Keynote conversation with Alex Kotlowitz
Full video and edited transcript of a keynote conversation with Alex Kotlowitz"; February 11, 2017.
Bruce Shapiro: I'm really, really delighted that we've got Alex Kotlowitz here. A friend of the Dart Center, a friend of mine and a friend of journalists. I just learned from him that two of our speakers, Eddie [Bocanegra] and Pete [Nickeas], are in his current book project which maybe we'll talk about. In a way, maybe we're getting a preview not only of Alex's thinking, but we're meeting the people in his book that are wandering into this conference all weekend. Funny thing.
Let me do the official introduction. Alex Kotlowitz is perhaps best known for his national best seller, “There Are No Children Here”, the story of two boys growing up in the other America which the New York Public Library selected as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th Century and they are right. His non-fiction series, which one critic wrote, informed the heart, have appeared in print, radio, and film.
From his documentary the Interrupters to his story in the New York Times Magazine and on public radio, This American Life, he's been honored in all three mediums. The Chicago Native and Graduate of Wesleyan University, Kotlowitz holds eight honorary degrees and has been awarded the John LaFarge Memorial award for interracial justice given by New York's Catholic Interracial Council.
Over the last couple of days, one of the themes that have come up repeatedly is the difficulty of getting editors, producers, politicians and the public to pay attention to certain stories. To see certain people, certain communities, certain kinds of gun violence survivors, certain kinds of gun violence perpetrators... It strikes me that one of the interesting things about your work is you have been very successful at doing just that.
What in your reporting choices, your writing choices, what in how you approach these stories do you think has helped them have this kind of impact?
Alex Kotlowitz: Yeah, I mean I hope it’s had impact. I will say that for me, one of the sobering things is that I wrote “There Are No Children Here” 25 years ago and sometimes I feel that the book is as resonant today as it was then, which speaks to what Pete was saying which is that I think that people’s hearts give out for what they hear and see. Yet there's so little action.
I've got to give just a quick shoutout to Pete. I just so admire your work. I wish you'd been a little bit more restrained in your conversation with us (laughter).
No, I'm kidding. No, I just really admire your work. Pete took this beat that was kind of the beat nobody wanted: overnights at a city newspaper. It's where they put the young reporters who come in and he went out there, I think, with this really open mind. I've known Pete for a while now and I've seen how even some of his perspectives have changed over the past few years in his reporting. There's this kind of honesty and openness that I really admire. So that’s my shout out.
I think this is a challenge that faces us all: how do we get people to pay attention? How do we get people to think about things that they think they already know about, right? I think people sort of look at the violence in Chicago – our president is a prime example –and they think they already know what's at work. And yet, as Pete said, things are very gray. To be able to capture all that ambiguity and all the sort of richness and fullness and complication of people's lives, I think that’s our challenge.
For me, the bottom line is – and I have the luxury of having time – but for me the bottom line is that in the end, it’s really all about story. It's really in the end about trying to find a narrative that in some way will help us reflect on what we see and what we hear. Finding characters that you come to care about on some level. They may not be the most likable individuals, but people who you come to understand. So for me that's the challenge.
Ultimately, it's really trying as best you can to sort of be able to look at the world through their eyes, you know?
BS: On an issue like guns and urban violence generally, it's very difficult to find characters. Because of all the noise, the shear brutality of violence, the shear emotions of fear or anger or whatever. The political polarization. Let's take the Interrupters for example, since Eddie was here and everybody in the room now knows him. As a reporter for a minute, what attracted you to Eddie as a character?
AK: I remember the very first lunch I had with Eddie. It was at a restaurant on Cermak in Cicero. What was striking about Eddie for me – and you can probably sense that in the little time you've spent with him – is he was this guy who just questioned everything. He worked at Ceasefire at the time, as a violence interrupter. And he was just asking questions, he was asking questions about me, about his work, and I thought, this is a guy I want to hang out with because he's so introspective, so thoughtful.
He was somebody who was doing really interesting, if not astonishing work in the streets, and yet somebody who was really reflecting on it in a way that I had never heard before. It's what he brings to the film. He is the person in the film who is asking questions. He's asking questions of the police, he's asking the questions of cease fire, and most importantly, he's asking questions of himself.
BS: Right. In a way, you sort of trusted your own instinct about this inquiring mind.
AK: Right. The bottom line for me in terms of finding a character, I have a simple baseline: Is this somebody I want to spend time with? For me, it’s maybe weeks, months, sometimes even years and so the bottom line is if it's not somebody I really enjoy hanging out with, I know that my readers or viewers aren't going to either.
That’s the absolute bottom line. Is there something about this person that makes me want to spend time with them? Some people are kind of easy to get to know. Eddie was very easy to get to know.
BS: Another thing that strikes me about your reporting in addition to the vivid characters who we do feel we get to know through your eyes, whether it's in There Are No Children or in some of your individual features or in the Interrupters, is the presence of violence. You don't look away from it and yet it doesn't dominate. For any of us who write about guns, this is always a tough one. “Well maybe I should just really write about the policy and not about...” Or maybe I need to grab readers’ attention with the most spectacular details on the shooting I can find.
When you're thinking about violence and it's place in the lives of these characters and in these neighborhoods and what needs to get to the reader, how do you think about that as a reporting matter? How do you decide what to convey?
AK: The bottom line is, especially here in Chicago, there's so much going on that you feel… at least I feel overwhelmed. I certainly feel that at the moment. Where do you turn? What stories do you tell?
I think one of the things you've got to recognize is not only am I so committed to the notion of story, but I'm committed to the idea of small stories. The smaller, the more intimate, the more powerful it can be and you can be ambitious in that but it also means you may not be covering everything you want to be covering.
The Harper High series is a kind of perfect example of that. When we began that series, the idea was very clear that we were coming into this school, Harper High school, on the South Side of Englewood that had this horrific year. They had 28 current and former students who had been shot. Seven or eight of them, I can't remember the number, fatally.
How do a school and all the people within that building try to right themselves? We got there and all these questions came up. One of the questions that came up right away was the issue of guns: where are all these guns coming from? I remember at one point during the reporting, I went and spent a fair amount of time with a gun unit in the police department trying to figure out if there was a story there.
We decided, and it was the right decision (though I still think there's a good story there) that we needed to really remain here in this place that we had situated ourselves and everything we did had to relate directly back to all the characters in that story. Harper High takes a bite off of that but there's still so much more. For me the smaller, the more intimate the story, the more powerful it is.
BS: What about that kind of tricky decision, which is there in Harper High, for sure, about how many of these incidents you want to convey? How do you think through that?
AK: Right. The other thing I was going to say about the Harper High series is that we were so focused on the violence – I don't know if anybody notices – we didn't spend any time in the classrooms. It didn't really kind of dawn on us until we were about finished reporting that we’d been there for six months in this high school, and we've been in the classes a little bit but we had no tape from any of the classes. But again, we were very clear about what the focus of that story was, which was really about sort of how one writes themselves after going through this really difficult, momentous year.
BS: Yeah. How do you think about the reporting differences across media, between radio, film, books? Especially again on these issues where you've got violence at the heart of a story, powerful characters and a place all kind of intersect?
AK: Right. I mean, listen, storytelling is storytelling and a good story is a good story and I think some stories may find themselves better off in one medium than another. In my mind, my home is print and my feeling is in the end that print trumps everything else if for no other reason than you can go back and recreate moments with print that you can't do in film. It's a really hard thing to do in film and in radio.
Each of those mediums has a real advantage. Radio has an immediate sense of intimacy with your subjects. There's something beautiful about radio and the other thing about radio is, I will say, that it's the medium where there's the most experimentation going on in terms of narrative and storytelling. I mean I love working in radio for that reason, with excited young people.
Film is kind of its own baby. Film is wonderful, but you have to be operating on all cylinders. The power of film is really being in the moment and I can tell you with The Interrupters, we spent 14 months filming and it was exhausting. We ended up filming 300 hours. Steve and I had our phones by our bedsides and we'd get calls in the middle of the night and we'd call each other and have to make a snap decision about whether to go out and film and much of the time, we'd go out and film and things would fall apart.
I remember getting a call from Eddie one night and we went out to film. It was a dispute that was taking place in Cicero, which is a community just west of Chicago, between some Latino gangs and we were at a house there was gang security around the house and it became very clear that we needed to get out of there and so, we ended up not using any of that in the film.
BS: You've now been reporting on guns in Chicago and violence in Chicago for a long time. What have you seen change in terms of: who has guns, where are they getting them, why are they using them? What in this landscape actually has changed over this time, and what is a constant?
AK: Well, the constant has been the violence. The constant has been the numbers and as bad as last year was, I mean you go back 25 years to 1991 and the homicide rate was higher. It was 922 homicides that year. Just some perspective there.
One of the things that has changed in this city is the gang structure. It’s changed quite remarkably, especially in the African American community where the gangs are no longer these highly organized hierarchical groups organized around the drug trade.
They're really organized block by block and so as a result often, just by the nature of where you live, you are immediately associated with one gang or another. One of the things for me that was remarkable at the time in Harper High is that virtually every boy in that building was identified with one clique or another.
The things that are so consistent are so baffling. One of them, for example, is the number of guns that come into this city every year. The Chicago Police Department takes 7,000 to 10,000 guns off the streets each year. It's this constant river and I know Howard Pollack spoke yesterday – I wish I was here for that – because I had been doing some research on this but nobody has really sort of figured out where are all these guns are coming from.
I was out on the South Side yesterday in Inglewood with one of the young men I'm writing about in my book and he told me about a new weapon that's being bought by people on the South Side of the city and my question is, so where are they all coming from? How is it that every year they replenish the supply of weapons?
The other thing that has changed dramatically too is back in the early 90’s, the police were reasonably good about closing cases. In fact the closure rate for homicides in the early 90’s was upwards of 70, 75 percent, and the most recent numbers, from 2015, the rate was 27 percent. Shootings are considerably lower. They were actually eight percent for 2015 and I've heard for this last year, where we've had 4,000 shootings, that they were three percent. That means that 97 percent of people who shoot somebody in this city get away with it.
It feels to me that it's such a fundamental part of what a police department should be doing, and nobody has really figured out what's going on here. Why is this? The police will tell you very glibly that it has everything to do with the unwillingness of people to cooperate with them. I think it's much more complicated than that.
BS: What do you think some of the other factors are?
AK: I think one of the things, which I'm writing about in my book, is I think we tend to underestimate – and the police really underestimate – the sense of fear that people have: the sense that they're not and that they can’t be protected. And of course it's kind of this spiral because if the police aren't solving crimes, then people feel, well if I put myself out there, you're not going to be any help in trying to protect me in putting the shooter or whoever away and so, one of the results of these low closure rates is that people lose confidence and lose trust in the police.
BS: I want to talk about this book a little bit at risk of talking about a work in progress but you brought it up, I didn't.
AK: I'll talk about it a little bit. The concept of the book is it all takes place in one summer. One of the things I've realized early on is that it would be a mistake to write about one summer and not follow through on some of these stories, so here I am three years later still writing the book, but it's the summer of 2013, a fairly arbitrary summer. In fact it was the summer here where basically the major and the police superintendent had declared missions accomplished and of course, here we are with almost twice as many murders.
It's a collection of very personal, intimate stories of people emerging from the violence. Emerging from the wreckage and trying to make sense of it and trying to grapple with it.
BS: One of the things I think we don't spend enough time thinking about in news is aftermath. We tend to focus on the shooting, five minutes to 24 hours after it happened, or the court hearing. And then it's over. From a kind of reporting perspective – whether or not it's clinical PTSD – how do you think about the many ways that people's lives are changed? How do you report on aftermath retrospectively?
AK: It's hard. One of the reasons it's hard is it's very internal. I think the other reason is because people don't really have the language for it. I mean, one of the things that's clear is if you're a Vet now, coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, you do have the language to talk about what's going on in your life. Yet, you see young men who are incredibly agitated or depressed or angry or smoking a lot of weed to self-medicate, they don't have the language. So, I think a couple things:
One, there's this wonderful organization in Philadelphia, Healing Hurt People. It's a fairly small organization run by an emergency room doctor, Ted Corbin. The idea behind it is kind of a very simple one: When a shooting victim is brought into the hospital they're referred, and it's voluntary, they're referred for counseling, both group and individual. I went down there and spent some time there and did a piece for This American Life about one of their clients and an Afghan war veteran to look at the parallels.
For me, what was kind of amazing in talking to the guys in the program, is they have the language to talk about what they were experiencing and it was the first time I really understood the depth – how the violence really gets in your bones. You heard a little bit about it from Pete. You heard about it from Eddie, you know, two people who have thought about it but for me, one of the challenges with this book is just trying to understand that.
The numbers are absolutely staggering. You look in Chicago, for example, and Chicago is not one of the worst in this country but in the past 25 years, roughly 16,000 people have been shot and killed. And another 60,000 people shot and wounded by gunfire in a fairly concentrated part of the city. What does it do to the spirit of individuals and what does it do to the spirit of community?
BS: A huge number of witnesses. Not just outward ripple affects but actual witnesses are going to be there.
AK: What I look for is, I listen for language. You listen to young people talk and they'll talk about having associates instead of friends, which for me is just the indication of the inability of people to sort of find any trust in their lives. For me the thing that's most startling is you drive on the west side or south side of Chicago and look at all the block club signs. Does anybody notice the block club signs in the city? For those of you who are not from the Midwest, block clubs are organizations run by neighbors on a block and the idea is to sort of celebrate the community and you have block parties every summer and barbecues.
Well the block signs on the west side and south side, go look at them. They're all the things that are prohibited on the block. Not only are they all the things that are prohibited but sometimes they'll say things like no drinking, no loud music, and they'll even talk about things that are illegal, like no gang banging, no selling of drugs. So the idea that a community has got to express itself that way for me says so much about where the spirit of that neighborhood is at. I look for things like that that will help us sort of understand this trauma.
BS: That makes me think of another reporting question, and then I'll give it over to the room. Not too long ago there was this interview with Kate Boo, and a reporter made some comment about her giving a voice to the voiceless and she got very angry. She said, "I really hate it when people talk about us as reporters giving voice to the voiceless. The world is filled with people ... They're people with voices. It's that nobody is listening." The problem is listening. That actually struck me as a very good description of your own thought process, too. When you're looking for those kinds of details in your visual observations or when you're in conversation, what kinds of voices are you looking for? I don't just mean the characters, which we’ve talked about, but the sort of language and images. What works for you?
AK: I don't know that there's any formula for this. I wish there was. It would make my life and probably your life a whole lot easier because as you guys know better than I, reporting is this incredibly messy experience and it’s disorienting. For me, one of the exhilarating things about reporting is trying to sort of work your way through that, and trying to make sense of what seems incredibly messy and chaotic.
I think this is one of the places where being an outsider is sometimes an advantage. You asked Pete about that a little bit and you know, someone like myself is clearly an outsider, but the truth of the matter is it's what we do. What all of us do in this room is we go places that we don't necessarily belong or places that aren't necessarily familiar to us. One of the things about being an outsider is I think you see things that those on the inside no longer see.
It's not that they don't see them, but they've stopped seeing them. For example, you go onto the west side and south side and you spend time there and for me, one of the things that's most notable is the omnipresent of RIP, rest in peace, right? I mean you see it on walls, you see it in memorials, you see it on people's clothes, you see it in tattoos, and for me it's this kind of collective war memorial that's taking place and I think on the inside when you're there, you just sort of accept this is what we do, who we are, and I think it's one of the advantages of being on the outside.
For me, I'm just looking to spend time with people who sort of help me think about things differently. I guess that's ultimately, in the end, what I'm looking for.
BS: Thoughts from the room?
Audience: How has your reporting changed over the years? I mean you've written so extensively about so many things.
AK: I don't know that it has. Reporting is not only messy but it's incredibly tedious and exhausting and so I think that there was a point in my life when I thought, "Oh, I've kind of made it and I can go out and I know now how to be much more efficient as a reporter." I realized there's just no getting around it. This book, for example, is just a kind of a reminder to me. Here I am, this book was due I want to say a year and a half ago, and it's because of the messiness of the reporting. You know? Trying to get people to talk, trying to figure out whose stories are going to resonate and are compelling.
I don't know that the reporting for me has changed. I think I've become a better storyteller. I think I am much more attuned to what makes a better narrative and how one goes about telling a story, but I think in terms of reporting, there are no tricks or short cuts. That's the bottom line.
With “There Are No Children Here”, I spent two years with these two boys and it was exhausting every which way but it was really exhausting emotionally. I don't know that I could ever replicate that experience. I don't know that I want to replicate that experience. Having said that, here I go into Harper and I spend six months with these social workers and Thomas and DaVonte and I get really close to them and that's what reporting is all about.
BS: How much does subject matter expertise from researchers and scholars, how does that filter into your reporting? We spent yesterday with the experts.
AK: One of the things that I do, is I will meet periodically with Harold [Pollack] or his colleague Jens Ludwig. I'll talk to people in the police department. I just met with Lori Lightfoot the other day –
BS: She's a police board chair right?
AK: Right. For me it's just a way of making sure that what I'm seeing is reflected in research. Sometimes there are things that people are researching that may be of interest to me. I do have one cautionary tale, and I'll tell it very quickly:
Before I began reporting “There Are No Children Here”, I was on staff at the Wall Street Journal and I did a story for the Journal and spent all summer with Lafayette, the older of the two boys, and I had gone out to Henry Horner which was this housing project on the west side of Chicago.
I hadn't spent any time in public housing before so I was just staggered by the conditions, but I think what most knocked me off my feet was the violence. I mean I was hearing stories... I couldn't digest it all because we weren't reading about it in the newspapers. I was a good reporter and I – fortunately worked at a place that had the resources of Wall Street Journal – I flew out to Washington D.C. to meet with the lead statistician at the Children's Defense Fund, this organization I deeply admire and met with a researcher that deals with children growing up in poverty.
I remember going into his office and he was just a classic type. You walk into his office: stacks of paper six feet high. You kind of had to find your way through the labyrinth and I remember sitting down with him and he was making the argument with me that the violence was no worse than it has been at the turn of the last century and he was actually discouraging me from doing this story.
I remember coming out of my office just shaking my head thinking, man, I must have just walked into this incredibly unusual neighborhood. I went back out there and I was hearing the same stories, and I realized – fortunately you know – I trusted my instincts on the ground. I had just walked into this community on the cusp of the crack epidemic in Chicago.
What I was seeing researchers hadn't yet begun to see, and so one of the things that's really important is to just sort of trust your instincts. You may be out in these communities seeing things that the researchers haven't seen. I think that, that's really important.
Audience: I'm just wondering if you can talk about the lines you draw between your personal and professional life. It's obvious you get very deep into peoples lives. Do you try to leave any space or do you say, "I'm a journalist, I'm going to be reporting about these things"?
AK: Yeah. That boundary question is a tough one and anybody who tells you that they don't lose sleep over it I think is just lying to you. Well, there are no ground rules, right? Here's how I operate. It's really important for me when I enter a community and certainly when I enter somebody’s life, that I'm absolutely straightforward with them about what I'm doing. Not only about what my intent is, but how I operate.
For example with Eddie, when we were filming, one of the understandings we had is we really wanted access to everything and part of the exchange for that is, we said to them, "Look, if we are out there filming and you think that it's getting dicey or that we shouldn't be there, and you think we need to leave, we'll leave. We're sort of there at your pleasure."
I'm really honest and open with people. It's also really important for me that I always have my notebook with me. That's for two reasons, one of which is that I don't have a particularly good memory, but equally important is I always want to remind people why I'm there. When I was working on “There Are No Children Here”, the boys, they were young. They were 12 and nine, they could have cared less about the book. They just wanted to know, am I going to be around when the book comes out?
It was really important for me to always have that notebook out so there was never a sense that I had somehow betrayed their confidence. The other thing that's really important to me is that nothing I write or appears on radio or film should surprise the people who I spent time with. If I can't sit down with them and look them in the eye and challenge them – and sometimes they're really discomforting exchanges, because you're talking to people about things that are really difficult…
One example in “There Are No Children Here”, the mother disappeared for two or three nights a week to play cards all night and the kids were without breakfast in the morning, without clean clothes, and I realized at some point I needed not only write about it but if I was going to write about it, I needed to sit down and ask LaJoe about it and what's important to me is not that I judge, but that try to understand. Those are tough conversations.
BS: Have you ever had people ask you to take stuff out?
AK: We did with The Interrupters actually. This is something that I don't usually do but with The Interrupters, we agreed to let the main subjects in the film, Eddie and the two others, look at the rough cut. Really for accuracy and also because we wanted to make sure that none of the scenes compromised them or somebody else. There's this very moving moment that was in the film where Eddie – I don't know how much Eddie told you about his backstory but when Eddie committed murder, it was in revenge for an older gang member who had been paralyzed.
Eddie went and did that for him, is sort of how Eddie thought about it back then. There's a moment when Eddie runs into him one evening. The guy is in a wheelchair and he's paralyzed and he's drinking. Eddie said he's an alcoholic and so Eddie's trying to understand, you know, because he's there with him. Trying to understand, “I did this for you. I served 14 years, my life has been turned upside down and here you are still on the streets, still hanging with the same guys, drinking.” And it was a very moving scene.
Eddie asked us to take it out because he had gotten word back from the gang that they didn't want any of their members in it and he worried that it was going to, not compromise Eddie, but compromise this gentleman in the wheelchair.
Audience: I'm currently reading “There Are No Children Here” and it's been 30 years since you wrote the book. I'm 26 and the conversation... Not to age anybody.
AK: You want to know how old I am?
Audience: I say that because I'm halfway through it and the conversations that I'm having with my friends are about how it resonates today. I'm curious to know, 30 years later, the members of that family, where are they at now?
AK: The question is, basically that Lafayette and Pharaoh and the family in “There Are No Children Here”, where are they now? I will tell you that for me as a storyteller, I mean I love this question because it says to me you feel like you've gotten to know them in the same way that I did. But it's been rough for Lafayette and Pharaoh. I'm not giving anything away, they're both in prison at the moment. Pharaoh will be out soon but it's been a real rollercoaster for both. I think the scars, the traumas, run really, really deep. It's been hard.
There's also been some surprises. Those of you familiar with the book, Jimmy Lee, when I was writing about him for the book, he went away to prison and I had written him in prison for an interview and he, at the advice of his lawyer, and it was probably good advice, decided not to talk to me so I had to sort of recreate him by talking to the police and gang members and people in the community. About five years ago when we were working on the The Interrupters, at one point, we were out in the neighborhood and this gentleman comes up to me. Gray haired gentleman and sticks out his hand and says, "I just want to say hello."
I'm terrible with faces and I said, "I know you should look familiar. I can't recognize you." Well it was Jimmy Lee. He said, "I just have one request." I said, "Whatever it is, it's yours." He just wanted a signed copy of the book and so he and I have become friends now. He's gotten older, he's kind of gotten out of the street. He for awhile ran like a juke joint on the west side and I would just go have a beer with him periodically and so for me, again it's just this sort of, again, this kind of unexpected journey that people have.
This kind of speaks to a little bit what Pete was saying. We saw this recently with Black History Month, but even just useful language. Talking about people as gang bangers and thugs and... people are more than that and to sort of recognize and acknowledge that it's really important to be careful about, the kind of language we use in our writing.
BS: Are there language choices you think you've gotten wrong in retrospect to this kind of terrain?
AK: No, I'm pretty cautious about it. You know, I'm sure, for example I've used this term, “at-risk youth”. Again, it's this idea that everybody kind of has this same narrative, the same story. I always think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk that she gave about the danger of the single story.
BS: Well, and it's interesting because a few of us were talking yesterday in this very room, there was this constant, not quite unspoken but not fully articulated tension between the reporters. We are tending to look for the newsworthy, the exceptional, the vivid. The scholars who are looking for the typical, for the representative, for kind of the collective.
AK: Right. Right.
BS: It does strike me that you're telling stories about individual people. You are also telling stories about representative types to use the old language of sociology. How doyou navigate that and how you avoid absorbing the language –
AK: Right. A couple of thoughts. Jens Ludwig from the Chicago crime lab, Harold's partner, is a friend, but he and I have argued about... When you're a researcher, you want to sort of think about people in sort of groups, and you know they would talk about all of you and all the things that you do that are similar to each other, but as you guys know, especially when you're out in communities, people's stories, man they're complicated. They're just so complicated.
The truth of the matter is, nobody's representative. I'm not looking for representative people. That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for people, one, that I want to spend time with, right? Two, I'm looking for people and Pete alluded to this, but people who are willing to share their stories. Not everybody is willing to share their stories. The third thing is that people who have a story to tell, right?
There's the old adage that everybody has a story to tell, but look, the bottom line is some stories are a hell of a lot more interesting than others. I'm not looking for stories that are representative. I'm looking for stories that will help us reflect on the human condition. Eddie's kind of a perfect example. I don't think there's anything representative about Eddie's story. For me, Eddie's story is trying to find a way to forgive yourself for what you did. That's what his life is.
BS: That's useful, but stories that help us reflect verses stories that represent or-
AK: Right. Right. Kate Boo talks about this a lot. I mean, she's very defensive about this notion that somehow people are representative. When she went to this slum outside Mumbai, she wasn't looking for the people who were going to be the sort of typical... She was looking for people she wanted to spend time with. People who were somewhat introspective. People who had some kind of story or narrative that was worth telling.
Audience: Alex, can you talk a little bit about context? We’ve talked almost exclusively about violence and guns. Not about poverty or other issues and how much should we be thinking about other things involved -
AK: Yeah, I think it's important. Look, guns are only a part of it and I think you're absolutely right. I think one of the hard things about talking about all those issues, is that we've talked about them so much and have done so little, but one of the things that I don't think people fully understand who don't live in these communities is how things have not only not gotten better but I think in some ways, how things have gotten worse.
In fact there's an incredible documentary by Linda Lutton here at WBEZ about education, where she spends a year in a classroom in North Lawndale. For me, there are many remarkable moments in that piece but there's one moment when she talks about the fact that Martin Luther King came to that neighborhood in 1966 to deal with the very issue of poverty and there's a pharmacy in the neighborhood with all these photographs. He chose Lawndale because it was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country and there's a pharmacy that's in the neighborhood and there were some old photos from back in the time when King was there and Linda talks about how there were all these stores and these houses that are intact and how much better it looked than it does now.
I think there's something very sobering about that. I mean, these are communities that are still reeling from the 2008 housing crisis. I mean on the block, one of the young men I'm writing about in my book, there are at least half a dozen of abandoned properties on his block. For me that is just unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable and again as Pete asked, "Where's the city? Where're the authorities? What is possibly going on?" The lack of social workers in our public schools. I could go on.
I think, Kate, you're absolutely right. I think it's really essential that if we're going to write about the violence that we talk about the conditions of the community that has had such fertile territory for what we're seeing.
BS: From the time that you've spent particularly thinking about gun violence in Chicago, we've also got folks here from other Midwestern cities and I'm wondering what you have come to look at, either in particular neighborhoods or the city as a whole, as markers of perhaps hopefulness and progress or markers of back sliding and a real concern.
AK: I have real concern now. Again, something that Pete said that really resonated with me is that – and I feel like the more I get into this in some ways the less I know. I feel like we're at a place now where we really don't have any idea. For me, the kind of metaphor for this is the idea that… we could say so much about this administration but here we are, Black History Month, and this minister from Cleveland puts forth this half-baked notion about how to deal with the violence but the truth of the matter is we haven't figured it out. We don't know what works and I feel like one of the things that we're not really adept at is to sort of challenge the groups that we, on some level, admire, like Cure Violence.
I deeply admire what The Interrupters do on the street, but you know, they've asserted that much of the violence this past year was because they got defunded. Well, where’s the research for that? I feel like it's incumbent on us to challenge that. Where's the city on all this? I mean the mayor talks about, for example, you know he gives an interview a few months ago on all the radio stations and he talks about the three legs of his stool for fighting violence: Mentoring, and a thousand more police, and then putting people away for a longer time for gun charges.
Where are we in sort of challenging those assumptions that these are the things that are really going to make a difference? For example, mentoring is a perfect example for me. I really admire Becoming a Man. It's a wonderful mentoring program mainly on the south and west side of the city and it's incredibly important, but if we do nothing to talk about family, we do nothing to talk about community, that mentoring for me is just happening in such isolation and I think that's really important for us to talk about.
Audience: Well this was more of a practical question. As you are working on a three year project or documentary, how do you organize and at what point do you... I mean just reporting and transcribing or what point do you start the writing process and how do you know it's over?
AK: My wife said to me the other day, "Just give me a few hours with you on Sunday to help clean your office." When I'm working on a project what I try to do, so if it's a print project for example, what I will do is I go out and I'm reporting and I try as best I can – I'm not really successful with this – but within a day or two to I try to transcribe all my notes.
I do that for two reasons. One is I want to have a second copy but the other part is, it's a moment when I can sort of record things I forgot to record when I was out there. I feel like I'm realizing all the things that I'm missing that I need to go back and get and I can make notes about all that.
That's really important for me. When we were filming The Interrupters, we actually had people logging the tape as we went. Same with Harper High. We were logging the tape as we were going because it's really essential when you're acquiring all that material, all that information, that you sort of keep track of what you have and ultimately what you need and what what holes you need to go back and fill.
I wish I was better organized than I was.
BS: Well, “I wish I was better organized” shall be the final wish of the day. Thanks Alex.
AK: Thank you