2020 Student Podcast Winners Tell Their Stories : Code Switch Adults often find it really hard to talk about race. But kids? Maybe not so much. NPR received more than 2,000 entries in this year's Student Podcast Challenge, and we heard from young people all over the country about how they're thinking about race and identity in these trying times.

The Kids Are All Right

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I'm Gene Demby.


I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this...



DEMBY: ...From NPR. So you know, if you listen to CODE SWITCH, you know we talk a lot about how people think about and process and understand their own racial and cultural identities.

EARL KI'IWI: I live the Hawaiian life, but I don't talk too much Hawaiian.

ABIGAIL GONZALEZ: I feel like I don't belong anywhere.

AMY: Am I a sellout to my race?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I spent the first 12 years of my life thinking that I was a little white girl.


MERAJI: I've said this multiple times on the show - I'm still trying to figure out how to fully embrace and express all of who I am, my own multi-ethnic background. And you know, this is something I've been doing forever, since I was a kid.

DEMBY: Speaking of kids, Shereen...


DEMBY: ...It's got to be a real strange time - like, a very weird time to be a kid right now 'cause so much of childhood is routines and getting used to routines. You know what I mean? You go to school. You get your little graham cracker with the perforations on there. You break it along the quadrants.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: You hang out with your friends. You have nap time and recess time at a certain time. A lot of that, obviously, has been upended because, you know, of the world.

MERAJI: Yeah. Like all of us, kids are processing the most right now. I'm just thinking about my godson who lives across the street. He's 4. And his mom was just telling me the other day that he asked her why bad police shoot people who look like him. Repeat - he is 4 years old, and this is what he's talking about.

DEMBY: Wow. And my niece, Rian (ph), is 6. She should be starting the first grade. And yeah - I mean, I haven't seen her in seven months because of everything that's going on. I miss her so much. But it just must be a weird time. Like, this is when, you know, you get your little pencil case. Right? You're excited to go back to school. They - do kids still use pencils?

MERAJI: Your lunchbox.

DEMBY: Yeah, exactly. But now she's going to the living room and pulling up a laptop, you know?

MERAJI: Yes - and thinking about social distancing and all of the other hell that is going on in the world right now. It just - it's not right, and it's not fair. And the reason why we're talking about kids so much is because we're going to be featuring the voices of kids on today's episode. But they're slightly older then Wilfie (ph) and Rian.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Did you have an accent?


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I'm not being represented the way that I should be.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: They're basically saying how we have coronavirus because we're Chinese.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: I think it's something that can be changed.


MERAJI: So earlier this year, the NPR Education team held its second annual Student Podcast Challenge, where they asked middle and high school students to make their own podcasts. And Gene...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm?

MERAJI: ...We need to stay on our game because...

DEMBY: They're coming for our jobs, Shereen.

MERAJI: I know.

DEMBY: In this year's Student Podcast Challenge, they got more than 2,000 entries from 46 states and from here in D.C. And those kids had a lot to say, which won't be surprising to anyone who's been around kids.

MERAJI: So many of these student podcasts, like CODE SWITCH, explored that big question every young person wrestles with - and, in my case, not so young person - who am I?

DEMBY: Sequoia Carrillo is a producer with NPR's Ed team, and she spent a lot of time - like, a lot of time - listening to hundreds of these student podcasts. And she is here with us today to talk about a few of those entries. Sequoia, welcome to CODE SWITCH.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

DEMBY: OK. I really need to know 'cause, like, you got of thousands podcasts. You had to listen to them. How many hours of your life did you actually dedicate to listening to these podcasts?

CARRILLO: Oh, my gosh. Right after all this went down, I took some time to kind of do some math, figure out how much time I actually spent listening to podcasts. And I came up with a number. It's not a pretty one. It was about 200 hours of my life...


CARRILLO: ...Listening to these podcasts.

DEMBY: What?

MERAJI: Two hundred hours - somebody give this woman a raise. I know your boss, Sequoia.


MERAJI: But beyond that, was there anything that really stood out to you in that 200 hours of listening?

CARRILLO: Oh, my gosh, yeah. It's so, so different hearing kids speak for themselves and to each other rather than being interviewed by an adult. Sometimes there's not even an adult in the room when these kids are recording, and the passion really shines through. I think a great example of that is with our high school grand prize winners.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Politicians, they're, like, the generation before us. So they're really thinking about theirselves. They're not going to think about us - like, the new generation.

MERAJI: All right. So who's that we're hearing?

CARRILLO: Those were high school students from Brooklyn. And they're part of an after-school club at the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media. The club is called Men in Color. And it's mostly boys, although there is one girl in the podcast group. And it was set up a couple years ago just as a safe space for these kids to talk about really anything they want. And as a part of this club, they decided to start a podcast. Yeah - and they've been producing this show.


JAHEIM BIRCH-GENTLES: Welcome to "The Flossy Podcast." My name's Jaheim.

ISAIAH DUPUY: My name's Isaiah.

JAMAR THOMPSON: My name is Jamar.

BRIANNA JOHNSON: My name is Brianna.



BIRCH-GENTLES: And today we're talking about climate change.

MERAJI: "Flossy Podcast" coming with the beats.

DEMBY: Man, I'm jealous of the opening music right now.

CARRILLO: And one of their club members actually produced that music. Like, they did it all...


CARRILLO: ...Themselves.

MERAJI: I love that.


DEMBY: Get at us, "Flossy Podcast."

CARRILLO: (Laughter).


CARRILLO: The episode they won for, it actually focuses on climate change and its intersection with environmental racism.

MERAJI: This is a topic near and dear to my heart. We've reported on it for CODE SWITCH before. I'm excited to hear what they had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Today we went to the climate march. And what stuck out to you guys the most?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: I knew there was going to be a lot of people, but I didn't expect there to be that much people. And what's crazy is that out of all those people, I barely saw any Black people.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: I mean, there was some Black people.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: But why do you think that the majority of people weren't Black?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: Honestly speaking, I think it was about availability. Like, most of the kids that was at the march, they either go to school in the area or they live in the area. Like, you're not going to see us coming from Canarsie like we did.

DEMBY: So for those of y'all who've never been to Brooklyn who don't know where Canarsie is, it's, like, way out in the cut. It's, like, right on the water.

CARRILLO: Yeah. And the location is so important. We're going to talk about it more later. But in this podcast, the students point out that climate change disproportionately affects Black people in the United States. And so when they're at this climate march, they decided to ask people about it - about environmental racism.




UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: Yeah, roll - run it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's a major problem.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's a - yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And if we don't fix it, we about to die. And that's it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's an everybody issue. It's not just a one-person issue. And we need to keep fighting for, like, change from the Black community. We have to still make sure that the world is still here. So we need to make sure that the world is preserved. So we got to start with the world being here (ph), and then we got to keep on going and going and going.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: So what is a step you think we could take to make it better - like, to change it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, starting off with, like, just talking about it, not just posting, like, on social media - oh, the world is ending - this, that and the third. You actually have to come out to things like this. Like, we're not in the government or anything like that. But like, we're the kids. Like, we're the children. Like, we could come out here and show them, like, this is what we about. Like, we're not about nothing else. Like, this is what want to change.

MERAJI: That was so incredible to listen to. First of all, for people who don't understand what it's like to go out and just cold-ask people questions in an environment where there are a ton of people, it's just - it's very nerve-wracking, No. 1. It's hard to get really good sound.

And I loved the response, which was, if we want to make change for our community, we have to make sure the world is still here for us to live in. It was something like that. It was an amazing piece of tape there.

DEMBY: Right. So Sequoia, what made these kids at this high school decide to go to this climate march in the first place?

CARRILLO: Well, honestly, they went originally for free food and a field trip.


MERAJI: That sounds about right.

DEMBY: That's real. That's real.

CARRILLO: But once they got there and they started talking to people, it started to really sink in that environmental racism was impacting them.


BOVELL: So people growing up in, like, Canarsie, you don't really realize that we're living in these areas. And then you go somewhere else, like Mill Basin or other neighborhoods. And you're like, why is this so much different than where I live?

MERAJI: So for people who are unfamiliar with Canarsie and Mill Basin in New York, Gene already said Canarsie is way out in the cut in Brooklyn. It's near water. But I don't even know - I don't know anything about Mill Basin. How are these two places different?

CARRILLO: Well, Canarsie is about 60% Black, 40% Latino versus Mill Basin, which is mostly white and...

DEMBY: And rich.

CARRILLO: ...And rich (laughter). And these kids who go to school in Canarsie go to a school next to a landfill, for example. And it was actually seeing the differences in these two environments that inspired this episode of "The Flossy Podcast."

MISCHAEL CETOUTE: The fact that none of the kids will eat the school lunch and there is lead in the water and they live near a landfill and - like, you're getting all these messages from the environment about how much you matter, about how much your life is worth. And you know for a fact that other places don't have that same thing.

CARRILLO: So that's their teacher who has a great name, Mischael Cetoute, who started the club. And my colleague Elissa Nadworny and I actually got to interview him. We also spoke to the two hosts. And what's interesting is that they didn't set out to take on social justice issues like environmental racism. Here's one of the hosts Jaheim Birch-Gentles.

MERAJI: Also a great name.

BIRCH-GENTLES: When we started the making of this podcast, I didn't view myself as an activist of any kind. I just viewed myself as a kid from the neighborhood of Canarsie. And I'm speaking about what I've seen and my experiences.

MERAJI: Which is wonderful because their lived experience matters and their lives are being impacted by a lot of things going on in the world right now, including the effects of climate change.

DEMBY: Yeah. Like, we said that Canarsie is on the water. It's right on Jamaica Bay, which means that they are probably going to be one of the neighborhoods that is first affected by, you know, ocean level rise.

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

CARRILLO: Yeah. And Canarsie was hit super hard during Sandy. And the students talk about what that was like for them. And one girl in the group actually shares a story from when she was living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She was only 2 years old.


JOHNSON: And it was like my mom, my grandparents and, I think, my aunt. And I just - I can only remember a little bit. But like, I remember seeing, like, a hole in the roof. The whole house is flooded. And then...

CARRILLO: And one of her earliest memories is driving away from her house and seeing her toys floating in the floodwater.


JOHNSON: So yeah, I was pretty sad.

CARRILLO: Here's host Jamar Thompson.

THOMPSON: Well, I've always been a personal where like - if I don't like what's going on or if I see something that's not right, I'm going to speak up about it. So I feel like the podcast kind of gave me the opportunity to do that on, like, a bigger scale than I am normally accustomed to.

DEMBY: I hope they keep speaking up. I hope they keep making more podcasts.

MERAJI: Also, shout out to whoever is making beats for "Flossy." We could definitely use some of your bass lines here on CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: Seriously, seriously.

MERAJI: And we're going to post a link to that story where you can hear more from these flossy students.


MERAJI: So those were the high school grand prizewinners from "The Flossy Podcast." But now we're going to talk about another grand prizewinner from the middle school category. It's a podcast that's also right on the news. It deals with COVID and racism against Asian Americans.


LEO YU: Hi. Welcome to the "Dragon Kids Podcast." I'm Leo.

BECKY LIU: I'm Becky.

MERAJI: Sequoia, tell us about these middle schoolers.

CARRILLO: Well, these middle schoolers are the cutest you will ever meet. They were in sixth grade when they made this podcast. They're all Chinese American, and they're part of an after-school club called the Dragon Kids. The school's mascot is actually the dragon. And it's run out of Karin Patterson's classroom at PS 126 in New York City's Chinatown.

DEMBY: That's two New York City grand prizewinners. I mean, I sense some East Coast bias happening there. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: I know. But I also want to know, like, the makeup of the judges. Are they all East Coast centric? 'Cause I'm feeling some type of way.

CARRILLO: I was going to say, you'll have to take this up with our judges (laughter).

MERAJI: I am going to have to.

DEMBY: To be fair, New York City - and Brooklyn particularly (laughter) - has more - New York City probably has more podcasters per capita than any other place in the world. So...

MERAJI: You know what? That's actually a good point.


CARRILLO: Anyway, the episode these guys won for is called Masked Kids. It talks about the early days of the coronavirus. The students actually made this episode in February of 2020.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

CARRILLO: But even then, they were dealing with the racism around the disease.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #11: Because this started in China, people have been saying mean things to Chinese people.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #11: Have you guys had anyone say something about it to you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #13: I've seen a lot of the younger kids, like kindergartners and first-grade people, wearing masks in school. I've heard about people saying mean things, but no one has said it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #14: I heard that a student who is not Chinese said they don't want to sit next to a Chinese kid because he has coronavirus.

MERAJI: Ugh, this makes me so sad.

DEMBY: It's so messed up.

CARRILLO: It is. It's - it sucks. The Dragon Kids went on to interview an older student, Amanda (ph), who was bullied by her classmates because she started coughing when she was eating spicy noodles for lunch. The other students said she must have coronavirus. Amanda wound up reporting the incident to the principal. And when the administration asked her what they should do, here's what she said.


AMANDA CHEN: I told them that - don't just focus it on me but focus it more towards the Chinese population of the school because I'm sure that they might have received comments about the coronavirus.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #15: Amanda's parents immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago to pursue a better life.

AMANDA: However, they're just not brave enough to speak up for themselves. And during that time, I was really nervous. And after I got out of their office, I was crying because I didn't feel like if I was doing it right - or is it right just to, like, speak up for myself and speak up for the whole entire Chinese student population?

MERAJI: Aw, Amanda - going through all the feelings. I'm just here to tell you that you were right to speak up and speak out. And you were so brave to then go on to tell your story on a podcast. Good for you, especially considering now this podcast is being broadcast nationwide. So it's getting a much broader audience for your story. Good for you, Amanda. Go, Amanda. Go, Dragon Kids.

CARRILLO: I know. And Amanda's story alone would be a really meaningful podcast, but these kids chose to use their platform to share real facts and also help people understand the coronavirus. By the way, they were doing this before many government officials.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #16: One way to prevent the spread of this virus is to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #17: Another thing you can do is not touch your face. The Mandarin word for face is...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #18: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #17: And remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze into your elbow. The Mandarin word for sneeze is...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #18: (Speaking Mandarin.)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #19: There are a lot of rumors on the Internet about the coronavirus. You should only believe your doctor or the CDC and WHO.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #20: The CDC is Centers for Disease Control, and WHO is World Health Organization. Those are the only reliable sources of information about the coronavirus.

DEMBY: Oh, do you hear this shade in the voice?

CARRILLO: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Like we said, Gene, they are coming for our jobs.

DEMBY: She's like, just so you know, a whole bunch of people out there lying - not naming no names. So aside from providing some very useful and appropriately shady information about the coronavirus, they are also teaching us Mandarin.

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

CARRILLO: Yes. That was one of the things the judges loved about this podcast. I think every single one cited that as one of their favorite parts. The reason the students put this in is because they were all, at one time, English-language learners. So they added in little Mandarin lessons to help other people learn Mandarin, words like mask...

MERAJI: I love that.

CARRILLO: ...And sneeze. But my favorite part is when they taught us this saying.


BECKY: A famous saying in Mandarin is...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #21: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #22: (Speaking Mandarin).

LEO: Which means sickness comes in like a landslide but goes out as slow as spinning silk.

BECKY: Now you try it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #23: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #24: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #25: This is similar to what is happening with the coronavirus. All of a sudden, everyone knows about the coronavirus. And it is spreading quickly. But treating, preventing and containing it will be very slow and difficult.

MERAJI: (Speaking Mandarin). I hope I got that right because that was very cool. And what a cool crew of kids, ugh. It brought tears to my eyes. I'm sorry. I have to collect myself for a second. (Laughter) I'm sorry.

CARRILLO: Every time. It happens every time I listen to that podcast.


MERAJI: Whew. All right. So to recap for everybody, these kids made this podcast back in February. And thinking back to February, I know I definitely thought, oh, we're going to be here for - what? - You know, maybe a month, maybe two months. Wow. I was completely wrong.


MERAJI: This has been quite a time that we've been struggling through. I did not think this was going to be happening for as long as it has been.


MERAJI: All right. I think we need to take just a quick break here to think about the state of things. I need to gather myself for a second. Maybe y'all want to practice that new Mandarin saying we just learned. And when we come back, we're going to hear from another set of students who are going to show us another side of language lessons.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So yeah, when I was reading, I had an accent. And I felt judged.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

CARRILLO: Sequoia.



MERAJI: Before the break, we heard from high school kids in New York who made their podcast about how climate change disproportionately affects Black people here in the United States. And we got a Mandarin lesson from middle schoolers in New York City who were using their podcast to fight anti-Asian racism with facts and not fiction about the coronavirus.

CARRILLO: Those students from The Dragon Kids club that we just heard had all been English-language learners, by the way, which just means that when they started at P.S. 126, they were still learning English. Our next podcasters were also English-language learners. And they delve into the process of bouncing between the languages and all the opinions that come with that.

DEMBY: Oh, they bouncing between languages.


DEMBY: I have the perfect name for this podcast. You ready, Shereen? You ready?

MERAJI: I'm ready.

DEMBY: They should call it "Code Switch." Code - because...

MERAJI: How clever.

CARRILLO: (Laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes. There's been occasions where I've been looked down on for, like, talking Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yeah. I've been made fun of.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You can also see the judgment in people sometimes when you're speaking Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Older male, they came up to my family's house and threatened to call immigration on us if we didn't turn down our music because, apparently, it was loud and annoying and something that didn't belong here. He told my mom to her face, he said, and I quote, "take your music, and get back to your own country."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: They was like, oh, like, speak English. Like, this isn't Mexico. Or, like, they would, like, call each other offensive things. Like, I would just be there. And, like, they would just argue on, like, how this is America and Mexico, and that they should speak English and listen to English music and like that they don't want to hear that garbage music.


JOCELIE GUTIERREZ: Welcome to our podcast.

ALEJANDRA NUNEZ LOPEZ: Welcome to our podcast.

GUTIERREZ: My name is Jocelie.

LOPEZ: And I'm Alejandra.

CARRILLO: Jocelie and Alejandra are seniors at a school in Cicero, Ill. And they talked to some people who got very real about what it's like trying to learn English. Jocelie was in a social studies class where her teacher would pick a name randomly from a stack of sticks and ask that student to read out loud. And whenever the sticks came out...


GUTIERREZ: I started panicking. My hands started getting really sweaty. And then I just kept looking around the room. And I kept thinking, oh, my gosh. Should I just ask to go to the bathroom (laughter)?

LOPEZ: And just hoping she won't call your name (laughter).

GUTIERREZ: Yeah. And I kept wanting to go to the bathroom. And I'm like, oh, my God. I hated social studies. I would get so scared. I was afraid of, like, people judging me. And, like, I knew I wasn't good at reading. So like, reading out loud in front of, like, my whole class, I couldn't. It was the worst thing ever.


DEMBY: Hey, man. Reading out loud - I've been reading out loud on this podcast for four years now. It still - I still got to pee sometimes. You know what I mean?


DEMBY: It's still nerve-wracking.

MERAJI: I have to say, that's exactly how I feel when I have to read out loud in Spanish.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

MERAJI: Or when I try to say things in Persian around other Iranians, I just - I become a different person. I become really shy and nervous because I'm so embarrassed about how bad I am at my heritage languages, at the languages I'm supposed to speak because those were my parents' languages. So I get it. I get those nerves.

CARRILLO: And they say it wasn't just their own nerves that were tough to deal with. Many of them dealt with tons of bullying and passive aggressive comments as well, like this one time when they were working on a group project.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: And this kid out of - random, he's like, so how long have you been speaking English? And I was like, I don't know, since, like, third, fourth grade, second grade, you know? Normal. And he's like, oh. It's just that your accent is so pronounced. So after that, I was self-conscious for, like, a pretty long time of how I spoke with people because...

MERAJI: Of course. Can people just not say rude comments like that or ask questions like that? What is that supposed to accomplish? I don't get that.

CARRILLO: I know. And they talk about another time. And this one makes me so mad. It was when one of the students was playing a soccer game against a very white team from another school district. And the white parents on the opposing side were shouting racist insults at the girls.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #26: ...Were like, look at these Hispanics. Look at what they're doing. Or look at these beaners.

LOPEZ: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #26: And we were like...

GUTIERREZ: Parents would say that?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #26: Yeah. I was like, how do you guys have the audacity to say that when you guys are full-grown adults?

GUTIERREZ: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #26: And you guys should know better.

MERAJI: That's ridiculous. That's an understatement, by the way, that they should know better.

CARRILLO: Yeah. And it wasn't all soul-crushing. One of the people...

MERAJI: Oh, good.

CARRILLO: ...Interviewed on this podcast did share something really hopeful. She said that even with learning a whole new language, she graduated from high school with honors. She got her associate's degree. She's doing really cool stuff.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Even with my broken, thick accent. So I'm fine with you saying I have an accent. And I think that's - eventually, everybody's going to realize that it doesn't define who you are, just part of who you are. You're part Mexican American. You should be proud of both parts even if it comes in a slight thick accent. I like my thick accent (laughter).


MERAJI: And we do, too. We love it.


MERAJI: Honestly, I don't know if you can top that podcast, Sequoia. But you have another one for us. So let's see what you got. What's next?

CARRILLO: Well, the next podcast is my favorite. It was one of the first entries I listened to. They actually submitted it, like, right when the contest opened. They were one of the first entries we got. And it's from seniors at a high school in Stilwell, Okla. It's a really small town of about 4,000 people. And it's right on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas. But even though it's a small town, it's actually known for a few different things.


LAWRENCE PANTHER: (Speaking Cherokee).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #27: That was Stilwell High School Cherokee language teacher Mr. Panther saying the Trail of Tears ends in our town. That's because beginning in the 1830s, the government forced many of our ancestors to leave their homes and march West to Indian territory so new settlers could take over our ancestral lands back East to grow cotton and mine gold.

CARRILLO: So Stilwell is known for being one of the places where people ended up at the end of the Trail of Tears. And by the way, the student body at Stilwell High School is about 90% Native American. And many of the students are enrolled citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: We just did an episode that got into the Trail of Tears not that long ago and all of this history we never got taught in school about the treaty that led up to the Trail of Tears called the Treaty of New Echota. Is this podcast also about the Trail of Tears? Or is that just where it starts?

CARRILLO: No. It's actually about one of the other things this town is known for.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #28: Our strawberries are smaller and sweeter than any others. We have a parade to celebrate it every year in May. But in 2018, The Washington Post wrote an article about Stilwell and gave us a new title. The headline read "The Strawberry Capital Of The World Is The Early Death Capital Of The United States." On the first day of class, our teacher walked in and asked us, is this really the death capital? That began our journey.


CARRILLO: I know. More than 50 students, which is almost the entire senior class, by the way, spent a whole semester trying to figure out if that claim was true. And they documented the journey in their podcast called "Strawberries In The Death Capital."

DEMBY: That sounds like the title of a heavy metal album.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

CARRILLO: I love the title. It's so good (laughter). And one of the things they realized as they were doing their reporting was that a lot of people in Stilwell were finding that early death claim super hard to believe.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: And I just wonder if this is accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Some of the people that they interviewed, it's not a good representation of our community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: The Cherokee Nation director of public health proved the data was incorrect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: It didn't make sense to me that I could drive to Bell or drive to Peavine or drive down to Cave Springs and I'm going to live 20 years longer.

MERAJI: I really want to listen to this podcast. Were they able to come up with any conclusions? Is Stilwell the early death capital of the United States?

CARRILLO: I won't spoil the ending because you really should just go listen to this podcast. But the students end the piece by saying that they hope their semester of research will ignite a spark in Stilwell and try to address their issues and just change the town for the better.


PANTHER: (Speaking Cherokee).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #29: That was Mr. Panther saying the end of the trail should not be the end of the line.


CARRILLO: Gene, Shereen, we just listened to a bunch of podcasts about some pretty heavy stuff.

DEMBY: I mean...

MERAJI: Yes. Every single one.

DEMBY: But, you know - early death capital of the United States, environmental racism, bullying, harassment - I mean, that's just Wednesday on CODE SWITCH. You know what I mean?


CARRILLO: Well, I wanted to leave you guys with something a little more calming because I feel like we could all...

MERAJI: Oh, good.

CARRILLO: ...Use something soothing and gentle to play us out.


MERAJI: I agree.


CARRILLO: So this podcast was a favorite amongst the education team. It's called "What Is The Most Beautiful Sound?", made by Alex Soto from Arizona. And it's just a really unique entry.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: I think, the rain falling, especially here where we live in Tucson. It's always dry and hot outside. And when it rains, it's like a blessing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: You know when you have an old car and it's, like, very well-kept-up, and you start it and it's like that old car, like, (grunting).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: My birds singing.

ALEX SOTO: How does that sound make you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Good because she has no rhythm but tries hard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: When all my kids get together, play games and have fun together in the house.

SOTO: I asked my mom what her favorite sound was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: A laughing baby.

SOTO: What does a laughing baby sound like?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: I'm not going to laugh like a baby.


MERAJI: Alex, I think that your laugh right there might just be my new favorite sound.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Also, you are a creative genius. I love this podcast...


MERAJI: ...So much.

DEMBY: A great idea.

MERAJI: This is poetry, the sounds giving us life. Dare I say it? We might have to steal it for our own podcast.

CARRILLO: Not kidding, I would listen to this podcast as a palate cleanser after listening to, like, a hundred other podcasts in a row. And I could recite this podcast. It made me realize that my favorite sound is definitely wind chimes.


CARRILLO: I think it makes me think of my parents and sitting on my front porch.

MERAJI: Yes. My Titi Ladow (ph) always had a bunch of wind chimes. Like I said, I'm going to go with Alex Soto's laugh. That's going to be my favorite sound for this episode, at least. Gene, what about you? You got a favorite sound?

DEMBY: I'm going to sound real basic when I say this, but the sounds of the ocean waves crashing in the water, like, crashing on the shore.


MERAJI: It is a great sound.

CARRILLO: It's so good.

DEMBY: My wife is from California. And every time we go out to the Bay, she always wants to take these random drives up and down the coast. And so you know, it's really rocky coast, really sort of violent water. You can't really swim in it. But it's, like, this big rumble when you hear it crash against the shore. It's amazing. It's really dope.

MERAJI: And it's a really hard sound to record.

DEMBY: It is.

MERAJI: Like, you think it's this amazing thing...


MERAJI: ...You pull out your phone. You're like, oh, I really want to record that. And it never sounds like it does in real life.

CARRILLO: It sounds terrible, yeah.

DEMBY: It just sounds like - yeah, like, shhh. Just, like - just...

MERAJI: (Laughter).


MERAJI: Exactly.

DEMBY: It's like, oh, yeah. You're cool. You recorded a shower.


MERAJI: And we'll leave it there. That's our show.


DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: We would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Karen Grigsby Bates, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry and LA Johnson

MERAJI: Follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. I'm @RadioMirage. Gene is at G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. Check us out on the gram we're at - I say IG. I don't say the gram. Check us out on IG. We're @nprcodeswitch.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And joining us for this entire episode was the wonderful Sequoia Carrillo. Thank you so much, Sequoia.

CARRILLO: Thanks for having me.

DEMBY: Be easy, yo.

MERAJI: Peace.


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