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Bethany Native Highlights W.Va.’s Diversity in PBS Documentary

Clara Haizlett, a Bethany native and recent graduate at West Virginia University, is helping with the PBS American Portraits documentary project.

WHEELING — Unlike any year in recent memory, 2020 has given Americans a common enemy and a shared challenge. Amid a contrast cycle of bad news, Clara Haizlett, a local filmmaker, aims to help capture Americans’ common humanity during this dark time.

In January, PBS celebrated its 50th anniversary by launching the PBS American Portraits project, a “national storytelling initiative that seeks to define what it means to be an American today.”

The multi-media project seeks to gather the stories of as many Americans as possible through online submissions on its website.

Artists from all over the country are contributing to the project. PBS invited Haizlett, a Bethany native and recent graduate at West Virginia University, to participate in its visual storytelling component. Haizlett, along with filmmakers from all 50 states, created videos that captured the stories that are too often ignored.

Rebecca Blumhagen, the producer who invited her to join the project, said she wanted Haizlett to “go out and represent West Virginia-the stories people might not know or understand.” For a state that is not usually portrayed as diverse or welcoming in the media, Blumhagen hoped Haizlett could capture West Virginia’s nuance and complexity.

Haizlett, for her part, wanted to highlight friends and members of her community that she has “always found personally inspiring.”

She created her West Virginia Portraits video series with the help of her sister Rosalie, a local illustrator. Her videos provide small windows into the lives of a Hara Krishna woman, a young couple from Appalachia who depend on music in hard times, a gay farmer, and a Black father helping his sons through a year charged with debates over racial justice.

“I wanted to challenge the narrative that often comes out of West Virginia,” Haizlett explained. “I wanted to highlight the diversity here and the subcultures that are thriving. Through storytelling, we can celebrate the parts of our culture that we don’t always notice.”

This is a goal highlighted in Haizlett’s other projects, most notably her podcast Sandstone, which strives to connect people’s experiences in Appalachia with those in the Arab world.

Haizlett previously lived and studied in the Middle East and realized that both regions struggle under similar negative stereotypes of their people and culture.

“There is also a lot of judgment and misunderstanding between these two demographics,” Haizlett said.

The podcast serves as a passion project for Haizlett, who wants to use the platform to allow people from both groups to develop empathy for other cultures through storytelling. She also seeks to squash Islamaphobia and the harmful stereotypes about Arab communities that exist in Appalachia.

“Both communities deserve more credit than they’re given in the media and national narratives,” Haizlett said.

She explained that working with PBS as part of the American Portraits project allowed her to dive deeper into Appalachian culture. This experience will help her as she continues to create podcast episodes, Haizlett said.

“I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to share these stories on a national level,” she said. “When West Virginians’ stories are shared, a lot of times, it is only us who hears them.”

As a whole, the project allows Americans “to see themselves in people they’ve never met and states they’ve never visited,” Blumhagen explained.

The website, where anyone can answer prompts that provide insight into people’s lives across the country, is meant to be a platform for conversation, said Blumhagen. Prompts like “Family looks like…” and “I was raised to believe…” allow Americans to share their perspectives and values while also learning from others.

While social media is often a place for debate, the American Portraits website aims to bring Americans together through shared experiences and hardships.

“In times like these, this platform has become more important than ever for people to connect with others and process what is happening in their lives on a personal level,” Blumhagen said.

Haizlett’s videos for PBS American Portraits and work from many other American artists are available on the PBS website. Anyone who wishes to submit their own story for the project can do so there as well.

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