Uptown the Podcast: Amplifying Voices Through Storytelling

By Salima Punjani 

When Toni-Ann Fowler was growing up, she went to a youth centre like the one she is currently working at, La Maison des Jeunes de Côte-des-Neiges in Montreal. She was taught that her dreams and mind mattered and that she could make a difference. Today, she hopes that she can provide the same encouragement to the youth she works with so they too, can persevere through obstacles in their lives. “My dream is for them (the youth) to constantly see a world that they are included in,” she expresses.

Photo By Salima Punjani
People listening to Uptown the Podcast at an interactive public listening session led by host Dorothy Alexandre in Montreal, Quebec in June, 2018

Fowler is just one of the 50 people interviewed in Uptown the podcast, a bilingual ethnographic storytelling podcast that explores the dreams, aspirations and social issues important to people living, working and connected to Côte-des-Neiges, a borough in Montreal. What started as an ethnographic research study exploring why people weren’t using available services, has now transformed into a dynamic storytelling platform that amplifies the voices of people living in the neighbourhood.

The podcast is hosted by Dorothy Alexandre, who, among other things, is an entrepreneur, President of the Conseil des Montréalaises and former radio host. She is passionate about creating a sense of understanding about people from different backgrounds through digital content, that allows individuals to connect to the beauty found in humanity. She was brought onto a team of researchers, led by Scientific Director Karoline Truchon, to find a way to make their study, now known as Uptown the podcast, accessible to the public through storytelling.

The title Uptown comes from a popular saying in New York City, that Alexandre found was used often when speaking with black anglophones and Haitian people in Côte-des-Neiges. The term refers to the difference between downtown, where most of the business and wealth lies and uptown, which is more residential and less affluent. It also alludes to racial divides, with downtown being more populated by white people, and uptown, which in Manhattan is Harlem, populated by black people.

Moreover, Côte-des-Neiges is split by Côte-Saint-Catherine, a hill that topographically separates the neighbourhood. Christophe-Hubert Joncas, one of the participants, explained how Côte-des-Neiges was once known for being the most multi-ethnic borough in Québec. Throughout history and the present day, there are disproportionately more businesses, wealth, landmarks, recognized institutions and public spaces on one side of the hill compared to the other. Alexandre felt these connections made Uptown a fitting title for the podcast.

Listeners have the opportunity to hear seven episodes in which Alexandre plays a narrative role exploring issues such as stereotyping, prejudice, socio-economic barriers faced by residents and their dreams and aspirations. These episodes last between 35 minutes to an hour. People  can also search an archive of raw excerpts divided into over 30 themes including culture, racism, family, feminism, invisible barriers, housing and sports. 

Photo By Salima Punjani
Dorothy Alexandre guides listeners through the episodes of the podcast at a collective listening session of Uptown the Podcast at Village-au-Pied-du Courant in Montreal, Quebec in June, 2018

For Alexandre, the raw excerpts were essential as they highlight cross-cutting issues and bring transparency to the podcast. She also wanted to embrace the depth of storytelling possibility through the platform. “I was a journalist for 7 years. I know how it works. What we do as journalists is that we ask one or two people well oriented questions and clip it,” she explains. She enjoyed the complexity that came from asking people open-ended questions such as; “What is your vision of the world,” “What are the values in Côte-des-Neiges,” “What do you want governing bodies to think about,” “What are your dreams and aspirations.”

Alexandre feels highlighting the responses to these questions can help to challenge stereotypical narratives of people living in Côte-des-Neiges because it lets people reclaim their own voices. “When people speak about them, there are always the same narratives around immigration, criminality…. They are invisible. It’s time we stop talking for them but let them talk about their own issues,” she explains. She feels empowering people to tell their own stories can be a powerful tool in decolonizing conversations in the media.

Côte-des-Neiges is unfairly represented in the media because of a history of gang violence. Though the neighbourhood has moved on from the past, the stigma associated with this history remains, affecting the lives of community members. For instance, in episode seven, a young woman speaks about her struggle finding a job due to her last name and her address. Episode 7 of the podcast explores Côte-des-Neige’s past, and invites listeners to learn about innovative local initiatives that promote peace, opportunities and resilience in the community. 

Alexandre’s open-minded approach to storytelling was refreshing to participants in the podcast such as Zaynab who, because of the way her community is portrayed in the media, has a hard time trusting journalists. Alexandre assured Zaynab that her voice mattered, that what she had to say is important, and that she wouldn’t have to sugar coat her opinions. When she thinks about Zaynab, Alexandre feels that the experience of participating in Uptown had a positive effect on her. “She tried to tackle racism in her class at the Université de Montréal, and none of her teachers or colleagues wanted to talk about it. As an artist, she wasn’t sure she would be able to use her pen the way she wants to,” explains Alexandre. “She feels like she has the right to say something, this is the first step in changing these narratives,” explains Alexandre.

Photo By Salima Punjani
Zaynab and Dorothy Alexandre

Uptown launched with a public listening session earlier this year. The public was invited to listen, together, collectively to the stories of the people featured in the storytelling project. For Alexandre, the experience of collective listening is powerful in building a sense of connectedness and understanding between people. “People realize they aren’t alone and have more in common with other people. Neighbours learn more about each other. What I love about podcasting is that you listen to what a person has to say first, you don’t pay attention to how they look,” says Alexandre.

When asked about her dreams and aspirations for Côte-des-Neiges, Toni Ann Fowler reflects, “My dream is that this quartier (neighbourhood) stays intercultural. That the black people, the brown people, don’t get pushed out. There is so much beauty here, not just because it is a green space and there is contact with nature, but the people, the smells the sounds. You know when it is Eid, you know when school is out. It’s visible. You smell it, you hear it.”

You can listen to more of what Fowler has to say as well as the other 49 people interviewed for Uptown via online streaming. You are welcome to share your impressions via Facebook or Twitter. To learn more about 360 degree ethnographic storytelling and see more projects using this approach you can visit Amplifier’s website.