The BitterSweet Story

Why We Do This + What's Next | September 2016


BitterSweet is seven years and 154 stories old. We’ve been through a lot: food deserts, elder care, financial literacy, homelessness, sex trafficking (a few times), youth development and education.

Ironically, this is the first time we are telling our own story. Championing other people’s inspiring work and effort is MUCH easier. No question. Creating safe homes for trafficking survivors, schools in garbage slums (next in the queue), and professional pathways for at-risk youth—those efforts are clear and critical. 

But, storytelling? It’s a hard sell. Creative as we may be, we are but middlemen. Yet our effort has never been more vital. 

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The stories otherwise dominating our day are characterized by poverty, corruption, disease, devastation, abuse, and war, with political punditry and petulance for flair. There is a multimillion-dollar media machine powering and pushing this content 24/7. Unbalanced, this diet is toxic—cause for fatigue, cynicism, and despair.

This was driven home for me when I was invited to address a couple hundred socially-conscious and concerned college students on a topic of their choosing: Compassion fatigue. 

Fatigue. As in: Opposite of zest, vigor, idealism and unbridled ambition. At 22. This isn’t fatigue from the development field or years of service as social workers, teachers, and tested professionals. These students have yet to earn a bachelor’s. And they’re tired. Tired of caring; tired of hearing about all the ways they could care or should care. They're burning out at the starting line.

I wonder how many feel that way: increasingly numb to statistics and paralyzed by awareness campaigns rather than empowered.

BitterSweet is a practice in learning how to see—we are seers. We square up with the harsh realities and heavy statistics to find glimmers of solution, of fearlessness and faithfulness, of hope. Always finding them, we build creative teams to tell those stories artistically through film, photography, music, written word and design.

Together we craft a counter narrative—one that refuses cynicism, defies apathy, and celebrates the right and good that the world needs more of.

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Issue One

In the fall of 2010, we published (printed) our first ‘learning to see’ experiment. We called them BitterSweet zines back then, thinking it was clever and innovative. We don’t do that anymore. 

Five boxes showed up on our doorstep the morning Abi and I were flying to Chicago for a conference where we were debuting the zine at the STORY Conference (thanks entirely to the kindness of Ben Arment, an early supporter).

Abi (then Creative Director of BitterSweet) and I had spent many very late nights pouring, obsessing over that first edition. We had been saving money from every client project over the previous year in order to afford the printing.

The title and topic for that issue was Sex Trafficking and Exploitation of Very Young Girls in DC. Might have been a little heavy-handed, looking back. I recruited Amanda Lahr and Steve Jeter as our first contributors. Amanda provided the research and writing to break down the complexity of this topic. Steve helped us concept a photography approach that was sensitive, artistic, gritty—respecting privacy, maintaining anonymity, while portraying a dark reality.

We drove ‘the track’ in downtown DC all night, from midnight to 5am—Jeter hunkered down in the trunk of my Honda Element, photographing from a distance through tinted windows. We thought we were in trouble when a police officer approached and asked to review Jeter’s photos. He was looking for a 12-year-old girl in a checkered blouse and white skirt who had gone missing a few days earlier.

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We printed the photo essay in black and white, in part because it served the content well, and also it was all we could afford. A local spoken word artist named Jusme contributed too, letting us weave the lyrics of one of his pieces through the photo essay. We filmed his performance of the piece in our studio. It’s still one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.

Local spoken word artist named Jusme contributed to the first BitterSweet story.

Using original photography and lyrics to tell the story of a handful of organizations combatting sex trafficking in our city—this was the first expression of a seven-year-old vision.

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Sitting at our gate super early in the morning en route to Chicago, Abi and I pulled out the first copies, fresh off the press. So much work, such a sense of accomplishment and excitement. I opened the cover, and the guts of the thing slipped to the floor—it wasn’t stapled. Abi checked hers—stapled, yes—but page seven was where page one should have been. It was out of order, the full-spread photos completely mismatched.

It was so sad it was funny; it had to be. We flew to Chicago in hopes that we had managed to snag the only few mishaps in the entire batch of 1,000. We hadn’t, and the conference bags had already been stuffed. Ha.

We’ve come a long way since then. For starters, we don’t print BitterSweet anymore.

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Once we shifted from a printed zine to an online story platform, things really got interesting. 

We invested heavily in our web framework, building from scratch a narrative-driven site that we could publish to monthly. Not surprisingly, the web-based story proved far more valuable to our featured organizations AND much easier for our readers/supporters to share. (That doesn't mean we don't have plans to resurrect a print expression of BitterSweet stories someday. Nostalgia, you know?)

Alas, we launched that platform in October 2014 with the Redeeming Grounds story, which Dave and Erica Baker and I traveled to Colombia to capture.

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Now, exactly two years and twenty-four stories later, we are launching 2.0. In fact, next time we publish a story—October 3rd, to be exact—you will be reading it on our new platform.

Beyond improving your reading experience, overhauling the web framework was essential for scaling the BitterSweet counter-narrative the way we envision. In a few months, we hope to have story teams working in multiple cities across the U.S., each championing a story of a local organization doing important and inspiring work in response to critical social challenges. Chicago is already rolling, with their debut slated for February 2017. 

That feature is doubly exciting because with it, BitterSweet Music Group will release its second collaboration (the first being the track for Octaves, the film directed by Brandon Bray for our Rescue:Freedom feature in June 2016). Led by the incredibly talented Ametria Dock and Joel Buckner, we are beginning to consider what it means for BitterSweet to tell stories through music. 

The competing voices of past, present, and future are both deafening, and silent at the same time. Her innocence can be stolen, but not her resilience.

Brandon Bray

Beyond that, we are working toward longer-form film projects, building up to feature-length work. The big dream being to debut that first feature-length piece in our very own brick-and-mortar across the river (in Southeast DC).

How do we choose which stories to tell?

Years ago, before BitterSweet published its first issue, Amanda Lahr and I sat at a cafe and came up with a scalable editorial strategy. We defined four broad themes that were globally relevant: Human Rights, Economic Empowerment, Public Health, and Community Development.

Then, as we evaluated potential features, we defined a sort of four-question filter: What need/issue is the organization solving? How long has the organization been operating (and has their work/impact been affirmed by reputable third-parties)? What practical engagement opportunities exist for the folks in our network to participate in, should they be compelled? Does it seem that professional creative/story assets are critical in achieving their mission (or do they otherwise have a million-dollar marketing department)? 

Those questions remain our guiding framework. At our annual team retreat, together with our core contributors, we pitch a few dozen story ideas and then engage in rigorous, open debate to arrive with a final story slate. 

NOTE: We are ALWAYS looking for more inspiring stories/organizations to add to the mix, so nominate an organization if you have some ideas!

Some stories (and story teams) have been more successful and effective than others. Why? Read on.

Creatives + Process

Managing the creative process is an art in and of itself. The (anti)-formula for much of our best work is one-part direction, one-part structure, and one-part autonomy. 

There is order to the parts as well—they layer and flow like movements in a symphony. We start with high-level creative vision and collaborative brainstorming to concept possible approaches and identify interesting story angles. We define our toolset (film style, photography, graphic design, written word, music, etc) and discuss the function of each tool within the story context as a whole.

Then we delegate and map production—the timeline of the making. Milestones (read: deadlines) are imperative. We assign to-do’s for each team member, baking in rounds of review/feedback and plenty of padding for who knows what. At this point in the process, everyone will understand what story we are trying to tell, how we intend to tell it, and their role/responsibilities within that scope. That’s where autonomy takes over.

Dozens of creatives have volunteered their time and talent to BitterSweet over the years. Their genius and skills have brought us into realms of spoken word, stop-motion, photo essays, illustration, short-film, infographics, audio narrative, live events and yes, even retail (a cardigan hand-woven by Miss Lydia of the Peace Center for the Blind, anyone?). Our creative contributors choose for themselves (in collaboration with the team) which approach they want to take to best serve the story. 

In our most recent story for Urban Alliance, John Jacks had the amazing idea to shoot a series of portraits of our main characters: interns, mentors, and alumni. He then printed the portraits, shred them into strips, wove them back together and photographed them again. The collection is truly remarkable and his unique approach brought to life a clever reality of the organization’s work: We are all woven people formed by experiences and influences. 

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For one of our most successful stories, we sent Brandon Bray and Steve Jeter to Congo to concept and capture a narrative short-film portraying the work of StandProud (a small non-profit masterfully retrofitting shoes and braces to help kids with polio walk for the first time). Their resulting work was brilliant and stunning—a powerful, universally beautiful piece that uses no dialogue at all. 

Un Architecte traces the will of one boy, Landry, to play football and the master craftsman who gives him the means to attempt that goal.

Brandon Bray

Sending people to Congo is expensive. How is BitterSweet funded?

Ah, yes. BitterSweet Foundation (a 501c3) is funded mostly by our for-profit story shop, BitterSweet Creative, and by our faithful Story Supporters who donate monthly. 

If you’d like to join the BitterSweet effort, definitely become a story supporter! Next step should be to subscribe to our newsletter (see link in footer) and help us grow readership by sharing the stories with your network. If you are a creative and might like to contribute your time and talent at some point, say hello and we will circle back when we have an opportunity that fits your skillset(s).

BitterSweet is a collaborative effort to dig into issues of poverty, war, disease, devastation and abuse to find uplifting stories of serious, gritty hope. It’s a growing movement.


Even while effective storytelling is critical to the success and sustainability of every nonprofit on the planet, many organizations struggle to do it well.

Not only are we delivering value to our readers, we are providing systemic support to each organization’s mission—creating valuable assets they can leverage for fundraising, marketing, network building and everything in between. 

On the question of the impact and value that these stories have for organizations, here’s some feedback we’ve received:

I think the whole feature is amazing. It’s heavy and gritty, and captures the weight of the issue, while still pointing towards the hope, with professionalism and composure. It will be a powerful tool for us to advance the mission.

Jeremy Vallerand, President & CEO, Rescue:Freedom

Wow, we can't thank you enough! The web pages are beautiful, the stories so well-written and compelling, the photos so clear and vibrant, really capturing everyone's spirit. And the video just about brought us to tears. We're so very grateful. Thank you all for your time, creative energy, care and thoughtfulness, and for your approach to this whole project. Looking forward to using these amazing tools to spread the word about making granola to hire refugees!

Anne Dombrofski, Director of Development, Providence Granola

My only words are 'WOW'!!!! I am not usually speechless...but I am certainly at a loss for words to describe my feelings of elation and my emotions reading, listening and watching the beautiful BitterSweet Monthly piece. Your passion for the project is very clear in the final product. Thank you again.

Selvon Waldron, Executive Director, Life Pieces to Masterpieces

I wanted to thank you and your stellar team at BitterSweet for the article on City Year DC's work on addressing the drop out crisis in our community. I was so impressed not only with the beautiful layout but also the detailed attention to data, testimonials and accurate description of the work our City Year AmeriCorps members provide for our DC kids. I have seen a number of articles on our organization's work and BitterSweet's piece was the best I have seen in my 8 years as Executive Director. Thank you!!!

Jeff Franco, Executive Director, City Year DC

This is amazing! You guys did an amazing job capturing Sole Hope! WELL DONE!!! and THANK YOU!!! I am so looking forward to sharing this! Thank you for using your time and talents to come alongside us a give us such a platform.

Dru Collie, Executive Director, Sole Hope

We've had some journalists ask to do a story on Casa in the past, and BitterSweet is the first publication to nail it. It was so evident that you 'get it.' There were sections of the story when I thought, 'Wow...they are telling this story better than I could.' We are so grateful for your phenomenal work and for the outstanding, professionalism of the BitterSweet team to help us tell our story well.

Dawnielle Miller, Executive Director, Casa Chirilagua

When we talk about creating a better world, these organizations (their staff and volunteers) are doing it. Day in and day out. Their stories often go untold, their efforts uncelebrated—and yet it’s hope that they make possible. 

The value of storytelling isn’t such a hard sell for the organizations in the trenches creating world change. They need no convincing, which is why we keep doing what we’re doing.

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Editor's Note

The vision for BitterSweet is fifteen years old as of this writing. Over that period of time there have been hundreds of people who have listened patiently, contributed generously, supported kindly and read faithfully. Though we are in many ways just getting started, this feels like an appropriate time to pause and say THANK YOU.

The world is vast, and the needs are great. Despair is tempting, and cynicism is easy, but I believe that art and design have the unique power to transform statistics into stories and awareness into action. I believe that it is our responsibility—as creatives, readers and everyone in between—to champion the efforts we are inspired by. To celebrate the important work that the world needs more of. Together, as a culture and a movement, we say, "This. We need more of this." And we build hope.

Thank you for reading, for supporting, for learning alongside us how to find and see the serious good amidst the seriously difficult. Let's do more.

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

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