Changing the narrative: Meet our Project Editor for On the Ground Southeast

Input Fort Wayne's On the Ground Southeast series embeds a Project Editor and community-based reporters in Southeast neighborhoods for two months to produce weekly content and help organize local events. As part of a national series of On the Ground programs by Issue Media Group, its intent is to produce more accurate and authentic storytelling about an underserved part of town, resulting in ongoing media coverage and investment.

From August-September 2020, On the Ground editors and reporters will be meeting with Southeast residents to find out what stories or issues aren't getting enough coverage and how to support the work of locals rising up to shape the future of Southeast.

To get started, we'd like to introduce you to our Project Editor, Britney Breidenstein.


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Growing up in Southeast Fort Wayne in the 90s, Britney Breidenstein remembers feeling a strong sense of community and pride in where she lived. Breidenstein

She spent most of her foundational years on the city’s Southeast side where she recalls walking to the old Pizza Hut on Anthony/Paulding from Village Woods Middle School, or riding her bike all day long in the summertime, stopping in and out of friends’ houses around the neighborhood.

She recalls her mentors and teachers going above and beyond to support her, too. One teacher at the former Village Elementary even took her and other girls in her class out for ice cream at Atz on a Saturday. Even after this same teacher left the state, she and Breidenstein kept in contact for many years.

“It just felt like everybody was invested in us thriving,” Breidenstein says.

Growing up, she remembers the Southeast side of town had plenty of amenities, too. Southtown Mall was a popular hangout spot, and Simone’s in Diplomat Plaza was one of her family's favorite restaurants. Rogers and Target were nearby, as well.

Breidenstein got her first job tutoring at the Eagle’s Nest learning center on Hessen Cassel where she could bike to work.

“I don’t remember having to venture out north to get what we needed,” she says, noting an exception to healthcare. “Many of our resources were right there.”

But as Breidenstein grew into her teenage years, she felt things start to change in the Southeast. Southtown mall and Rogers closed. Target left. And small businesses, like Simone's began to close, as well. Before long, much of the quadrant had become a food desert, or a place home to at least 500 people that is more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

For Breidenstein, the questions were always: Why and how?

She remembers riding her bike as a kid and seeing beautiful houses along McKinney and Hessen Cassel.

“I used to admire them, and think, ‘I’m going to buy that home someday,’” she recalls. “Now, there’s just this absence.”

Breidenstein feels the absence of investment in the Southeast side, coupled with the knowledge that people who live there still deeply care about their community.

“There are people living on Oxford Street next to abandoned homes where they cut the grass because nobody lives there,” she says. “They’re literally just trying to make it, and they’re taking pride in something—even as it’s falling apart.”

That’s one of the reasons she wants to support the Southeast side of Fort Wayne today as the new Project Editor for Input Fort Wayne’s On the Ground series. Breidenstein sees the potential of what Southeast Fort Wayne can be, and she knows shifting the narrative is an integral part of community pride and strength.

As defined by the 46803 and 46806 zip codes of Fort Wayne, the Southeast quadrant of the city is home to large populations of Fort Wayne's Black and Hispanic residents, as well as a significant population of Burmese refugees. Southeast is also one of the lowest income areas in all of Indiana—only 11 miles away from the wealthiest zip code in the state (Leo).

These distinctions about Southeast are no coincidence, largely caused by redlining in the city’s past and systemic exclusion.

While the Southeast community still has a strong sense of pride, grit, and loyalty, it doesn’t have many businesses owned by people from the area. Even the businesses it does have, like the Kroger at Southgate Plaza, have higher priced and lower quality products than stores by the same chain in other parts of Fort Wayne.

Breidenstein feels that the discrepancies between the Southeast side of town and all other parts of the city contribute to the false narrative that Southeast residents are less worthy than their neighbors.

“We often talk about microaggressions being verbal,” Breidenstein says. “But devaluing a person’s place and their experience is a microaggression, too. Matter of fact, it is a macro-aggression."

While the Southeast area has seen some investments over the years, like sidewalk and street improvements, these investments are merely what’s expected in other parts of town. There’s still a lack of development, priority, and hope felt in the Southeast quadrant.

“Places that have been abandoned or withered are just left there, and nobody’s trying to reinvent them,” she says. “I would say it’s systematic negligence.”

Since large employers, like International Harvester, left the Southeast quadrant in the 1980s, Breidenstein feels that it has been given less priority in the city because it no longer has a strong white, middle-class presence of people living and working there—people who sit on boards and have the connections and political sway to make change happen swiftly.

"That is why it is more than monumental to have people like Chambers, Tuckers, and Hines on our City Council," Breidenstein says. "That is why is important to have the representation of a minority who lives in the Southeast on the School Board."

As a proud product of Southeast Fort Wayne, Breidenstein wants to help more Fort Wayne residents better understand the city’s most diverse quadrant. To accomplish this, she wants to hand the microphone over to Southeast residents, so they can share their experiences, businesses, community pride, and activism, themselves.

Breidenstein moved to the Northeast side of Fort Wayne about 12 years ago after she graduated from Indiana Tech, got married, and had her first child. Even so, her family, in-laws, and support system still live in the Southeast, so she visits the area often and has a vested interest in its future.

She realizes that it’s going to take a significant investment of intentionality, talent, money, and faith to advance Southeast Fort Wayne. But she is encouraged by the work being done by community leaders and hopes to be an advocate for sustaining change, especially in how the media portrays the side of town.

As Input Fort Wayne’s On the Ground project editor, she hopes to use her passion and experience in Southeast to tell more authentic, informed stories and encourage other residents to do the same.

Since Input Fort Wayne’s parent company, Issue Media Group, developed its On the Ground program in 2013, the series has advanced more than 40 communities across the U.S., telling the stories of "what’s next" for underserved places. The intent is to drive additional "solutions-oriented" media coverage, community engagement, and ultimately understanding of a community, resulting in awareness and investments that can contribute to its vitality and prosperity.

Breidenstein says she was moved by the power of the program to go beyond the typical limitations and stereotypes of Southeast charity projects and empower residents to tell their own stories—not just for two months, but for the future in Input.

After all, she’s seen the power of people to rise up and voice their experiences, most recently demonstrated by Fort Wayne’s youth in the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.

“I’d always said that we can change the narrative,” Breidenstein says. “I truly believe we, as a people on social media, period, have that power. Black Twitter is real, so On the Ground Southeast can be real, too.”

For the past 12 years, she has built a presence for herself in Fort Wayne’s nonprofit community, serving on boards for organizations, like Bring it Push it Own it and Own Your Success, and even creating her own consulting firm to speak to the under-representation of female leaders in the private sectors.

Now she wants to use her talents and passions to serve Southeast, as well.

“I don’t have access to millions of dollars that I can invest in Southeast, but I do have social capital and I have a platform,” Breidenstein says. “I will always have a connection to that part of town, so I feel that I have a responsibility to give back and be a voice at the table.”

Her ultimate goal for the series is to put the power of storytelling back into the hands of the people and help Southeast rise from the power of its community.

“I am most excited about the opportunity to highlight the people and places in the community who have been working tirelessly to reinvest and bring matters of the Southeast (matters of the City) to the forefront," Breidenstein says. "They are often unsung heroes; I want to hear from them. I believe communities are inherently capable of telling their stories and shifting the narrative to bring about change."

Meet Britney

In August and September, Breidenstein will be hosting On the Ground open table events at community spaces throughout the week. Stay posted for days and times on Input Fort Wayne's Facebook page and LinkedIn.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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