How do you edit a literary genius?
Of all the challenges I expected when producing a radio documentary about new immigrants in New York City, this one hadn’t crossed my mind. I was in a tiny studio at WNYC, New York Public Radio. Across the table from me on that spring day in 2005 sat Frank McCourt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography. As the show’s producer, it was my job to inform him that the essay he had written to open the program was too long. The ideas he had included didn’t quite hit the themes I was hoping for. But who was I to tell the author of Angela’s Ashes that his words needed polishing? I was intimidated, to say the least.
McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930. His memoir about growing up in poverty in Ireland during the Great Depression, and then returning to New York as a young man, had become an anthem of the immigrant experience. He had graciously agreed to host a program where we would feature short documentaries by young immigrant journalists.
The three reporters — Macollvie Jean-Françoise, Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska and Arun Venugopal — had endured dozens of edits. McCourt’s job, as host and narrator, was to connect the common threads in their stories, as well as pieces contributed by WNYC reporters Cindy Rodriguez and Mariann McCune, in an essay that would open the show.
I first got to see the rough draft of McCourt’s essay only a day or two before he was coming to the radio station to record. It was long. One page of double-spaced copy takes about two minutes to read on the radio. McCourt’s essay was more than four pages long. It would have to be cut, actually hacked down, to a manageable two to three minutes in length. And the language needed sharpening. Not only that, McCourt’s assistant had warned us he didn’t have a lot of time for the recording session.
To my relief, McCourt graciously accepted edits from me and the rest of the editorial team. He sat in the studio for hours as we re-wrote, recorded, and re-wrote again until we got what we wanted. McCourt was especially focused on how the words sounded. He would take each revision and read it aloud in his soft Irish brogue before recording, paying attention to the meter and rhythm as well as the meaning.
Looking back on that recording session fifteen years ago, I see how it was an extension of the work we had already been doing. The goal of the documentary, Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, was to bring listeners to places known to members of immigrant communities, but rarely experienced by outsiders — a Polish pharmacy in Brooklyn, a Manhattan night club frequented by gay South Asians, a storefront office used by Haitians to send money to their relatives back home. The final product took many conversations between the reporters (nearly all of whom were first and second generation immigrants) and the editors (who, like me, were further removed from their immigrant histories) to find the right language and the most evocative sounds to tell these stories.
I didn’t have time to explain all of that to McCourt as we worked through his script — line by line — that spring afternoon. But I think he understood what we were after. He seemed to welcome the give and take between writer and editor, and the result was reflected in his opening essay:
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you consider yourself Irish or American?’ For a long time, I didn’t know how to answer that question. I love both countries, but the people asking the question were not satisfied. And I wasn’t quite satisfied until somehow the answer came. I am a New Yorker.”
Like Frank McCourt’s answer to his own question of identity, the Feet in 2 Worlds documentary was full of surprises. For me, one of the biggest ones was seeing how a single radio program could change people’s lives.
“By helping immigrant journalists tell stories about their communities, we had created a new way to bring fresh voices and greater diversity to public radio.”
As a journalist, I always want my work to have a positive impact. Who doesn’t feel that way? Shortly after the documentary aired on WNYC, the station offered a reporting job to Arun Venugopal, one of the contributing journalists. This was something nobody expected. Being a reporter on the documentary, and making the commitment to not just learning, but actually mastering a new medium, had opened a door for Arun that he might never have found otherwise. He’s still at WNYC today, one of their veteran reporters and program hosts.
The documentary also changed my perspective. I saw that by helping immigrant journalists tell stories about their communities, we had created a new way to bring fresh voices and greater diversity to public radio. When Arun was hired, Feet in 2 Worlds was transformed in my mind, from a single radio documentary to the multi-faceted project it has become today.
The Fi2W Network
Over the past decade and a half, dozens of journalists have followed Arun’s path, using their Feet in 2 Worlds fellowship training as a springboard to produce award-winning stories, find jobs at public radio stations, newspapers, and digital news outlets, and to teach journalism from an immigrant perspective at colleges and universities across the country. Hundreds of other journalists have been inspired by Feet in 2 Worlds workshops held around the country. They’ve produced stories that explore immigrant experiences in new ways and raise important issues about identity, ethnicity, race, gender and culture.
Out of all this activity there’s been another unexpected outcome — the emergence of the Feet in 2 Worlds network. Journalists who have been part of Fi2W have remained connected with one another and with me. They share story ideas, job leads and offer each other professional support. Some have become mentors to younger Fi2W journalists. An especially dedicated group serves on the Fi2W Advisory Board, which sets our editorial direction and takes the lead in fundraising for our non-profit organization.
Where We Are Now
Last year, the Advisory Board started focusing on the historic underrepresentation of immigrants in editing jobs in mainstream media. We discussed how Fi2W could use our collective knowledge, accumulated over the years, to prepare people for positions of power in newsrooms. We created an editing fellowship, and in early 2020, Mia Warren — a skilled podcast and audio producer based in New York — was named the first Fi2W editing fellow. As part of her fellowship, Mia is producing a new podcast series that will explore how the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic has challenged the American dream and changed the way many immigrants think about their adopted country.
When the coronavirus pandemic began I started talking to members of the Fi2W network to find out what their needs were, what stories they were hearing, and learn more about what we could do to make a positive impact. Former Fi2W fellow Valeria Fernandez, who is based in Phoenix, told me that while nearly one-third of Arizona’s population is Latinx, there was relatively little information available in Spanish about COVID-19. Even worse, an abundance of false or misleading information was being shared in Spanish on social media.
In early May 2020 we launched Conecta Arizona, a COVID-19 news service for Spanish-speakers in Arizona. Conecta Arizona is distributed via WhatsApp and on social media. We also work with local Spanish radio and newspapers to deliver vital news to Spanish-speakers in Arizona and the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. A Fi2W editing fellowship has been created for Maritza L. Félix, a dynamic Mexican journalist based in Phoenix, who is running Conecta Arizona. Support for the project – both financial and technical – comes from the Listening Post Collective.
Feet in 2 Worlds is turning 15 during a global pandemic. It’s a strange time to celebrate a birthday. Back in 2005, when the Fi2W documentary was broadcast, we were still reeling from the attacks on 9/11. The backlash against Arab and Muslim immigrants was especially intense. But there was also hope that Congress and President George W. Bush would come together to enact comprehensive immigration reform. It never happened, and since then, rather than move forward, we have lost ground in the fight to see immigrants fully embraced in American society. Deportations spiked, immigrants are increasingly blamed by many for the nation’s problems, and the current administration in Washington is waging war on the very people who keep our economy growing.
Looking to the Future
The uncertainties caused by COVID-19, and anxiety over the nation’s response to it, make it hard to predict where we are headed next. Will the high numbers of coronavirus cases in the U.S., especially among Latinx communities and people of color, cause immigrants to reconsider their relationship to this country? Or will people who uprooted themselves to create a better life in a strange new land become even more dedicated to the American Dream? Whatever happens, my hope is that over the next 15 years, Feet in 2 Worlds will continue to nurture and support great journalism and help immigrants tell their own stories. Hearing their voices is more important than ever.
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.