The transformative power of storytelling

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Behind the Byline introduces you to those who write stories, take photos, design pages and edit the content that we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We are more than journalists. As you will see, we are also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences Sonoma County proudly call home.

Today we introduce you to Emily Wilder, our public safety and Criminal Police Rapporteur.

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I’ve always been steeped in stories.

Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish Community of Phoenix, Arizona, every holiday, tradition, lullaby, and scripture has been, in one way or another, a retelling of the religious history of my people.

Encouraged by my mother, I devoured books, listened to the public radio on the drive to school, and filled spiral-bound notebooks with poetry and prose.

But the stories I had access to were also relatively isolated, as is Orthodoxy in general. I knew few children outside of my religious day schools and spent most of my weekends attending synagogue services or keeping the Sabbath with friends. I had little contact with communities other than mine and had little insight into other people’s mindsets.

I got to know perspectives and people online that I had never had before.

In high school, I created a secret account on Tumblr, a microblogging social media platform that appeals to particularly dissatisfied and frightened teenagers who are looking for friendship beyond their physical reality. Scrolling through my Tumblr feed was like looking into a kaleidoscope, flooded with colors and shapes and memes and hashtags of unknown worlds.

It was through the relationships I established with my colleagues on the platform that I began to understand this virtual universe. I met teenagers from Ferguson, Missouri, and made friends with others from Palestine, just as Black Lives Matter showed up in Missouri that summer as Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

They shared with me the stories of their struggles, families and communities in exchange with my own. Some of what they said challenged what I was taught – about the Palestinian perspective or racism in America, for example.

Some of the exchanges also showed how similar we can be, even separated by oceans and cultures. We heard the same music, laughed at the same jokes, or had the same dreams about our future. I have experienced firsthand the transformative power of storytelling – that personal experiences that are verbalized and entrusted to others can build bridges of understanding and empathy across large boundaries.

For me, that was the purest purpose of journalism.

Now, I’ve been a little over a year in my career and two months in my role as a public safety and criminal justice reporter for The Press Democrat, covering crime, police, law enforcement, and incarceration. I recently found that my love for journalism was sparked by my introduction to different worlds, but my approach to this work has been shaped just as much by the world I come from.

It was my Jewish community and education that required constant curiosity and rigorous critical thinking from me. I was encouraged to consult every verse in the scriptures in the tradition of the Talmudic study, never to take a single letter for granted. Questions of rites and rituals were not only welcomed but expected.

And it was my family, teachers, and elders who taught me that curiosity requires humility and compassion: to ask the best questions, you have to first accept how little you know and how much you have to learn. And in order to fully understand the answers, you need to be willing to ponder why people believe what they are doing and come into their own.

All of these lessons that I learned from my upbringing and those that I learned nonetheless guide my reporting on the criminal justice system.

One of the reports I’m most proud of was about a man who was jailed for a parole violation nearly two decades ago on a marijuana conviction. He had been written off by the system and condemned to government control for most of his adult life. When I found out about him, I pledged to follow his case to the end.

Over the next few months of checking in and listening over a prison phone line, I was able to help him tell a story about the criminal justice system that was complicated and human. It had both emotional and material effects on him while he was incarcerated.

I’ve grown in my coverage since then, but I hope to bring the spirit of that storytelling to my role as a criminal justice and security reporter at The Press Democrat.

The stories to this beat have massive, far-reaching implications – on politics, on life, on how we talk about and with one another. If I can help even one person by telling them a story they’ve never heard or support them by telling their own story, then I’ve achieved my goal.

You can reach employee Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or [email protected] On twitter @ vv1lder.



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