Out of work, Chapel Hill woman hops in RV and documents stories from the pandemic

Michael Perchick Image
Monday, December 28, 2020
Chapel Hill woman travels nation documenting pandemic stories
Michelle Fishburne lost her job because of the pandemic. Unable to find a new one, she hit the road to document people's stories of resilience through the national health crisis.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Earlier this year, Michelle Fishburne found herself in a similar position to thousands of fellow North Carolinians: out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was sitting in a parking lot at Target. It was about July 15, and after 86 customized cover letters, I still did not have a job," Fishburne recalled.

Her lease was up at the end of the month, and she didn't know where she would tell the movers to bring her belongings. That's when she had an idea -- inspired by the popular social media account Humans of New York -- to document people's experiences during the pandemic.

So she hopped in her RV, and began her travels.

"It didn't matter if it was red state or blue state, everybody was welcoming and people were kind, and people wanted to share their experiences, and they were great hosts no matter where I went. So number one, that's still out there are -- (people in the) United States where we're all looking out for each other," she said.

The project is called "Who We Are Now".

Despite the understandable difficulties many people are facing, she was encouraged by their spirits.

"What I found instead that really surprised me was an incredible amount of resiliency and hope, and we're all in this together, and we put one foot in front of the other," Fishburne said.

So far, she has traveled through 19 states and interviewed more than 100 people. She's also spent plenty of time working on the project locally, including where we met with her at Yonder Southern Cocktails & Brew in Hillsborough.

Her stories have shown a mix of fortitude and frustration as COVID-19 metrics continue to increase both nationally and in North Carolina.

"This is going to be a long winter, and I have talked to so many restaurant owners and bar owners and comedians and artists and musicians who just are not able to make a living right now the way that they need to," Fishburne said.

Her hope is that these stories will help people better understand the current situation many in their respective communities are facing.

"The people who really, really need us right now are the local entrepreneurs, the local artists, and they need us to continue to support them," Fishburne said.

She has self-funded the project through savings and some family support. Fishburne plans on re-starting her travel in early January and continuing for a few more months before wrapping up.

"I will have interviewed at least one person from all of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., by the time the project is over," Fishburne said.

Besides posting stories to her website and social media channels, Fishburne is set to speak with a producer this week about a potential documentary. Still, she stressed the project is not motivated by financial gain, and she added that she is not interested in outside investments.

"I kind of have an obligation to continue sharing to continue building because understanding the context of our country, while we're going through this and how people are experiencing is something that people are finding value in," Fishburne said.