Posted January 4th 2012 at 10:55 pm by
in Featured Contributor

A Conversation with Alexa Mills


Where did you get the idea for CoLab Radio and what inspired you to start it?

I started CoLab Radio because I had done media projects with three different communities between 2006 and 2009, and in each place I heard important stories that weren’t making it into mainstream media.

Teenagers in Tambo de Mora told the story of an earthquake that ravaged their town, and how they wanted to rebuild it; an eastern Kentucky man told me the story of his backyard fishpond, and how a broken sludge pond at the coal mine behind his property had killed his fish and turned his water brown; the parishioners of Brown Memorial Baptist Church did an oral history project that uncovered the tragedies of gentrification in central Brooklyn.

The voices and stories I heard had strong implications for the future of their regions, and there was no platform for them. I wanted urban planners, policy makers and other decision makers to hear what these folks had experienced. CoLab Radio started as a place where people like those I’d met in Peru, Kentucky and Brooklyn could share their stories and ideas with greater ease and with a larger audience.

What has been your most fulfilling experience as editor of Colab Radio?

In the summer of 2011 CoLab Radio put out a call for new contributors, and one of the people to respond was a community organizer and neighborhood planner in Baltimore. I scheduled a routine phone call with him to go over his ideas, and during the call I asked him where he’d heard of CoLab Radio. He said he didn’t remember, but that he read it almost every day, and that he got new ideas for his neighborhood from reading it. He even sited a few blog posts that he’d taken inspiration from. To me, that was a defining moment.

People who write for CoLab Radio put so much time and love into their work, but we don’t always know what the impact is, or whether people are using the information. The various web traffic statistics feel meaningless after a while. But to know that CoLab Radio was a resource to someone and his community – that’s really meaningful.

What type of content would you like to see in the future on this publication?

I love first-person narratives that relate to specific community events, like Charlotte’s story about what it was like to loose her public housing unit in London. I also love it when writers and photographers work in earnest collaboration with a person to tell his or her story. Donna Baugham-Perry worked with me to explain what it was like to go on strike against Verizon at 8 months pregnant, and that was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

Finally, I love blog posts that explain new ideas, like this story about a man who grew vegetables out of sewer water. There is space for innovation in almost every realm: how to run a business, how to run a bank, how to write a story, how to plan a street.

At a recent Mel King Community Fellows meeting here at CoLab, Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina said, “I heard a statement that I’m coming to embrace: that in this period, imagination is more important than education. Not that you don’t need education. But when there is an exhaustion of things that you’re used to working with, that no longer work, the issue becomes imagination. What does work?” I hope CoLab Radio can be a place for imagination.

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