Imani Khayyam for NPR
Georgianna McKenny’s award winning podcast it begins, fittingly, with a blaring alarm.
It’s an alarm clockwaking up his 17-year-old cousin, Mariah, while sailing one morning in January when living in Jackson, Miss. meant waking up without access to clean water.
No showers, no drinking water from the tap and, for a few days, no school.
McKenny is the new high school winner of NPR’s fifth edition Student Podcast Challenge. In a year with more than 3,300 entries — from middle and high school students from 48 states, as well as Washington, DC and Puerto Rico — McKenny and his winning entry tell the story of the toll Jackson’s water crisis has taken on the city students.
« I don’t listen to podcasts »
Georgianna McKenny attends school two and a half hours northeast of Jackson in Columbus at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a prestigious public boarding school for academically talented high schoolers from around the state.
In the school’s sunny entrance hall, summer school students lower a hand-made rope onto a balcony. Others watch or conduct experiments on their own around the stairs. Posters are posted on a classroom door in Russian, one of at least five languages that students can learn here.
The school is a marvel, as is Georgianna.
An elderly woman on the rise, she is soft-spoken, with glasses and hair pulled back in braids that hang at the corners of her broad smile. We meet her in the hall, amidst the chaos, along with her English teacher, Thomas Easterling, who has assigned her podcast as part of her composition class.
Imani Khayyam for NPR
« The idea was that they needed to know their own cities better, » Easterling says of the assignment in his college composition class. “Since I have students from all over Mississippi, they researched the parts of their hometown that gave them a sense of place. »
Georgianna grew up south of Jackson and struggled to find a topic at first. She then mentioned the water crisis, which has troubled Jackson for years, as she wrote with an out-of-state friend.
“She lives in Georgia,” Georgianna recalls. « I texted her and she was like, ‘What is she?’ Like, she didn’t know I was really shocked.
We walk over to Easterling’s classroom, where Georgianna walks over to her usual desk in the back corner and begins explaining how she came up with her podcast.
« I sort of had a vision in my head. I spend a lot of time in my head, actually, so it wasn’t that hard, » she says with a smile.
This is Georgianna, disarmingly honest. While most of Easterling’s students worked in pairs – one wrote, one produced – Georgianna did both, alone. Although she admits she: she actually didn’t know how to do it Do a podcast.
« I don’t listen to podcasts, » she says, « they’re really boring. »
But once Jackson’s water crisis was established, and specifically, upon her cousin Mariah’s experience, Georgianna had something just as powerful about the experience.
It had a purpose.
« No water comes out of the tap »
The NPR judges loved Georgianna’s voice because she tackled an important story in her community, conducted in-depth interviews, and made excellent use of sound.
After being woken up by that blaring alarm clock, « Mariah starts her day by going to the bathroom, to check if her water pressure is working before she gets ready for school, » Georgianna says at the beginning of her podcast. « No water comes out of the faucet. »
When Mariah looks for a bottle of water, she can’t find any. Welcome to Jackson in January 2023.
Georgianna’s podcast talks about some difficult days in January when low water pressure across the city hit families and schools hard.
For two days earlier this month, all public schools in Jackson went virtual because little or no water pressure in the schools made it difficult to prepare meals and flush toilets, Georgianna reports. Even after the students returned for in-person learning, the low water pressure remained a challenge.
« Something as simple as using the toilet has become difficult, » says Georgianna, under the sound of a toilet flush.
« They ended up closing some toilets » because the toilets could no longer flush, says Mariah, Georgianna’s cousin, who recalls one particularly uncomfortable day.
« Class wasn’t my main focus, » says Mariah. « I couldn’t do anything else keep it. »
Georgianna also interviewed a Jackson Public Schools administrator, who agreed to discuss the crisis on the condition that Georgianna promise not to use her name.
As the water pressure kept fluctuating from school to school, rather than reverting to virtual learning, the district sometimes sent students from school to school.
“There have been times when some other high schools have moved a grade level to our campus, which has also brought about more changes to the classrooms,” the administrator says in the podcast. « The teachers weren’t able to be in the classrooms they’re usually assigned to. The students weren’t referring to the area they were assigned to. So it was just a very unpredictable circumstance. »
Mariah tells NPR, in a later interview in downtown Jackson, that her school was one that ended up taking in significantly more students. « Sometimes the classroom would be full. And just imagine the cafeteria, because our cafeteria isn’t that big. »
The school administrator told Georgianna that the water problems were even affecting what the students were fed. If there was enough water pressure, the cafeteria could prepare full, hot meals. Otherwise: packed lunch.
Mariah, Georgianna’s cousin, was not a fan. She « she imagines getting turkey and ham and cheese sandwiches seven days in a row. She felt like she was in prison. »
The good news is that this was in January. Jackson Public Schools tells NPR, with the exception of a few boiling-water alerts and a high school that must return to virtual learning again in February, the district’s schools have been operating largely as usual for the rest of the year. school year.
As for Georgianna, she admits that one of the hardest things about creating her podcast wasn’t the reporting itself; she was listening to the sound of her own voice.
The day Easterling did her assignment for the class, Georgianna recalls: « I asked, ‘Can I please leave the room when you play it?’ Because I couldn’t stand it. »
Easterling agreed, provided he agreed to return for his classmates’ critique.
Now, by winning NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge, Georgianna McKenny is getting exactly what she wanted: a platform to raise the alarm on behalf of the Jackson kids.
To listen to Georgianna’s podcast, click Here.
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki and Janet Woojeong Lee
Audio and Digital History by: Steve Drummond