Aviva DeKornfeld '12 Part of Pulitzer Prize Award-Winning Team
Last May, the radio show This American Life won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting for an episode titled “The Out Crowd.” This episode covered the impact the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy had on individuals—both the asylum seekers and the government workers handling the cases. We are proud to say that Key alum Aviva DeKornfeld ‘12 was a part of the team of journalists covering the situation in Mexico. We reached out to her and asked her to share with the Key community her experiences creating this award-winning program. Congratulations, Aviva!
Here is her compelling story:
I met Darwin ten minutes into my reporting trip at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. I was standing on the outskirts of the camp talking to my fixer (a local reporter who knew her way around the camp) when Darwin walked up to me holding a soccer ball. He leaned his head on my arm, pointed to my microphone and asked me about it. I told him I was a radio journalist and asked him how old he was—he was nine—and where he’d gotten his soccer ball. He said someone gifted it to him. He followed up by clarifying; lots of people give him things, all kinds of things—toys, blankets, food.
I’d been sent to the camp to get a sense of daily life for the migrants living there. My plan had been to talk with adults about their treacherous journeys north from their home countries in Central America. I expected to get quotes about the hardship of living in the camp while they waited for their asylum applications to be processed. But I was so taken with this charming little kid, who seemed like a magnet for the goodwill of strangers, that I abandoned my reporting plans and spent the day hanging out with Darwin instead.
I got called onto the project to look into the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy—one which made receiving asylum much more difficult for those seeking it. By the time This American Life began reporting our show, "The Out Crowd," tens of thousands of migrants were already living in makeshift tent camps along the US-Mexico border, waiting to hear about their asylum status. Many had been waiting for months. The camps were dangerous; migrants were targets of kidnapping, sexual violence and murder. The US State Department classified the camp in Matamoros as one of the most dangerous places in the world, on par with Syria and Iraq. My boss, Ira Glass, and I flew down to the camp to get a sense of how the nebulous government policies we’d heard about were affecting real people.
After reporting in the camp, Ira and I began piecing the story together. He had interviewed the camp nurse, and several migrants about their experiences. But, we decided to start the entire show with Darwin. It’s difficult to hear about the tremendous suffering of others. Brutal immigration stories, at this point, feel familiar. The terribleness of it all blurs together into one lump of sadness that no one can reasonably swallow. It’s easier for people to connect with a little boy who’s stuck in a bad situation, just trying to have fun. For me, it was delightful to watch Darwin move through the camp; watch him reclaim a tiny bit of power in the midst of a situation that left him so vulnerable to the powers that be. Introducing the episode with Darwin helped make the idea of listening to an hour-long show about human rights abuses a little more palatable—like melted cheese on top of the broccoli.
Making a story about Darwin reminded me that there’s power in specificity, a lesson I first learned in 7th grade at Key School, in Sarah Anderson’s class. Ms. Anderson assigned each student a character from a country. The assignment was to research what that person’s experience might have been like, based on who they were and where they were from.
I was assigned a teenage Christian boy from Trinidad. I quickly recognized how much more interesting it was to learn facts through a personal story instead of in bullet form. I remember getting carried away with the assignment and way overwriting the project. I stayed up late the night before it was due, because I couldn’t stop writing his story. A few weeks later, when Ms. Anderson returned our graded projects, she took me aside to explain my grade—an 82%—because there were so many typos. (She took a point off per typo. And she said she actually stopped deducting points halfway through my story because I would have failed the project had she done that!). But, she stressed that the story itself was rich—she liked the details—and she didn’t want me to be discouraged by my grade. She told me to keep writing. Now I get to write for a living. I get paid to get carried away, and fortunately, since I work in radio, my typos don’t count against me.
Months after we first broadcast "The Out Crowd," I got a call from my co-producer, Nadia Reiman. She told me we had won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize awarded to audio reporting. I’m grateful that the Pulitzer Committee finally extended this prestigious award to this medium that I love so much, and that they recognized how radio is uniquely capable of capturing the humanity of its subjects.
I’d be remiss if I ended this #KeyLife story without a short PSA. So bear with me. It’s been a little over a year since the episode came out. Since then, the few parts of the asylum system that remained by the time we reported on it have been almost entirely dismantled. And yet, thousands of people continue to live along the border in limbo, waiting to find out if they’re allowed to live here in the US. For now, it’s unclear when, or if, they’ll be granted entry.
Photo: Aviva with Darwin and his mother