For three years, starting from 2017, the International Examiner hosted a year-long Advocacy Journalism Fellowship (AJF). The goal of this program was to invest in more equitable coverage of underrepresented ANHPIA communities by fostering empowerment through emerging and new journalists. Cumulatively, 13 fellows graduated from the program.

Bif Brigman served as AJF Program Manager for all three years. The IE’s Community Relations Manager and former fellow, Carmen Hom, checked in with Brigman to reflect on the program.

The 2019-20 Advocacy Journalism Fellows pose together with former editor Jill Hyesun Wasberg and AJF program manager Bif Brigman. (From left to right:) Wasberg, Angel Chi, Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠, Carmen Hom, Isabel Wang, Sabreen Abdullah, and Brigman • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Carmen Hom: First, we want to extend our gratitude to you for doing an interview for the IE’s 50th anniversary.

Your role as a strong and perceptive mentor during your AJF tenure was one of our organization’s key moments. How did you come on board?

Bif Brigman: I was approached by Matt Chan, who said that the person who he and Travis had initially thought of for this position was unable to do so. And so, they reached out to me. They asked, “Do you want to kind of give this a try?” I said, “I’m not a journalist!” They responded, “No, no. This was a bigger, deeper thing.” And so I told them I would try it.

CH: And you kept trying it for all the three AJF years, actually!

BB: Well, the people I worked with were so amazing. I got so much out of it personally, that I just wanted to help. I starved the whole three years. It was really a challenging time, but all of the interns and fellows I met were astounding. Each brought something different to the experience.

CH: What are some memories that come to mind when you think about AJF?

BB: Oh my god, there were so many. The amazing community members who came forward as trainers from so many different walks of life, different experience levels, skill sets. Also, I think getting to know the fellows individually, each of them. I cannot tell you [how much] I loved working with all of you. All of you were so different. Your needs were so different.

It was a pretty watershed moment, when I realized in the first year that it wasn’t going to be a cookie cutter approach. It wasn’t, “Here’s a class, come and take it,” because I literally had to modify the program for each of the people in each community, depending upon where they were in their personal development. It was, “How do you engage these communities authentically?” The struggles that the fellows had with that were amazing moments for me to witness as they overcame those hurdles, both internally and externally with the communities that they represented.

First year fellows with guest speaker Sharon Tomiko Santos

CH: As the IE enters its 50th year of publishing, do you have any reflections?

BB: I’ve known about the IE for years;  I’ve worked on different projects. Back in (maybe 2006),  I worked on a project called Pioneering Issei, where we documented the lives of early Japanese American immigrants and their lives in America, which hadn’t really been done as a collective prior to that. I was super proud of that project. It was super hard. I worked with elders and survivors in the community. And that was a pretty monumental project for me to work on with the IE.

I’ve known lots of editors over the years and different writers and folks, you know, [the IE is] a precious resource for the community. I think sometimes it gets taken for granted. It was good for me to be on the other side, a staff person, to better understand all the hats that everybody wears to get the job done. I care about it even deeper today than I think I did when I was just having it as a community resource.

Another thing that stands out is the amazing archive of old community photos. I moved to town when I was 22. I felt a bit adopted into the family by seeing all of these things. And I certainly saw people that I knew, families that I knew, and businesses that I knew. But, it really tugged at my heartstrings to know how long the community has supported the IE and how long the IE has been supporting the community. It was pretty profound.

CH: It’s been six years since the IE’s inaugural AJFP, and four years since the last cohort in 2019, which was disrupted by COVID-19. Since then, the AFP has been on pause. What have you been up to?

BB: I went to work for InterIm CDA for awhile, doing grant writing and communications. That was right after the fellowship program. At the beginning of last year, I started to have a series of strokes. I left InterIm because I couldn’t do that job to the level that it needed to be done. Other than that, this past year, I’ve been doing a little bit of freelancing and taking it slow.

CH: You shared some favorite moments from the AJF. What were some harder ones?

BB: One of the biggest challenges for me when I first came on was that the program hadn’t really been refined too much. The idea was there, but the nuts and bolts hadn’t been done. I was busy in my own little box, crafting what I thought was a good program. Once we had our first group of fellows, I thought, “If we’re going to do this program, we need to know where the people are and meet them where they are.” Our preconceived ideas of who the fellows would be and what they wanted, I found, were not as overarching as meeting fellows where they were.

One of the clearest examples of this for me is the amount that communities and young people face with imposter syndrome, confidence, and what it takes to engage their communities. This may be me as a white guy, or it may be me as an older person in my career, but I thought, “You can walk into these communities that you’ve been brought up with your whole lives, and just talk to people. Talk to your elders. Talk to your leaders.”

But many people didn’t feel that connection. They did not feel empowered to do that. That was a real challenge for me to identify and figure out steps to counterbalance. Originally, I thought I was going to be helping people how to craft stories. It turned into a need for empowering them to be able to go out and seek those stories and feel confident and comfortable reporting them back. How do you report back on the important people around you, and sometimes a tough story for a community that you love, and that you don’t want to harm at all?

The IE Fellows at the Wing Luke Museum. Photo by Rahul Gupta.

CH: What in your own life prepared you for being the sort of leader that helps build confidence in others?

BB: Well, I think first and foremost, is that I don’t have it. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be smaller than I am. Smaller voice, smaller body, smaller presence. To be ignored, to be left alone. So in some ways, it was kind of easy for me because I knew the things that I did to go in the other direction.

I also have had a pretty unusual professional life, I was in retail for 20 years. I can get along, for a little while, with almost anybody. I was a high school dropout; school was not very nice to me. I would never have ever thought of a profession in teaching. Thankfully, mentorship is a little different.

But me as a white guy, I had to be super thoughtful and conscious every single moment of every single class. What worked for me was not necessarily what was going to work for all of you as people of color. So I tried not to have my experience dictate your experiences. I tried to say, “Think about these things, you may encounter them, but whatever you encounter will be your own.”

CH: What are some things you would change once the AJFP comes back? Would you be open to being the AJFP Manager again?

BB: Of course. I loved that program so much. It fed my soul in a way that most jobs have never done. I love the excitement. I loved the changeover. I loved getting to know the different communities. I mean, hell, I am still getting stuff. I’m still on the Pakistani Washington mailing list, and I love it!

There are definitely some tweaks that I would recommend after having some time to reflect. Hopefully there’s a little bit more pay possible. But yeah, I’d probably do it for free, quite frankly. I loved every time an article came out of the paper from any of you. I was beaming with pride at the tear sheets that you gathered and the manifestations of your skill.

Everything that you guys produced in the paper was because of you, not because of me. And some of the fellows really struggled to put enough work product out.  I had goals for all of you. But, people were managing jobs and lives and school and all sorts of things. And even if somebody only produced five articles, I was as proud as the people who produced 20 articles. Because again, it’s where people are, and meeting them where they are. 

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