A Conversation With BitterSweet's Founder & Editor
Obi: *Starts Zoom recording* Thank you, Susan.
Kate: (laughs) How do you know it's Susan? Did you just make that up?
Obi: I just gave her a name. I like to thank all my robots. So when they take over, they remember I was one of the grateful ones from the start.
Obi: Very important.
Kate: I think that should be on a t-shirt.
Obi: (laughs) Hi.
Obi: I guess we should probably introduce ourselves. Who are you?
Kate: I'm Kate Schmidgall. Who are you?
Obi: I’m Obiekwe Okolo. But that’s not important here. Who are you Kate Schmidgall?
Kate: You know, it's interesting - we always try to answer that in terms of job title and that's where my mind first goes. But, actually, I just think of myself as a seeker, and someone who processes meaning and locates myself in the world through story. I am the founder of an online narrative effort called Bittersweet Monthly. Over the past 12 years, it's taken on a few different forms that began as sort of an artistic documentary style magazine that we printed in small batches and sold at cafes throughout DC. We initially focused only on DC organizations - just our neighborhood - to see what was good and how we could lend ourselves, our lives, and our way of seeing and creating to the stories that we thought needed to be told.
Kate: Since then, it’s morphed and to some degree expanded. From a printed magazine or a zine, we called it at the time, because it was so small, to a broadsheet-like newspaper format. Then we made the online jump in 2013 or ‘14. We had originally avoided digital because we're millennials and want to believe that print is not dead - there's something about the tactile experience that brings intimacy and connection that's harder to emulate in an online environment - but eventually the print costs were just too heavy a burden. So that really drove us online. Since then, we've been publishing at bittersweetmonthly.com with dreams to get back to print someday.
Kate: I guess that was a little bit of an intro to the history of BitterSweet. But in short, I'm a business owner and founder of bittersweetmonthly.com.
Obi: I thought that was a great intro.
Obi: So put us in the room or the series of rooms where BitterSweet was born. What did that look like? What was going on in your head? In your heart? Who was around? What was the cultural climate?
Kate: If we’re talking about the very beginning, I was 18 attending a conference for something called “missions week” at my church. The speakers came from all over the world, where they were working to care for the sick and the poor in various contexts. They came to encourage the American church with stories of what they saw God doing in their communities and to raise support for the work. There were probably several hundred people gathered to listen. I only remember one speaker, a gentleman from I don’t know where. I remember listening to his words and thinking, if I close my eyes and ignore presentation and tone, it’s clear the work is powerful and needed. Yet his presentation was so subpar. The audience was dead bored, turning to dust right in front of me. I just thought that's such a tragedy, you know, that there's meaningful, passionate, self-giving, transformative work happening and the best we can think of is to fly this guy across an ocean to do something he's really terrible at doing, expecting that it’s going to result in anything meaningful for anyone.
Kate: I honestly felt it was an injustice to the work itself, which prompted a question and a challenge that has driven me ever since: There has got to be a better way to tell this story.
Kate: This is why I chose a journalism major in college. I got involved with our student newspaper, first as production manager and then managing editor. In 2003, I attended a conference for student newspaper teams in Seattle. As I let my mind wander during one of the workshops, this picture of an artistic, documentary-style magazine took shape and I doodled it, the whole vision. A magazine that took on the burden and challenge of exploring darkness - squaring with the seemingly intractable issues of our day - and lending voice and artistic perspective to the good work being done in response to those issues.
Kate: So this conviction for the better story came when I was 18, and the vision of an artistic documentary-style magazine more or less took shape in my mind during college. Then when I was 26, five years after graduating, I decided it was time to begin.
Obi: What was happening in the world at that time? You were thinking about stories of how people were stepping up to address the issues of the time, what were the issues of that time? I mean, even broadly?
Kate: Well, that was 2009 when I actually started BitterSweet. We were in the midst of the financial crisis - many people losing their homes, declaring bankruptcy, or lost their life savings. At the same time, many of us were celebrating Obama's presidency and everything that it meant for the world we hoped to build. So there was tremendous optimism, even in the midst of one of the worst financial, market-changing events in recent history. This was 8 years after 9/11, of course. I watched the twin towers crumble on a TV in my dorm room as a freshman at Ball State. So the financial collapse was the second significant fallout millennials my age had experienced in early adulthood. In between those events, and just after I’d graduated from college, social media and the iPhone came into existence; revolutionizing information-sharing and relationship-building forever.
Kate: So we were very much on the front lines of all that, I guess - being changed by it, whether we knew it or not. One of the major social issues getting a lot of attention at that time was human trafficking, modern slavery. We were coming to terms with figures showing there were 27 million people enslaved in 2010 - more than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. 11 years later that’s still the case. We know now there are many types of slavery and a variety of methods and evils keeping people oppressed - from forced labor to sex slavery. So that was the first focus of the BitterSweet zine, published in the fall of 2010: A study on the sexual exploitation of very young girls in DC. Or, more specifically, who's doing what? What approaches are needed to correct the injustices and heal the wounds, and who's leading those efforts?
Obi: The mantra of BitterSweet right now as we know it today is Reject Cynicism, Defy Apathy, Celebrate Good. Was that the mantra from the beginning or did that sort of evolve from somewhere else?
Kate: I actual wrote that for the first time, I think, in the first manifesto that I wrote. I believe. Maybe the second. I'd have to go back through my notes, actually.
*searches through notebooks*
Kate: I don’t know if I can find it on the fly here. I don't know where that came from. I mean, I wrote it for the first time several years ago. I couldn’t tell you exactly.
Obi: Do you think-
Kate: It was probably ‘15, ‘16. I think it was when we were online.
Obi: Got it. I think I read the first issue of BitterSweet when we were at 52 O. I think there was one laying around somewhere. But do you think the spirit of defy, reject, celebrate has always been there? I asked this because when Ithink back to the first issue, it felt like it was more informative than it was reorienting. A lot of the stories we tell now are, yes, definitely informative because people might not have the inkling of the issue or context, but there's definitely more focus on reorienting. When do you think that shift happened?
Kate: Yeah, that's a great question. I think you're right about that. The first issue is more introducing or trying to frame the problem. There's a short essay in the beginning giving perspective on how we see sexual exploitation of young girls in DC. Then there were just short blurbs on the featured organizations. We left it up to the reader to go learn more about the organizations on their own. When we moved online, that was really where our editorial approach shifted. What conversation was informing that, I don't remember. But I think in my own heart I always wanted to do more journalistic narrative that elevated an organization - just one - instead of being an issue-driven piece and needing to include a range of actors. So it's really more like leading with the Celebrate Good and then through their experience and effort, the underlying issue comes into view. But we always want to understand the issues through their experience and lens - not through distant desk research with statistics and snippets of reports.
Obi: Let's talk for a minute about just the mechanism. How does it come to be? So as it stands we tell 12 sort of mountaintop feature stories a year, about 12 different organizations. How do you, how do you pick those organizations? I should say, how do we pick those organizations for those who don't know? What's the mechanism of BitterSweet Monthly?
Kate: The mechanism. All of the stories that we've told have come to us. They are nominated by our readers. They can submit them on our website or tell us about them via email and we put them into a big list. At some point in the early fall, myself and our editor (which for the first decade was Amanda Lahr), would go through and research each organization and write a description about their work. We have a set of criteria that we evaluate organizations by, including but not limited to: longevity and demonstrated resilience, effectiveness of their model, uniqueness of their approach, need and feasibility for artful storytelling, and openness to collaboration with an eagerness to leverage what we create.
Kate: There's always a question of, do we have anything to add here? Like, do they already have a million dollar marketing budget? Are they already telling their story beautifully? If so, they probably don't need our help. If they’re an organization that is so in the trenches and have a wonderful story to be told, but not resources to tell it, and there's something new that we can discover and bring light, and they themselves would appreciate it and have a use for our way of seeing and creating and the assets that we would deliver. Then we go. But it’s important that they want it, to be honest.
Kate: So, considering all that, we shortlist the organizations and pull together our contributors - they have the first vote. They, too, evaluate each organization by the criteria and then we rank the top 12. That top 12 then becomes our tentative story slate for the next year.
Obi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: At which point we need to reach out to the organizations and share with them the news of their selection and get their buy-in. If they are a hundred percent in and able to collaborate with us on it, then great. They move forward into the third round, which is funding. Historically, the stories are funded at a pitch night, where I share the story slate with all of our nearest and dearest - our longtime supporters and donors who believe in us and the stories and pledge to underwrite the production budgets of the specific stories they want to sponsor.
Obi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: If the slate gets funded, meaning there's a donor who wants to underwrite that production budget, then it's locked in stone and we put it into a monthly calendar and start producing. At that point we take it back to the contributors and say who wants to do what? Was there anything that resonated with you particularly? Let's get you slotted for that. Then those story teams collaborate amongst themselves, with the editor, to approach the story through writing, photography, film, et cetera. Then we write it, we shoot it, we edit it, we publish it, promote it.
Hmmm that's probably the last piece of the puzzle. Tell me about the contributors. Who, who are they? How did you know - aside from just the sheer need for bodies on production - how did you know that this was the way you wanted to go about doing it?
Kate: Yeah. There's nothing about this that ever felt appropriate for a for-profit model. It was pure conviction on my part that drove it. Because of my journalism degree and love for writing and listening, I think this is the only thing I wanted to do with it. And I know that others in our world with other crafts or disciplines feel similarly. I knew they were wanting to use their professional skills to support organizations that can't afford their services, but who very much deserve the story.
Kate: And there's definitely a frustration there. Talk to almost any professional creative about their experience, volunteering their skills for nonprofits and I promise you'll get an earful. It's just such a headache.
Kate: Unfortunately it's often because non-profits who don't have experience, particularly professional experience, in storytelling, or art, or artful storytelling, they don't even know what to ask for. They know how to produce their corporate annual report. They know what their donors and their board have been asking for since the beginning. But that's not what we're trying to capture - we're trying to capture essence. And that requires a very different set of skills and a very different process.
Kate: And because we're offering it for free, frankly, they don't have editorial control. They're along for the ride. They just get the benefit of artists, really trying to listen deeply, understand and distill essence. Then apply their God-given gifts and professional skills to express it beautifully.
Kate: It's kind of a magical thing! On the other hand, I've been a creative professional for about 20 years now and have worked with many creative people in that time - all of us earning our livelihoods from this work. So, we're all very familiar with meeting client expectations and needing to perform to a schedule and a budget and a scope.
Obi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: But often, that's not really what drives us artistically, or fills our hearts and souls with a sense of meaning, contribution, and connection with the world. So in part, I wanted to create space for creatives to really offer the best of themselves - the curious expression of their craft - for an organization that could never ask for it and certainly not afford it. In doing that, I’ve wanted to see what we could do to change the popular narratives that we live alongside. So I guess it was two-fold: We're solving a problem for organizations that have a story to be told that deserve a story told, and can't afford it. And, on the other side, we’re inviting creatives into a different sandbox to really apply themselves in their pure giftedness to things that matter to them. So Bittersweet lives at that nexus.
Obi: Yeah. That's good. That's...that's good.
Kate: One other thing I want people to know, Obi, is that our contributors are volunteers. I think that's important to say.
Kate: We've asked over and over and over, would compensation add value? Some have been volunteering for 10 years with us. Steve Jeter was with me on that first shoot for the very first issue in 2010 and he's still one of our main contributors. To create from your soul - with no other influencing factors, like a money dynamic or a transactional dimension - is invaluable. There’s a purity to it that we all appreciate, and that protects our freedom throughout the creative process.
Obi: That's good. That’s really good. If you're allowed to have one, what is your favorite story that has been told in the last decade? Or let me rephrase that, 'cause I guess as editor you're not allowed to have a favorite. If you could choose which story a first time engager or listener or reader should read first, which would it be?
Kate: Uh, hmm. I mean, I'm not allowed to say all of them, right?
Obi: You're not allowed to say all of them. No. That's a cop out that I cannot--
Kate: You cannot suffer?
Kate: I'm gonna look at the index. Um...there's so many.
Obi: A decade is a long time.
Kate: I mean, I've gotta give different props. I think anything by Jessica Mancari, who's a writer that's been contributing for several years. Her DC Youth Orchestra feature, or Morning Star in Beijing, either of those would be good starts for a reader. These also include the work of Erica Baker and Dave Baker on photography and film, respectively. I think those are beautiful, beautiful stories. And that team also produced ‘Lacing the Toughest Terrain with Life-Saving’ for One Heart Worldwide in Nepal. I think any of those would be a great starting point.
Obi: I’ll remember to link all of those in the transcripts so people can access them. Let's talk about the future. What do you see as the future? Where are we going? Where are we, you're the captain at the helm, where we headed?
Kate: Hmm. I'd love to see us expand in terms of how stories are told. I would love to expand our contributor base such that we could include audio production on a regular basis, and more experimental film and photography. Ideally we'd be publishing books on the regular. I don't know what that looks like exactly, but I think having individual story books would be really fun, especially for the younger generations. I've thought a lot about wanting to get these examples of real life people doing very hard, inspiring work in front of three- and four-year-olds as they’re learning to read. So they can grow up with this sort of orientation toward the good and participation in the hope.
Kate: If they could see what a life of selfless service looks like. Maybe in their community, but maybe also a very different community than their own. They could be expanded by one another in that way at an early age. So, we've also gone back and forth on a vision for BitterSweet storytelling teams in every major city across the world - orienting to the good in their context, being challenged to go and find, and then tell us about it.
Obi: That’d be a good time!
Kate: Yeah so we'd be learning from local storytellers who are freshly collaborating for each project. I love that concept. I think it makes much more sense than sending American teams all over the world for a variety of reasons. At the same time, I also know how expanding it has been for us to experience different ways of working and thinking. The humility that has come from listening to the principals and the teachers in rural Vietnam, for example, or with Dr. Wiafe and his staff at the eye hospital he founded in Ghana - I'm forever changed and grateful for the opportunity to listen to their experiences. So I would also hope for that for artists from all over the world. Maybe you tell us the story from your context, but perhaps we can also send you somewhere else and you can be enriched and your heart can be enlarged by that experience.
Kate: Ideally, we would be telling more stories. BitterSweet would be so beautiful and resonant that we'd have a massive following continually inspired, engaged, and energized rather than fatigued. I want to see culture invigorated toward good and help people find their place in hope-building. I want to offer space for artists to create from their souls and connect again, if they're finding themselves disconnected from meaning and purpose of craft. I think all of that requires a media house, a collaborative community effort that's known for having best-in-class content. (laughs) What do you think? I think we should be in music, to be honest, that's a big deal. I would love for the stories that we tell to somehow make that jump. I would love for us to host gatherings where we can learn from one another and share experiences. There's a whole world of deeper connection...
Obi: There's a whole world.
Kate: What do you think?
Obi: I think, I think a lot of things. I like the word media house a lot. I think there are these entities/institutions that define our cultural tone. Feels like that’s what you're talking about. I think it's easy to dream and say, hey we wanna be the Sports illustrated, Architectural Digest, or Bon petite. But truly cultural tone is shaped and shifted by the Conde Naste, the Magnolias, Essence, and Disney. So it really, in my mind, since I joined the team, I find myself instinctually repeating the mantra Defy, Reject, Celebrate. And the more that I repeat it, I can clearly see how we make that happen in 12 feature stories a year about organizations doing good, but what happens when that same mantra bleeds into the way that someone writes a recipe? What happens when it finds itself in song, or poetry, into events?
Obi: 'Cause that's really what the likes of Conde Nast do. How do we take this tone that we've created - our BitterSweet cultural tone - and bring it into the kitchen, and talk about the culinary space? How do we do what Rolling Stone, and bring it into music and talk about music, write about music, write music. The question sort of just blows everything up in this really beautiful way. It’s not even about audience growth for me. I think audience today is a fleeting and shallow construct.
Obi: I say imagine us having our hands meaningfully in so many pies and, and attracting people who are passionate about their thing, but have not found a tone or a voice that is speaking about their thing the way that they feel their thing should be spoken about. It's the same, I imagine, as 18-year-old Kate sitting in a lecture hall saying 'why isn't this thing that I love being presented in a way that makes it compelling.' I imagine an 18-year-old musician or an 18-year-old culinary student, 18-year-old graphic designer, artist, painter, poet. I want to be a home for those remnants. Who are looking for a place that is first and foremost human centered. Places that claim to be hope-building can often operate with a bizarre single note. In a way that is deeply frustrating sometimes. I see the work of BitterSweet as a work of, not presenting hope, but asking questions about hope in a way that makes other people pursue it for themselves.
Kate: Yep. I love that.
Obi: Let me ask you this - do you think we’ll ever go back to print? Because that’s definitely part of my hope for the future of BitterSweet.
Kate: (laughs) I wanted to say a note real quick about the Reject Cynicism, Defy Apathy, Celebrate Good drivers - defining where those came from, in case it’s helpful. Several years ago, I was invited to speak to students at American University during their ‘justice week’. The students submitted three topics that I could choose to speak on. They were: Compassion fatigue, living a life for justice, and so many issues, so little time. And what I heard in those topics were 20-year-olds, fatigued.
Obi: Yeah, yeah.
Kate: Overwhelmed at the starting block. And I just thought - this is a problem. These are our bright young things. This is our next gen. And they're tired at the starting line.
Obi: Right. Right.
Kate: Something about how we're communicating about issues and opportunities to invest your life in positive change, it's become a slog, I guess. Hearing about social issues can feel demoralizing and overwhelming in a not helpful way that actually counteracts our impulse to engage or to show up. So rejecting cynicism is, in a sense, refusing to believe the issues are so big they can't be changed. We choose not to tolerate that belief anymore. Instead we challenge it as a myth. We defy apathy in the sense that we don’t wait, thinking someone else will do it or that change is someone else’s responsibility or that my meager contribution is just not ever going to be enough…so why bother.
Kate: So we defy apathy by investing ourselves first and not expecting it to be others’ responsibility. And celebrating good is, you know, an intentional question about where we invest our lives. As artists, I think that's the summons. How are we contributing those gifts and those skills and leveraging that way of seeing or creating for the change that we all want to see? Because those skills of storytelling are both the greatest need and the greatest challenge for every single nonprofit on the planet. And so there's a place for us to be investing our lives intentionally.
Obi: Right. Okay.
Kate: I just think we cannot not.
Obi: Cannot not.
Kate: That's how I know I have to do this.
Obi: That's the point.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, nobody's begging for it. Nobody's knocking down our door with funding, but it doesn't matter. This is the thing that I cannot not do. Feels more like obedience to my role in the world.
Obi: I'm glad that I'm getting to do it alongside.
Kate: (laughs) Me too. I love your ideas and the way you talk about it. It's fun for me to hear.
Obi: I gotta be - I gotta be careful when I talk about doing new things, because I say it and then you're like, cool, let's do it. And like oh nooooooo....wasn't ready...
Kate: Yeah, exactly. And you're like, no I can't. (laughs) I can't.
Obi: Oh no.
Obi: All right, cool. I'm gonna stop the recording.