Reclaiming narratives and serving communities from Puerto Rico with Camille Padilla Dalmau
We spoke to Camille about her new platform supporting Puerto Rican creators.
Camille Padilla Dalmau is the founding member and editorial/product lead of 9 Millones, a media platform from Puerto Rico that launched during the pandemic. Through 9 Millones, Camille works with journalists, creators and nonprofits to reclaim Puerto Rican narratives. Before launching 9 Millones, Camille was a journalism professor at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and a communications consultant for local non-profits. She has over a decade of experience in journalism and has worked with publications including NowThis, El Diario, Remezcla, AJ+ and more. She holds a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
We spoke to Camille about the importance of reclaiming narratives, why newsrooms should prioritise the health of their journalists and how solutions journalism can be a service to communities.
This interview has been edited for brevity as we spoke to Camille for over 1 hour. If you want to listen to the interview, you can click on this link to open our podcast.
In Old News: How do you explain 9 Millones to a stranger?
Camille: So 9 Millones is a platform and a network. We offer tools and services to independent creators as well as organizations such as nonprofits so we can take ownership of our narratives. So what does that look like? We have a crowdfunding website, so we could do deeper dives into investigative stories that mainstream media is not investigating. For organizations, it looks more like content consulting. And also for the independent creators, we help them tap into resources as in like a network. There's so many creative, talented people in Puerto Rico. And I just think if we all connect, we can create constructive narratives.
I was in the first cohort of trainees in solutions journalism in Latin America, and I'm very much a proponent of solutions journalism. So we also offer, I guess, a perspective. We start telling narratives that are about how community responds. Because what happens in Puerto Rico… [for] context: Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S. And before that, it was a colony of Spain. So before social media, there were very few people that had ownership of our narratives. And most of those people were not really connected with the communities in Puerto Rico. And that still happens a bit in mainstream media here in Puerto Rico and in the US, where it's very politicized, it's very partizan and so there's no nuance to the complexities of being Puerto Rican. [We’re] called 9 Millones because there's 9 million Puerto Ricans across the world (it's almost 9 million. It's eight point something, you know, it's almost getting there). But it's a fact that when I tell people they're like, wow, quanto somos? [how many are we?]. They're impressed that there's so many of us because we usually talk about the 3.2 here and the 5.2 in the US and no, we're this vast network and it's so important to connect it.
And 63% of Puerto Ricans are outside of Puerto Rico. It's so important to connect ourselves because what happened in 2019, we ousted a governor and that did not happen because of one segment. It happened because all of Puerto Ricans — here in Puerto Rico and outside in the diaspora — united for a single cause. And I'm like, Okay, pero [but], [Ricky] Rosselló, the ousted governor, was just the tip of the iceberg. There's so many other issues that we have to understand the problem and the possible solution. So our mission is to offer information to create a healthier, more prosperous and joyous society.
Health is super important because Puerto Ricans, compared to the US, have higher rates of asthma, higher rates of diabetes. We just have higher rates of chronic illness, which I think being a colony is part of it. Our health system is part of it. There's a lot involved there.
Prosperous because I think it's not just a political issue of colonization, it's an economic issue. The economy is a way that we are colonized, right? Almost 90% of the food in Puerto Rico that is sold in supermarkets is imported. So [those] kinds of dependencies are created economically.
And then joyous because I think we have a right to joy, to happiness. And there's something we talk about here a lot, jayaera, the decolonial joy. It’s through our joy that we liberate ourselves. When I say liberation, I don't mean like partizan politics because here the main political parties are divided by pro-independence and pro commonwealth, which is the current state, and there's a few emerging parties. There's this quote by Luisa Capetillo, who is a feminist icon here, she was a union labor organizer. And she said, liberation has no patria [homeland]. Neither do oppressors, and neither do workers. What we face is very much what the world is facing.
In Old News: When you look at it from this wholesome, spherical perspective, how do you choose where to start?
Camille: The first thing I think about is trust and relationships. And the body. I think when you live in Puerto Rico and you know, we have issues with electricity all the time, we've had a lot of instability in the past decade, safety is like further most. So my inspirations are not really drawn particularly by journalism or I don't have journalism mentors, I have somatic movement mentors. So my philosophy is very driven [by] how do I connect with my body? How do I connect with other bodies and minds and souls? And how do we create trust? Because that's what journalism is about, right? Trust. And obviously, people here who don't trust mainstream media, and it happens in the States, it's happening all over the world. We're not trusting these institutions because they don't really represent us. So we got to this place of taking ownership of our narratives because… I'll take a little background of how we started. We started during the COVID pandemic. And what was happening in Puerto Rico is that we have a very delicate healthcare system. And we had one of the first lockdowns in the US, March 15th. There were cops on the beach because you couldn't go to the beach, like super restrictive and we went through like three secretaries of health in a couple of weeks, and all of the media coverage focused on the politicisation and the data and the scare. This ‘afraid’ kind of coverage of COVID. And we were like, “okay, so that's one thing.” But then we were also identifying, “oh, like there's this town that there is this young scientist doing contact tracing and it's actually being super successful.” And so we started to identify solutions. While all of these political [people] were talking, the scientists were taking action to organize and make sure that our healthcare system didn't collapse and it hasn't so far. So I would say their efforts have been successful. And so we were like, “okay, let's focus on that.” Instead of focusing on causing fear because of this virus, let's actually see what are the things we can do? How can we protect ourselves? And let's create trust by talking about the people who every day are thinking about this and are so knowledgeable.
So that's at the beginning. It started with: let's shift the narrative to something constructive. And then as I went on, when I talk about trust and relationships, I started doing like these pre-accelerator programs and we started doing customer discovery. I was part of the GNI Boot Camp in late 2020, and then I was part of a local pre-accelerator program, I was going through the whole entrepreneurship journey and I started doing a lot of interviews. And at first I did it with the audience, but then I switched to storytellers. And that's when I identified, “Oh, there's a need here.” There's storytellers that share my same values that are doing journalism, that have the same experience as me that we were in mainstream media and we left because it didn't resonate. But they need money. And they need resources. And they need community. So I was like, “Okay, that's the need. I want to focus on that.” And that's where the crowdfunding came on.
And then the idea is to support a truly independent media. Because what I see as a trend is that more people are following independent journalists and storytellers. So I'm like, how can I support them so they can keep doing what they're doing? And so that those figures that come from journalism backgrounds, like we become a curator of sorts. 9 Millones, we become a supporter. I hope that eventually the audience is like, “oh, I want to know who are creators that I can support or follow” and they can come through us and be like, “Okay, I trust that they know our values.” So there's a system there. Anyone in the network has those same values, which is based on trust. It's based on love, which sounds super cheesy, but like, I was talking to my partner and she was like, it's radical to be a media outlet and say we're driven by love. Because that's just not the reality of media, they’re driven by fear. For us, it's like trust and love equals solutions. Because you need trust and love to have the drive to create solutions. And definitely community and collaboration. So it's really about creating constructive narratives, supporting them. And I see ourselves almost as an ecosystem builder and independent media ecosystem builder.
In Old News: When you talk about stories for example, local scientists doing contact tracing, do you think those are more or less effective in terms of raising awareness about the issue whether it’s about COVID or it’s about climate change? Have you been told by people that they have a different kind of approach to a story from a positive angle versus fear mongering?
Camille: Yeah, here’s the context about that [contact tracing] story in particular: when we published that story, we were the first people to cover the scientist. Eventually she came to become like the director of the contact tracing in Puerto Rico. So I wouldn't go so far to say that we were the [reason]. But we did raise awareness because we noticed that a lot of the people that were following were journalists and were scientists, so they could use those stories. Then more people started to cover her, and then the mainstream news covered her. So that's what's changing the narrative right? When they see, “oh, this is getting attention and it's a different angle.”
I think the journalists and the mainstream outlets sometimes need a story like ours to be successful, for them to pitch it and be like “people want to hear about this.” So every person that I talk to about solutions journalism, whether they're a storyteller or like people in the community, they get really excited. Because I hear over and over people are just exhausted about mainstream news. I hear so many people that are like, I'm not even listening to the news. Especially Puerto Rico, like our local news channels, they'll have politicians give a political analysis. And it's like, how can a politician give you an accurate and fair political analysis? But people get really excited because they also know that there are so many solutions in their community.
I used to live in New York and I came back in 2018, like nine months after the hurricane [Maria]. And I came back because of this reason that when I first visited the island after the hurricanes passed, and there were two, there was Irma and Maria. In New York I was depressed. I felt useless. So I came here and I started to do a story about communities organizing and I met people who had just lost their house but they still had so much hope. And were thankful because they had their lives. And I saw how communities were organizing and I was like, “why is this not the story?” And sometimes it happens [the media covers it], but it's not deep enough because when we talk about responses to communities, we should go very deep on what's effective. Why did it work in that community, or what did not work? It should be an investigative process. So I very much came back because there was an awareness from my in and from my community that there were so many people doing amazing things to to push ourself forward. And that just wasn't being highlighted.
So I came back and I became a professor and started talking to my students about this. I no longer teach because the business is going well, so I don't have as much time for it. But I love education and that's something we're planning this year, now that I have my training in solutions journalism, to give more formal trainings in that and then also teach about budgeting… the things I've noticed that there's gaps in for journalists: the budgeting, branding, research… So seeing what can we offer to continue fortifying independent media, to continue fortifying solutions journalism because I heard something from Jaime Abello, who is the executive director of Fondazione Gabo, this organization in Colombia that promotes journalism. And he came to our training of the Solutions Journalism Network, and he said ‘communicators have the responsibility to not stifle the belief that society can get better.’ We can't take inspiration for granted. If we've had so much taken from us as a society, as a colony. So why would I also take away the ability to inspire people? And that doesn't mean it's doing something that's not investigative. It means doing something that's participatory, doing something that is based on the response. Doing something that actually reflects how the community feels and not just focus on the politicians. Because clearly they're not solving our problems. If anything, they're causing many more. And that's what happens a lot in mainstream news. It's like they focus on politics and they focus on the economy. But not economies of solidarity, which is huge in Puerto Rico. There's so many ways that we help each other that are beyond the fiat [money], right?
In Old News: How has your experience working in some mainstream publications informed how you’ve built 9 Millones?
Camille: I always kind of wanted to start my own thing, but it became much more clear when I worked for mainstream media. I worked for traditional and digital newsrooms, and I still found these same hierarchical issues. When I worked as a metro reporter for El Diario, which is the longest running Spanish newspaper in New York, that used to be seven reporters. And when I was there, there were two. So I was extremely overworked. And I even got sick. I was depressed. I did not want to wake up. Because I was also covering the police, which is another story, the NYPD. So a lot of my job was talking to people who just lost someone they loved. And I did believe I had the ability to be an empathetic ear. But it was also exhausting and I was writing three to five stories a day, which is craziness. I remember seeing the amount of stories that I wrote at the end of the year and it was like, what?! How is it possible for one person to produce so much?
What I'll say about working for digital newsrooms is that it was the same thing. We were we were producing and producing stories. And when the Hurricane Maria happened, I was insisting like, “Hey, there's a lot of people dying. We need to cover this.” And it was overlooked because I was treated more as a translator rather than a journalist. And I got my master's in Columbia Journalism School, I'm obviously a journalist. But it was kind of frustrating to be pigeonholed as a translator and a publisher when I have like this background that I can contribute and I'm the only person [in that newsroom] that is from the island. And it wasn't until the Harvard study came out that they were like, “oh, yeah, we need to do something about this.” And I'm like, why? If you had been listening to this person… So it was really frustrating in that sense. And then the tip of the iceberg was at the end in 2019 and where the uprising [against the governor] happened. And it was the same cycle where things in Puerto Rico were happening, and I felt that the newsroom that I was in wasn't paying the adequate attention to it.
This is the story I say in my [company] pitch: I was working for the number one social news publisher in the world. I came to Puerto Rico to cover a story about community resilience. And then that story was never published because the senior editor didn't think it was important enough. And at that point, I was just like I don't know how much longer I can be here. A few months later, I moved back to Puerto Rico. I worked remotely. And then I did my transition from a full time job to 9 Millones. I started doing nonprofit consulting. So once I got a client, I kind of left that [full-time] job.
I started doing that nonprofit consulting, and I was focusing on video production. And this pandemic happened and all my video productions were canceled. I took like a couple of weeks to meditate, and that's where the idea came. So the beginning of that lockdown, I was talking to my partner about this, I think about it quite fondly because it was a time where I allowed myself to be like, Okay, the world is stopping, so I'm going to stop too.
And all this to say that I think that mainstream media creates unhealthy environments for journalists. Because of that, the news that we produce is also unhealthy for our audiences. And that drove me to want to create something that created healthy environments for storytellers and that the well-being of our audience is forefront when we're publishing something. Like I'm thinking, how would this content affect the people who are reading it?
When I worked in mainstream media, I learned mostly what I don't want to be doing rather than what I wanted to do. I did learn some tips and tricks for sure. I learned a lot about reporting and distribution and strategy. But organizationally, I was like, I don't want to replicate this when I create what I want to create. And now I'm really focusing on being adaptable and listening. I like to lead from a place of listening. I'm definitely a service leader, where it's like how can I serve my community of storytellers, my community in Puerto Rico? That's what I see as my responsibility as someone who got a great education, who was able to leave and got a perspective and now I'm returning.
In Old News: You've been doing 9 Millones for two years now, so what does your day look like? What are you looking forward to?
Camille: It depends on the day. My day always starts with going outside and doing some qigong. It's a practice I've been doing recently that I really love. I always take time for connecting with myself. On a Monday, it might look more like organizing my week, setting my goals, and then on days like today, it looks more like meeting with a lot of people. Yesterday I was also doing some accounting, some bookkeeping things like that. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I dedicate more to meeting with people.
I just love talking about communication strategy and I consult in a very different way. Like the other day, I'm helping someone with a podcast that they want to focus on solutions. And I was telling them something like, you know, before you turn on the mic, what emotion do you want people to feel when they hear your podcasts? And he told me and then I was like, “Okay, before you turn on the mic, I want you to tune into those emotions,” because he was coming out like very traditional journalist. I was like, “When we talk, that's not how you talk.” And ever since I told him that, I noticed the difference. From my personal belief, we are mind, body and soul. So I want to acknowledge people as a whole when I'm helping them.
So, yeah, it's a lot of meetings, a little bit of bookkeeping and I'm trying to make more time to tell my own stories. And then at the end of the day, I love to cook and make a delicious meal.
I'm doing a lot of work with people who work on design and operations to figure out from community, storyteller intake, production and then distribution… how can I start delegating more?
In Old News: How does crowdfunding from the audience work?
Camille: It depends. So we have like this one storyteller, the one that we've raised like $17,000, which is so crazy to me that we've made so much money to do a story. But I'm not surprised because it's about the overdevelopment of land in Puerto Rico, and that's a huge topic. And for her, she already had a community, so she created a video and distributed it. And then people get to 9 Millones. I help her with some things, but it's more administrative. She already kind of has a process of creation in the community.
Then we have other stories like the coral story, for example. I help more with email marketing kind of strategy. And then we all sent emails. Natasha, who's the writer for that story, she has a network in California because she studied in Stanford. So she kind of sent emails to her professors to her network, and her family friends. That's kind of how we got that story funded. And she talked about how having that support from the community gave her a sense of power, like where she felt more in the same playing field. You know how sometimes when we pitch [to a publication] it feels very hierarchical. But she felt like having that backing of the community made her feel more confident in her pitching that story.
We want to inspire support for our communities. If we don't help our community, who's going to help our community? So my goal for this year is to have a larger network. Like last year we were building the thing and now we got to have more stories. But yeah, I kind of want to optimize some of our operations before we grow too much so I don't burn out because again, health is important. I tell everyone in my team like it's going to be slow, we're going to move slow, but the foundation is going to be strong.
In Old News: How do you visualize who you’re reaching in your network of storytellers and audience?
Camille: What we want to offer someone that lives outside of Puerto Rico is hope that they can come back or hope that their family is all right, that not everything is so shitty. Because the mainstream media in the US only covered Puerto Rico when it bleeds. And it's like, no, actually look at this beautiful place. I know it's really frustrating because right now in Puerto Rico, we have all sorts of crises. We have an education crisis, we have a land crisis where our land, people are being displaced, a health crisis. There's so many challenges that we're facing. But at the same time, there is so many communities working every day so we can live here. I don't want to lose sight of that.
I want people to know that that there are people here who are trying to create a better quality of life. And I want them to also know how to support us. Not every Puerto Rican in the US can support storytellers or things in Puerto Rico because there are plenty of Puerto Ricans in the US that are struggling and don't have the means. But there are also other Puerto Ricans that are doing better for themselves and that want to support and they can support through 9 Millones.
And there's also a good amount of people in the US who are just like, “oh, what? Like the U.S. has a colony? And I didn't even know? I want to know more about that.” In the US, people are taught that Puerto Rican is like the 51st state, but that “is like,” there's so much nuance and context. It's not the 51st state. We are a colony and we have to be super straight up about it because legally it's a territory, they call it the Commonwealth. That's not the reality.
The reality is that the economic decisions about Puerto Rico right now have to be approved by a fiscal board that was appointed by the president of the US. And so we have elected officials, but what they vote for doesn't even matter if this board doesn't approve it. Colonialism in the past five years, especially since the passing of PROMESA, which is the law that was passed, I believe it was 2016, and Obama signed it into law. Because of that law, the colonialism has been so present and obvious. Before it was a little more emphasized or you could hide it, but now there's no way of hiding it. Like we know what's happening. People here are not happy about it. Mainstream news in the US is like, “Oh, Puerto Rico needs to be a state.” And I'm like, no, no, no, Puerto Rico needs to be efficient. Our government needs to actually work.
At the beginning I did talk to people in the US, the Diasporicans and I noticed that they were already supporting journalism in Puerto Rico. So I know that there's a willingness, but what I'm trying to say is that it goes beyond Puerto Ricans. I think if there are people that maybe have Puerto Rican friends who just care about Puerto Rico because they've come to visit or have lived here for a little bit… I think that's also part of what we're trying to prove, that our stories are important. Because that experience that I told you about, mainstream news, not covering community oriented stories in Puerto Rico happens to almost every storyteller that I interview. This is a common story. I think we want to prove that our stories are important. And actually, there are people out there that want to read it and we can learn things from the world. But there's also things that the world can learn from us.
In Old News: What is your advice for anyone looking to launch their own media initiative?
Camille: So the first thing that comes up is: do things even if you're scared and the importance of mindset. If you want to start something in media of any sorts, start listening. Read the papers about the media industry. Start listening to podcasts about other entrepreneurs, Lion Publisher has a good podcast you could listen to. You [In Old News] also have a resource. Get yourself mentally in that space and know that taking action is gonna be scary. And you're going to be scared for at least a year, but probably you'll be scared for a longer time. That first year is the hardest because after a year I was like, “Well, you know what, I'm feeling a little better.” And then as soon as I start feeling confident, like something came out of left field, The entrepreneur journey is a roller coaster. So I think that that part of being grounded in your values and your mission is important. Know your mission, and your mission is not what you do. Your mission is like, what you believe in and what's going to motivate you.
That first year, you're going to probably be doing everything. But that's important because then you're going to know how to delegate. And then the other thing I tell people is talk to a lot of people. I wish someone had told me to talk to more people before I started. I don't regret anything because everything happens as it needs to. But I tell other people just talk to your audience, talk to your clients, especially now if you're capable, like in person. Go to the place where your audience goes and have conversations with them because nothing's gonna inspire you more than knowing that you're serving a real need.
If you wanted to stay safe, you wouldn't be thinking of being an entrepreneur. Growth is scary. As humans, we're kind of wired to be safe. I think that's also like the importance of hacking your mind. Your mind gets scared because it's out of your comfort zone and it literally thinks you might die. But you're not going to die. So that's why the importance of like a practice, like a mindfulness practice that could be walking, that could be swimming, that could be meditating, whatever it is. So you can rewire your brain because neuroplasticity is real. Like you have to retrain your brain. You will be scared. And also recognize what's fear and what's intuitive, right? Because sometimes you're afraid of doing something and it’s your head, but sometimes your intuition is telling you this might not be the person to hire.
It's a constant like, que estoy haciendo? What am I doing? It's a path that's never been walked. And I gotta remind myself that all the time. You're doing something that no one's done before, and that's why it’s scary. There's no map. You gotta figure it out. You gotta take that machete and make the way and then you can pave it and other people can go through. But when you're taking the machete, it’s grass up to here and it's going to be itchy and uncomfortable, but then you're going to have a path that hopefully lead to beautiful waterfalls.
That's why I talk so much about health. I think it's also important to say this happens in every industry. Like most industries in the world are unhealthy, like journalism is not the only one. It's just that journalism is very forward facing. And what we do really affects other people.
I think we need to question what do we want to create? It doesn't just have to be the model of creating content, it can be more participatory and it can be educational, like education is such an important part of journalism that is definitely under-utilized. I think there's much more to explore in our industry. So thank you. I love talking about this because it's great to reflect on my own journey and be like, “Yeah! We're doing the damn thing!”