Live Local, Live Small: Catching up with former local Lori Freshwater and learning about the future of journalism
Just after the “call-to-action” Live Local column ran in encore a few weeks back, I was contacted by an old friend who is launching an investigative journalism project to shed light on the realities of the U.S. Department of Defense Superfund Sites. One example of which she speaks: water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
A former Wilmington resident, Lori Freshwater was famous during her time here for acting, writing, and founding the beloved gathering spots of Lula’s, Bessie’s and Longstreet’s. Since she left town, she has been busy with her education and writing, which led her to a new platform for writers called “Beacon.” Her work on the Superfund Sites will be published at Beacon (www.beaconreader.com/projects/left-behind).
Basically, Beacon is like Kickstarter for journalists. People commit $5 or more a month to a specific writer’s project, and in exchange they not only get access to that writer’s work, but all of the writers on Beacon.
Like Kickstarter, Beacon takes an administration fee, but the bulk of the pledged money (70 percent) goes to the writer directly. It’s like getting a subscription to The New Yorker, but dedicating the bulk of the subscription money to David Sederis’ work for the magazine. Projects range across disciplines from hard news, to travelogues, to arts reporting, and beyond. The focus is on raising backers—not a specific dollar amount—and garnering a dedicated readership, which resonates with any writer.
I am fascinated by this idea (and I confess I might decide to launch a project of my own here). I was so moved by Freshwater’s project, that I got my love, Mr. Brandis a subscription. Many of us, myself included, were shocked and stunned as the full scope of the water contamination unfolded before us in the StarNews (much credit goes to Amanda Greene for keeping that story in the spotlight). I asked Freshwater to bring us up to date on what was happening with the Superfund Sites, her writing and over at Beacon.
encore: Let’s start with an update: What is the current situation with the water contamination in Jacksonville, NC?
Lori Freshwater: I’m here in Atlanta right now, and I just finished my first meeting at the CDC as an official CAP (community assistance panel) member. As I’ve been made painfully aware of the last few years, the process is slow. The science takes time, and every agency we are dealing with is a government agency. So, like I said, you have to really gear up for things that seem urgent, taking some time.
e: What is needed to move forward with both clean-up and restitution?
LF: The Department of Defense, the Navy and the EPA are all moving forward, still, with clean-up. They say the water is safe now. I hope that is true. Restitution is tricky. Obama signed into law the Janey Ensminger Act which should guarantee health care for the Marines and their dependents. So far, some of the veterans are seeing some help but nothing for family members. People have legal cases pending (I don’t), but there is a SCOTUS case on the 23rd of this month which will be critical. The Justice Department has joined in with CTS Corp against the citizens of Asheville, saying there should be stricter time limits. Basically, this is the government and corporate America forming a partnership to deny the rights of those they’ve poisoned. It’s pretty sinister stuff.
e: When did you first become aware of the contamination?
LF: My mother had two babies born with neural tube defects, and neither one survived. Years later she heard about the contamination and told me it might be connected. I was raising my kids and other things, and didn’t get truly engaged at the activist level until my mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and was told benzene seemed to be the likely cause.
e: Why are you still interested in this even though you haven’t lived here in a while?
LF: It is a great injustice, and one still being denied by too many.
e: In your opinion, what is the best-case to come of this?
LF: A cure for breast cancer (www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/05/camp-lejeune-marines-breast-cancer-florence-williams).
e: What sort of impact is this having on our area economically?
LF: That’s a great question—but I really have no idea. Most of the people affected move on from the area, which is another challenge for us.
e: How does the military feel about it?
LF: As a Marine brat, and a native of Jacksonville, the Marine Corps response continues to be my greatest disappointment. I was on base during the years they knew the water was toxic, and they told no one. Since they could not deny the facts anymore, they have completely fallen down on their own motto of Semper Fi.
e: Tell us a little about your proposed project on Beacon?
LF: Well, I’m taking on the rest of the Superfund military sites. I want to make sure people know what kind of hazardous waste is around them. The DOD is this country’s biggest polluter. There are still clean-ups in progress. I want to know what still needs to be done, and what we’ve done wrong—what we can all do to protect ourselves. I want to put it on the record.
e: How did you discover Beacon and why did you select it?
LF: Ron Hogan, a book reviewer, wanted to launch a project which would allow him to write only about women and minority authors, and I jumped right in to support him. After looking at the site, I felt as though the kind of reporting going on there was worthy and decided to throw my hat into the ring.
e: Do you have to get all your hoped-for backers in order for the project to be a go?
LF: Yes, it is based on number of backers not money. I’m across the 50 yard line, so, hopefully, I’ll finish strong.
e: Any thoughts you want to share on the future of journalism, specifically investigative journalism and where we are headed?
LF: I feel positive about the future. I see the cable-news networks more and more marginalizing themselves and speaking only to the audience they rely on for their advertisers. I see more and more long-form independent journalism finding a home on the Internet.
e: Why is it important for the public to support work like this?
LF: Because our corporations, our government, and our media are not going to protect you or your loved ones from things that can harm them. We need engaged citizens supporting truth to power in order to live up to this great gift of the United States.
e: What year did you leave Wilmington, and sell Lula’s, Bessie’s, etc.?
LF: Around 2001, I think.
e: What have you been up to since you left?
LF: Well, I went through a difficult period in my life and came out on the other side, determined to change course. I returned to college and have worked steadily for years on my BA in English/creative writing. Now, I have earned my masters degree in the same. I treasure my time and my friends in Wilmington, but this work I am doing now is incredibly meaningful to me. I am, ultimately, hopeful it will be meaningful for many people in the future.