TINA MARTIN: What connects us to the communities around us?
Across America, in many different states, we find many different answers.
CHRIS WILSON: There's a lot of challenges in the city, but, like, I really, really love my people.
DANIEL LESLIE: I knew that wherever I went, I would need people's help.
DERECK HIGGINS: I've staked out my territory here.
BETH ROTTO: I'm never going to live anyplace else.
MARTIN: From KQED and World Channel, States of America: Connection on Local, U.S.A. ♪ ♪ We all have our own unique definition of home.
How do our surroundings shape who we are?
And how do we shape the communities around us?
States of America is a series of short documentaries exploring these questions, featuring one person from each state.
In today's episode, we explore five of these stories, from rural Iowa to coastal Maine.
WILSON: I was 17 years old when I went to prison.
They sentenced me to natural life.
And then God showed me a sign by letting me out.
Like I was denied five times reconsideration for my sentence, and then when I started, like, praying, my judge had a change of heart, she let me out.
And so, like, that's the deal, I gotta do this work.
I made a promise, I said, "If you show me a sign "like that you up there, um... "that I'll, like, commit my life to, like, helping my people," and, like, you know, yeah, it's a lot of challenges in the city, but, like, I really, really love my people.
♪ I grew up in Washington, D.C., and around the time when I was around, like, 16 or 17, one night people came after me and I ended up taking a person's life.
And I was sentenced to natural life in prison.
So I essentially grew up in prison in Jessup, Maryland.
And so while in prison, I fell into a deep depression, and I sat down in my cell and started thinking about how I wasted my life, and I knew that I always had potential.
And so I wrote up what I called my master plan, which was like a bucket list of things that I wanted to do.
I wanted to educate myself, I wanted to embrace therapy.
I knew if I was gonna really achieve this plan, I needed to have the necessary skill sets.
So reading every book that I could find that would help me, like, be better, and like communicating, better at business, better at understanding the world.
So when I was away in prison, I earned a degree in sociology.
I was 17 years old when I went to prison, and when I came home I was 32 years old.
First day I got out, got some home-cooked lasagna, a steak, and some shrimp.
I, you know, heard about like Google and like YouTube, and so I just stayed up all night just like Googling stuff.
I was like, I can't believe I can just Google anything, and, like, I can learn about whatever.
I probably, like...
I don't know, stayed up 'til like 6:00 in the morning doing that.
So I chose to come to Baltimore because, like, I could find a nice place that I could afford, and I also wanted to do work in the community.
I wanted to do workforce development work, I'd done some gang mediation, I'd done community organizing, and it was just work that I want to do, and it was tons of opportunities, tons of challenges here, and I felt like I could make a difference with engagement, so working as a workforce development director, there were so many people that were falling out the workforce pipeline that couldn't get work because maybe they had a criminal conviction 20 years ago.
Out of frustration, I started my own companies, and I would employ these people, and give them the opportunity that society didn't want to give them.
♪ As a contractor, I was doing a lot of work for galleries and artists, but I found art to be powerful and therapeutic at the same time.
And so I started making art, I started painting.
It's like the ultimate therapy.
I just feel relaxed.
♪ It's like my happy place.
I don't think I'm ever gonna stop painting.
Sometimes I stay up all night and just paint.
Just thinking about, like, what I want the painting to say.
♪ I always think about, you know, social justice issues, criminal justice system, like racism, like stuff that, you know, that is difficult for some people to sit down and really, like, talk seriously about.
I can put it all into a painting.
♪ The strange thing about Baltimore is, you know, it's so, like, siloed and, like, segregated.
Like so the folks back there, a few blocks back, they not gonna walk out here or come down here, and these folks around here, they're not gonna walk down there.
People just stay in their space.
♪ I think Maryland has influenced my identity and who I am mainly because of my experience in prison, and, to be honest, like, I love this state, but we have cruel policies towards our criminal justice system.
I can't stand driving past the jail, but it's also like a reminder to motivate myself about, like, why I gotta keep advocating, like, to get these jails, like, shut down, and get our people home.
♪ But I see opportunity.
♪ ♪ LESLIE: I like living around people that work for the federal government.
A lot of those people are looking to give back to the public, so even though I'm in a big city and it's a little bit high-paced here, I always feel very comfortable asking fellow Virginians for help.
♪ I grew up in Colorado, but Colorado's a little bit too cold and a little too mountainous for a person getting around on wheels.
I just have a little automatic door opener on here... to let me in.
Come on in... don't let the door hit you.
A little chilly in here, actually, so, Alexa, turn on fireplace.
ALEXA (from device): Okay.
LESLIE (chuckles): I put a space heater in my fireplace.
And all my lights are smart, so it's really easy for me to be able to control my environment with things like that.
I was 24 when I broke my neck, I was going to school.
I was just at a friend's house, they had a pool and I dove into the pool and hit my head and dislocated my third and fourth cervical vertebrae, just these vertebraes up in my neck here.
I was paralyzed right when that happened.
So it was a huge impact on my life at that time.
I knew that my life was going to be more expensive after I broke my neck and I needed to have an income that was sufficient to cover the different medical expenses I was going to have, so law school made sense for me.
I got into Duke at a law school class of about 200, which I thought was good for me.
I wanted to go to law school in a place where everybody knew my name and I knew I could know everybody else's name because I knew that wherever I went I would need people's help.
I definitely thought working for the federal government would be a good option for me, and I ended up getting a job offer at the Securities and Exchange Commission in D.C. itself, which worked out great, at work I have assistants that help me with getting my coat on and off, you know, eating my lunch, things like that.
Having that assistance at work has really made it possible for me to work.
Sometimes I like to cheat and use the bike lanes a little.
I've been here about seven years.
A lot of people in Northern Virginia work for the military, the CIA, and Congress, and the White House.
People always come up to me and say thank you for your service, but I definitely have not served in the military, can't take credit for that.
Hi, oh, I didn't serve, but thanks for your service.
Have a good one!
He, uh, saluted me.
♪ I just drive my chair with this tube.
If I blow hard it accelerates, if I suck hard it decelerates, and if I blow soft it turns right, if I suck softly it turns left.
When you're driving the chair, you're always kind of aware of ledges you can fall off, so, I don't want to be the person that gets written up in the newspaper.
♪ Any time I use the metro system out here I've got to take at least two elevators to get down and I got to swipe my card, I need help every single step along the way because I can't hit the buttons on the elevators or swipe my cards easily.
Doing that day after day, that adds up, that takes a lot of time out of my day.
Do you mind if I turn?
The biggest reason why I chose to live in Virginia was because they provide accessible transportation to their residents through subsidizing wheelchair accessible taxis for people with disabilities.
So most of the time I take taxis everywhere and it's just a world of difference.
First of all, it's a lot more comfortable and it's a lot faster.
Just being able to call up a taxi and get a ride to wherever I need to go easily, that makes me much more likely to be a little bit more spontaneous on a weekend and get out and do stuff, do something fun.
Virginia makes it a lot more livable for somebody like me.
Thanks so much.
♪ Kind of out of necessity, if I wanted to have the successful career I wanted, then I needed to go someplace that was going to provide me those opportunities.
Virginia has been a place that's given me those chances.
♪ NANCY 3.
HOFFMAN: I think Maine draws people that are somewhat independent and maybe slightly eccentric partly because it's on the edge of the country.
I think it's part of living in Maine.
Being on an island, taking the ferry over here from Portland, it's that experience of being taken out of time and place in a way, and brought over to a new land, a new place, a new island.
♪ So let me give you the tour, of the world's only Umbrella Cover Museum.
Have you been in here before?
- Yes, we have.
- Umbrella covers, that's just weird.
(laughing) - Just the covers?
HOFFMAN: Just the covers!
Who else would collect umbrella covers?
Not anyone that I've ever heard of.
(laughing) So my middle name is the number three, and I changed it myself, about 25 years ago.
I quit my job in Boston and decided I would... take a chance.
I have the world's only umbrella cover museum.
I started a museum in my kitchen, and it was very casual, people came, they were amused, and I kept doing it.
Okay, sexy covers, are we ready?
(group exclaims) (chuckles) So look on the inside right wall.
- Oh, my goodness.
HOFFMAN: There's even a box of X-rated covers.
- Whoa... HOFFMAN: Open at your own risk.
- I would highly recommend.
(group chattering and exclaiming) HOFFMAN: The Guinness World record for the most umbrella covers.
HOFFMAN: Thank you.
So since then I've gotten over twice as many.
I have now close to 2,000 umbrella covers.
They're all fully cataloged, people donate umbrella covers all the time.
It's really about appreciating the simple little things in life more than it is a design museum or a museum about umbrella covers.
It's representative of the thing that makes life joyful a lot.
If you want to check out the gift shop, it's right there.
I have a guest book that you can sign.
I play the piano, the accordion, and I sing.
I started playing klezmer music, oh, about 30 years ago.
I didn't want to do it at first, I was raised in a Jewish family and I didn't really want to do anything particularly Jewish.
But I went to a Jewish wedding and played a song and saw how it affected people.
(singing song) People in Maine seem to let you do your own thing, which is something I like a lot.
I love playing klezmer music because it's really emotional.
It really gets people to dance, to tap their feet, and to feel a wide range of emotions.
(audience clapping) Thank you.
One of my favorite things is to amuse people.
And especially if someone comes in and you can tell they're skeptical.
For me to win them over, to have them sing along with our theme song and have a big smile on their face, to know that I've brought joy to their life, that's what really keeps me going.
♪ Just let a smile be your umbrella ♪ ♪ On a rainy, rainy day ♪ And if your sweetie cries just tell her that ♪ ♪ A smile will always pay ♪ Whenever skies are gray, don't worry or fret ♪ ♪ A smile will bring the sunshine ♪ ♪ And you'll never get wet ♪ So let a smile be your umbrella ♪ ♪ On a rainy, rainy day (laughing) That was great.
- That was fun.
♪ I find joy in so many things and I like to share that with people and I think Maine does encourage that.
What are we here for, if not to just experience a joyful life?
♪ HIGGINS: The flavor of Nebraska, as mixed as it is, there's something strangely wonderful about this place, there is.
(chuckling) Once you get to know people here, you start to find out that there are layers of activity in every avenue of interest in the world, it's all happening here.
But the other part of the coin of being a minority is still very, very present.
And it... so it colors my experience.
It's not a level playing field.
And being this skin color, it comes up all the time here in Nebraska.
♪ I would like to just think of myself as a human being, but by interacting with the world, the world constantly is reminding me I'm black.
I'd like to forget it.
When I have to go to the store or do things, you know, go to places I don't often go to, it's not that my guard is up, but it's like I'm observing.
"How's this going, how is this gonna go?"
You know what I'm saying?
When I go for walks, I'm walking in the street alone here's coming people, they cross the street.
I'm walking by, someone's in the car, click, lock the car.
I'm a tall black man, what else could it be?
That's the weird part of living in Omaha.
I remember specifically one day walking to grade school, and just as we got by this hotel, people started chucking rocks out the windows and yelling, "(bleep), (bleep), (bleep), (bleep), (bleep)!"
My cousin, Barbara, was with me and she got hit so bad in the head that she bled and she ended up having to be taken away by ambulance.
I still can remember some of the thoughts, it's like, "What's wrong with these... these are adults!
"These are grown ups!
What the, what's wrong with these people, you know?"
♪ Music absolutely is the healer.
Absolutely it, it makes complete difference.
I grew up surrounded, not just by my family, but other families and traveling musicians.
Everything from jazz to country to gospel, I was exposed to all of it.
There are these standard responses, "Oh, you're a jazz musician, oh, you're a blues musician."
So stereotypical; no one ever asked me, "Oh, are you an electronic musician?
Oh, you play punk rock?"
But yeah, I do.
(chuckles) Definitely my involvement in music and the way that I do it and play is trying to be a conscious, active effort of connecting with people beyond age, race, nationality.
(band playing punk rock music) When I play music, I'm playing the music from the heart, from the gut, and so the whole idea is to give it as much energy that I can muster at that moment and I direct it to the audience.
When I play, I do quite a bit of engagement with the audience, a lot of eye contact.
Coming right up to the edge of the stage, play right to you.
I might stick my bass in your face, you know.
♪ Music shows the true soul and spirit of what man is about, which can be complete, utter darkness, or utter divinity.
♪ Because I've been doing this most of my adult life, people tell me all the time how what we do, what I do, how I do it has changed their lives and helped them to see people differently, even see themselves differently.
I could be a criminal, I could be a gang banger, I could be a murderer, I could be a...
I used to be a drug dealer, okay, you know what I'm saying?
But because of my own choices based on what I was taught and using my own noggin, I'm trying to be a decent person, okay?
I honestly think that being something that's part of the solution is one of the best things we can do.
I've staked out my territory here.
I've been here for so long that I have a lot of love and support here.
I'm not leaving it up to the city to tell me I'm welcome, like I used to.
I make myself welcome, this is my home.
I've been here, I was raised here, I can hang.
I think honestly by staying here I'm helping.
♪ ROTTO: Iowans have the ability to uphold their traditions and their heritage.
I have Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish great-grandparents.
And in 1975 I went on a special trip to Norway.
A woman said, "Oh, you're going home," when she heard my last name and I thought that was so cool.
My maiden name is Holven, a sacred place.
A lot of people say that the Norwegians must have settled here because of the rolling hills and the bluffs and everything, but they settled in places where they had opportunities.
I'm never gonna live anyplace else.
I turned into an Iowan a long time ago.
♪ I came to Decorah, Iowa, to go to Luther College in 1974.
After college I graduated and John and I stayed here.
I've been here a long time.
One, two, three, four.
(playing fiddle music) I played the violin in orchestra growing up.
I wasn't too good, but I found out I loved fiddle music.
And when I was a college student, I went dancing out at the Highlandville School House.
There was some musicians playing out there.
I ended up apprenticing with the fiddler and taking over when he passed away.
Playing this traditional music really connects me to generations on both sides.
I was able to learn a lot of old tunes from women who played for their fathers or their grandfathers, and I also love how it connects with younger people, too.
There's a lot of young people that like to dance to this old-fashioned kind of music.
It's a chance for them to partner and dance together or get in a group and laugh and be creative.
I really like playing music that kind of serves the community.
We play for events that matter in people's lives.
(song ends) I think we've been asked to play at Nordic Fest all these years because people of all ages like to come and dance.
Nordic Fest was created to celebrate the community of Decorah and its Scandinavian heritage.
There's a community in Decorah that, I think that they come back to town so it's kind of like a reunion.
I call Nordic Fest the bottleneck of summer because everything kind of crescendos up to Nordic Fest.
People are surprised when they come to Decorah and they find out that it's not what they had in mind when they thought of Iowa.
There's a thriving community with arts and music.
So we're lucky.
(men singing) (audience applauding) I think we've been asked to play at Nordic Fest all these years because people of all ages like to come and dance.
It's a gathering place.
(background chatter) (fiddle music begins) (upbeat fiddle music) (rhythmic clapping) (music and clapping speed up) (audience applauds) ♪ Iowans have the ability to uphold their traditions and their heritage.
Iowans can be uncomfortable with change but they tolerate it because they're practical people, and they realize it's inevitable.
So they, they go with it.
♪ I guess that's how I fit.
I love my community, I love my friends.
I belong here.
♪ MARTIN: The five short documentaries we just watched are part of States of America, a series featuring one film for every state in the country.
View all the episodes on World Channel's YouTube, where you can also go beyond the lens with our filmmakers to learn more.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪