January 2023

Class of 2024 Call for Applications

The application for the Class of 2024 National Fellows is now open!

More information and the application can be found here. The deadline to apply is February 1, 2023.

Three questions with...
2023 Fellow Albert Samaha

Your Fellows project will be a book examining the root causes of wealth inequality through the experiences of service workers. Economic insecurity and labor rights have long been an issue in American society but what about this current moment makes this project especially pressing?

What inspired my initial interest in this project was the realization that a growing share of people in the world’s richest country work full-time jobs for some of the world’s richest companies and yet are still unable to pay for basic needs—even as corporate executive compensation continues to rise. For many of the service workers I’ve spoken to, the American Dream no longer represents upward mobility but merely the chance to make ends meet. Many of them, like me, grew up in the ‘90s and came of age in the 2000s, a period of US geopolitical dominance when it seemed like whatever disparities existed, the country was working toward more equality and paths toward upward mobility were expanding. But the economic crises of the last decade or so—from the housing crash to the pandemic contraction—disabused a lot of people of that notion by showing that our economic system is designed to protect wealth without offering sufficient support to those in the bottom half of the income spectrum. Disillusioned by a system rigged against them and abandoned by powerful institutions at every turn, they have had to find their own ways to survive, stretching thin the community support systems that emerged to patch the holes in the country’s tattered social safety net. I wanted to explore how people navigate a system that they have lost faith in but cannot escape.

You began your reporting for this book with coverage of Amazon warehouses beginning in early 2019, which preceded the start of the pandemic. How did the pandemic affect your reporting and your book’s direction? What changes have you seen in public opinion and policy regarding essential workers since that time?

The pandemic initially seemed to spark a paradigm shift. Service workers were deemed “essential,” recognized for the critical role they played in keeping our country running. Companies offered “hero pay” raises. The government bolstered unemployment benefits and provided rental assistance. Many people quit their jobs, preferring to opt out of working conditions that left them exposed to infection on the front lines, leaving the remaining workers with more negotiating leverage. Yet as the country reverted back to a sense of relative normalcy, it soon became clear that the fundamental labor and economic conditions weren’t changing anytime soon. What had changed, though, was that a growing population of service workers were no longer willing to put up with the old ways. Thousands of longtime service workers went on strike for the first time or joined organizing movements, radicalized by the realization that not even a cataclysm as severe as the pandemic could spur the lasting policies they needed to escape a cycle of precarity. To me, the pandemic exposed how intractable our economic disparities had become. That hopelessness was the starting point for my book idea but not the driving force—I didn’t envision this book dwelling in struggle but instead aim to chronicle the ways people are exercising their agency to push back against forces blocking their paths to comfort.

In your work, personal stories play a major role in unpacking the larger issues around labor and industry. Why is it important to include these stories, and how do you gain the trust of your sources?

Exploring big picture concepts through specific people allows me to cut through any preconceived assumptions or ideologies readers might hold by grounding the story in human experiences that feel universally relatable. No matter a reader’s financial status, I think everyone can understand a person’s fundamental desire to provide for their family, and if a reader connects with a character in the book, I think it can help simplify complicated policy issues into concrete circumstances and outcomes. Of course, that means being able to report on the intimate details of a person’s life. For me, gaining that trust requires, above all, listening. I want to avoid projecting my own assumptions and present these stories as my sources experience them, without shoehorning them to seem more representative than they actually are. Everybody’s experience is unique. I try to enter these source relationships without any sense of entitlement to their time—they’re the ones doing me a favor by talking to me, not the other way around, and I always want to make clear my appreciation for their generosity in sharing their stories.


Read our Year in Review for an overview of Fellows' accomplishments in 2022.

Karen Levy was interviewed about her new book, Data Driven, on Marketplace. She was also interviewed on KQED's Forum. 

Rachel Aviv's book, Strangers to Ourselves, was reviewed in Vulture.

Albert Samaha wrote about learning to love soccer for BuzzFeed. 

Two Cents

Recommend this month

Eyal Press is a wonderful writer with a great eye for detail as well as the greater moral and ethical import of the topic. I appreciate that he brings empathy to the story and connects individuals to the larger history and politics around them.
— Jessica Pishko,
Class of 2023

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This podcast has a good range of guests and explores many cutting edge issues in the crypto and defi space.
— Annette Nellen,
Class of 2008

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In an increasingly more divisive world, there's a lot we can learn from Zweig's memoir.
— Xinyan Yu,
Class of 2023

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Free Swag

Fill out the form below for a chance to win a copy of Data Driven by Karen Levy, Class of 2019.

Please submit by Monday, January 16th to be considered.

Get swag!

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