October, 2020

Class of 2021 Welcome Program 

This month, we are welcoming the Class of 2021 National Fellows to New America for what will be an engaging two days of virtual conversations around pressing domestic and international issues. 

Please join us on October 21 & 22 from 1-4pm EST for these exciting conversations. For registration and to view the agenda and speaker bios, please click here.

Three questions with...
2018 Fellow Katie Engelhart

You recently wrote a piece about the first COVID-19 hotspot in the US, the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, in California Sunday. How did you approach reporting and writing this story given the need to remain socially distant?

I never set foot in the nursing home. The place was under lockdown—and so, unusually, I had to report the whole 16,000-word story from afar. You know, it was OK. It doesn’t necessarily take longer to build intimacy over the phone. I think phone calls can be very intimate, especially when they are two or three or four hours long. And many of the elderly people who I interviewed are used to using phone calls as their primary tools of communication and connection. I spent the first month interviewing about two dozen Life Care residents, family members and nurses. I spent all day on the phone. 

Building a visual sense of things was more difficult. Early on in my reporting, I got hold of a floor plan for the nursing home and started asking residents for their room numbers. Later, family members sent me cellphone photos of different rooms. I mapped out as much as I could.

When it comes to writing about sensitive topics, such as an individual’s health, what steps do you take to help them or their families feel comfortable talking to you? What are those conversations like?

Well, usually it’s not the health problems themselves that are sensitive subjects. It’s the feelings that form around them. Despair. Regret. Very often, anger. So for instance, in this piece, Debbie was OK talking about the particularities of her mother’s dementia. It was much harder for her to discuss her own behavior: say, the fact that she hadn’t visited her mother since December. I take these conversations really slowly.

I have reported a lot on ageing and eldercare, and that experience was very helpful. I think I’m able to anticipate sources of grief—and ask about them in a way that doesn’t make people feel ashamed. I’m able to understand the gravity of things. So, for instance, if a daughter mentions in passing that her elderly mother got a urinary tract infection, I’m able to slow down and say, "Oh wow, and did it take weeks and weeks for doctors to properly diagnose it? Yes? And had she started experiencing delirium by them? She had? She must have lost a lot of weight? Yes? I know how bad UTIs can be, in elderly women. I’m so sorry.” I really feel so deeply for people who are ageing with difficulty, or watching a parent age. I bring that empathy to the interviews.

Your forthcoming Fellows project is a book about the Right to Die and the idea of "rational suicide." It is a sensitive topic and one that is approached differently around the world. Can you tell us about your goals for the book?

I write, in my conclusion, that I could have filled my book with confessions. For years, I had this very strange experience over and over. I would mention—at a work function, or a dinner party or wherever—that I was writing a book about the right to die. Then, later, near-strangers would pull me aside and confess the most private things. About deaths they had witnessed. About loved ones who died terribly, in ways they did not want and that confused them. Violent deaths. Ugly deaths. Long deaths. Or about family members who ended their own lives—and the other family members who helped them do it.

I learned, in my reporting, that all across America, sick and elderly men and women are meticulously planning their final hours: sometimes, with the help of clandestine organizations and Internet activists. Still, we don’t talk about it. Because we don’t like talking about death. Or because we have anxieties (some, very justified) about reporting on suicide. Or because the idea of “rational suicide” challenges and tests our assumptions about the world and its meaning. I try to throw all that aside and show readers what is happening right under their noses.

Two Cents

Melissa Segura and Annie Murphy Paul on new tactics they've used to research, access sources, and work in the field during COVID-19.

1: I'm having to ask much more precise questions than I would have if I'd been able to meet a source in person. That includes asking them to describe, for example, what they heard/smelled/saw in particular instances. It's made me work harder to refine my questions for telephone interviews. — Melissa Segura, Class of 2019

2: I (like everyone) have become dependent on Zoom. What surprised me was how intimate Zoom interviews can be. I still find group Zoom meetings challenging—the social cues of attention and the rhythms of shared conversation are so easily thrown off. But one-on-one, Zoom interviews are surprisingly effective. I have also rediscovered the telephone ;-). Without the distraction of visual stimuli, I've found it easier to focus on the nuances of voice and speech. — Annie Murphy Paul, Class of 2014


Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary Landfall was selected as the Boston Latino International Film Festival's Best Documentary Feature, and received the Guanajuato International Film Festival's Best Documentary Feature Award by the Guanajuato jury for "being an urgent film that captures the resistance of the Puerto Rican people, recalling that colonialism has not ended and inviting us to react."

Adam Harris published a series of profiles in the Atlantic on five of the children—now adults in their 50s, 60s, and 70s—who desegregated America, whom Adam has been interviewing over the past several months.

Daniela Lamas wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about recovered coronavirus patients and the unknowns of the virus’s longer-term effects. She also published an op-ed in the Washington Post about President Trump's coronavirus diagnosis.

Ted Johnson published an article in the New York Times Magazine about how the Black vote became a monolith.

Jonathan Blitzer was interviewed on Axios Re:Cap about the business of immigrant detention.

Two Cents
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Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones?

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OCT 21ST + 22ND

Fellows Welcome Program

Join the Class of 2021 National Fellows for an engaging two days of virtual conversations around pressing domestic and international issues. Learn More

Reading this month

A book following the sexual and emotional lives of three American women.

– Yi-Ling Liu,
Class of 2021

Learn More

As a former middle school teacher, I have a soft spot for young adult books. Liz Acevedo's protagonists are so wholly and beautifully wrought.

– Eve L. Ewing,
Class of 2021

Learn More

Caste is the book of the moment on race and class in America.

– Shannon Brownlee, Class of 2001

Learn More

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