By Nina Wilder
In today’s media landscape, the Virginia Voices podcast offers a rarity: intimate and candid conversation with the individuals most deeply affected by our Commonwealth’s current events, policies, and economic trends. In one episode, a South Korean immigrant shares his journey to a naturalization ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello; in another, a history teacher in the Hampton Roads area explains his struggle to educate students on the painful parts of American history while navigating a tensely divided political landscape. Collectively, these first-person stories form an intricate portrait of what it means to be a Virginian in 2023.
Supported in part by a Virginia Humanities grant to the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism (VCIJ) at WHRO Public Media, co-founders Chris Tyree and Louis Hansen created Virginia Voices out of a desire to “offer a platform for regular Virginians to share their thoughts and feelings about the news stories impacting them the most,” as Hansen explained.
“Hearing from the general population about their feelings on important current events doesn’t happen very often,” he added.
Leah Small: You had mentioned earlier that many students didn’t even stand for the pledge. Did you have anyone change their feelings about that as the year went on?
Matthan Wilson: One student—I can’t say his name, but he did. He spoke to me about joining the military because I was in the Army. And I spoke to him about my experience. He asked me why did I join the Army? I said, because I’m an American, and our country has to be defended. And I volunteered to do so and would do so immediately again, if I could. But my age with these bones right now… I wouldn’t be much of a defense for America right now. But he started to understand that even with its imperfections, America is still beautiful. You don’t throw away a Rolls Royce because it got a scratch in it. You go out and you fix it. You work on it. And he said he wanted to be part of the solution. These young people are getting into it if they understand the full story, as best we can. Because there’s no way in the world you can tell every aspect, every perspective. But if we can just get an ideology of how we can teach our kids that the man standing beside you, the woman standing beside you… I don’t care how they dress, I don’t care how they look, I don’t care what their beliefs are—that person is an American just like you. We will stand together, then we can change things, and we can make America better. It’s not perfect, but we will make it better.
Matthan Wilson, who teaches government and African American history at a high school in Newport News, aims to objectively teach the painful parts of American history, while dodging a political firefight.
For the Virginia Voices team, rectifying that omission begins with the complex task of finding interviewees in communities that haven’t historically been covered or heard from in mainstream media. Although their work is cut out for them, Tyree and Hansen said they’re continually encouraged by their subjects’ willingness to share their stories—helped in large part by host Leah Small’s exceptional skills as a journalist.
“We’re intentionally looking for an open, honest dialogue in our work,” Tyree said. “Leah is especially gifted in her ability to make people feel warm and heard.”
Tyree and Hansen met in 2000 while working at Norfolk’s daily newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. The early aughts, Tyree remarked, were “a great time to be in journalism,” but the industry was already experiencing the adverse effects of rapidly declining print readership by the time he left The Pilot in 2008. When he reconnected with Hansen a decade later, newspapers across the country were in dire straits: per The Washington Post, 2,200 local print newspapers had closed since 2005, and the number of employed newspaper journalists had shrunk by more than half.
Beyond the obvious material repercussions of a shuttered newsroom, Tyree and Hansen found themselves increasingly concerned with how a dearth of quality and accessible local news would affect everyday Virginians. Researchers have documented at length that with the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office. In 2019, they decided to establish VCIJ as a non-profit newsroom, in hopes that it would serve as a dependable news source that explores issues vital to all Virginians.
“Our work is about making sure citizens have access to information so they can make informed decisions about their democracy,” Tyree shared. “If we don’t have an informed and engaged public, then we’re not going to have a strong democracy.”
Stephen Baek: My wife was pregnant when we first arrived in the United States, and we didn’t have any friends or family here. So, we honestly had a hard time. But people around us were really willing to help us in many different ways. And I thought that was really, really amazing, because I grew up in a big metropolitan city in South Korea.
Leah Small: Which city was that?
Stephen Baek: It’s a city called Daegu. And it’s the third largest city—if I remember the statistics correctly—third largest city in South Korea. We had a population of about 2.4 million. I think, you know, Korean society is really highly populated. There’s so many people. And I guess, compared to Americans, we’re shy and don’t really speak to strangers, unless you’re really close. They don’t really speak to each other. Versus here, everyone was willing to help, asked a lot of questions about us, and you know, things like that.
Leah Small: You’re new parents, you’re here by yourselves. I mean, you think of extended family as a support system—your in-laws are in South Korea, your mom.
Stephen Baek: Everybody.
Leah Small: How did your new, I guess, American support system really come through for you?
Stephen Baek: So in Asian culture, we don’t usually advertise those kinds of things, like, “Oh, we’re having a baby,” or you know, anything like that. Because we’re also concerned that that might cause some unnecessary, I don’t know… like if I tell you that we’re having a baby, then you’ll have to worry about, oh, what kind of present should I prepare? And I guess, in Asian culture, that is a burden that you unintentionally give to your neighbors and your friends. Somehow, they all knew that we’re having a baby, and they offered presents, they offered, like, “Oh, do you guys need anything?” “You know, in my experience, this little product helped us a lot.” “Have you looked into this?” I mean, they offered a lot of suggestions, pieces of information. They wrote letters to us for the birth of our child, and all these kinds of kind gestures. And I think all of those were important factors that contributed to us kind of forming a positive first impression to this new country that we’re living in.
Stephen Baek, an associate professor of data science at the University of Virginia, came to the U.S. from South Korea in 2015. Inspired by the opportunities living in America has afforded him, he recently became an official citizen.
These values also underpin Virginia Humanities’ efforts: In April 2023, we partnered with UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy to present a two-day Local News Summit, during which leaders in journalism, academia, public policy, business, and the humanities offered diverse perspectives on how to sustain robust local journalism. The first day included a look into Virginia’s news deserts, or communities lacking a news source that provides reliable local reporting. Five deserts persist in the Commonwealth today: Buckingham, Caroline, King George, King and Queen, and Surrey.
“Most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older, and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University.
So far, Virginia Voices has published three podcast episodes and companion stories, and a fourth—a profile of a Ukrainian artist living in Central Virginia who has brought aid to her war-torn country—will publish next week. Above all, Tyree and Hansen emphasized, the project has been essential in proving to Virginians that there is meaningful power to be gained from connecting with and understanding our neighbors.
“We’ve lost the ability to sit down and listen to the other point of view on things,” Tyree said. “When we can do that, whether we agree with what the other person is saying or not, we become a stronger Commonwealth.”