A Narrative

There is only one thing I’ve ever considered doing with my life, and this is it. You’re reading it. Bittersweet—a collective story that I hope will age and mature as a healing and hope-building narrative for all who feel at least moderately overwhelmed by (and numb to) the deluge of issues in our modern world. 

We offer no advertising. No gimmicks. No prompts or promises of grandeur if you sign up for our newsletter, though you're welcome to. The Bittersweet narrative has been building for a decade, deepening and expanding every year as our readers send us their story nominations and our contributors conscientiously invest themselves. 

2020 Bittersweet Group Photo


This work is driven by a simple agenda: Reject cynicism, defy apathy, and celebrate good. We seek to offer an orienting narrative that counters confusion with clarity and despair with hope. We honor questions with the humility of space, presence and curiosity—practicing active listening with a posture of intentioned openness. 

We travel, visit, listen, and write. Through film and photography, we study and reflect. Each story in the Bittersweet collection is crafted with utmost respect for the individuals, cultures, and geographies involved. Our aim is to elevate the stories of those who model abundant life and learn from them. Perhaps not surprisingly, this tends to lead us to remote places. Our interviews are very rarely with familiar names, rather we find ourselves drawn in by the influence that comes from many years living out an enduring concern for ‘the other,’ whomever that might be.

While many other media groups focus on 24/7 content spanning urgent crises to the shallow sensational, Bittersweet studies and seeks the wisdom gleaned from enduring kindness expressed in the wildest places. And a part of me wonders if, as a culture, we might grow into the stories we tell.

Refuse Cynicism

Cynicism is sneaky and subtle. It creeps upon one’s hopes frame by frame, snatching hatchling hope with suspicions of corruption and incompetence, permitting our hearts to remain unaffected and unengaged—wholly ours and not each other’s. The needs, too big, and my little, not enough. This cynical worldview centers on issues, polarities, and the magnitude of it all to the degree that action seems futile and fatigue inevitable. 

But it’s false and dissatisfying, precisely because cynicism is a way of not seeing. It requires no commitment, spreading and thickening without our conscious choice. It’s easy to settle in the defaults presented to us, accept the sweeping narratives of despair and confusion. 

So how to turn toward that which is lovely and just, right and beautiful? What is the practice, the posture? This takes extraordinary commitment and intention. But unlike cynicism, it is not exhausting. This practice draws us in a deep way toward meaning, humility, gratitude, and respect. Toward fullness. Of heart and soul, of belief and hope. With this choice to reject cynicism and see beyond it, we are reacquainted with awe and wonder and the joy of mystery and life. We are freed to see people as infinitely dimensional and unconditionally worthy of respect and listening—not condemned and small, but expansive and perfectly made. Each of us given to each other. This way of seeing turns bleakest terrain treasure-filled, every plain rock a marvel gem. 

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Photo by Steve Jeter

The Mexican nurses pooling their pay to afford better needles for the babies in the incubators. The Chinese doctor-surgeon dying to the honor of a perfect record by operating on abandoned baby hearts with severe complications. The Nepalese network of birthing clinics newly established to save women days of dangerous trekking while in labor. The Bosnian dog teams eradicating landmines and schoolchildren healing wounds of war. The Vietnamese hopeful building libraries in rural schools. The Congolese craftsman improvising leg braces for those with polio and crippling conditions. The granola-maker of Rhode Island using artisanal baking to employ and empower resettled refugees. The poets of Chicago leading with raw sharing and radical listening. The neighborhoods of Detroit pulling together to shift power dynamics and dismantle dysfunction and urban decay. The salvage yard leading Baltimore’s landscape of second chances for returning citizens and those overcoming addiction. The Nashville café and lotion shop healing women survivors through making, earning, and belonging. 

From Nepal to China, Vietnam to Nashville and Baltimore, we are inspired by the stories we encounter.

Erica Photo

Erica Baker

Photographer

There is a more pervasive narrative hovering over all of this, of course. One that centers on poverty, corruption, disease, devastation, abuse, war, and conflict. All death and decay. It’s a terrible governing worldview—oppressive, dark, and heavy. So we endeavor to see through it, puncturing the bleak to find the light.

And the more we seek, the more we find. 

Defy Apathy

To defy apathy, we act. We engage and invest ourselves in the stories we find. Bittersweet contributors are creative professionals and storytellers who volunteer their time and talent to build this counter narrative and put a magnifying glass to the glimmers of hope and best of humanity. Though we each derive our livelihoods from our respective crafts, the Bittersweet narrative is a freewill offering, so to speak. We create it because we believe it must exist. It is soul-filling and life-giving, both to take in and also to produce. 

Applying our whole selves to the stories we find is an essential part of our discipline. We listen deeply for understanding and then internalize and express our impressions through our crafts. 

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The artist soul needs both space and structure. To each story team and creative contributor, Bittersweet offers autonomy and collaboration. While much of our professional lives are spent negotiating project parameters, messaging goals, business needs, and communications strategies, Bittersweet is a sandbox where artists play for the purpose of originality, new collaboration, and pushing our own selves as we serve the best stories the world has to offer as an end in and of itself. The value of engagement is measured in the meaning and significance of the experience and the collective output, not the money. As artists, we create not just to eat, but also to live. Fully and not just financially. And as readers, we take in stories not just to consume, but to shift our perspective, shape our mindset and amplify the good in this world.

And so as we spend our selves and invest our lives studying these global works and weaving this world story, it brings us to life. For organizations that struggle to see their own work freshly and readers weighted down by the popular narrative of despair, we hope that Bittersweet brings reprieve and a reorientation. 

It is my personal hope and expectation that, in time, you will gain clarity as to where the light in the darkness is exactly, how and where to see it and what you can do to magnify it. We always only find what we’re looking for, and so I hope the Bittersweet narrative challenges you to ask a new question: What is it that I’m looking for? Make a conscious choice to reject cynicism and see through it, intentioned on finding the light, if only to know for sure that the darkness is not winning, actually. And life is meaningful.

Celebrate the Good

Celebration is an act of defiance, and choosing what to celebrate is critical to the cultural reformation we unquestionably need. Historically, cultures have celebrated conquest, superiority, and national heritage, but I wonder what type of celebration we can offer that might build a whole world of greater humility and humanity. 

In absolutely every context on the planet, there are those resilient, stubborn, courageous few compelled to build peace despite profound grief, hardship, and conflict. There are communities pulling together to close long distances of division and some even learning to leverage their privilege and provision for the sake of others. There is rich and layered history of faithful, devout believers of all sorts, orienting their lives around tenets of self-sacrifice, compassion, generosity, and kindness—even in the face of holocaust, starvation, and occupation. This has always been true yet has become buried beneath various narratives of self-interest, self-centeredness. 

Consider the industrious zabaleen community of Cairo—zabaleen meaning ‘people of the garbage’ in Arabic. The people of the famed garbage city operate one of the most efficient and human-powered recycling operations in the world, each family with a specialty: hard plastics, soft plastics, newspapers, glass, aluminum…sorting, crushing, washing, drying, melting, molding, exporting. While most children participate in the family business, I met eight-year-old Demenia on her first day of school. Education became possible for her and thousands of other zabaleen children when an Egyptian entrepreneur pivoted her marketing career to care for the poor nearly thirty years ago.  

[Left] Mother sorts garbage in the street as baby sits atop the next bag. [Center] Demenia on her first day of school. [Right] Mama Maggie, founder of Stephen's Children.

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Stephen Jeter

Photographer


Or consider Kenya, where native Julie Church created a sustainable way for locals to earn a living while collecting 90 tonnes of marine debris from the beaches each year. A half million flip flops that wash up on shore are brought to local artisans in Nairobi who repurpose them into colorful sculptures which are sold as statement art internationally. This, an artful blend of environmental and economic restoration. 

Everyday the Blue Team walks the beaches collecting washed up refuse, most of it plastic and flip flops.

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Bobby Neptune

Photographer

Most recently, we were honored to share the story of the Himalayan Cataract Project, which has restored sight to the blind tens of thousands of times and not nearly enough. What began with doctors Sanduk Ruit and Geoff Tabin in rural Nepal 25 years ago has spread to several other countries with needless blindness caused by cataracts, including Ghana. There, it’s Dr. Boateng Wiafe and a handful of ophthalmologists routinely perform sight-restoring surgeries in the rural towns—those determined to use their skills where they’re most needed, with little regard for whether or not it makes them wealthy. 

The Bittersweet narrative is utterly counter to popular culture—a cohesive narrative that will build indefinitely with a growing diversity of souls all seeking the same thing: a refreshed and concrete hope, a reorientation that draws us toward one another and builds peace both among and within.

Join the Movement

Among nonprofits, storytelling is typically a greatest need and also a greatest challenge. Fresh perspective is hard to find, particularly in the trenches. And the Bittersweet gift is just that—new language, original photography, imaginative short-film, and an independent platform to deliver it all. Storytelling is asset-building for these organizations, and while it’s free to them, it is costly for us. 

Donations help us continue to afford the hard costs of storytelling, including flights, accommodation, ground transportation, translation, transcription, meals, and equipment. In other words, getting there and staying put long enough to listen well and capture specifically. 

We have dreams for Bittersweet to become a more robust media house publishing content in books and podcasts, hosting gatherings for wonderful connection and deep conversation, and anchoring the work and rooting the community in a long-term home. 

In the decade to come, we would welcome anyone and everyone who wants to join Bittersweet as a story ambassador—promoting stories as they launch and throughout the month via social media—or supporters, who give financially to help us do more (either recurring monthly or one time). Additionally, we are grateful for every encouraging email and every story nomination sent our way. 

We’ve come a long way in ten years, but we have a long way to go as there is no end to the incredible work we get to witness and share. I hope you’ll help us build a better world one story at a time. I think we can change. 

Editor's Note

Just a decade ago, Bittersweet Monthly began with a small crew of creative professionals who wanted to tell a different kind of story—one that highlights the unsung heroes, amplifies the good, remembers the forgotten and builds hope while also acknowledging truth.

Since those early beginnings, the landscape has changed dramatically, with the rise of social media, the shortening of collective attention spans and the increasing polarization of ideas. Through that, Bittersweet has grown and evolved, but its heart remains the same—to tell the story of good work being done around the world, and to do it with beauty, creativity and excellence.

Over these years, we have seen a lot of darkness—poverty, devastation, loss, suffering—but we have also seen light. This story is a celebration of that light and an invitation to be a part of this life-giving narrative. As a reader, contributor, supporter or follower, you carry these stories with you. You are the hands and feet of this work. Without you it doesn't exist. Here's to another decade of rejecting cynicism, defying apathy and celebrating the good—together!

Amanda
Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, Bittersweet Monthly

Our Story Team

Kate

Kate Schmidgall

Writer

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