Kori Suzuki stands in his bedroom holding his recording equipment. A senior at Macalester College, Suzuki started the podcast Here We Are to share stories of students of color at a predominantly white institution. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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A moment of danger at the beach that brought two sisters closer together. The first time a Vietnamese American family went to the movies together. A daughter experiencing role reversal when she helped her father with his college essay.

These challenges and joys in Macalester College students’ lives are the heart of the new podcast, “Here We Are,” created by Macalester senior Kori Suzuki. For three weeks starting March 15, the podcast will share a new episode every weekday with a first-person story from a Macalester student of color. 

The moments that shape people’s lives often go unseen, especially for students of color in a predominantly white school, Suzuki said.

“People look at you and think they know who you are because of how you look, and you don’t get to tell them who you are,” said Suzuki, 22. “The goal is that this project will give people that space to share a part of them that’s important, something they want to be seen.”

For the debut episode of “Here We Are,” Juan Galicia-Diaz shares the story of how he came to see his name, which he once thought was ordinary, as meaningful. Credit: Courtesy Juan Galicia-Diaz

What Juan Galicia-Diaz wants people to see is simple: his name. Galicia-Diaz, 20, grew up in a Black and Latino neighborhood of Little Rock, Arkansas. He was surrounded by other Juans, including his father. He never felt like his name was particularly special, and usually pronounced it in English the way his white teachers did, with a W sound at the beginning. Once he got to Macalester, he continued that pronunciation, figuring it was easier for people to say. But then two things happened: A housemate changed his name, taking control over what other people called him; and Galicia-Diaz realized there was a mistake on his birth certificate—one of his last names was listed as his middle name. 

The experience “really helped me understand the importance of embracing my culture, the Spanish culture and the Spanish language, and how I was raised, and not to let this colonial English language take that away from me,” he said.

After that, Galicia-Diaz became deliberate about using both his last names and stressing the J, pronounced as an H in English, at the beginning of Juan. It’s a way of showing respect to his parents, he said. And he’s learned to be deliberate about asking others to pronounce his name correctly, too. The Spanish pronunciation can be challenging for some people, but there are plenty of English names that are difficult to pronounce, too.

Galicia-Diaz was the first student Suzuki interviewed, and his story sparked something that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the podcast. 

“Right off the gate, his story was about how you want to be seen, how you want to be represented,” Suzuki said.

Juan’s story traces his journey with his name–from growing up thinking it was ordinary to a conversation with a high school librarian to reclaiming his family roots and Spanish pronunciation.

‘Race is always part of the conversation, even when you’re not talking about it’

When Suzuki arrived at Macalester as a freshman, he planned to become an ecologist. But after taking a news writing class, joining the staff of the student newspaper, and landing a summer internship at a community radio station back home in the Bay Area, he was hooked on journalism.

Macalester, an elite liberal arts college in St. Paul, has a reputation for internationalism. Campus brochures cite Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who was secretary general of the United Nations, as an alumnus. But Macalester has no journalism school and only a small weekly newspaper. Suzuki charted his own path as a student journalist, taking relevant classes and starting a podcast through the student paper. When Annan died, the student paper wrote about his time at Macalester; for his podcast, Suzuki interviewed experts on crises he’d handled, criticism he’d received, and how he would be remembered.

“If you look at my transcripts, you can really see where my grades take a hit because I started focusing on this podcast a lot,” he said.

At Macalester, where 32 percent of the school’s 2,000 students are American students of color, Suzuki found that conversations about race were different from those at his high school, an integrated public school for the entire city of Berkeley. “People are very cagy about talking about race, but you get this strong sense that race is always part of the conversation, even when you’re not talking about it,” he said. “It’s there, it underlies everything, and it creates this tension.”

Over the summer after George Floyd was killed, students pushed to make big changes on campus to make the school more welcoming to students of color. But with most students learning off campus and adjusting to a new academic calendar to help with COVID safety, the momentum for change petered out.

Suzuki, a senior double majoring in environmental studies and cultural and media studies, is graduating in May, and heading for an audio internship at the Washington Post. Before he leaves, he wanted to contribute a final project to Macalester.

People of color at predominantly white institutions—whether at colleges like Macalester or media organizations—often face a question about how they can best direct their energy, whether they should push for structural change or try to support the people around them, he said.

“Do you try to change things, or do you try to change the experiences of the people who are closest to you?” he asked.

Kori Suzuki records audio using his bedding to dampen sound. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Suzuki decided his remaining time and energy would be best spent on a project that creates a sense of community among Macalester students of color who are currently scattered across the country—and the world. He envisioned the “Here We Are” podcast as a way for them to share stories with each other. And podcasting was a good fit for that mission.

“I think there’s a lot of truth that oral storytelling is in everyone’s bones,” he said. “Listening to somebody tell a story is just one of the most beautiful things. … Just to feel like you’re sitting down and having a conversation with somebody. And by the end of this you have this new connection, this new friend.”

Gabe Schneider, the lead editor of the Objective, a collective of reporters focused on improving media coverage and the journalism industry for people from marginalized communities, spoke with Suzuki as he was developing his show. He told Sahan Journal the project represented something he hadn’t seen before in a podcast. 

“It’s pretty cool to see someone say that these stories of these students, who probably haven’t been able to tell their stories through a school newspaper format, matter and I want to be able to tell them,” he said. 

Journalists often assume that stories of people of color in a predominantly white institution will focus on experiences of marginalization, he said.

“Something that’s far more interesting to me is the idea you can help amplify voices of students of color just talking about their lives and experiences in life, giving them a platform that isn’t just based on traumatizing negative moments,” Schneider said.

‘It’s about representation’

Galicia-Diaz responded to Suzuki’s invitation right away because he saw the promise of the project. “This is an extraordinary way for us to share our stories,” he told Sahan Journal. “I strongly believe that learning and connecting with people comes from storytelling.”

Galicia-Diaz first met Suzuki through Macalester’s Men of Color Collective. Those meetings, like most everything else, have moved online through the pandemic. Building community over Zoom is harder and less rewarding. “We lose out on those physical interactions, the laughter, the dancing, the jokes,” he said.

Sharing stories through a podcast can help bridge some of the distance, he said. He’s looking forward to hearing the stories others share, and hopes that his story will “resound with somebody else as well.”

Galicia-Diaz’s story about his name resonated with Shania Russell, a 22-year-old media and cultural studies major from the Bronx. Russell had worked on a previous podcast with Suzuki and provided feedback as he edited the episodes. Like Galicia-Diaz, she was raised by immigrants—his parents are from Mexico, while her father grew up in Jamaica.

Shania Russell’s podcast episode about her relationship with her sister will air March 16. Credit: Courtesy Shania Russell

When she arrived at Macalester, where the predominantly white demographics were a stark contrast to her home in the Bronx, she wrestled with similar questions. 

“You suddenly think a lot more about what you’re negotiating and compromising yourself in terms of your identity, what you let people get away with and how they treat you,” she said.

Macalester prides itself on multiculturalism and internationalism, she said, but the reality is more complicated. “Our voices often can go undervalued and we often feel unseen,” she said. “I think we seem most seen on campus brochures and in reference to our achievements, and what we can provide for the institution. But I think our humanity and our stories get lost in that.”

Russell’s story, scheduled to air Tuesday, describes a turning point in her relationship with her younger sister. As children, they spent summers at their grandparents’ home in Jamaica. But as Russell became a teenager, she longed to be home in New York with her friends and her cell phone. One day, as Russell reluctantly baby-sat her sister at the beach, the two were splashing around in the ocean when a strange man encouraged her sister to come out deeper into the water.  Russell had to steer her sister out of the water to safety. 

A preview for Shania Russell’s podcast episode, the second of “Here We Are.”

In a time of separation from her peers, hearing their stories helped her feel connected–and understood. “Listening to the stories of my peers I felt really heard, and really seen,” she said. “There’s something really nice about having a voice to directly connect to. It’s a little harder to ignore someone’s humanity, or the urgency of someone’s story and their personhood, when you’re hearing their voice and they’re articulating something personally.”

At first, she didn’t feel as though she had anything important enough to say. “Maybe my hesitance is missing the point of why this is important,” she said. “The things that don’t seem super important end up feeling really universal.”

For Suzuki, that’s exactly the point.

“It’s about a lot of things: love and connection and family and loss and happiness,” he said. “But above all it’s about representation: What it means to get to tell the world who you are.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.