The Challenges of Writing About Race

I get my ideas from stories from a variety of sources. And when I follow a lead, I never know where it will take me.

In June, I was reading the notes of a group that meets twice a month in Dexter, Michigan to discuss a range of issues affecting the community. These are usually fairly typical and ordinary matters, like road construction and local political campaigns. But in this most recent missive, buried amidst a summary of discussions about door to door solicitors, siren tests and programs for the elderly was mention of an African American, Ed Francis, who wanted time to get something off his chest: intimidation that he feels as one of the few people of color living in Dexter. After he spoke, others recounted incidences of racism that they observed. The email was written in a matter of fact tone, but I became curious whether racism is more inclined to thrive in Dexter as well as the surrounding communities of Chelsea and Saline, where fewer than one percent of residents are black. I had no idea if the racist incidents were pervasive beyond those reported at the Dexter Forum gathering. I was nervous about investigating this topic and it triggered a defensive, angry response among some of those I contacted to interview. Many were concerned that I had a preconceived notion that the areas were racist — which wasn’t true. It would have been easy to shelve the idea and not pursue this, but I had the sense that something was happening that needed to be uncovered.

My reporting led to this article and the sad realization that blacks in these communities often experience discrimination. I was fortunate that many people — both black and white — were eager to speak with me. After conducting interviews with several people of color, I was surprised and sad to learn that Ed Francis was hardly alone in enduring discrimination as a minority in one of these small towns. Much of this is a result of ignorance — a lack of understanding when you’re surrounded primarily by those who look just like you. The community’s leaders, worried about the impact that lack of diversity can have, are working hard to combat the perception that they’re not welcoming. And I included many initiatives that they’re trying to implement to attract a more diverse population. But it’s not an easy problem to solve.

What I found is that people rarely have the courage to undertake the conversation that Ed Francis started. Worried about treading on sensitive territory, we are often afraid to talk about race in situations that directly affect us. I appreciated that my editor allowed me the length to explore this issue in depth, exploring many facets of what makes a community remain primarily white and the repercussions of that situation. I hope it becomes the springboard for many more conversations that lead to tolerance, acceptance and a more inclusive atmosphere in towns surrounding Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Turning a Vacation into a Story

I must confess that many times when I plan a vacation, I think about whether it could be the springboard for an article. That’s the life a freelancer: you’re always spinning your wheels trying to figure out if your life experiences are fodder for a compelling article. I especially enjoy this exercise when it comes to travel. There’s something particularly exciting about finding a way to write about my journeys in a way that’s helpful to the public. I was fortunate enough to be able to feature my travel experiences in two articles recently. Last December, when I headed to Mexico with my extended family, I wrote an article for Considerable with tips for creating the best intergenerational travel experience. This past spring, when my sister and I decided to take a long weekend getaway to celebrate my daughter’s college graduation, I wrestled with how to pitch that story. We were getting a great deal at a luxurious resort because it was in the depths of the desert; I wondered if there were other bargains to be found at similarly hot luxury resort destinations. Indeed, there were. Just as the three of us were packing up to leave our resort, I got an email from The New York Times travel editor that she wanted the story. The result was the piece, Chilling in the Desert, that ran in both the online and Sunday print edition. It’s definitely a perk of the job being able to write about your travel experiences and have that documented in a public forum. I hope I’ll have more opportunities to do this in the future as I embark on travel to new destinations.

De-escalating the Hype Around Elite Colleges

In pursuit of some ideas for stories recently, I began to peruse trend data issued by Pew Research, as I often do, to see if the data pointed the way to possible interesting topics. I was struck by a disturbing new statistic that the organization revealed: 61% of teens surveyed say they feel much pressure to get good grades. These pressures fuel a significant amount of unhealthy anxiety that teens experience. I initially pitched a story to The New York Times that would present some proactive ways to address this problem: providing guidance for parents on ways to de-stress the academic environment at home, to send the message that a child’s worth isn’t tied to their grades or test scores. My editor there steered me toward another subject she wanted to explore that I thought was interesting as well: a new paid Facebook group that provided the opportunity for parents to ask advice on college admissions and affordability directly to a panel of esteemed experts. She saw merit in trying to provide guidance to parents on how to find the best resources for navigating the complex college admissions process.

I was a week into reporting the story, appreciating a leisurely deadline, when the college admissions scandal broke. Suddenly, this piece became more urgent and I needed to quickly turn around this article that ran today. We decided to redirect the focus of the piece on what the average income person could do to avail themselves of resources that didn’t break the bank.

The not-rich are those who are most angry about the development that indicated money and privilege can buy admissions to the most elite colleges. But it seems worthwhile to take a pause to consider what the fuss is all about. Why do so many parents seem to care so much about getting their kid into the highest ranking schools? I find it astonishing that parents not only paid astronomical sums to get their kids into top colleges illegally, but that many drop hundreds of thousands of dollars through legal means. Since my children entered college, I have been shocked and dismayed at the value parents place on admission into a highly competitive school and how much they and students will invest — often borrowing vast sums of money that will take years to repay — to do so. I’m the parent of young adults who have attended both public and private schools and am a journalism instructor at my Alma mater, the University of Michigan. I’ve learned that college is what you make it and that you can easily succeed without attending an elite institution. I have consistently seen hard working students hustle to get internships and juggle paying for college with academics become shining stars in the professional world once they graduate.

But private schools continue to capitalize on the value that so many wealthy parents continue to place on their schools, relentlessly raising tuition. Duke University, where my daughter is a senior, did it again. Next year the cost will be $73,000 a year. Duke has plenty of company in its Ivy League colleagues, which now have similar price tags. Despite the skyrocketing tuition costs, these colleges continue to see an increase in the number of applicants. Undaunted, they’re the fortunate beneficiary of the college admissions hysteria machine. I continue to wonder what the tipping point will be for the many middle income families who are eager to give their children the benefit of this type of education. Will it be $80,000? $100,000?

Just as students shouldn’t be defined by their academic record and test scores in high school, parents shouldn’t equate their value with the type of school that admits them. You are not where you go to college. An elite college education is not a guaranteed golden ticket to success or happiness. If more parents realized that, perhaps it could help take the anxiety down a notch that students are feeling in high school. Parents may feel less compelled to put so much money toward getting them in to the most competitive — and pricey — schools. And they may find their children do just fine regardless of the college they attend. Then maybe fewer applicants will flock to the elite, pricey schools; these schools may finally feel the pinch and stop raising tuition. Of course, that’s just a pipe dream. But even if a version of this change in mindset comes to fruition, it could insert some much needed sanity into the process, benefiting both parents and students.

Environmental Journalists Touch Down in Flint

As a founding member of The Society of Environmental Journalists, a group dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of environmental coverage, I always look forward to attending the annual conference. This year, environmental justice was the theme, as the annual conference was held in Flint, Michigan, home to the catastrophic lead in water crisis. The kick off speaker was Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who persevered in bringing the flagrant violations to the attention of the public. She’s the author of the new book, What the Eyes Don’t See. In her presentation, Hanna-Attisha thanked the media. She said were it not for enterprising journalists who alerted the public to her findings, the world may never have learned about the horrors occurring in Flint. It’s gratifying to hear of the impact of the work of my fellow journalists. As I spent a few days mingling with my colleagues, I am continually inspired by the tenacity of individuals who are committed to uncovering complex environmental problems. Many journey to dangerous countries, risking their lives to find their stories; others find similarly precarious situations at home during an era where journalists are often disrespected. Some of that tension was evident in an exchange between two other speakers: Eric Lipton of The New York Times and Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly with the Trump EPA. The conversation grew tense as Holmstead challenged Lipton about his portrayal of the administration and Lipton vigorously defended his story. These conferences always energize me and give me fresh ideas for articles. I led a Future of Mobility tour, taking 30 journalists to a test track for self-driving cars where we got to experience a ride in a driverless shuttle that is already operating on the University of Michigan campus — clearly a glimpse into what the future could look like. I moderated a panel on how to freelance and not go broke, which was well attended. When SEJ launched, few were freelancers. Now, with newspapers downsizing, they make up a significant constituency of the organization. It was exciting to see roughly 500 people gather for this conference to network, exchange ideas and learn. During a time of onslaught for journalists, SEJ provides crucial support and resources. I’m pleased the organization continues to thrive.

New Publication Focuses on Tips for Boomers

When you’re in your fifties and sixties — as so much of the population is — there are many daunting issues to face. Whether it’s helping to launch your young adults, caring for aging parents, saving for retirement or staying healthy, there’s so much to stay on top of. I’ve enjoyed having the chance to be one of the debut writers for a new publication, Considerable, that is taking an optimistic view of the road ahead. Here’s some information on their purpose and goal from the Editorial Director, Diane Harris, who formerly was Editor in Chief of MONEY. My first article for the website focused on a persistent problem among many siblings: tensions that arise in caring for an older parent. I got the idea for this story from observing some friends go through this. I thought it was important to provide advice on how to head off disputes during what is already an emotionally-plagued time. The most recent piece I wrote for Considerable provides new tools for adult children having to navigate their parents’ finances. I know that, at some point, my siblings and I may find ourselves in this situation and I may very well consider one of these apps to simplify and manage the process in a secure way. It’s always great to see a new publication arise to tackle so many important issues. I look forward to continuing to contribute to Considerable and hope many of you will check it out.

 

 

Imagining a World With No Fuel Economy Rules

A few months after the publication of an article I wrote for The Atlantic exploring what the education system would look like under an all private or all public school scenario, I was contacted by the editor of a publication called Ensia. Would I consider applying the same hypothetical scenario to fuel economy standards? I thought it was a great idea. The result was this article that discusses the potential impacts from proceeding with tough standards or abandoning standards altogether. In 2012, the Obama administration put in place fuel economy standards — phased in over time — that would roughly double the fuel economy of cars by 2025. President Trump has begun the process of rolling back the standards even though some automakers don’t support that. Statements from Honda and Ford indicate those companies are not asking for a rollback, while General Motors has said it is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supports an all-electric future. With the contentious fuel economy debate currently unfolding,  it was an opportune time to engage in this thought experiment. I had the chance to interview those of all different types of ideologies and backgrounds who provided their varying perspectives. I believe this approach of allowing experts to discuss these types of issues in a more academic context, outside the political fray, leads to important discourse. It’s anybody’s guess as to what ultimately will happen with the standards, which have already significantly improved the fuel efficiency of cars. But the more information that’s available to the public on the potential implications, hopefully the better informed the discussions will be.

Inspirational Stories From Aging Boomers

One of my favorite writing gigs is providing the “Second Act” stories to The Wall Street Journal’s Encore section twice a year. Second Acts focus on those who find a new passion in their fifty-plus years — be it a career or full-time hobby or avocation. I feel privileged to be able to share the journeys of such a disparate group of people.  In the April 23rd edition, I was pleased to have written four articles. I was moved to hear about how an owner of an investment firm decided to open up a chocolate shop to employ disabled workers. There was also a physical therapist who decided to become a whitewater rafting guide, a teacher who launched a nonprofit to generate enthusiasm for the STEM fields in girls and a marketing executive who spends her retirement years traveling the world inexpensively by house sitting. Interviewing these types of individuals gives me hope that there are many exciting ways to spend one’s later years, provided, of course that you remain healthy. I’m sure that the zeal they have for these new pursuits helps to keep them both physically and emotionally healthy as well. I was just as intrigued by another story I told in the most recent Encore issue: a mission of developers of 55 plus active living  communities to build eco-friendly residences. They found that older adults crave environmentally sustainable living, partly because it’s economical as well. I look forward to continuing my coverage of the ways older adults are embarking on their senior years with great enthusiasm and joy. I’m always looking for Second Act candidates, so if you know of anyone who has made an interesting late-in-life career switch, please contact me!