Here’s my elevator pitch: Carla Jean Whitley is a writer and editor who is curious about the intersection of culture and community. She shares those stories through the written word as well as audio, video, social media, speaking engagements and teaching. That includes her role as a features writer for AL.com, where she also co-hosts and produces the Triple Take podcast; teaching at the University of Alabama; and her three books, “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City,” “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” and “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.”
And here’s what really drives me: Some people become journalists because they’re on a mission to save the world through words.
That wasn’t me. I chose journalism at age 10, but my motivation was self-serving: I wanted to write, and nonfiction came to me more readily than fiction. That remained my primary drive through school and internships. But within a month of accepting my first professional job, I saw firsthand the power words could have on a community.
Cassidy Tierce was a young girl with a brain tumor so severe that her parents leased an apartment near the hospital, 60 miles from home, and entrusted employees to run their salon. Tierce’s grandparents took her younger brother to visit family in Tennessee, leaving her parents to focus on Cassidy alone. On the return trip, Tierce’s grandfather had a heart attack while driving. The car hit a tree and he died on impact. His wife was admitted to intensive care. Tierce’s brother wasn’t injured.
The family allowed me to tell their story, depicting the parents’ daily journey from their daughter’s bedside in Birmingham to her grandmother’s hospital in Huntsville, 90 minutes north, and back again. I was moved by their willingness to share their story, and later to allow me to meet and interview Cassidy for a follow-up piece.
A girl about Cassidy’s age saw the original article and decided to host a lemonade stand to benefit the Tierces. In nine hours, the stand raised more than $1,000. Other, previously planned, efforts funded cancer research. And 14 years after my journalistic pursuits began, I understood and adopted the mission that motivated so many of my peers.
I’ve spent the better part of 11 years focused on feature stories. Some of my peers scoffed when I began an eight-year stint at a city magazine: Did I want a life of puff pieces and “best of” lists? Or did I want to make a difference in the world?
But I believed in the value of telling a community’s tales. Cassidy’s story influenced me, showing me for the first time why an everyday person would speak to a reporter. Her family drew attention to cancer research by sharing their plight. I could be a conduit for that sort of good, whether at a city magazine, newspaper or elsewhere.
That’s why I’ve remained in journalism, and in 2015 returned to reporting, even in the face of rapid change and instability. Working at Alabama’s largest local media organization allows me to meet people and tell their stories via AL.com and its companion papers. Because of the company’s broad reach, especially through the website, it is the best way to reach people in Alabama with their own stories, and the place where I can do the greatest good as a journalist.
Years after we met, Cassidy Tierce’s face grabbed my attention on the obituary page of The Birmingham News. I grabbed the March 26, 2006, paper and carried it to a separate room, where I could cry in solitude. My tears became a downpour as I spotted my former employer’s name following a list of friends and community members: “Special thanks to … The Tuscaloosa News for sharing Cassidy’s journey with others, all of the people that visited our website and sent emails, cards and especially prayers! You guys and God’s grace are what keep us going.”
Sharing Cassidy’s story left a mark on her family, and it permanently shaped why I write.