The Podcast 1st Gens, By and About First-Generation Americans, Expands the Map of National Identity | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The Podcast 1st Gens, By and About First-Generation Americans, Expands the Map of National Identity 

Skye Wilson and Perrine DeShield

Photo courtesy of 1st Gens

Skye Wilson and Perrine DeShield

When Perrine DeShield and Skye Wilson launched their 1st Gens podcast in January 2017, the timing was apt but coincidental. While planning it, they had no idea of the added relevance their storytelling would gain in Trump's America. The two Liberian-American women, who both graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, are cousins, and they wanted to start a podcast that reflected the experience of growing up as first-generation Americans.

"We didn't see ourselves reflected in the podcast world," Wilson says. "When Perrine brought the idea to me, I didn't think it was a great idea because the market is so saturated, but I started realizing that the conversations we were having are kind of unique. We could make visible what was invisible."

DeShield and Wilson, who both grew up in North Carolina, were raised by parents who immigrated to the United States from Liberia almost four decades ago. Liberia has suffered years of political instability after a military coup in 1980 led to the First Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989 to 1997. Many Liberians left the country, including DeShield's and Wilson's parents, who, in search for a more stable life, eventually rooted themselves in North Carolina.

One generation later, DeShield and Wilson are working to preserve their parents' stories while crafting and balancing their own as first-generation Americans.

"Our [culture's] viewpoint on what American means is very narrow, and America isn't so black and white," DeShield says. "We are black Americans, but we are also Liberian. And because of our background, I knew we could share the story of other first-generation Americans, too."

Drawing on skills from their studies of broadcast journalism and communications at UNC, the pair released the first episode of 1st Gens (1stgenspodcast.com) just days before President Trump was sworn into office. Since then, episodes have been downloaded thousands of times by people in the U.S. and beyond, in Ghana, India, Brazil, and the U.K. While they hadn't deliberately timed the podcast to the election, Wilson says it gave them even more reason to tell these stories. Some of the topics they cover relate to the whirlwind of actions taken by the Trump administration, including the infamous Muslim ban and other hardline stances on immigration.

But 1st Gens, which is now in its second season, covers more than political hot topics. Somber stories about love, gender, motherhood, and sexual assault are mixed with lighter episodes about Black Panther and the symbolism of Wakanda. The podcast is as diverse and complex as the storytellers themselves.

It's an incredibly refreshing listen, especially for first-generation Americans, like me, who can acutely relate to episodes about how our names shape our identity and what it means to be American while observing our parents' culture and traveling back to our "home" countries. Still, the show is also crafted to be accessible and relatable to all listeners.

"I think the reason why we have a lot of non-first-gens listening is because people want to listen to the experiences of people who are not like them," Wilson says. "That's the power of storytelling, and in this political climate there's an increased need for a show like ours."

While DeShield and Wilson are described as "Carolina girls" and Liberian Americans on the podcast's website, they also identify themselves in many other ways: DeShield as Christian, heterosexual, and a lover of fashion; Wilson as queer and middle class. Working on the podcast has helped them to further unpack their intersecting identities.

"It's been so therapeutic," says DeShield. "There are so many things that arise that you don't realize impacted or influenced your outlook on life. It's been really eye-opening for me as a host because I'm able to self-reflect and get a better grip on my own identity, and then I'm able to be a sounding board for my guests."

With season two well underway, DeShield and Wilson want to continue to tell the stories of other first-generation Americans while also uncovering more of their personal identities; they have plans to reconnect with the Liberian part of their heritage by traveling back to the country.

"It's kind of cliché, but you don't really know your future unless you know your past," DeShield says. "Toward the end of season one, we decided that we should really go back because I hadn't been since I was a baby and I wanted to see it for myself."

But for now, they hope the podcast helps anyone listening, first-generation or not, reflect on their own identities, unveiling things they hadn't realized were there.

"We hope that the stories and the vulnerability that is shown in our podcast allow people to internalize their own and see how it's affected their entire outlook and change for the better, or at the very least educate themselves," DeShield says.

"Always take a second look," Wilson adds. "Things are never only as they appear, so make sure to look under the surface of everything."

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