From Storytelling to Direct Action: Katherine Boo, Senior Loeb Fellow at the Harvard GSD

140213 Katherine Boo_IGP9563.JPGOver the past two years, the Senior Loeb Fellows at the GSD have come two by two. In 2013, architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien visited, and now Sunil Khilnani and Katherine Boo are the 2014 Senior Loeb Fellows. Both pairings are married couples, connected also in their professional lives. Khilnani and Boo both seek to understand the mechanisms that assist and hinder more equitable and just societies. How to reduce poverty in India, the world’s most populous democracy? How to open pathways to a more opportunities for all? What are the roles and responsibilities of government? Boo, an American reporter, Pulitzer prizewinner, and MacArthur fellow, provoked wide-ranging questions during her Senior Loeb Scholar Lecture, “Innovation, Exploitation, and Documentation in the 21st-Century Slums.”

For decades Boo has been investigating the causes, conditions and trajectories of those living in poverty in the United States. When she embarked on a multi-year reporting project in India, the world’s most-populous democracy, she felt that theory had outpaced field conditions in the global discourse on poverty. In academia, why did we only hear about Dharavi, located in Mumbai city center and one of the largest slums in the world? Her long-term reporting project took her into Annawadi, an informal microcosm near Mumbai airport with a population of 3,000 people. The small scale was an opportunity to deeply understand which families would be sprung out of poverty, and which weren’t moving up. The reporting was the basis for Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

“I cast a very wide net,” Boo explains. “I follow people, whether they’re stealing metal from the airport, or attending colleges. I’m listening and observing much more than asking questions. As I learn from people in the community, I’m doing something close to my heart, using investigative reporting.” She argues that “longitudinal reporting” can provide feedback and accountability that institutions often lack. In Annawadi, she noticed an unsteadiness of work: six in 1000 people have permanent work, and the labor force is very fluid, with a lot of capital flowing in and out. From one day to the next, people can change occupations in response to factors such as fluctuations in commodity prices. Boo calls their tactics “serial survival entrepreneurship.” If governments better understand the mechanisms in the lives of residents, how might policies be better crafted?

For example Boo became familiar with Abdul, who has been collecting garbage since he was a child in order to support his family of 11 people. When Abdul was falsely accused of burning his neighbor, suddenly Boo was documenting not just garbage collection, but also a greater system of corruption in the criminal justice system. While her original agenda was not to attack corruption, through spending time in that place certain routes of indirect advocacy emerged.

When Boo first started her research in Annawadi, the landmark “Right to Information” was very underused in India. “After a lot of fights, I was able to get a lot of documents. That helps me distinguish between anomalies and trends.” As an investigative reporter, Boo has hard-won skills digging into information that some in power would like to hide. Using the RTI helped her to more deeply understand the challenges she observed within the specific context of India.

How does Boo’s reporting link to greater systems, such as politics? After the lecture, I spoke with a few people who had attended, like Miloon Kothari, who is from Delhi and currently a visiting scholar at MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice. Kothari forged a link between Boo’s talk and Sunil Khilnani’s talk the night before, which more specifically delved into the changing politics of Indian democracy. He saw value in Boo’s method of being anecdotal and revealing the stories of individuals, but wondered how the approach relates to bigger issues behind poverty, such as politics.

But the power of Boo’s work is in weaving a story that allows us entree to the experiences of others in very different contexts from our own. Kothari’s view is that many of the roadblocks to equitable societies are set at an institutional level, such as corruption, police arrogance, and the lack of civic services. The stories thus have three audiences: us looking in—the outsiders, the residents on the inside, and the perhaps the policymakers who are trying to figure out where the priorities lie. Boo explains, “I write with enough passion and nuance so that people in Cambridge can have a deeper response than pity—people in Dharavi don’t want the pity of those in Cambridge.” So what do they want? Well, her shining the spotlight on the microcosm has the potential to give them voice. When she was working with some residents to obtain an RTI, she reflected on how even the simple act of caring carries tremendous power. While Boo’s reporting does not appear to have immediate utility, the stories help policymakers make sense of statistics and make justified changes to the system, even if progress is glacial.

Khilnani’s talk the evening before analyzed the shifting political landscape in India. While very different in scope, as it barely grazed the granular texture, Khilnani’s lecture suggests a deep influence from Boo’s findings. The value and challenge for Boo and Khilnani is to link residents living in poverty with tools for political participation. I imagine a creative grafting between their very different methodologies could help pave the way.

For more about Katherine Boo’s talk, read “Chronicler of Poverty” in the Harvard Gazette.

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