When people talk about unintended consequences what they usually mean is, ‘Uh-oh, that wasn’t supposed to happen.’ But that’s not always the case, and Feet in 2 Worlds is an example of how sometimes unintended consequences can be a good thing.
Feet in 2 Worlds will soon leave The New School, our home for the last seventeen years, and become an independent non-profit news and journalism training organization. As we make this transition, it’s worth taking a look at what we’ve learned and how we’ve evolved from a New York City-focused radio production team to a nationally-recognized leader in centering the voices of immigrants in journalism.
In 2004 I started working on a project that had been percolating in my imagination for several years—a radio documentary about new immigrants in New York City. All the documentaries I had produced up to that point featured my reporting and my voice, but this one was going to be different.
I’m three generations removed from my family’s immigration to the U.S. (My maternal grandfather came to Brooklyn from what is now Ukraine in the late 1880s). I wanted this program to be told from the perspective of journalists who were closer to their own immigrant experience—people who lived in immigrant neighborhoods, spoke the language of the country where they were born, and whose lives straddled cultures, customs and geography. I figured they would be able to tell stories about today’s immigrants in ways I never could.
The documentary, Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, was broadcast on public radio stations across the country in 2005. It featured the work of three immigrant newspaper reporters in New York—from the Polish, Haitian, and Indian communities—all making their debut as radio journalists. The show won two prestigious journalism awards, and one of the reporters was offered a job at WNYC, the nation’s largest public radio station.
Those of us who worked on the program soon realized that we had done more than just produce a good story. By recruiting and training immigrant journalists and bringing their work to audiences that had not heard them before we were helping to change journalism. We were making public radio more reflective of the increasingly diverse audience it was serving. Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2W) was born. The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School offered to be our home, and WNYC became our first and most important media partner.
Over time the impact of what we were doing came into sharper focus. Fi2W established an ongoing program of fellowships and workshops for immigrant journalists and Black journalists, many of whom went on to assignments and jobs at leading news organizations. In addition to great story-telling we were changing the story-tellers. “It matters who tells the story,” became our mantra. We built a path for people who have historically been underrepresented in journalism to take their rightful place in newsrooms.
Two years ago, we built on that work by creating our first editing fellowships, to train a new generation of newsroom leaders.
As we walk this path with our fellows, mentees, and interns, we have discovered another unintended consequence—Feet in 2 Worlds itself has been transformed. Our latest podcast series, A Better Life?, features stories from across the U.S.; Conecta Arizona, a Spanish-language news service we helped create last year, is based in Phoenix; half our staff is located in Los Angeles; and we have deep connections in Detroit, Boston and other cities.
Even before the pandemic we did a lot of our work virtually. But I don’t think we were totally comfortable with doing business over Zoom all the time, and many of the people and organizations we worked with surely were not. Now virtual news gathering and training are widely accepted, and we can truly spread our wings, metaphorically and geographically.
It is time to embrace our transformation. Soon we will move to a new home, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) , a national organization that supports a wide range of non-profit news outlets across the U.S.
The Center for NYC Affairs has been a great place for Feet in 2 Worlds to thrive and grow, and we look forward to maintaining a working relationship with the Center as we report on a range of issues, including the recovery of immigrant communities from the pandemic. In the years before Covid-19 we held journalism training workshops at The New School and taught a graduate-level journalism course based on Feet in 2 Worlds’ methods. We also hosted special events at the school including a film festival, panel discussions on a wide range of issues and a food fair that featured immigrant chefs.
At INN we are joining a community of editors, publishers, reporters and entrepreneurs with whom we can share ideas and work to strengthen the non-profit news sector. INN will also help us achieve a long-standing goal, to transform Feet in 2 Worlds into a self-supported non-profit organization, with its own administration and board of directors that will chart a path for future growth and activities.
Telling underreported stories and centering voices from immigrant communities have always been central to Feet in 2 Worlds’ mission. In recent years we’ve dug even deeper, and developed a unique approach to confronting structural racism within news organizations.
I grew up in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Immigrants were not often allies in Black Americans’ struggle for equality. If anything, White working class immigrants were some of the most militant opponents of racial integration – the Irish in Boston who fought school bussing, Italians who led a backlash against the Black uprising in Newark, New Jersey, Jewish New York City public school teachers who opposed community control of schools in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods.
But things change. The big and growing immigrant communities today are no longer white Europeans, they are people of color from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa who see parallels between their own lives and the experiences of African Americans. Many immigrants have experienced racism and violence, such as the recent attacks on Asians, or the attacks on turban-wearing Sikhs after 9/11. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted other forms of inequality including the health gap separating immigrants and Black people from White Americans. As we showed in the first season of our A Better Life? Podcast series, my home state of Maine is the whitest state in the country. But at the height of the pandemic, Black Mainers were 20 times more likely to contract Covid-19 than White Mainers. And almost half the Black people in Maine are not African-Americans who are descendants of enslaved people, they are recent arrivals—immigrants and asylum-seekers from Somalia, Angola, Congo and other African countries.
When we bring together groups of immigrant journalists and Black journalists, the stories they want to tell are often about the consequences of structural racism. And they want to talk about the impact it has on their lives, careers, families, and communities.
One of the things that I’m most proud of is that at Feet in 2 Worlds, our conversations around race and racial reckoning and identity are almost always productive. Rarely easy, but ultimately productive in terms of gaining greater understanding. And I think there are a few reasons for this.
First, we always focus on the work, not personalities. In our case the work is how to tell the best, most compelling stories that advance the search for truth and support democracy. That’s our job as journalists, and our conversations are always framed around these goals.
Second, respect. We have lots of disagreements. At our workshops and panel events we bring together people from very different lived experiences, different ages, different cultural backgrounds. But we listen to each other with open minds, and with a genuine desire to learn from each other. When we offer criticism, it is with the intention of making our work better, not tearing down another person.
Third, we are intentional in what we do. It is not enough to say to journalists who have historically been excluded from newsrooms, ‘hey, here’s an opportunity, come take it.’ You need policies and practices to make it real. In recent decades many immigrants and Black people have been hired by mainstream news organizations only to find that they are discriminated against inside those organizations. They are denied advancement, their ideas are ignored, or they are exploited. For example, I have heard many Latinx journalists talk about how in addition to doing their own work they are expected to step in as translators for their co-workers who are assigned stories in Latinx communities but don’t speak Spanish. The Latinx journalists don’t get paid more for their bilingual skills. It’s just what they are expected to do. The result is that a lot of immigrant, Black and Latinx journalists have left news organizations.
At Feet in 2 Worlds we use our connections in immigrant communities to find talented people at various stages in their career, and then we give them the tools they need to advance. We give them confidence, to report in English if that is not their first language, to cover stories that have been ignored, to follow their instincts and to value their knowledge and experience.
I regularly hear from people who we have trained about how Feet in 2 Worlds has changed their lives and the trajectory of their careers. Recently I got a letter from a former student of mine, Chu Yang, an international student from China at The New School, who took the Feet in 2 Worlds course. She wrote:
“Sitting in a rotisserie chicken restaurant in Brooklyn and listening to the owner, a Chinese American immigrant from Peru, talk about his family business and the impact of Chinese immigrants on Peruvian food, I realized that food means so much more than I thought. I think the significance of this class is that it set the tone for how I view immigrant communities and cover their stories. More specifically, I was taught to provide a human face to issues related to immigrant groups in the form of storytelling.”
Feet in 2 Worlds strives every day to give more journalists like this young Chinese woman the chance to provide a human face to issues related to immigrants. I’m excited by our transformation and the opportunities it offers to touch the lives of more journalists, bring their work to even wider audiences, and have an even greater impact on American journalism. Those will be the very happy unintended consequences of a radio documentary about new immigrants in New York City that went into production nearly two decades ago.