Rebecca Ibarra: I'm Rebecca Ibarra in for Tanzina Vega. We're going to end today's show with something that's helped some of us cope in the past year, journaling. Now, there's no right or wrong way to journal that's the beauty of it, but typically it goes a little something like this, Thursday, March 4th, 2021, I've always hated March in New York, and a year into the pandemic, that relationship hasn't gotten any sweeter. It's still too cold, too dark.
This time around, there's no escape, no quick trip to Mexico, or a beer with my friends indoors. This isn't an actual page for my own journal, but you get the idea. Journals, diaries, and other personal writings have long helped people document and reflect on their lives, but they've also been deeply valuable for historians and future generations. How do we go about chronicling this global crisis in real-time?
That's something The Pandemic Journaling Project has been thinking about since last spring, a joint initiative between the University of Connecticut and Brown University, the project is working to ensure that the voices and experiences of people are heard and remembered during the COVID-19 crisis. Since May, they've received nearly 9,000 contributions from nearly 1,300 people in more than 40 countries. People submit written journal entries, but they also share their experiences in photographs and voice recordings.
Speaker 1: What's affected me the most is the social distancing. I find myself aching for touch to give or receive.
Speaker 2: There has been a lot of moments when you're alone with your thoughts, you can't really escape those imprisoned--
Speaker 1: To crush them in a hug or shake their hand or punch them in the shoulder to hear their voice in person.
Speaker 2: Just a lot of self-guilt, self-hatred.
Rebecca: Participants have also expressed what they're feeling through poetry, including this one about living through both the pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis.
Speaker 3: [Spanish language]
Rebecca: These were the voices of just three of the thousand-plus people who submitted journal entries in the past year. For more on their collective experiences, we spoke with the two co-founders of the pandemic journaling project. Dr. Katherine Mason is an assistant professor anthropology at Brown University and Dr. Sarah Willen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and director of the research program on global health and human rights at the Human Rights Institute. Sarah told me that they had a specific goal in mind when starting the project.
Sarah: The first impulse was to make sure that we were recording the stories of people who were on the front lines who were being directly hit as the pandemic unfolded. At the same time, we together think a lot about mental health. Both of us do research on issues of mental health. We thought it would be really beneficial for people to have a place to chronicle what they were going through themselves as a way to reflect, and also as a way to preserve their stories for themselves and for their families into the future.
It was really those double motivations that got us rolling at the beginning, a sense that we needed to work hard to make sure history was full and rich and included the voices of all of those who were living through this moment. Also, a sense that people would want a space to reflect.
Rebecca: Kate, tell us about the people participating in this project. How did you recruit people to journal? How intentional were you about creating a diverse group of participants?
Kate: We wanted to make this as open and broad as we possibly could? From the start we wanted to make this really, really easy for people to participate, even if they don't have a computer, even if they can't speak English, even if they don't like to or feel comfortable writing. This entire thing can be done on a smartphone and it can be done in English or Spanish. We're very, very deliberate in trying to reach out as broadly and widely as we can, in particular, to folks like essential workers who are on the front lines and to communities of color who are being disproportionately impacted. We wanted to really make sure to get their voices as well.
Rebecca: Kate in a time where we can all share, and most of us do share our most private thoughts on social media. What is the difference between say recording a TikTok journal and writing one for this project?
Kate: at the beginning of the project, there were some folks who said, "This whole thing is being recorded on social media, so why do you need another platform?" We think that this is just getting at something really different because social media, as we all know, is a very performative and curated type of thing. We are all curating public selves when we post on social media and this project is deliberately anonymous, it's confidential.
There isn't actually the option to make your name public or to comment on anyone else's posts. We don't allow for commenting because we wanted this to be a space where people can really be honest with themselves, and we do see a different of tone in these entries than you would see on social media. It's much more raw, it's more introspective, it's more honest.
Rebecca: Sarah, what kinds of questions or prompts did you offer to participants or was it more free form?
Sarah: We've worked together with a group of researchers and students also, and try to think about how we could really predesign a historical archive so that in the future we'd have people's perspectives on a wide range of aspects of everyday life. Some of the things that we ask are intimate, how is the pandemic affecting the people closest to you, how is it affecting your mental health? Some of the questions we're asking are much more about the world around us.
For instance, "Do you know of any small businesses that have been affected by the pandemic and talk a little bit about that?" Or we ask about whether people have themselves or their community has encountered racism or hostility in any form. The questions really try to tap into people's experiences of everything we've gone through and we think about this year. It's been one form of disruption on top of another, on top of another, and all of those different aspects of the past year, from the social protest to the election, to the forest fires, to the inauguration, everything becomes entwined in the way people talk about their experiences.
Rebecca: Kate what's the overall story you got from the thousands of entries. Is there a narrative through-line?
Kate: It's really difficult to say at this stage, but we are seeing a lot of themes. One of the main themes really has to do with the longitudinal nature of people's participation. We send folks who are participating a link to participate every week and we've been doing this since last May. We're now at about 10 months now that the project has been running. We see that people's experiences are not static. Sarah mentioned the protests and, for example, the wildfires of last year, the election in the US, we see people reacting to all of those things in real-time and shifting their ways of thinking and their emotions.
There was a sense of optimism in the summer, a sense that this was almost over, a refocusing on political issues like the protests. Then as you get to fall, you see anyone who has children being very fixated on school and very worried about school from all different angles. Then, as you move into the fall, you see things gain a little darker, both in terms of the weather and in terms of people's moods. Then more recently the hope with regards to the vaccine.
Rebecca: We've been talking about chronicling the lives and experiences of people during the COVID-19 pandemic. What the two co-founders of the pandemic journaling project, Dr. Katherine Mason and Dr. Sarah Willen, before we got to the work they've been doing, we wanted to give space to you out there who have turned to journaling at this moment.
Speaker 4: March 10th, 2020 for several days now, I've been walking around with an intrusive and involuntary song popping into my head at the darndest time. COVID 19. Yes, you know what I mean at this moment. It is everywhere. I've laughed at it a few times, but mostly not.
Christian: Hi, my name's Christian [unintelligible 00:09:29] and I'm calling from St. Louis, Missouri. 4th, October, 2020. After a few days of depression, I am astounded all over again by this simple landscape, the dancing grass, rustling leaves everything alive in abundance, the trees, one fiery orange, the other Christmas red, singing autumnal songs amongst the greens and the season rhythm, the minuscule spider whose shadow dances as it crawls sprint across my page. How everything evolves to my adjusting eyes as I bring it from the page. The greens are dusty gray, it becomes painted visibly [unintelligible 00:10:09] by the yellowish tree in the distance increasing with every brush stroke.
Speaker 5: Saturday, February 13, 2021, another transfusion day. Eating peanut butter and Graham crackers from the hospital, drinking coffee from my new COVID coffee destination it's a drive-through.
Jamie Starr: One morning you might wake up and sing Hallelujah because the wicked witch is dead. When morning you might discover that hope is a feather as it floats into your hand black and shiny. One day, you might simply sit at the ocean's edge, dangle your toes in the water, and sigh with deep appreciation that you were here. My name is Jamie Starr. I'm calling from Vashon, Washington, and I wrote that back in May 2020.
Rebecca: Like the listeners, we just heard participants of the pandemic journaling project have been using their journals to work through the range of emotions they've been feeling since last spring. Katherine told me there have been some common themes in those entries since the project started.
Kate: One of the biggest ones has to do with actually with gratitude, that we're seeing people being really struck with how grateful they are for what they do have. We see this from people who are in more objectively privileged positions, but also from those who are not, from those who have lost family members, or have lost their job, or even their home and feeling just grateful for what they still have and alongside that guilt, guilt that they are doing okay when others around them are not.
We also see a lot of broad existential angst. It's not just about the pandemic, but it's about the pandemic in light of the election and the social unrest and fears about climate change and all these other things happening in the world are all mixed together. Finally, we really see people working through and calming themselves. There's a lot of resilience here that has been very interesting to watch as people talk their own way through their own experiences.
Rebecca: How did the journal entries you collected complement research and data about the mental health toll of the pandemic?
Sarah: Many, many people are experiencing a tremendous burden right now, where there's the uncertainty, there's the isolation so many people are feeling a lot of anxiety. Many people who already had mental health struggles have found those to be exacerbated. The population-level data certainly support that. What we're finding in the journals is that people do need a place to reflect. A journal is a place that can serve that need for some people. Certainly, participating in our project, we can't promise any mental health benefit, but we're hearing people reflect on the kinds of struggles they are experiencing.
We're hearing people reflect on the ways in which taking this time a few minutes a week can be of benefit. We're also seeing as Kate was suggesting ways in which people are finding ways to find little bright spots, to find joy, to find ways to have fun, to reconnect with people using the technology available to us. We're finding some of those glimmers of hope.
Rebecca: Why is it important to chronicle the lives of ordinary people, especially during times of crisis? Kate.
Kate: This is a period of time that is going to be remembered by everyone alive today. This is a time that my eight-year-old daughter is going to tell her kids about. It's a time that is going to have a major impact on the whole world and certainly our own society. This story of that time and of what actually happened during that time and of what people were experiencing during that time, it needs to be told by as wide a range of people as possible.
We thought it was really, really important that the story of this time, not just be told through the newspapers and not just be told by those who were prepared to share that with the world and have the means to do so, but it's told by ordinary people just living their lives and trying to get up every day and keep going through this really, really strange plague year. This is a space where we hope people can leave those memories, both for the history books and also for their families because one of the things we wanted to make sure that we did was to allow people to download and keep everything they contribute.
One of the things Sarah and I have talked about a lot is that when our children have their own children someday and are telling them about this time to have a chronicle of everything that their own parents went through during that time can be a really powerful thing for a family in terms of their own family history.
Rebecca: Sarah, how long will this project continue? Does it end when the pandemic ends?
Sarah: We certainly will continue inviting people to contribute to their journals until the World Health Organization has declared the pandemic over. That will be a moment at which we say, "Is this a formal end?" But we won't cut things off at that point. The pandemic will continue to reverberate in our lives for a long time. We will continue reaching out to people periodically to see what's changed. Just to give a sense of what will happen to this material as Kate suggested, anyone who contributes can download their own journal at any time.
Once we do stop formal collection of material, we're going to put it all in an archive at a data repository at Syracuse University, where researchers can work with it for the next 25 years under some limitations. Then, after 25 years, the entire collection will become a publicly accessible historical resource so that people can continue to learn from our first-person accounts long into the future.
Rebecca: Katherine Mason and Sarah Willen are the co-founders of The Pandemic Journaling project. Thank you both for joining us.
Kate: Thank you so much.
Sarah: Thank you so much for having us.
Rebecca: Before we go we wanted to share one last musical journal entry we got from a listener.
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