Chris Rudisill, the Director of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. Chris’s Charlotte connections extend beyond his work as a journalist. He grew up in the Charlotte area, graduated from UNC Charlotte, and founded a Charlotte company called Artstreet Creative. I contacted Chris and asked him for more information about how this project came to be. Here is what he sent to me:
In October 2020, the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC) launched PANDEM!C: Stories of COVID-19, an innovative project that brought together Charlotte’s art and local news communities to share stories of COVID-19. The CJC was formed in 2019 as a partnership of six major media companies and other local institutions focusing on issues of major importance to the Charlotte region. It has been focused primarily on the topic of affordable housing and modeled on the Solutions Journalism Network method of investigating and reporting news with a primary focus on solutions to community problems.
When the pandemic surge occurred in Charlotte, the collaborative (whose members include The Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, WFAE 90.7, QCityMetro.com, Qnotes, La Noticia, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Queens University and Free Press) saw the importance of producing stories that would keep citizens informed and safe. Chris Rudisill, the director of CJC, told The Charlotte Observer’s Liz Rothaus that they “wanted a creative way to get relevant, reliable information to people who might not be reading or tuning into traditional news sources … something that combined the visual punch of a 1950s-style monster movie poster with the integrity of solid news reporting.”
The answer was a graphic novel and in the spirit of collaboration CJC found a partner in local arts organization BOOM Charlotte. PANDEM!C brought together eight local artists and reporters from each news outlet to translate news stories into a comic book form. With new installments every two weeks the project tackled the challenges of contact tracing, wearing masks, homelessness and the pandemic’s impact on minority communities. These stories were published online in both English and Spanish on https://digitalbranch.cmlibrary.org/cjc/graphic-novel/, on the organization’s Instagram @CLTJournalism and through an app called WebToon. Participating artist Wolly McNair described the collaboration as a “game changer and hopefully will be something others use to model ways they can tell stories.” Each artist worked directly with a journalist to produce a graphic version of the published news stories.
Those installments are now part of a print edition that will be distributed through the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library this month. With support from a Cultural Vision Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council (ASC), the CJC will distribute over 2,000 free copies to local residents and has produced a series of programming that highlighted the experience, including an online forum with reporters Nate Morabito and David Boraks and artists Marcus Kiser, Makayla Binter and McNair. As the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative continues to grow, it remains focused on bridging the gap between the local news ecosystem and the community to tackle important issues. The group just released its 2021-2022 Strategic Plan which outlines its future development and the creation of a $1.5 million sustainability fund to support the local news ecosystem.
For readers who want to know more about the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, please click on the following link: www.charlottejournalism.org For readers who want to know more about Charlotte BOOM Charlotte, please click on the following link: www.boomcharlotte.org For readers who want to know more about Artstreet Creative, please click on the following link: www.artstcreative.com
While reading PANDEM!C: Stories of COVID-19, I was reminded of the following quotation by Daniel Kahneman: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” The individual stories included in this book transcend all of the numbers associated with the pandemic. In the face of the current pandemic, all of us have to make decisions about getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing. The stories in this book help readers make better-informed decisions about their own responses to the pandemic. In so doing, this book makes an important contribution to Storied Charlotte.