The Future of Feet in 2 Worlds

On a late winter afternoon in 2005, the Western Union office on Church Avenue in Brooklyn was quiet. I was with Macollvie Neel, a reporter with the Haitian Times newspaper who I was training to be a radio producer for a documentary about new immigrants in New York City. We were hoping to record a scene for Macollvie’s story on remittances — money immigrants send back to their home country, and how they are a constant obligation for most Haitians in the U.S. and a vital life-line for families living in Haiti.

A few people came in to do business, handing money to cashiers sitting behind a thick Plexiglas and metal barrier, who would then wire the funds to the intended recipient. But the customers were not interested in talking to us, and the place was so quiet there weren’t enough sounds to make a scene for the documentary. It had been my idea to come here. I had done lots of man-on-the-street interviews — vox pop, as it is known — since I started working as a radio news reporter in 1977. But this time, it wasn’t working.

Despite not landing an interview and the lack of good sound, the trip was not a complete failure. Macollvie had a chance to become more familiar with the microphone and recorder, which she had only recently used for the first time. I learned that the reporting strategies I had used in the past might not work when covering sensitive subjects in immigrant communities, even when the person holding the mic was an immigrant herself.

Later, through her connections in Brooklyn’s Haitian community, Macollvie did find people who were willing to talk at length about the burden and importance of remittances for their families in Haiti. Her story ended up being part of the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City. That show was the debut of Feet in 2 Worlds, but the impact of what we had done really came into focus when one of the other contributing journalists, Arun Venugopal from India Abroad, was offered a job at WNYC, New York City’s leading public radio station. We realized that we hadn’t just made a radio documentary. We had created a way to bring voices and perspectives from immigrant communities to public radio.

I started Feet in 2 Worlds in 2004 because I wanted to find a new way to tell the stories of immigrants in New York City. I was inspired by Jacob Riis, a Danish newspaper photographer, who documented the deplorable living conditions of immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1880s. Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, was a pioneering work of investigative journalism that led to housing safety regulations that have saved countless lives.

My ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, Lithuania and Russia. But because I am three generations removed from my family’s immigration journey, and the only language I speak fluently is English, it made sense to team up with immigrant journalists to do the reporting for my project. My main goal was to bring immigrant stories to public radio listeners who, like me, were separated by generations from their own families’ immigrant experiences.  

In the early 2000s, much like today, the U.S. faced an immigration crisis and a political stalemate over immigration reform. I thought stories that humanized immigrants could help overcome the stereotypes that seemed to arise whenever immigration is discussed, and ultimately lead to more productive dialogue. I still believe that.

What I didn’t understand in those early days is that supporting and training journalists from immigrant backgrounds has several benefits: it gives them skills and confidence that they can leverage to advance their careers, and it empowers them to tell stories within their own communities. I’m convinced that immigrant communities have been the greatest beneficiaries of our work since production began on that first radio documentary two decades ago. Many journalists who have gone through our program have started their own news outlets to serve their community, or they have used their Feet in 2 Worlds experience to strengthen existing outlets, bringing information to news deserts and fighting misinformation. Macollvie Neel eventually became the managing editor of the Haitian Times. Former Fi2W fellow Cristina Pastor started The FilAm, a magazine for and about Filipinos in the U.S., and Maritza Félix, also a former fellow, created Conecta Arizona, a trail-blazing news service serving Spanish-speakers in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

What we do at Feet in 2 Worlds is not a one-way street — bringing stories from immigrant communities to mainstream audiences — but a busy intersection where ideas and knowledge from many different points of view and lived experiences are exchanged, and new narratives emerge. Whenever I start working with a mentee, I make a point to say that I will teach them things that they don’t already know, and I will also learn things from them that I don’t already know. At the heart of Feet in 2 Worlds is an exchange of knowledge, information, and ideas based on mutual respect.

We are at a dangerous moment in U.S. history. After decades of gains in the rights of women, Black people, Latinos, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others, there are strong efforts underway to reverse those rights and freedoms. There is a movement to control and diminish anyone who is not white, male, and Christian. I believe Feet in 2 Worlds offers a powerful counter-narrative to the menace that we face. Every day, we show the value of centering the voices of immigrants, of people of color, and of women; of consensus-building rather than top-down decision making; of mutual respect; and of providing factual information that serves and strengthens all communities. In short, our journalism and our training methods strengthen representative democracy at a time when it is under serious attack.

Part of the danger we face is due to the crisis in journalism. News outlets of all sizes have been forced to lay off reporters, editors, and photographers. News deserts are expanding. AI threatens to replace humans as providers of news and information. Social media, radio, and TV are saturated with misinformation. 

Feet in 2 Worlds is not immune to these forces, but we have survived and thrived despite them. I can recall several times when a lack of funds threatened to shut us down. But today, we are in better financial shape than ever. That is thanks to our supporters — foundations and individuals — who see the value of what we do. We remain true to our mission, to fact-based journalism, and to our motto, “It matters who tells the story.

In the musical Hamilton, the character of George Washington sings about his decision to resign from the presidency, a move that was virtually unheard of in an era when most heads of state were kings who stayed on the throne for a lifetime. “One last time,” Washington sings, “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”

I was inspired by that story, as told by Lin-Manuel Miranda, in my decision to retire from Feet in 2 Worlds and hand it over to a new leader. I’m no George Washington, and Feet in 2 Worlds is a small nonprofit news organization, not a nation. But my hope is that my decision can also be used as a counter-narrative to what we are witnessing in our country. Old white men are clinging to power while the nation evolves into a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. We desperately need to make room for new leaders and new ideas that reflect who and what we are today.

I started Fi2W twenty years ago, and I’m deeply proud of what we have achieved. We have won many awards and received great recognition. But what I am most proud of is this: Today, there exists a network of hundreds of journalists around the world that have been trained and mentored by Feet in 2 Worlds. We’ve published their stories and given them financial support. Every day they bring the skills and values we taught them to their work covering the news and informing their audiences. And they have become a community, helping and supporting each other. I am constantly learning about new connections within the Fi2W network — journalists collaborating on projects. 

At its core, Feet in 2 Worlds is an organization for and about immigrants. In addition, the vast majority of journalists who have contributed to our podcast and website and who have been trained by Fi2W are women, many of them women of color. I am an older white man — not as old as the men running for president, but old enough to have been on Medicare for a few years.  Our new managing director Mia Warren is decades younger than me, a woman of color and the daughter of a Korean immigrant mother.

Mia took over on April 1, 2024, and she’s already introducing new ideas to make Feet in 2 Worlds stronger and better prepared to take on the challenges of the future. Mia and I are working together to achieve a successful change in leadership. I am confident that once the transition is complete, Feet in 2 Worlds will continue to be a vital force in journalism, in the lives of the journalists in our network, and in the communities we serve. Starting Feet in 2 Worlds has been one of the highlights of my life. It’s going to live on without me, and that’s a legacy that I am so grateful for.

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AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Founder & Former Executive Producer of Feet in 2 Worlds, is a radio journalist with more than 44 years experience as a program host, reporter, editor and producer of documentaries and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for Feet in 2 Worlds. John has taught journalism at The New School, The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine and Boston University.