As an editor and journalism instructor, I often hear this from well-meaning people: “Hey, you and your students should do a story on fill-in-the-blank.”
More often than not, the idea falls flat as a story because of several things - it lacks focus, it lacks purpose, it lacks heart. That wasn’t the case when Dr. Teri Shors, a biology and microbiology professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, told me about her biology student Sitha Thor. She told me about Sitha’s goal to document the “green medicine” that is used by Hmong people for health, wellbeing and healing and to screen the dried roots/bark and plants for antiviral properties in a virology laboratory.
I have to confess, prior to this project, I knew little about the Hmong people and culture, and I knew even less about the plants they grow. I have had a few Hmong students in past classes, but I didn’t know their rich backstory. When I told my reporting students about this project, I could see the uncertainty in their eyes. They didn’t want to say it, but they weren’t sold on the story idea. How could some biology student’s research be big enough for a semester-long multimedia project? Why would this be of interest to anyone, to me?
My students were right in a way. On the surface, the story idea may seem a little dry, but they soon learned what seasoned journalists know: you have to dig deep to get to the good stuff.
|Grace Lim and the student reporters of the Green Medicine Project.
Before we could delve into Sitha’s research we had to learn how his family ended up here in Wisconsin, in the Fox Valley. How did these with plants with exotic-sounding names come to be? I handed out the reporting assignments. Emily Romatoski and Dan Hager reported on Sitha and his research; Raven Braun wrote the sidebar on Dr. Shors; Sonia Zimmerman on Sitha’s aunt, a shaman; Thomas O’Connor on Sitha’s mom, an herbalist; Laura Simon on Sitha’s uncle, a respected clan elder and a soldier of the Secret War in Laos; Emily Kaegi on Sitha’s aunt, who contributed most of the plants to his research; and Lori Ligocki on Sitha’s great-aunt, who wrapped precious seedlings from Laos in banana leaves and now grows the plants of her homeland in her laundry room in Appleton, Wis. The rest of the class helped with the Hmong culture research and the transcription of many hours of interviews.
Every Sunday for six weeks, the students and I met with Sitha, who served as the translator, and the family members in their homes. They and several others contributed more than 80 herbs, plants and bark for Sitha to examine in the labs at UW Oshkosh. We sat rapt as they told stories of their idyllic youth in the mountains of Laos until the Vietnam War, when the Hmong men were recruited by the CIA to fight the North Vietnamese Army encroaching into their country.
At one point during the interview, Sitha’s mother shushed her son, who did a masterful job translating for me and the students. She said, “Let me speak, then you translate.” She spoke non-stop for more than 10 minutes. She told stories of sheer terror, of running away from the North Vietnamese who destroyed her village, of living in the jungles with little food and lots of illness. She told stories of sheer heartbreak, of her grandparents dying of hunger and fear. She told stories of great hope for her children and grandchildren, of their lives in America being better than the one she left behind in a country so far away.
Later, Sitha told us that he hasn’t heard many of those stories before. He had no idea how much his parents and relatives have suffered and sacrificed for him, his cousins and the grandchildren.
People might think this is a just Hmong story, a simple straightforward story about a biology student and his research. They’d be wrong.
Green Medicine is a story that transcends culture and geographic boundaries.
It is a story about family, the love of parents for their children. It’s about honor, tradition, war and sacrifice.
Green Medicine is a story about respect for the past and hope for a better future.
And that is a story that can be shared by all.
Editor, Green Medicine