From Peace Corps in Grenada to Our Town Reno
RB: Scott, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Our Town Reno?
SK: I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and what brought me to Our Town Reno is I’m a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, which led me to working for the Our Town Reno street reporting collective that Nico Colombant coordinates.
What originally brought me here was that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, serving as a literacy teacher on the island of Grenada. I decided to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree in digital media. I chose to go to the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Peace Corps has this Coverdell Fellowship, for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to find ways to help fund their graduate education. So I became a Coverdell Fellow and as part of that requirement, I had to fulfill an obligation to work with an underserved community. That’s kind of where Our Town Reno just kind of naturally fit the mold because we’re doing a street reporting collective regarding, you know, homelessness and the affordable housing crisis that Reno’s experienced and so it just kind of naturally fell into place from there.
RB: What has it been like being a reporter for Our Town Reno?
SK: Man, that’s a big question. You know, it’s just been an absolutely humbling and incredible experience. It was a little intimidating at first to be perfectly honest to, you know, walk up to somebody that is at their camp or at their tent or even in the shelters. These people don’t have a whole lot and one thing that they do have is their time, especially in the modern media environment that we’re in today, that can be pretty divisive and pretty hostile, and people can be pretty leery of you. So it could be a little intimidating at first, but very quickly I realized that in my personal experience, a vast majority of the people that are on the streets are open and they want to talk because they’re kind of left on the fringes of society and they’re ignored on the side of the road.
People don’t really pay much attention to them and I don’t know if it’s because people kind of just feel bad for the situation that these individuals have found themselves in and they don’t know exactly how to approach it. So for myself, as I started meeting with them more and more, the stories that they had and the experiences that they shared with me; and their willingness to share that with me was pretty powerful. The fact that they would trust me with their message, their voice, their image, and to be able to provide that platform for them as an Our Town Reno reporter and doing something that not a whole lot of media groups are really doing across the country. Our Town Reno is a very unique, niche media type of platform and to devote a whole platform to something like this, where you’re giving a voice to a vulnerable community that is often ignored and neglected and disregarded by society, it’s been a pretty powerful experience.
From a Fishing Village to the Biggest Little City
RB: How do you think your experience in the Peace Corps augmented your experience with Our Town Reno?
SK: So that’s a really good question. I think the unique thing about the Peace Corps experience, you know, you really become integrated in the communities, your host communities that you live in and work in. So in my case, I was in this little fishing town and on the island of Grenada, you get exposed to a completely different way of life, a completely different culture that’s just totally different from what I experienced growing up in the United States. That’s certainly not saying like, that’s a bad thing. It’s just a completely different way of life. And I fell in love with it. And a lot of people say that you, if you speak to a lot of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, a common theme that you’ll hear is that it’s harder coming back to the United States and reintegrating into American life than it was to initially integrate into your host country or your host community.
And I found that to be very reflective of my own personal experience. When I first came to Reno, I left my home in Cleveland, spent two years in Grenada in this town of Gouyave, a little fishing capital of the island. I fell in love with my life down there. I fell in love with my job, everything that I was doing, my community, my friends that I made down there. To leave, that was very difficult because you literally built this life for yourself from the ground up. Then all of a sudden, it just feels like the rug is swept underneath you and then I landed in Reno.
When I first came to Reno, I felt kind of lost, you know, I was just coming back to school. I wasn’t sure how, like I really felt about that. Reno just kind of welcomed me with open arms because it’s got that kind of character. It’s got that personality of like, it’s almost kind of hard to describe other than like people are just so in touch with themselves that they’re not afraid to be themselves. And, you know, someone might be doing things this way, other people doing things that way and it’s like, “Okay, you do you,” right? That kind of culture I really appreciated about Reno and that also I found to be the same way in my experiences with speaking with the homeless community, becoming involved in the homeless community, by going to these camps, going to these individuals. And in my experience in the shelters, that was also like my first time going into my community in Grenada, you know, a totally different environment, totally different culture, totally different experience than from what I’m used to.
But once again, I found a community that was open for the most part and welcoming and warm and friendly. These people really gave me an appreciation and a respect simply because I went forward and asked them a question. I learned their name. I had a discussion with them and about their experiences and wanting to share that. So that level of trust that welcoming and that openness, I think is a parallel between my two experiences. From a personal growth standpoint, it was definitely something I needed, to find myself in an environment with a group of people and within a culture that I was unfamiliar with, but then kind of just fell into the groove with, and their openness, their willingness to speak with me and to trust me, they did things that I wasn’t expecting them to, and that I may not have done if I were, if a stranger just happened to approach me, you know, once again, I found myself in an environment that was unfamiliar to me and you know, I was welcomed with open arms and a trusting voice. And man, just the generosity of these people. It’s incredible.
RB: In what ways has working for Our Town Reno changed your perception of the city?
SK: When I first made the decision to come back to school and go to UNR I knew absolutely nothing about Reno, Nevada, and I think maybe all I knew was the television show, Reno 9–1-1 of which I admittedly haven’t really seen a whole lot of. That was the really cool thing about working for Our Town Reno was I felt that I got to learn about the city of Reno, like the real city of Reno, just by being on the streets. I had to orient myself pretty quick, walking the streets downtown, like figuring out where is where. And luckily it is the Biggest Little City, so it’s not like downtown is really that big.
Orienting myself from a geographic standpoint didn’t take too long, but then kind of going back to the personality and the culture of Reno, I think I learned that pretty quick in terms of the things that are going on on the ground. So what’s happening at the shelters, what’s happening on the streets, what’s happening in city government. During my time with Our Town Reno, I’ve interviewed half of the Reno City Council. There were some times I was interviewing these individuals and I didn’t even know that they were city council members. They’re at different community events that I just happened to be reporting on. And then of course there are other events where it was particularly focused on what city council is doing for the homeless community and trying to address the affordable housing crisis. You know, it’s easy when you’re in a city to just kind of stay in your bubble, so to speak, stay in your home, like stay in your suburb, whatever, and not really see what life is like on the ground.
It’s kind of a privileged not to get involved in city politics or in your communities politics, to understand from that perspective, the things that are going on, what city council is doing, what the county is doing to try and support this community enabled me to kind of really see the core of what the city of Reno was all about. The affordable housing crisis itself is a super complex issue. I think they have it in their best interests to support this community. It’s just, there’s not really such an easy solution that can be a snap of the fingers and solve this, right? There’s a myriad of factors that play into why people are homeless, why they might not want to stay at the shelters. There’s a myriad of different ways to try and find ways to support them too.
Remembering Angela and Her Progression
RB: And as you look back on your time reporting for Our Town Reno, is there a particular story that you really enjoy?
SK: There’s couple of moments that kind of stand out to me, for sure. I’ll mention, I’ll start with, with one of my first stories ever done by myself and Lucia Starbuck who used to report with Our Town Reno. We were going around doing street reporting and we were at Barbara Bennett Park and it was late October. So like, it was starting to get really cold at night. We went out to those tennis courts at Barbara Bennett Park and there was a woman there. Her name was Angela and, you know, she had absolutely nothing. She was just sitting on the court, cross-legged. She had nothing, maybe sweat pants and a coat, but nothing else, no shoes and mind you, it was freezing and there was frost on the grass. And meanwhile, there’s these guys over on the next court over, playing tennis. And so just seeing the dichotomy of that. The contrast really kind of has stuck with me.
She shared her story. She had walked over from California with her husband. Things didn’t work out between the two of them when they got here, but then she was robbed, lost her ID, lost everything. And then that’s kinda when I first learned about the system and how difficult that is to get out of it, say, because in order to get a new ID, you need to provide a birth certificate. But if you don’t have the documents for your birth certificate, you have to go through a whole application process. This can take weeks to months to figure out, right. You know, she was very willing to speak with us and you know, shared her story. A couple weeks later, I was at Pickett Park for a donation drive, she was pretty much alone when we first met her, but she had found some camaraderie and some people to look out for her and support her when she was at Pickett Park.
When we saw her there she had a fresh pair of boots. She had some gear. She had made significant progress since that time we last saw her. So to kind of see that progression has been really cool.
Share Your Story Sessions at the Washoe County Library
SK: Two other stories that kind of stick out to me, when I spent time, every Monday morning, I was sitting at the Washoe County downtown library here in Reno. Every Monday morning I would sit there and we had a share your story session. So I just had a little platform up there and for people to come up and share their story with me, one woman came up to me, her name was Melissa. And she completely opened up everything that she had bottled up. She was staying with her two children at the women’s and children’s shelter. Her husband was staying at the men’s shelter because they couldn’t stay together. And so she just opened up about the challenges of that and how she wanted to keep that normalcy for her children. And so she took her children to the men’s shelter, just to say goodnight to their father every night, just to kind of keep that routine, keep that normalcy. You know, she, it got to a point she was very emotional and cried and, you know, she said, “I’ve been bottling this up. And I feel like I haven’t been able to tell anybody this.” And so just to kind of be that avenue was a powerful experience.
At that same share your story session, I had a man come up to me, he was a former meth addict and he was clean for a couple of years. He had custody of his daughter. He welcomed somebody back in a family who also had an addiction problem, back into his home. And then he had a relapse. Because of his relapse, he was going to lose custody of his daughter. And he had already gotten clean once, he knew he could do it again. In order to maintain custody of his daughter, he had to check himself into a rehabilitation clinic. But because of the waiting list, he needed to be on that list to get treatment like within two weeks or something, or he’d lose custody of his daughter. The waiting list was like six weeks to two months long.
And so, you know, when he shared that with me, like, that’s, when you really see the human side of these are real people who value their family, their relationships, value their friendships, and you see the human element of these things. And, you know, the stories behind these people. And those are probably three stories that really kind of resonated with me and have stuck with me to this day.
Working for a Niche, Experimental Platform
RB: So you’ve been working with Our Town Reno for almost a year and a half. Just about what has it been like to work for a niche media publication?
SK: It’s been really cool because journalism and media is changing so much with the digital disruption, the internet, and how things have changed. The industry has been totally flipped on its head. And so a lot of people are trying to figure out different solutions as to how we can do this in a legitimate and respectable manner. So we have a lot of division particularly in slanted media, you have your right side, you have your left side, and we’re kind of, because we’re looking at things through specific lenses, we’re almost, we’re starting to lose that objectivity. That was the foundation of journalism from the get-go. So now, in my opinion, I think you might be seeing, going forward, is more locally sourced and niche media publications across platforms. And Our Town Reno kind of fits that mold in that it’s entirely local, focused on Reno and Washoe County and, you know, focusing mostly on just one topic, which is homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.
So to have essentially like a beat, like this allows you to really kind of understand and build relationships with those people, those individuals that are involved with it. So I think Our Town Reno, and especially with its multimedia element of it, the fact that we can do written stories and then have podcasts with that as well. So that way you can read the story about this individual, and then you can hear their voice in the moment that we spoke to them, whether it’s under the bridge or on the side of the road or in the shelter. I think that’s powerful, especially with a niche focus, like the affordable housing crisis.
RB: And in what ways has your experience with Our Town Reno shaped you as a journalist?
SK: Wow, that’s incredible because it really has. I never envisioned myself to be a reporter or a journalist, you know, even before I came into this program. I wanted to go to this program, so I was going to journalism school, but I didn’t want to be a journalist and my dad ribs me for this, to this day. But a major influence for me, honestly, was working with Lucia Starbuck. She was just so natural. Speaking with these individuals on the street, like they just opened up to her and the questions that she asked were just brilliant and got to like, get to the real heart of things with them. I learned a lot just from watching her and working with her.
I’ve also learned an incredible amount just through working under Nico, the coordinator for Our Town Reno. He has a way of finding your strengths and building on those strengths, knowing what you do well. And he also isn’t afraid to put you in an environment or a situation that you might be uncomfortable with, or you’re unfamiliar with so that you can kind of round out your journalism repertoire. So to speak in my personal case street photography, that was something that I never envisioned myself doing. That’s something that I’ve started to do for the Biggest Little Streets Instagram account. It became something to me that I started to enjoy. I don’t think that’s something that I would have really gotten into or thought to do otherwise. So I think as a journalist, I’ve grown in the capabilities that I have to tell a story. So between the podcasts, between the written and web stories between the photography, and then even the narrative films that I put together. I put together a narrative film from my night out with Eric Marks, we had a podcast session just like this and afterwards he offered to take me out on the streets to see what it’s like to shoot on the streets of Reno at night. And so Lucia and I went with him, we ended up shooting a video like through the whole night, chronicling it. And I was able to turn that into a narrative film. And that was just a really cool experience. So I think Our Town Reno has given me the opportunity to explore different avenues of digital media. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a journalist, and I’ve also learned a lot about the field and industry of journalism. That’s definitely something that I’m grateful for.
Telling Stories Across Platforms
RB: Has your experiences with Our Town Reno changed your career goals and objectives?
SK: So I don’t think they necessarily changed them because I kind of came in here into this program and into this experience with an open book and just looking to learn to let that kind of mold the direction I want to take this. But originally what got me interested in digital media and journalism in general was when I was abroad with the Peace Corps, I started my own blog and it was just a personal narrative storytelling of my experiences that I could share with my friends and family. And it was very relieving for me. I really enjoyed that experience and to be able to share that story across that platform and then to take that with the Our Town Reno experience where it’s not my experience that I’m sharing, but somebody else’s, I realized the value in that. And one of my favorite questions that I would always ask and I would always finish pretty much every interview with this question was: “What would your message be to the community? What do you want the city of Reno to know about your experience?”
And man, just, those are some golden nuggets of just, like I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it. Just the things that people come up with and the messages that they want to share about their experience is just so powerful that I think going forward in my career, I just love the opportunity to share like those golden nuggets stories like that, those messages that bring these communities together, bring people together and remind us of who we are at our core. That to me is really powerful. And I think that’s the story that I want to tell as a journalist for most of my career
Reporting During a Pandemic
RB: How has the COVID-19 pandemic change, what you’ve been doing for Our Town Reno, with the homeless community?
SK: So when COVID-19 hit, obviously we couldn’t go on the streets as much as we were before, what’s always going to probably stick with me is I went in and shot street photography during that stretch of time. And I’ve never seen a city and particularly Reno, just so empty to see like all the casino lights downtown off and closed was heartbreaking. However, what was even more heartbreaking was the fact that there were still people out and those people were people that didn’t have anywhere to go. That was something that stuck out to me because with COVID-19, if you have an infection, you have to isolate yourself, right? You have to self quarantine in order to take care of others and yourself and you have to wear a mask, but there were a lot of people out there that didn’t even know it was going on.
Because it’s hard to keep up with everyday news and what’s going on in the community when you don’t have much else. You’re not as invested in the everyday happenings of society. Of course, we couldn’t necessarily go see people and talk to them on the streets. In my role with Our Town Reno, what that shifted to was interviewing various candidates for city, state, and federal positions, elected positions and for the Biggest Little Streets podcast. So in the springtime, all the primary races I was interviewing pretty much all of them. That’s also another way that I’ve really kind of gotten inadvertently involved in city politics. And that was kind of the initial change experience for me working with Our Town Reno.
I know Lucia covered the Reno Event Center and, you know, kudos to her man for doing that because there was a whole lot going on during that week, that no one really knew what was happening. And she was out there covering that and getting that story out. So I want to give that necessary props to her. The next part of that was this fall. We resumed our street reporting initiatives and you and I wear masks when we go and approach people, Gracie does as well. Just to kind of give that level of respect because these people maybe don’t have access to healthcare. We certainly don’t want to transmit COVID-19 to them.
Then we did have the experience where you and I approached a woman on the river by Sutro. Her name was Rose. When we first approached her she couldn’t understand us because she was hard of hearing, she’s deaf. So she needed to read lips in order to communicate. I did have to remove my mask at that time, I do know some basic sign language, I was able to kind of communicate with her that way. That was also kind of an opportunity to recognize some people with masks, it’s just an added difficulty just because she needed to read lips to communicate. And so to have that understanding that will then, and to work with that, I think was a pretty kind of telling experience, obviously from a personal standpoint, I think we should all be wearing masks. I think that’s just the reasonable and human-oriented thing to do. It’s just the respectful thing to do, honestly. It’s really not that big of a deal in that experience and I think COVID-19 has certainly shown flaws within our society. But I think it’s also kind of given us an opportunity to recognize these flaws, recognize these things that we can do better so that we can do things better going forward, especially for a vulnerable community like the homeless community.
“They’re You and Me”
RB: For our listeners and viewers, we’re sad to say that your time with Our Town Reno is coming to an end. We’d like to thank you for all the time and effort that you’ve put in for our audience sharing these stories. And from a personal level, I’m very grateful to have learned so much from you as a journalist.
SK: So you know I appreciate that. And it’s been a pleasure working with you as well. Particularly from the street photography perspective, like what you’ve put up on the Biggest Little Streets Instagram account, like I think is so cool. So for me what’s next, I’ll be finishing my graduate degree here, in the next couple of weeks. And after that, I’ll be moving back home to Cleveland, Ohio for the time to figure out what my next steps are. I will be looking at a career in multimedia and digital media with a journalism element. Like I said, finding those golden nugget stories especially to share those powerful messages, to share with the community. I aim to have to be an integral part of what I do going forward. So in what capacity that’s going to be in will, you know, time will tell, we’ll see how that plays out, but you know, this is this experience and sharing those kinds of golden nuggets to bring a community together will definitely be a part of my life and my career going forward.
RB: So in closing here with us, what message would you like to share with Our Town Reno and their audience, our audience?
SK: So, man, speaking of those golden nuggets, I don’t know if I have one here. We’ll see. So man, what I just want people to know is that I want people to recognize the humanity of these individuals on the street. These are mothers, these are fathers, these are grandparents, these are children, they’re you and me. It’s so easy to just slap a label on that and just attribute that their struggle is due to, you know, personal decisions. When really, if you just took the time to learn their name and hear their story you’d be amazed at the circumstances that led that, put them in the position that they are today. What I think my message to the city of Reno and people everywhere, particularly as it relates to the homeless community is I want them to take the time to shake their hand, obviously with COVID-19 you may have to change that concept, but when it’s safe again, for sure learn their names, that something as simple as learning their name and a handshake goes a very, very long way.
So one of the things that they really talk about a lot is the isolation that they feel, the neglect, they’re just kind of left on the fringes of society quite literally. So something as simple as taking the time to learn their name, introduce yourself, shake their hand, give them that respect that human element of respect and just to hear their story and share that empathy with them. This world has, I think, lost track of it’s the value in sharing empathy with one another. And you know, COVID-19 particularly has created an opportunity for us to recognize that and bring that back into our life. And this is a crucial moment in society and history. I think to bring empathy back into the equation and how society functions and operates and, you know, creating a solution for homelessness is like I said, very complex.
It’s not going to be done overnight, but if we bring that empathy back into the equation, we recognize these people as people, as humans, with stories, with families, with friends and not as criminals, not as any of these labels or stereotypes that we place on them. I think we can go a long way in supporting each other and bringing empathy and bring love back into the equation. So I would just say, learn their names and when it’s safe, again, shake their hands and, you know, give them that respect because they deserve that because man, they’re just like you and me.
This story was originally published on Our Town Reno and can be found here: http://www.ourtownreno.com/our-stories-1/2020/11/23/scott-king-an-our-town-reno-reporter-bids-farewell?fbclid=IwAR1V0e5h5sBtS8KpV17dbkHB1p1fhDFAwtwwywhJvVVCejlFcNGsfPlaJ_0
Audio version can be found on The Biggest Little Streets Podcast here: https://ourtownreno.simplecast.com/episodes/scott-king-reporting-on-the-streets-for-our-town-reno-7ZaovULP