Farah Stockman came to journalism while teaching street children in Kenya. She worked as a freelancer in Nairobi for The New York Times, NPR and The Christian Science Monitor, and then joined The Boston Globe as a reporter in its Washington bureau. She later became a columnist and editorial board member at The Globe. In 2015 she revisited her time as an idealistic Harvard student who helped run a summer camp for kids in Boston’s Mission Hill housing development. More than two decades later, as a reporter for the Boston Globe, she revisited the camp, and tracked down some of her former students. She wrote about what she found over six days in August 2014 as a six-part series of editorial columns for the Globe.
Stockman has won the Scripps Howard Foundation’s William Brewster Styles Award for excellence in business and economics reporting and the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial writing. On Monday April 18th, Stockman won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for series of columns examining race and education in Boston after busing. I spoke with Stockman, a friend and former colleague, in her home last month, just before she began a new job at The New York Times.
Storyboard: What made you decide to go back and write about your time there and the kids you worked with?
Stockman: I had this really heartbreaking experience with one of them who I had been in touch with and we tried to help her get an internship. Or rather I tried to help her come to Kenya with me and I thought it would be this amazing experience for her. And I helped her get the money for the ticket and we communicated a lot about it. and I went to the airport in Nairobi to pick her up and she never came off the plane. and I spent days and days wondering what had happened to her and scouring my email for any information or message from her. Finally she wrote back and it became clear that she had just taken the money and pocketed it. I started really soul-searching about were my expectations of her out-of-whack? Was I expecting too much of her? And I started to realize that I hadn’t really spent a lot of time with her since she was a little kid and so I didn’t really know who she had become. So I started investigating her and realized a lot of the things she had told us were not true. She had not gotten into Spelman. She was not really the person she had portrayed herself to be to us. And I just really wondered about how all the kids I worked with turned out.
She was the kid that had such potential in the third grade that I remember telling people, ‘If she doesn’t make it to college, the Boston Public School system is totally broken. And if she does make it to college, then there’s hope.’ We were all very idealistic students at Harvard at the time, living in this public housing project for the summer, running the summer camp. We used to joke that she was going to disappoint us by going to Yale. It was really a wake-up call about how different her life was than our lives, and how many hurdles she would have had to jump over to actually be what we imagined she could be. Sometimes I feel guilty that maybe she was portraying herself as somebody going to college to get some money out of us, because we raised money for her to go. But I think it was also that she probably desperately wanted to show us that she had turned out the way that we thought.
Did you feel any internal resistance about writing at the beginning, since you were maybe going to be telling a disappointing story?
Yes. I had a lot of mixed feelings about it because I had been her teacher and so I was not a writer at the time. So I didn’t use her real name in the story because I didn’t want to screw up her life. In reality, she did get out of public housing, by hook or by crook. She did get a job working at a social service organization. And so, she actually, in some ways, managed to do better than the other kids that I ended up tracking down. And maybe that was because she was so shrewd and so scrappy. She found a way out of public housing, unlike some of the other kids, including a kid who went to college. After this experience of this particular girl, I ended up finding other kids who were in my group, and other kids who were working at the camp to see what had happened to them — and what did it say about [social] mobility in America, what did it say about the chances of a kid in the Mission Hill Public Housing project at the time, to lead a middle class life.
Did you hear from her after the series ran?
No, I never heard from her. There were three other girls in my group that I found, two of whom had dropped out of high school to have babies, going to homeless shelters and ended up getting their own apartments. They both seemed pretty happy at this point, after going through that, which was kind of a rite of passage. The way the system is set up, they had made rational decisions for the choices that were in front of them. It’s very hard to get into public housing in the city of Boston. The wait list can be 10 years. So most of the people who get apartments are people — mothers with young kids — in homeless shelters. So there’s almost the sense that that’s the hard thing you have to do to get on your feet, move out of your mother’s place into a homeless shelter, and that’s what two of them did.
I did show them what I had written about them before it ran. I drove to their houses and had them read it because I didn’t want them to read it in the paper and I wanted to give them a chance to read it. Going back to being a teacher rather than a writer, I was protective of them. When the story ran, I remember some people getting upset. People criticized them. I thought I’d written about them very sympathetically, but there were people who said, “Oh, parasites on society, oh, they’re still in subsidized housing, blah blah blah.” I definitely felt protective, jumping in to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ They both wanted me to use their real names.
How did you decide to structure the columns the way that you did?
After I tracked down a handful of the kids I’d worked with, I realized that they generally fell into categories: the ones who did exceedingly well and made it into the upper-middle class, the boys who did poorly and went to prison, and the girls who dropped out of high school to have children and ended up in subsidized housing. Once I told the stories of the children who fell into those different categories, I was able to explore the broader questions their experiences raised. What did the kids who did exceedingly well have in common? What psychological toll did “success” take? Were the girls who dropped out of school to have babies making rational decisions, based on the income bracket they belonged to? What makes drug dealing so inevitable for so many young black men from this background? I added social science to the anecdotal evidence I’d collected from the kids to help explain the paths their lives took. Powerful personal stories, combined with data from thoughtful academics, helped illuminate the big picture of what perpetuates poverty and income inequality today.
Because it’s so complicated, you resisted having specific prescriptions?
I think we still need summer camps like that. We need all kinds of educational programs so kids and families who want something for themselves will still have a choice. I think we have to move away from some of the judgment that comes with it. You know, we’re the middle-class people who can come and save you. That’s not really how it works. The people who do well in public housing developments, the people who actually get out, they spend years plotting how they’re going to do it. You can give them a leg up. You can make it a little bit easier. But you’re not saving them. They’re saving themselves.
What else did you find challenging about these stories?
It was challenging to see the bigger picture, to take the individual lives of kids and then try to extrapolate it into something bigger that says something about income inequality and disparities in America. I think maybe the pieces might have had more impact had they been injected with a lot more outrage about the fact that these kids, even those who were very well situated to succeed and very bright, some of them just couldn’t make it into the next class. Had I been writing about strangers, I might have been writing with such outrage that these kids essentially had all the odds stacked against them. But I love them and so I’m not going to write about them like they’re failures. I think they have very valuable lives and they’re happy. And so I think it would be insulting to write about them as though they didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, simply because they didn’t turn the way I imagined they would.