Katherine Boo

Writer for the New Yorker

2015 Convocation Address

Thank you to President Greene, and to the selection committee, and to Dan Shea and Amanda Cooley, and everyone who has joined us tonight. As I’ll never be able to live up to this great honor, I’ll take this occasion instead as an opportunity to underline to the students in this room a quality of Elijah Parish Lovejoy I think we don’t celebrate enough. In the last years of his life, as he waged his war against slaveholding, Lovejoy’s choices rebuked an assumption that many people still make today: that to be idealistic is to be naïve. Lovejoy wasn’t naïve. Long before his murder, he gauged the risks inherent in challenging the economic well-being of powerful people. And still he took those risks, as thousands of journalists are doing right now, in Syria, Mexico, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Yemen, China, and elsewhere on this dangerous planet.

But we journalists corner no market on courage, obviously, and any consideration of my work should recognize individuals whose bravery far outmatches my own: the so-called subjects of that work–often powerless individuals who risk retaliation to share their stories, in the hopes that other people might grasp the difficulty–sometimes the barbarity–simmering beneath the surface of what we think of as modern civilization. So the next time you pick up a newspaper and see a wrong against the vulnerable exposed, I ask you to remember this: It’s by dint of other people’s bravery that journalists like myself, working in societies magnificently adept at hiding injustices, can begin to piece together what you might call an alternative public record of our times.

Tonight, before taking your questions, I’ll be talking about four phenomena–inequality, temp jobs, corruption, and lightning-fast global capital transfers–that mark contemporary societies across the world, and then ask you to consider how these four phenomena converge to fuel two great lies of our age. But it seemed fitting that as I speak, photos of some of the people who helped me report in Mumbai will be looping on the screen–and, ideally, creating cognitive dissonance with what I’m saying. Many of the shots were taken by children who live in the Annawadi slum. What you’ve been seeing in this first one is part of a lake of sewage and dumped chemicals that formed one border of the slum. Annawadi sits on land owned by the Mumbai airport–an airport which, for all the stereotypes some of you may harbor about India, makes the Portland airport look like a 7-Eleven. The slum is surrounded by luxury hotels, and here you can make out the sign of the Hyatt Regency, just above the wall where the children watch their fathers do the work of sorting recyclable airport garbage they’ve collected to sell to scrap dealers. In short, it’s an urban community like many others in the world today: a community where other people’s wealth is tantalizingly visible, where the environment itself seeds sickness, and where very few inhabitants have permanent work. One of the impermanents is a young man named Mirchi Husain, and one thing he said captured the setting of his slum community better than I possibly could. He said, “Everything around us is roses, and we’re the shit in between.”

I’d like to ask you to dwell on this line one second longer. You ever wonder how hard it is, psychologically, to live on the losing side of the 21st century’s great chasms between the rich and the poor? One clue to the damage done is that Mirchi used the word “shit” to describe the only place he’d ever lived, the home to virtually every person that he loved.

Now, some people would call stories like Mirchi’s small stories. And in the grand scheme of worldwide inequality, they are small. But that his family and other families allow me into their lives gives me the chance to at least try to interrogate and complicate what we generally think of as the big story, which is the story of the people and institutions that do have political power.

I want to read to you something Mirchi’s brother Abdul said late one night in Annawadi that has been banging around my brain ever since. It was an ordinary night, and the usual slum polyphony was all around him: Organ music from a Tamil soap opera blaring. Trash collectors bargaining with a dealer over the value of the garbage they’d collected that day. A woman who lived not far from Abdul’s house, weeping. She’d just lost her home, fought with her husband, tried to kill herself, and failed.

“Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul asked. “Like that woman who just went to hang herself, or her husband, who probably beat her before she did this? I wonder what kind of life is that. I go through tensions just to see it. But it is a life. Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, ‘If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.’ And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, ‘Don’t confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.’”

To me, Abdul’s words capture, painfully, the colliding imperatives of life in a poor community today. Maybe at a gut level Abdul’s neighbors share his ethical humanism–his recognition of the intrinsic and insuperable value of even the most miserable life. But as extreme poverty has diminished around the planet over the last 25 years, and, as many individuals have grown hopeful about their own ability to break out of a stigmatized bracket, they’ve mimicked a habit of the rich: erecting psychological walls to insulate themselves from the needs of, and the value of, others. Don’t confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives, the new rule goes. And I don’t judge that. It’s not an unreasonable position when, in such communities, people’s own stories of upward mobility require every last bit of energy they have.

A widespread fealty to narrowly construed interests is one reason we tolerate facts like this one: that the hundred richest people in the world today control more wealth than the 3 billion poorest. But let’s set aside whether that level of inequality is an economic problem, or even a moral problem. (I’d say yes to both.) What I wonder, after a lot of years in a lot of poor communities, is why it’s not more of a practical problem. Remember, many of those poor workers aren’t hopeless 21st-century lumpenproles. Through the media, they also have more knowledge than ever before of what the rich possess. So why don’t those on the bottom just storm the fences of luxury hotels? Why don’t more of our societies implode in class warfare?

I think the answer is this: that as capital wings around the planet in search of the next cheaper place, and as tech advantages render more low-wage labor extraneous by the week, it’s harder than ever for low-income people to develop a sense of common predicament–let alone identify a common enemy. As the fabric of the economy is rewoven under their feet, poor workers today and instead of coming together they’re competing fiercely against each other for that tiny niche where what they can do and what global markets need this instant might intersect. That competition and chronic instability takes an immense, under-appreciated toll on individuals’ ability to raise families and sustain mutually supportive communities. It also–almost by design–sabotages their ability to come together to challenge the priorities of the privileged.

Consider the recent roller-coaster history of the waste pickers you’ve been seeing on the screen. They do work that shortens their lives, and are often treated by others as if they’re contagious, but in early 2008, they were optimistic, and plausibly so. The Beijing Olympics would begin the coming summer, and massive construction in advance of the games had lifted the price of the scrap metal and recyclable plastic they collect to record highs. Within a matter of months, because of choices made in China, millions of waste pickers in informal economies across the developing world were sprung out of poverty. Fast forward 10 months. Investment banks start collapsing in Manhattan, the price of scrap tanks during the global recession, and all those waste pickers slip back into poverty again. In the next years of stop-start recovery, their work lifted many of them up again. But last month when I was in Annawadi, slum dwellers were nearly as distressed as they were during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, on account of the scrap-price declines sponsored by the ongoing financial crisis in China. Their efforts to succeed, in other words, may be the same every day, but the results are wildly variant, linked to decisions made by governments, corporations, and consumers worlds away. Meanwhile we who are not poor ask them to to be utterly consistent in how hard they try. We ask them, in fact, to pay servile allegiance to an almost laughable falsehood: that their economic futures are in their control.

This is the calculus of the world we all inhabit now–a volatile world in which national borders matter less and less, and the behavior of global capital matters more. As the transglobal rich hedge their bets with two passports, multiple homes, and diversified portfolios, the people I write about are as hedge-less as the 17-year-old Mexican construction worker in Denver who once told me how impatient he was with the cliche, “My family can’t get ahead.” His family got ahead all the time. Then the truck broke, or his mom got sick, at which they slipped back down. I’ve started to think about families like his, and Abdul’s, as the trans-global poor, though they don’t yet know themselves as a class. In addition to having no protection against vicissitude, they often have only tenuous citizenship in the one place they know.

I often feel creepy, even nauseated, by the investigative and documentary work I do in such communities. “Vulture, “parasite,” “exploiter”: anything you might want to call me, I’ve probably called myself worse. But I do this work in part because most of the individuals you’re seeing on the screen have been systematically denied the educations that would allow them to write their own stories, let alone to investigate the broken systems that underlie those stories. But more than that: the exploitation and corruption buffeting such young people on a near-daily basis tells them that what they experience and believe just doesn’t rate. Say you’re a child in a municipal school where the teacher does political work instead of teaching math. You know. You’re being denied the education you’re supposed to get. And let’s say one day you’re bussed from this bad government school to a private school run by a politician, so that school can get government aid for an inflated body count. You don’t necessarily know who benefits, but you know you’re being used. Or say you’re a teenager who collects garbage for a living. Your friend is murdered, at which the death is stamped “natural causes” and filed away by police officers preoccupied with side deals. You get it: that your life is not of value unless it can be instrumentalized to make other people wealthier or more powerful.

And I’m here to tell you, ideas trickle down in poor communities faster than wealth. So what reaches young people in many communities today is that public promises will not be kept. That public services are mini-markets. That it’s stupid not to be selfish. When Manju goes to college, a college not quite as lovely as Colby, even her friends mock her for being nice to people who can’t benefit her. What’s the profit, they say, of talking to a girl like that? Isn’t a classmate just a tool for getting what you want? In such a climate, it’s pretty amazing that some stressed-out, aspirational individuals all over the world keep trying, as Manju did, to share some of their advantages with people less lucky than they are. That they try to be ice, as Abdul put it, in a sea of dirty water.

And until we listen harder to those individuals, and work harder to record experiences that would otherwise be lost to history, the greater public is never going to understand why so many of the best-intentioned social and economic policies fail. Anti-poverty strategies–government and charitable both–do get better when there’s more accountability and a better feedback loop from poor communities. Today, though, the public is often left to assume that policy failures are a reflection of the mental or moral deficiencies of the poor themselves, when all too often, the failures start at a much higher level.

But there’s an even subtler consequence of our failure to document the daily experiences of the billions of people now negotiating a difficult new world. Not looking gives credence to the idea that we all inhabit a functioning meritocracy, which is another great lie of our time. Some of us in this room who’ve made it to college or decent jobs tend to assume we’ve mainly earned it, right? Having succeeded in the so-called meritocracy, we’re subconsciously invested in the idea that the talent rises to the top. It’s trickier to admit even to ourselves that when the intellectual capacities of low-income people get exhausted by the relentless instability of their lives, we actually benefit. Our advantage comes in part from the fact that a quarter of the world’s population has been unfairly disqualified from the competition. Which brings me right round to Mirchi Husain’s line: everything around us roses, and we’re the shit in between. That’s not just a poignant observation. It’s a shrewd one. The perpetual degradation of talent in low-income communities from Maine to Mumbai is the shit, the fertilizer, that helps the better off bloom.

There’s something I say to myself like a mantra when my work gets tough: Empathy is a muscle; the more we use it, the more it can do. And one of my hopes is that from time to time, a reader will sense what I sense doing this work: the very, very fine line between the so-called “us” and “them.” But as often as I ask myself a specific question–faced with a limited array of bad options, how would I choose?–there’s  also a general question in my mind. It’s a question inspired by the American  philosopher John Rawls. He asked, How would I design a society if I didn’t know which side of this fence I was going to be born on–whether I’d arrive in this world as a person of wealth and power, or as a vulnerable person like Sunil? What system would I create that would be fair for people on both sides of that wall? Nothing would make me happier than if a few of you in this room would be inspired to engage in such a question.

But in closing, let me share with you why I think talk of designing an ideal society is insufficient: time. Seven of the beautiful young people you’ve just seen on the screen–they’re dead now, from the health consequences of garbage work, from being hit by cars as they work, from suicide, from TB–a treatable illness for which there is, in fact, a beautifully designed system to protect them–on paper. Such stakes are one reason I can’t view the people I write about simply as passive subjects. Whether I’ve gotten to know them in group homes for the intellectually disabled or in Oklahoma City housing projects or in Mumbai slums, I consider the people whose lives I document as active co-investigators of injustices in their societies–injustices that must be challenged now, aggressively. And that’s not sentimental overstatement. It’s a daily fact of my work.

An ordinary day I’ll leave you with was one in which Sunil, the boy on the fence, was released after a night of being brutally assaulted by the police–punishment for gathering scrap in a restricted part of the airport. Over hours of violence that traumatize him to this day, he nonetheless found the wherewithal to memorize the name on the badge of the officer attacking him–a name written not in his native language, but in a script he barely knew. He memorized that name because he believed what had happened to him was wrong and would happen again unless the injustice was documented and shared.

Sunil didn’t know what I know about the directorates of power that slap down social change and keep inequalities gaping. Being without power, he simply saw a random journalist in a slumlane as the hope that he had. I’ve had hundreds of such small moments in my career, loaded moments, meeting the eyes of individuals who believe more fervently than I do in the power of journalism to right their wrongs. And in each of those moments, it’s my duty to suspend my own disbelief. To start recording, start investigating, start honoring their faith in this profession as best as I possibly can.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Fellow

Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo

In a powerful, multidisciplinary, and multimedia talk about the plight of the trans-global poor in an era when the 100 richest people in the world own more than the 3 billion poorest, journalist Katherine Boo demonstrated her mastery of storytelling, empathy, and deep analysis in the 2015 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation address at Colby College Oct. 5.

The New Yorker writer, former newspaper reporter, and bestselling author spoke and answered questions in a packed Lorimer Chapel after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from President David A. Greene, who called her “one of the greatest practitioners of immersion journalism.” She was lauded for her meticulous research on income inequality in the United States and India, as well as for courage in reporting in the tradition of Elijah Lovejoy, a Colby graduate who became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press when he was shot in 1837 defending his newspaper against a pro-slavery mob.

Boo outlined her talk by suggesting that four linked phenomena—inequality, temp jobs, corruption, and lightning-fast transfers of global capital—converge to fuel some of the great lies of our time. With photos of and by the children in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, India, where she immersed herself for three and a half years for her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she talked about their lives, their wise world-views, and their absolute economic expendability as corporations and banks ferret out the cheapest labor possible.

“As capital wings around the planet in search of the next cheaper place, and as tech advances render low-wage labor extraneous by the week, it’s harder than ever for low-income people to develop a sense of common predicament, let alone identify a common enemy,” she said. “The fabric of the economy is being written, rewoven, under the feet of poor workers today, and instead of coming together they’re competing fiercely for that tiny, tiny niche where what they can do and what the market needs this instant might intersect. But it also, almost by design, sabotages their ability to come together to challenge the priorities of the privileged.”

Getting to the great lies of our time that she had foreshadowed, Boo said, “Meanwhile, here’s what we ask of those workers. We ask them to pay servile allegiance to an almost laughable falsehood—that their economic futures are in their control.”

“Our advantage comes from the fact that a quarter of the world’s population has been disqualified from the competition.”

She quoted a 17-year-old Mexican construction worker in Denver telling her he was fed up with the cliche “My family can’t get ahead.” His family got ahead all the time., he told her. “Then the truck broke, or his mom got sick, at which they slipped back down.”

Boo said, “I’ve started to think about families like his and Abdul’s [in India] as the trans-global poor. But they don’t yet know themselves as a class,” she said. They’ve been unable to connect, much less organize or rebel against the oppressive system.

She acknowledged that, by covering struggling children in Mumbai, she tells small stories. But when those brave families allow her into their lives, it “gives me the chance to at least try to interrogate and complicate what we generally think of as the big story, which is the story of the people and institutions that do have political power,” she said.

We must listen more closely, she said, and record experiences that would otherwise be lost. “Here’s the problem: the greater public is never going to understand why so many of the best-intentioned social and economic policies fail.” She concluded, “Our failure to document gives credence that we all inherit a functional meritocracy, which is another functional lie of our time.”

It’s hard for us to admit, she said, that “when the intellectual capacities of low income people get squandered, when they get exhausted by the instability of their lives, we benefit. Our advantage comes from the fact that a quarter of the world’s population has been disqualified from the competition.”

Boo started her talk with an homage linking Lovejoy to journalists today. She admires that in his last years Lovejoy made choices that “rebuked an assumption that many people still make today: that to be idealistic is to be naive,” she said. “Lovejoy wasn’t naive. Long before his murder he gauged the risks inherent in trying to destabilize the economic well-being of people with power in a society, and still he took those risks—just as hundreds of journalists today are doing in Syria, Mexico, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, China, India, and elsewhere on an incredibly dangerous planet.”

Following her talk she answered questions from students, professors, and community members. When a student asked her strategy for building trust with her subjects, Boo said, “I think my greatest tool is time,” referring to her ability listen and observe at great length. At the end of a project, she allows people to be included in her work or not, because she understands that it takes considerable bravery for her subjects to be named. “One of the most reliable ways to get people to trust you is to not ask them to trust you—to let them make up their own minds.”

The convocation concluded two days of events connected with the Lovejoy program and Lovejoy’s legacy. On Sunday some 50 student journalists from 10 colleges and two high schools spent the day in a Goldfarb Center conference titled “Digital First? How Technology and Multi-Platform Journalism are Disrupting and Reinventing Journalism,” learning from top journalists in the field.

And Monday afternoon students and community members filled Ostrove Auditorium to capacity for a Goldfarb Center panel discussion titled Division and Despair: Reporting on America’s Income Inequality (full audio is online) with Wendi Thomas of the Memphis Flyer, Kathleen Kingbury of the Boston Globe, and Mike Baker of the Seattle Times talking about their award-winning investigations of the topic in a conversation moderated by Associate Professor of Government Walter Hatch.

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy