We the Voters: Journalism grad travels the country to bridge political rifts

people at table talking

In Portland, Maine, Emily Topczewski met a lobsterman in a bar and talked her way into spending a day on his boat. In a small town in Georgia, she convinced a police chief to let her ride along with one of his officers following a Black Lives Matter protest. In Ohio, she mourned with the community after she witnessed an opioid overdose.

She recorded it all – the good, the bad, the personal, the political. It’s part of her “We the Voters Project,” an ambitious endeavor to help Americans bridge some bitter political and social divides across the nation.

“The idea of We the Voters is that this is an interview project where I’m conducting interviews in small towns and large cities across all 50 states, talking to people on the premise that most people are good, and that if we are willing to listen to each other and listen to each other’s stories, it’s a lot harder to draw those lines and boundaries,” Topczewski explained.

Since she began her cross-country trip one year ago, Topczewski has interviewed hundreds of people in 26 states. Currently, she’s taking a break in Georgia where she’s reviewing her material and riding out the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, she posts snippets of interviews to social media and YouTube, updates the We the Voters Project website and her blog, and gives glimpses into the lives of ordinary Americans from every walk of life.

The origin story

Topczewski never wanted to be anything but a journalist. “I used to make these family newspapers on Microsoft Publisher – I have a very large Catholic family – about all of the news happening with my cousins and aunts and uncles, and then I would distribute them at family parties. And I did that for years,” she said with a laugh.

Topczewski grew up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and initially attended college at a smaller school before she transferred to UWM in search of a bigger journalism market. UWM’s Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies Department had everything she was looking for: Talented professors, internship opportunities, and, at the time, a news program called PantherVision which taught students how to create their own media broadcasts.

“I picked up skills, from editing to tracking down stories to getting people to talk to me. I learned so much in that class and I still use all of that basically every day that I’m doing this work,” Topczewski said. “PantherVision was far and away the most important collegiate experience I had.”

After graduation, Topczewski worked at the local WTMJ radio station before trying her hand at public relations as an intern in the D.C. office of a Wisconsin congressman. Deciding government was not for her, she found a job at PR firm and later transferred to that firm’s Chicago office. But, something was missing.

“I kept going back to what I loved about journalism when I was at UWM and what I loved when I interned in a newsroom,” Topczewski said. “And my issue with the way the news is handled right now, is because you’re moving so fast and you’re so underfunded, there are so many stories that don’t get covered or they don’t get covered fully.

“At that point, I was single and I didn’t have a house and I don’t have any kids. I said, what is really keeping me from being on the road? The only thing was my lease, which was ending. I took a leap of faith.”

And thus was We the Voters Project born.

On the road

In each state she visits, Topczewski spends a few days exploring three areas: The state’s largest city, a mid-sized town, and a small town of less than 15,000 people. She typically looks for local movers and shakers to interview: small business owners, the leaders of charitable organizations or nonprofits, etc.

“I start there because those are people who are really ingrained in their community. If they’re not comfortable being interviewed, they can typically point me to someone who would be or who knows something or who has been here for 50 years,”

Topczewski said. “Those are typically the people who can give me a better sense of what it’s like to live somewhere.”

She also stops people on the street – and in bars, churches, parks, diners, and town hall meetings – and asks to talk to them, a so-called “man on the street” interview. Each interview starts with surface conversation as Topczewski slowly convinces her subjects to trust her. By 45 minutes in, she has people telling her their life stories and their politics.

“I’m interested in what makes people tick. My premise in this project is that most people are good and that we are more alike than different,” she explained. “You can watch an hour of MSNBC or Fox or CNN and get three completely different stories of what’s happening in the country right now, which fuels a very partisan fire. However, in my experience … if you can get one person away from the ‘pack’ and sit down and actually listen to them … you start to pull back the layers and start to get to what people are concerned about, which are typically very similar things.”

Jim in Lexington, Kentucky, spoke about his pride and worry for his son, a firefighter/paramedic. Ron in Detroit talked about growing up poor and how the gang activity in the city waxed and waned over the course of his life. Lynn in Glidden, Wisconsin talked about her small town’s struggle to survive and attract new businesses and residents. Scotty, the lobsterman from Maine, talked about the pollution in the ocean that he sees every day from his boat.

“People are worried about education for their kids and their kids’ future, and they’re worried about job stability for them and their families. You can come to Atlanta or you can come to a small town in the south or to California, and I’ve heard the same stories everywhere,” Topczewski said.

A good interview is one where she walks away with a different perspective on issues like immigration, abortion, or other hot-button topics. Topczewski herself is an interesting mix of right- and left-wing ideologies – “too liberal for my parents but too conservative for all of my friends,” she joked – and has come to appreciate the many shades of gray of life across the U.S.

For the future

Right now, the We the Voters Project lives on its website and social media, but Topczewski has some big plans in the works. She’s launching a podcast in the fall and she plans to write a book about her experiences. She’s in the process of querying publishers now. Also in the works is a documentary series of short videos that share some of the major themes Topczewski has encountered in her travels. The documentaries should debut in winter of 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic did throw a wrench in her plans. Topczewski is debating whether it’s safe to travel and continue her work, or if she should redefine the project’s scope. Either way, she hopes that it will inspire others to think about their neighbors across the country.

“My interest is the theory that if you could look in the face of someone, who may look like you or not look like you at all, hear their voice, hear why they believe what they believe, then ideally, hopefully, you’ll be able to grant another person, a stranger, the same empathy that you reserve for your own friends and family.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science