An Inside Look at ‘America by the Numbers: Clarkston, Georgia’ – Interview with Award-Winning Journalist Maria Hinojosa

For 25 years, award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa has helped tell America’s untold stories and brought to light unsung heroes in America and abroad. In April 2010, Hinojosa launched The Futuro Media Group with the mission to produce multi-platform, community-based journalism that respects and celebrates the cultural richness of the American Experience. She is the anchor and executive producer of her own long-running weekly NPR show, Latino USA, anchor of the Emmy Award winning talk show Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One from WGBH/La Plaza, contributing correspondent for Frontline and Need to Know on PBS, and weekly King Features Syndicate contributor. Most recently, Hinojosa has been named recipient of the prestigious John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Premiering on September 21st (check local listings), on PBS as a NEED TO KNOW Election 2012 Special Presentation, ‘America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa: Clarkston, Georgia‘ is the story of a small town of 7,500
people that has gone from being 90% white in the 1980s to less than 14% white today. Located in the shadow of Stone Mountain, Georgia, which was once a gathering place for Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, today Clarkston is home to thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Bhutan along with some forty other countries. In an interview with LPB, Hinojosa gave us an in depth look into the Clarkston community, explored how this community is representative of the America we live in today and what this means for the 2012 election.

How does ‘America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa: Clarkston, Georgia’ differ from other public affairs programs on PBS?

This is the first time that a news program or public affairs program will be executively produced and anchored by a Latina and I think that it is important. That makes it unique simply because I have a different perspective and sensibility and I always wanted to be in charge of making editorial decisions. I think that we are also pushing the limits in terms of news programming because the first segment is using animation in our conversation with Guy Garcia. We went in to this story looking for the human angle behind intense demographic change and because of my own experience as an immigrant I wanted to bring a certain sensibility to the reporting which I think we have achieved and the entire team of an Irish Mexican Producer, a Filipino Director of Photography, a Senior Television Producer raised in Bucks County Pennsylvania, an African American Journalist, a French immigrant; all of that diversity has a purpose in bringing you, the viewer, something really fresh and refreshing and thought provoking and beautiful to watch. I think it stands out on PBS and on all of television news.

The program begins with an illustration of the changing demographics in the United States.  In your opinion, what role will these numbers play in the upcoming election?

This is the first time that a president needs such a small percentage of white voters in order to win: Its projected that Obama could win with only 38% of the white vote. The numbers make it clear that racial and ethnic diversity are nothing remarkable but rather truly organic and truly mainstream. In several key states these combined voters are extraordinarily powerful but the real challenge now is for everyone to feel invested in a democratic system. Our piece shows old voters and new voters and people who can’t vote but believe in democracy and how all of these people have important roles to play in our society. What matters most is for people to feel engaged:  not feel apathetic.  And sometimes journalism can make you feel that way. I think our piece is hopeful about people, about elections, and about democracy.

In the program, there is mention of the ‘old’ minority and the ‘new’ minority.  Can you please tell us about them and how you would differentiate the two?

I stopped using the word minority when I had kids, and my oldest is 16, because I realized that I never wanted to use that term with them to make them feel “less than.” Having said that, what we address very head on in this piece is the element of fear of white America becoming a “minority” and what we come to is this beautiful and revealing hopeful image of a “new minority.” We can change the definition of what that new minority is. If the “old minority” meant disenfranchised, isolated, powerless, then we have the capacity to redefine minority to mean inclusive, open and equal. We want to make people rethink certain concepts with our media and I think we deliver.

What stood out the most to you about Clarkston, Georgia and why did you ultimately choose to profile this community?

We were looking for a place that statistically, “by the numbers,” stood out because the concept was how to work off of real data and so when we realized that the south was the region of the United States that has experienced the highest rate of multicultural growth in demographics then we just zeroed in on where in the south it was the highest. The search for that number took us to Clarkston, Georgia. I like to say that it is like the future of America on steroids. What stood out for me goes beyond the numbers and it is the human stories that this town is living through. Stories that in one way seem entirely remarkable.  Like best friends Amina and Dianne. Amina is in her 70’s, Somali, a massacre survivor, a Christian convert, a political activist and Obama supporter though she can’t vote and Dianne is a tea party supporting republican devout Christian who runs for city council and Amina becomes her campaign manager and helps get her elected.  Then there’s the first African American Mayor in Clarkston – who when he arrived in 1963 was picketed by the KKK, and he is best friends with Graham Thomas who plays jazz saxophone but as a kid, went to KKK rallies with his Dad.  After the screening in Clarkston the other night – The Mayor and Graham and his wife went out to dinner together.  Or the fact that a young woman who was born in Somalia and brought to Clarkston when she was 2 years old is finishing college and dreams of becoming a journalist in the mainstream media. What is truly hopeful about Clarkston is that so many people care so much and as a result they are so involved in civic life in their city. That is what democracy looks like.  Its messy, its alive, and our entire country could learn from it. It was truly refreshing to see, as a journalist.

What do you believe has influenced Clarkston to become one of the most diverse cities in the United States?

What happened in Clarkston has happened in many places around the country. There was inexpensive available housing because people were moving out, and it was in close proximity to public transportation, so people could get to jobs, so it was chosen as a refugee relocation and resettlement spot. Like in Minneapolis, San Diego, or parts of Maine a massive international influx occurred quickly and was sustained over time and you pair that with the white and black southern population and a growing Latino population in the state of Georgia and that is what Clarkston looks like.

‘America by the Numbers: Clarkston, Georgia’ profiles the heavy KKK presence in Clarkston during the 1960’s. Did you come across any remaining influence of the KKK in Clarkston? What role do you feel this played in how White Americans and African Americans initially reacted to the influx of refugees?

When we went to Stone Mountain where the KKK used to hold huge rallies all I could see were pathways of people of all races walking, jogging, and biking. The inside of the park was transformed into a theme park so the day I was there they filled it with fake snow and people were sledding in short sleeves. It was truly a strange but true phenomenon. We did look for people who sympathized but that wasn’t the nature of our story. I think there is a story that must be told of how the new KKK is building its base using anti immigrant and anti Latino talk but on this particular shoot I didn’t find or see anything.

Clarkston is home to one of the largest groups of refugees, coming from over 40 different countries. From your experience as a journalist who has traveled throughout the United States, how does a community such as this differ from other immigrant communities where there is predominantly one country of origin?

The reality is that what is going to happen in the United States increasingly is that this level of international integration is only going to grow. While it is true that in most parts it is one or two ethnic or racial groups, the fact is that our world is becoming smaller and smaller. So I run into Bangladeshis living in Paris or Somalis living in Georgia, or Chinese living in Mexico. This is what the future looks like. Maybe not for several decades down the line but this is the future. So learning from so many distinct differences and how people get along is important for all of us to think about.

Many of the residents of Clarkston are voting for the first time in their lives, what do you believe this means to them? 

Because I became a citizen in the late 1980s I know what that feeling is and it is truly extraordinary.
These are people who were refugees not because they were chosen but because rights have been denied to them and they had to become refugees. In some cases they didn’t even have a homeland so you can imagine how proud they must be to finally feel like they have found a place where their vote matters. I think there will be a lot of tears that are shed in Clarkston at this election and they will be tears of joy. This is a wonderful thing that helps keep a democracy alive and vibrant. We should applaud it.

What do you hope viewers will take away from ‘America by the Numbers: Clarkston, Georgia’?

First of all I want them to feel like they saw something on television that made them stop and watch. We shot this really thinking about creating beauty on a television news screen. And then I hope that this television pilot gives people pause and makes them look at the world perhaps through a different pair of eyes. I have talked about our country living an “organic diversity “ for a very long time. What that means is that Clarkston is the new mainstream but if you open up your eyes and look around you that kind of organic diversity is being lived almost everywhere in the United States. So why fear what you have already become?

You have become a regular personality on other venues in public media. Do you hope ‘America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa’ will become your own public affairs series and a mainstay on PBS? What future plans do you have for this program? 

We absolutely have every intention to try to make ‘America By The Numbers with Maria Hinojosa’ a public affairs mainstay on primetime. It is one of my goals because I believe that public media, in its mission, is about serving diversity and I applaud the network for putting our news program on the air. This is incredibly exciting for me and everyone at The Futuro Media Group and to be clear we wouldn’t be here were it not for the 5 members of the National Minority Consortia led by Latino Public Broadcasting both Sandie and Luis. We are so honored to be supported by the NMC and we hope soon to have some good news to report. The most important thing is for everyone who is watching to let their voice be heard about what they think of ‘America By The Numbers” on our website futuromediagroup.org. Big abrazos to everyone at Latino Public Broadcasting, Center for Asian American Media, Native American Public Telecommunications, National Black Programming Consortium, and Pacific Islanders in Communications and thank you so much for believing in The Futuro and ‘America By The Numbers’ .

 

“America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa: Clarkston Georgia” was produced with the support of all five members of the National Minority Consortia of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: The Center for Asian American MediaLatino Public BroadcastingThe National Black Programming ConsortiumNative American Public Telecommunications, and Pacific Islanders in Communications; by the Ford Foundation and by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. The program was executive produced by Maria Hinojosa and Martha Spanninger, and produced by Xochitl Dorsey. Need to Know is executive produced by Marc Rosenwasser. For more information, please visit: www.futuromediagroup.org.

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Latino Public Broadcasting is the leader of the development, production, acquisition and distribution of non-commercial educational and cultural media that is representative of Latino people, or addresses issues of particular interest to Latino Americans. These programs are produced for dissemination to the public broadcasting stations and other public telecommunication entities. LPB provides a voice to the diverse Latino community on public media throughout the United States. Latino Public Broadcasting is a registered 501(c)(3), EIN: 95-4776447.
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