As a recent immigrant in the early 2000s, Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was still learning how to navigate life in the U.S. “I didn’t have health insurance at that time,” she remembers. “Some of my Polish friends told me to go to the pharmacy in Greenpoint.”
Ewa was a reporter at Nowy Dziennik, The Polish Daily News, a newspaper that serves the Polish community in the New York metropolitan area. She noticed that Polish pharmacies in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood were different than the ones back home. “The pharmacists are Polish doctors who cannot practice medicine (in the U.S.). They’re not certified. So they work for pharmacies and they kind of serve as doctors to the community,” she says.
Not only did the pharmacies provide medical care, but they were also unofficial community centers where Polish immigrants would hang out, meet their friends, and buy products they missed from their home country.
A story about the hidden world of Polish pharmacies was a perfect fit for a radio documentary about new immigrants in New York City that was starting to take shape in 2004. But it was a difficult reporting process. Since it wasn’t legal for Polish pharmacists to dispense medical advice, no one would talk to Ewa at first. She persisted — and produced an audio essay that aired as part of the award-winning 2005 documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City — that aired on NPR stations across the country in May 2005.
“It was my idea to take a group of journalists from New York City’s ethnic press who had never before produced radio stories,” wrote John Rudolph, the Executive Producer and founder of Feet in 2 Worlds, in 2005. The plan was “to give them the skills, support and tools they needed to create sophisticated, meaningful and sound-rich audio pieces.”
Each journalist was paired with an experienced mentor, who taught them techniques in gathering tape, scripting stories and tracking narration. Like Ewa, they each produced radio features, which became the heart of the documentary.
In addition to Ewa, two other ethnic media journalists participated. Arun Venugopal was a reporter for India Aboard, and Macollvie J. Neel worked at the Haitian Times. WNYC reporters Marianne McCune and Cindy Rodriguez also contributed stories to the program, and the Brian Lehrer Show produced a special call-in program that followed the documentary.
It was an intense learning experience for everyone. Macollvie remembers when she made the mistake that all radio reporters seem to make early on in their careers — failing to adjust her recording volume properly.
That day, she’d trekked up to City College in Manhattan from Flatbush, Brooklyn, recording kit in tow. Her intended guest was a World Bank economist, and she hoped to include his expertise in the story she was working on.
“I lost the interview because the levels weren’t right,” says Macollvie. “The audio just wasn’t broadcast-quality. That was extremely disappointing.”
It was a humbling moment, but she vowed to never make the same mistake again.
Macollvie had always loved radio. “I grew up on it in Haiti as a child,” she says. “Before I learned to read, I was listening to news in Haiti with my dad.”
Her story was a familiar and evocative one: how Haitian immigrants work demanding jobs in New York City to send money back home. For Macollvie, the chance to share this story with a broader audience beyond The Haitian Times was especially rewarding. “It’s my community, my people whom I love, and it was great to give a glimpse into what we do.”
Macollvie’s experience with Feet in 2 Worlds opened up new career opportunities. “I think working on the documentary definitely helped me land my job at the Sun Sentinel in South Florida,” she says.
Two years after the Feet in 2 Worlds documentary aired, Macollvie moved to Florida. She quickly became indispensable in her newsroom as the Sentinel’s first “mo-jo,” or mobile journalist.
“I was the person in the newsroom who’d go out, outfitted with not only pen and paper but also a recording device, a little camera, so that I could gather sound for our radio partners, who shared our newsroom, and the TV station, which was an affiliate in our building,” says Macollvie. “So the whole idea of multi-platform storytelling, I was right in the thick of it.”
For Arun, one of the most difficult parts of learning to produce radio was letting go of all those wonderful moments that he had recorded, but couldn’t find a place for in his story. It’s something radio producers call “killing the darlings.” Arun’s story explored New York City’s underground queer Desi community.
After a visit to Hell’s Kitchen to interview a man and his husband, Arun remembers going home for the day with two hours of tape filled with emotion and great stories. Knowing that he had to choose the best twelve seconds was devastating.
“I remember John saying, ‘We’re going to have to cut back some of this,’” Arun recalls, laughing. “And it was painful! I had spent months on this thing.”
DJ Rekha — an associate producer on the doc — supplied the music. She scouted Polish music stories in Greenpoint to find the right music for Ewa’s story. The goal, she remembers, “was to find things that resonate but are not cliché” when telling immigrant stories.
John recruited a wide network of mentors to support the reporters, including Jocelyn Gonzales, who was recently hired to be director of PRX Productions.
Jocelyn remembers the doc fondly.
“Sound wise, I love the combination of Frank McCourt’s Irish brogue and DJ Rekha,” she says.
She was assigned to be Arun’s mentor.
“It was a long process — several months — of recording, post-production, scripting, and getting it down to mix,” she remembers.
That rigorous editing process was part of John’s vision in training Arun, Macollvie, and Ewa in radio reporting. As Ewa recalls, “It was all about bulletproofing stories. This project took a year, if you can believe it. It was such a multi-layered editing process.”
All three credit Feet in 2 Worlds with giving them a leg up in their careers.
For Macollvie, sharpening her storytelling skills helped her embark on a career in management consulting. Eva went on to report for the hyperlocal news site DNAinfo, covering the Queens neighborhoods of Forest Hills, Rego Park and Jamaica. Shortly after the documentary aired, Arun joined the WNYC newsroom, where his reporting focuses on race and culture.
Newsrooms that hired the journalists also benefited. “WNYC started hiring differently,” says Jocelyn. “They had more texture on their airwaves. That’s important. A lot of people weren’t talking a lot about diversity at that time. It wasn’t such a buzzword. But this program that John created was basically walking the walk before talking the talk.”
Since those early days, Feet in 2 Worlds has grown into a national organization that trains immigrant journalists and African American journalists, sponsors workshops across the country — from San Francisco to Detroit to Boston — and brings the work of these journalists to major news outlets including WNYC, Slate, and PRI’s The World.
Most recently, Feet in 2 Worlds launched Conecta Arizona, a daily news service distributed on WhatsApp and social media with information about the coronavirus pandemic for Spanish speakers in Arizona.
While the ways we distribute stories have shifted over the years, from public radio to podcast and digital — and most recently WhatsApp — the need for the journalism training offered by Feet in 2 Worlds remains as strong as ever.
“It anticipated, by many years, our growing awareness of how important the voices of people in immigrant communities and communities of color are for a broader national conversation,” said Arun. “We have to do more broadly what Fi2W has been doing for 15 years now, which is center the voices of people in the communities.”
Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and anonymous donor and readers like you.