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Stateside Podcast: Learning about the Underground Railroad in a new way

Courtesy of The National Parks Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom

Through candid dialogue between academics and artists, a new video series examines the Underground Railroad’s history and its reverberating impact. It’s called “Questioning Conversations” and is produced by the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.

Saugatuck-based scholar Dr. Anna-Lisa Cox is a non-resident fellow with the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and the manager of the project. She said that the video series aims to shine light on the NPS program and its discoveries.

“It's a relatively new branch of the National Park Service,” said Cox. “Its main goal[s] [are] to discover, research and prove Underground Railroad sites across the United States and make their history known. … They've managed to locate over 700 sites from Nantucket to Hawaii across the United States, including over 25 here in the state of Michigan alone.”

The video series, she said, is directed toward young audiences – some of whom may not have always felt welcomed or included by the National Park Service.

Joshua Harris – the Grand Rapids-based filmmaker who edited the series – considered this target audience when putting the project together. He said he wanted the production value of the series to match the raw content of the conversations themselves.

“I think now, in current times, in modern times, there are not a lot of things that are being sugar-coated when it comes to like a younger generation,” Harris said. “We appreciate the transparency. We appreciate the rawness. We appreciate, you know, the uncut, you know, the boots on the ground.”

Rawness is an ongoing theme of the series. Flint-based composer Anthony Feimster, who did the score for the series, thought a lot about silence throughout the project. He wanted to honor the power of the stories, which sometimes meant composing nothing at all.

“I'm a big, firm believer that in film, a lot of times silence really evokes reality,” Feimster. “And there were moments where I really just got out of the way to allow the message to be heard as raw and as relevant as it is already. … I'm a firm believer that music is like a plate [for] food, right? It's never the main course, but it's here to support the food.”

The series is filled with both joyful and heart-wrenching moments. The format of the videos features two panelists talking to each other, but the production team doesn’t want the conversation to end when the playback does.

“When people watch, we want to invoke conversations and questions for themselves to dig deep and do their own research as well,” Harris explained.

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Mike Blank is a producer and editor for Stateside.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.