By anyone’s definition, that description is an understatement. Her deeply moving story about Dasani Coates – a resilient 11-year-old in Brooklyn with seven siblings, two parents and no home – ran on the front page of The New York Times for five days in December 2013. “Invisible Child: Girl in the Shadows” reportedly was the longest ever published in the newspaper up to that time. Paired with photographs by colleague Ruth Fremson, it sparked direct action from incoming Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who had Dasani on the stage at his administration’s inauguration in January 2014.
But if you think Dasani’s story was wrung dry, you’d be wrong. Elliott did what few journalists get a chance to: She returned to her subject again and again, probing for more details and context. What does it mean to grow up poor in one of the richest cities in the world? What is it like to occupy one room at a rodent- and cockroach-infested shelter? To not just share a bed with your sister, but a pillow?
Drawing on nearly a decade of reporting, Elliott’s book, “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City,” (Random House) was released this past October, touted by Amazon as the best nonfiction book of the year and one of The New York Times’ “10 Most Notable Books of 2021.” An 11,000-plus word excerpt, “When Dasani Left Home,” ran Sept. 28 in the Times Magazine.
Elliott, 48, can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a reporter. She started her career as an intern at the Miami Herald in 1999 and was soon hired to cover crime, courts and immigration. In 2003, she joined The New York Times, where she shaped a beat around what it means to be Muslim in a post-9/11 America. Her three-part series, “An Imam in America,” was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The “Dasani” series would bring more honors, including the George Polk and Scripps Howard awards.
Getting your arms around an amorphous topic such as poverty is never easy – especially now, in such a deeply-divided nation. Elliott was determined to avoid getting tied up in the “personal responsibility vs. society responsibility” debate, so she pitched a book focused on how poverty affects children.
“Children are bystanders, after all,” she writes in the book’s afterword, where she explains some of the negotiations with her editors. “It would be difficult to argue that they are responsible for their own well-being or that their destitution is the result of their own bad choices. Their struggles exist on the margins of American politics. Children cannot vote. Their voices are rarely heard.”
Telling stories through history and humanity
Elliott has always been drawn to stories of people on the margins. Her mother was a Chilean immigrant and a therapist whose family fled the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. “I grew up in an exile community, around people tragically out of place,” she told me when we talked. Her late father, who was from a blue-collar background in upstate New York, served as general counsel of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Gerald Ford, crafting the legislation on Section 8 housing. He also wrote the government’s response of the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Hills vs. Gatreaux, which helped disperse public housing tenants outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
Elliott interviewed her dad on background for her book to gain a better understanding of how the past impacts the present. “There were all these moments across history that I needed to understand just to make sense of this one family’s journey…but it’s easy to find yourself way out in the weeds.”
While the historical lens was essential, so was finding a way to humanize the story. “If there isn’t a human narrative that draws you in – and keeps you there – the reader is unlikely to stay the path,” she said. “You can write that 99 percent of the kids at Dasani’s school are poor, but once you introduce this child into those abstract stats, that statistic bothers you more. That world — which is so foreign — becomes your world. Dasani’s problems become your problems.”
The story shifts between the rough streets of Brooklyn and bucolic Pennsylvania, home to the Milton Hershey School, which has been working to lift kids from poverty since 1909. Dasani gets accepted to the private boarding school — the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket — where everything from her tuition to health care is free. There’s even a $95,000 college scholarship waiting for students at graduation. As you read, it’s impossible not to cheer for her to succeed and break the cycle of despair. But nonfiction stories, like life, doesn’t guarantee happy endings. Elliott paints a layered portrait of Dasani, and shows that there are no easy fixes when it comes to poverty and families.
I was curious how Elliott juggled navigated relationships and ethics with such a sensitive reporting project, and kept track of all her material. Here’s what she had to say, edited lightly for length and clarity:
How did you originally find Dasani?
I first met her in October 2012, when she was 11 and growing up in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. She, her parents and her seven siblings were homeless and living at the Auburn Family Residence, this dilapidated city-run shelter just blocks from townhouses that sold for millions.
Journalists have a tendency to think about stories in three parts or three themes. At first, I wanted to follow three families to give readers a sense of the spectrum. But I ended up going with this one family because what mattered to me more than anything was intimacy — to go as deeply as I could into one family’s life. There was something about Dasani that was electrifying. She walked into a room and things shifted. She had this ability to say what she was feeling in a profound way. I found the same thing when I wrote about the Imam.
What did two such different story subjects have in common?
They’re both the kind of people you want to follow. They create action. Both were surviving a crucible in New York City that was going largely unnoticed by the country, and they wanted to talk about it. For the Imam, it was what it meant to be Muslim in post-9/11 America. For Dasani, it was growing up poor in a gentrified city, and I wanted to write down everything that came out of her mouth. The title (of the newspaper stories and book) comes from Dasani saying she felt “invisible.” What is not extraordinary, though, are her circumstances. She’s representative of a large part of New York, this city that is divided by two extremes.
How did you build trust with Dasani and her family?
The process was a long one. It took months. I first met them standing outside the shelter. Eventually, the mom (Chanel) agreed to meet me in a park nearby. She gave me consideration but hadn’t yet surrendered. I think eventually she just got tired of my persistence. It’s not magical — in fact, it’s the opposite of magic. It’s boring, repetitious stubborness.
There have been lots of stories about child poverty. What made you think you could bring something fresh to this topic?
I think a lot of stories romanticize the escape —they’re about the one kid who got out and went to Yale. We all want to know that story, but it perpetuates a myth: That if you’re just smart enough or talented enough or lucky enough, you can find a way out. That narrative bothers me because it lets us off the hook and suggests that escaping poverty is all about a person’s perseverance.
Dasani is deeply compelling, but she’s like thousands of other kids. That’s the whole problem with meritocracy — it’s not a fair contest if you’re born in a place so completely lacking in resources.
You took on a sprawling, four-generation landscape and accumulated some 14,000 pages of official documents, from report cards to drug tests to court records. How did you keep track of everything? Do you have a system? Do you ever use a spreadsheet, like Excel?
One thing about poverty is that it leaves a long paper trail. Dasani’s family interacted with so many government offices —housing, welfare, courts, education, Medicaid — and those records were critical to filling in the story. I was juggling that with my street reporting, which (over eight years) produced 127 hours of audio recordings alone. It was a mountain of information. I don’t think I could have written this book without a tedious system of organization.
I’ll spare you the details, but my anchor is a timeline. It’s pretty basic: just a single Word document where all the facts of my story live. I update it whenever something new happens, like a scene I have just witnessed or a new fact spotted in a court record. I plug in the date of that event and then I summarize it. Each entry corresponds to a color-coded category. For example, anything involving Dasani’s mother is in green. City policy is gray. Police records are red.
My anchor is a timeline. …I’m a visual thinker. I love taping a timeline to the wall and seeing what jumps out.
Sometimes, I found that random events were, in fact, connected. For example, a policy entry about Clinton’s welfare reform (gray) preceded the moment when Dasani’s grandmother (pink) started a job cleaning the A train. Sure enough, in her files, I found that she had joined a welfare-to-work program.
Why were these historical events so important to the personal story of one family?
The more time I spent with this family, the more history was present in their own narrative. They were constantly bringing up the South and Jim Crow. Society has a tendency to write off a child as “homeless” or “poor” but those labels don’t really describe a historical plight that, generation after generation, robbed the family of the safety net that white families take for granted.
One example would be of the great-grandfather’s military service. No one in the family knew for sure if it really happened. In fact, the kids thought he was making it up, So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Veterans’ Affairs and it turned out to be true: Wesley Sykes fought in Italy in an all-black regiment and came home a triple Bronze Service Star veteran. But he couldn’t take advantage of the GI Bill — which lifted many white veterans into the middle class — because blacks were largely excluded.
So yes, this is one family’s story but it’s representative of what was going on in the country. I’m always thinking: ‘How does this hold up a mirror to America?’
Tell me about your reporting process, starting with your first months with the family to your final fact-check eight years later. Did you share the book with the family? Did they want anything changed?
I tend to write about people who have never met a reporter. The burden is on me to explain what I do and how I do it. And that’s never easy because my work is, for lack of a better word, strange. I’m an immersionist. I can spend months, even years, immersed in the lives of other people. And it still feels like a miracle every time they let me in.
I’m always thinking: ‘How does this hold up a mirror to America?’
I spent my first weeks with Dasani’s family walking the streets and talking. I gave them a stack of my published work. As I explained the rules of my profession, I avoided phrases like “off the record” and tried for more direct language, asking them to say “this is private” if they didn’t want something published. But they rarely said that.
I’m not sure that trust is something you ever “win” as a reporter. It’s a constant work in progress. But I think what Dasani’s family trusted in was the power of their story, and they could see I was devoted to it. I’m an insecure over-reporter. I can drive my sources crazy because I keep calling them to re-check the facts. With Dasani’s family, I felt I had to go the extra mile. I spent five days reading the book out loud to Dasani and her sister, and her parents also read it. They took no issue with the facts but suggested a few minor tweaks for context.
Let’s talk about ethics, such as sneaking into the Auburn Family Shelter, along with photographer Ruth Fremson, for the original New York Times series. Did you get any pushback from your editors?
Throughout the process, there was tremendous discussion around the ethics of this reporting, especially about interviewing children. We constantly had to wrestle with our role, to ask ourselves: “What is the purpose of this work?”
Before I snuck in to Auburn, I talked to the Legal Aid Society which said they would represent the family if they were penalized in any way. Yes, I was breaking the rules. It was a risk — but a risk worth taking because the conditions of the shelter needed to be exposed.
(In her book, Elliott goes into more specifics about ground rules: She could pay for meals with Dasani’s family at restaurants so they had a warm place to meet in the cold. The Times provided the family with cameras to keep a video diary, and a local nonprofit filed FOIAs for city records on the reporter’s behalf. It should also be noted that a portion of any potential proceeds from the book will go to Dasani’s family.)
How did you get access at Hershey? You note that in their 112-year history, you were the first journalist they allowed to spend so much time on campus.
Negotiating access with Hershey took months. The school is very cautious and proud of what it does. So I said, ‘If you’re proud of what you do, let me see it. If you feel that you have nothing to hide and are open to letting people see you, then show it.’
I can talk my best game, but that’s no match for simply showing up.
Again, I can talk my best game, but that’s no match for simply showing up. It’s my constant presence that helps the process — or maybe people just get tired of saying no? Maybe I just wear them down? I don’t know, but the more school officials got to see me, the more they saw that I’d stay in the background as much possible, that I’d listen to various perspectives, that I’d withhold judgment and that this would be a deep and nuanced work — not a drive by.
Did you worry that the NYT’s early attention to the family altered the normal course of events as you continued your reporting? For example, after the series ran, Dasani took part in the mayoral inauguration and was held up as a symbol of social justice.
There’s no question that being on the front page of The Times was a life-altering event for Dasani, as it would be for anyone. The series got a tremendous amount of attention. But many months later, I was struck by how little changed for the family. Whatever power came with being in The Time was no match for the power of poverty in their lives.
When Dasani got kicked out at Hershey, what went through your mind? Did you want to throttle her or did you think ‘My story just got juicier?’
Like so many other aspects of covering a story, I have a human reaction and a reporter reaction. The human reaction was to feel like Dasani was feeling — crushed. It was very hard to see her go through that moment. But I also never stopped seeing the hope her life represents, even in the darkest moments. The hope in that moment was all about reuniting with her family, so she chose to leave. My job in that moment was not to judge her decision but to follow her life, wherever it went.
In terms of the story, I knew by then that with Dasani, there’s never a dull moment, and whatever came next would be an important chapter.
Where is Dasani now, at 20? How about her siblings?
Dasani’s life has always been unpredictable. But right now, she’s feeling successful. She was the first child in her family to graduate from high school — a major milestone — and she is now working part-time and studying business at a community college. Two of her siblings have been reunited with Dasani and her mother, which has been healing for all of them. Her other siblings are up and down. The oldest brother is in jail, facing murder charges. Another sister is still in foster care, and three are living with a family friend.
Given the economic realities of today’s newspapers, very few journalists could get the amount of time you had to cover one story. What advice would you give a reporter who gets a month? Is there a way to cast a smaller net, but still do the story justice?
I’m very lucky to work for a newspaper that invests in this kind of journalism. But you can create your own luck, too. When I started at the Miami Herald, I was covering night cops in the suburbs. I was burning to do enterprise. But I was too much of a rookie to be given the chance. So I started doing those stories on my own time, working weekends or before my shift. And then, with a draft in hand, I could say, “Do you want this?” It was the only way to break through.
Some of the best stories cast a small net. They go deep rather than wide.
Some of the best stories cast a small net. They go deep rather than wide. Take a month if you can get it! But it’s also important to remind editors that long-form is a worthy investment. Readers love a good narrative; the metrics prove it. Dasani got more than 3 million hits and even though the series was 28,000 words, readers stayed on the page longer than ever recorded. There’s clearly a hunger for this kind of story.
Finally, one of the questions that hangs over the entire narrative arc is: Does leaving poverty really mean leaving your family? After your incredibly immersive reporting, what do you think?
Society’s message to poor children is “get out.” You need to leave your family, your neighborhood, your roots, because that’s how you exit poverty. But where do you land? In a place that, for Dasani, felt inauthentic. She’d like to thrive without leaving home. And I think that’s the power of her story — that it challenges us to rethink our definition of success. Why should a child have to leave in order to win? Every time we celebrate the one kid who “got out,” we’re forgetting to ask why so many others remain stuck or choose to stay. And if we stay with them, rather than departing, we’re forced to reckon with the reality of their neighborhoods —hunger, gang violence, failing schools, insecure housing. That reality is at the heart of Dasani’s crucible.
Bonnie Miller Rubinis a Chicago-based freelance writer. She spent 25 years at the Chicago Tribune, mostly as a metro reporter. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other publications.