As his motorcade sped up the FDR Drive on a warm October day in 1965, I doubt that President Lyndon Johnson noticed a young mother with a long braid and two small children at her side waving at the presidential limo. My mom brought my sister and me to lower Manhattan on that day, hoping to get a glimpse of the president.
LBJ had just come from the Statue of Liberty where he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a law that would transform the nation.
It was only decades later, when I started reporting on New York City’s immigrant communities, that I began to understand the enormous changes the law set in motion — as well as my personal connection to this story. Known as the Hart-Celler Act, the law was co-sponsored by Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler, a high school classmate of my grandfather Morris Kallman who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia as a young boy.
It was a landmark piece of legislation, transforming American immigration policy from one that favored arrivals from Western Europe to a more balanced approach that opened the door to people from around the world. All of a sudden an Indian doctor or a Nigerian engineer had almost as good a chance as an Italian farmer or an Irish shopkeeper of legally entering the U.S. and becoming as citizen.
Fast forward to 2004. Immigration was again in the news. Everywhere you looked battles were being fought over border security, jobs, and culture. The country struggled to define the role of immigrants in the post-9/11 era. But in most of the coverage that I saw the people at the center of the story, namely immigrants, were having their opinions and their lives described by someone else. Something was missing.
Having grown up in New York City, I was used to seeing newsstands selling El Diario, The Irish Echo, the Jewish Daily Forward, and other newspapers aimed at immigrant audiences. Sometimes I glanced at the headlines, but I almost never read the articles. I got my news from the Times, my sports from the Daily News, and everything else from public radio.
Listen to stories from the award-winning documentary,Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt.
Then it began to dawn on me that all of those immigrant publications (known collectively by the unfortunate name “ethnic media”) were probably talking about the immigration debate very differently than the news sources I was following.
At around the same time I attended a conference on narrative journalism hosted by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. An idea began to take shape in my mind: “What if I move to an immigrant neighborhood in New York City for a year and use the tools of narrative journalism to produce a radio documentary about the lives of today’s immigrants?”
Scrap that. I would be an outsider telling other people’s stories.
Eventually the idea evolved into: “What if I work with journalists who come from immigrant communities and help them tell their stories to the public radio audience?”
Immigrant journalists are in touch with people and ideas that mainstream Americans rarely hear about, and reporters from immigrant backgrounds have a level of cultural knowledge, language skills, and access to people and places that other reporters can rarely match. This became the basic concept of Feet in 2 Worlds.
Listen to the documentary:
At around the same time I met Andrew White at The New School. He had helped establish the Independent Press Association, an organization that supported New York City’s huge community and “ethnic media” sector — hundreds of newspapers, radio and cable TV shows and websites for immigrant audiences. With Andrew’s help, I met two of the three reporters who eventually became contributors to a radio documentary called Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City.
After the documentary aired in May 2005 I wrote:
A lot of my colleagues in public radio were skeptical. We only had five months to do the work. “How,” they asked, “could you take raw recruits from the world of print journalism, and in less than half a year bring them to a level where they could produce radio stories worthy of national broadcast?” How would we overcome potential language barriers and differences in editorial standards? I didn’t have many good answers to these questions. All I kept saying was, “I think it will work.”
Polish Daily News reporter Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska brought us into a Polish pharmacy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, were local Poles go for medicine, as well as some of the comforts of home. Macollvie Jean-Francoise, of the Haitian Times, reported on the struggles of Haitian immigrants to support themselves, while also sending money back to their impoverished families in Haiti.
The third journalist who contributed to the documentary was India Abroad reporter Arun Venugopal. My mother, Nancy Rudolph, a documentary photographer with a deep love for India, “discovered” Arun. His story took a deep dive into the world of gay South Asians in New York City.
The stories were fresh and caught the attention of public radio listeners across the country, but what happened next was completely unexpected. Arun, who had never before produced a radio story, was offered a reporting job at WNYC, New York’s public radio affiliate station. Suddenly Feet in 2 Worlds wasn’t just a radio documentary; it was also a pipeline bringing new talent into public media. I felt like an oilman who had just hit a gusher.
Since 2005 there’s been a steady stream of immigrant journalists who have used their experience and training with Feet in 2 Worlds as a springboard to join leading media organizations across the country. Other alums have started new outlets and brought fresh ideas to existing publications, thereby strengthening the media serving immigrants.
Another unexpected development was the creation of the Feet in 2 Worlds network. It’s informal to be sure, but many journalists who have gone through our fellowships and workshops stay in touch, support each other, and are now helping to bring along the next generation of immigrant journalists.
This spring Martina Guzman (Fi2W 2008) and Von Diaz (Fi2W 2010) collaborated in connection with Frida, an opera about Frida Kahlo that recently opened in Detroit. Martina helped produce the opera, and Von reported on it for NPR’s Latino USA. And Cristina Pastore, founder of The FilAm a website for Filipinos in the Tri-State area, is currently mentoring John Celbert Sapida, a promising young Filipino journalist in Feet in 2 Worlds’ Immigration Lab internship program at The New School.
It is gratifying to see how Feet in 2 Worlds has changed people’s lives and influenced the national conversation about immigrants and immigration. And it has been an honor to work with so many talented reporters and editors over the past ten years. But despite our efforts, and the efforts of many others, America’s newsrooms still do not come close to reflecting the diversity of our society. I notice this especially in public radio. At one gathering I recently attended of leading public radio and podcast producers from around the country virtually everyone in the room was white and born in the U.S.A.
On the other hand, changes in technology have made media accessible to anyone with a story to tell or a message to spread. We can argue the pros and cons of the digital revolution, but the fact is that immigrant journalists (and others outside the mainstream) are using online tools to bypass big media and take their work directly to audiences.
As a number of essays in this anniversary issue point out, Feet in 2 Worlds was an early practitioner of this approach to journalism. But in order to succeed (at least initially) we also needed our mainstream media partners, especially WNYC and PRI’s The World, to magnify the impact of our stories.
Big media does still matter. Most media resources are still in the hands of large companies and non-profit organizations for whom diversity is a laudable goal that is still a long way from being achieved.
Meanwhile, the discussion of immigrants and America’s immigration laws is becoming ever more strident and polarized. Too often immigrants are portrayed as cardboard cutouts, rather than fully-dimensional people with hopes and dreams, as well as flaws.
Americans tend to idealize their own immigrant ancestors as people who overcame long odds to make a new life for themselves here. More recent immigrants get rougher treatment. There are lots of people in this country who want to seal the borders and hope the newcomers will self-deport.
Immigrant journalists are in a unique position to bring a sense of humanity to the coverage and narrative of immigration — to portray immigrants as the fully-formed people that they are. More than that, immigrant journalists bring new perspectives to a wide variety of issues. And they come from communities that are among the fastest growing sectors of American society.
Now, more than ever, their voices need to be heard.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.