In a powerful, multidisciplinary, and multimedia talk about the plight of the trans-global poor in an era when the 100 richest people in the world own more than the 3 billion poorest, journalist Katherine Boo demonstrated her mastery of storytelling, empathy, and deep analysis in the 2015 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation address at Colby College Oct. 5.
The New Yorker writer, former newspaper reporter, and bestselling author spoke and answered questions in a packed Lorimer Chapel after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from President David A. Greene, who called her “one of the greatest practitioners of immersion journalism.” She was lauded for her meticulous research on income inequality in the United States and India, as well as for courage in reporting in the tradition of Elijah Lovejoy, a Colby graduate who became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press when he was shot in 1837 defending his newspaper against a pro-slavery mob.
Boo outlined her talk by suggesting that four linked phenomena—inequality, temp jobs, corruption, and lightning-fast transfers of global capital—converge to fuel some of the great lies of our time. With photos of and by the children in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, India, where she immersed herself for three and a half years for her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she talked about their lives, their wise world-views, and their absolute economic expendability as corporations and banks ferret out the cheapest labor possible.
“As capital wings around the planet in search of the next cheaper place, and as tech advances render low-wage labor extraneous by the week, it’s harder than ever for low-income people to develop a sense of common predicament, let alone identify a common enemy,” she said. “The fabric of the economy is being written, rewoven, under the feet of poor workers today, and instead of coming together they’re competing fiercely for that tiny, tiny niche where what they can do and what the market needs this instant might intersect. But it also, almost by design, sabotages their ability to come together to challenge the priorities of the privileged.”
Getting to the great lies of our time that she had foreshadowed, Boo said, “Meanwhile, here’s what we ask of those workers. We ask them to pay servile allegiance to an almost laughable falsehood—that their economic futures are in their control.”
“Our advantage comes from the fact that a quarter of the world’s population has been disqualified from the competition.”
She quoted a 17-year-old Mexican construction worker in Denver telling her he was fed up with the cliche “My family can’t get ahead.” His family got ahead all the time., he told her. “Then the truck broke, or his mom got sick, at which they slipped back down.”
Boo said, “I’ve started to think about families like his and Abdul’s [in India] as the trans-global poor. But they don’t yet know themselves as a class,” she said. They’ve been unable to connect, much less organize or rebel against the oppressive system.
She acknowledged that, by covering struggling children in Mumbai, she tells small stories. But when those brave families allow her into their lives, it “gives me the chance to at least try to interrogate and complicate what we generally think of as the big story, which is the story of the people and institutions that do have political power,” she said.
We must listen more closely, she said, and record experiences that would otherwise be lost. “Here’s the problem: the greater public is never going to understand why so many of the best-intentioned social and economic policies fail.” She concluded, “Our failure to document gives credence that we all inherit a functional meritocracy, which is another functional lie of our time.”
It’s hard for us to admit, she said, that “when the intellectual capacities of low income people get squandered, when they get exhausted by the instability of their lives, we benefit. Our advantage comes from the fact that a quarter of the world’s population has been disqualified from the competition.”
Boo started her talk with an homage linking Lovejoy to journalists today. She admires that in his last years Lovejoy made choices that “rebuked an assumption that many people still make today: that to be idealistic is to be naive,” she said. “Lovejoy wasn’t naive. Long before his murder he gauged the risks inherent in trying to destabilize the economic well-being of people with power in a society, and still he took those risks—just as hundreds of journalists today are doing in Syria, Mexico, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, China, India, and elsewhere on an incredibly dangerous planet.”
Following her talk she answered questions from students, professors, and community members. When a student asked her strategy for building trust with her subjects, Boo said, “I think my greatest tool is time,” referring to her ability listen and observe at great length. At the end of a project, she allows people to be included in her work or not, because she understands that it takes considerable bravery for her subjects to be named. “One of the most reliable ways to get people to trust you is to not ask them to trust you—to let them make up their own minds.”
The convocation concluded two days of events connected with the Lovejoy program and Lovejoy’s legacy. On Sunday some 50 student journalists from 10 colleges and two high schools spent the day in a Goldfarb Center conference titled “Digital First? How Technology and Multi-Platform Journalism are Disrupting and Reinventing Journalism,” learning from top journalists in the field.
And Monday afternoon students and community members filled Ostrove Auditorium to capacity for a Goldfarb Center panel discussion titled Division and Despair: Reporting on America’s Income Inequality (full audio is online) with Wendi Thomas of the Memphis Flyer, Kathleen Kingbury of the Boston Globe, and Mike Baker of the Seattle Times talking about their award-winning investigations of the topic in a conversation moderated by Associate Professor of Government Walter Hatch.