By Stephanie Habib
Leon Dash’s resume is the envy of any budding journalist, sporting a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy Award and an award-winning book.
At the Walter Cronkite School’s Must See Mondays event on Feb. 4, Dash spoke to students about the topic related to many of his accomplishments: the “American underclass.”
“I can see permanent underclasses developing,” Dash said, citing his travels to China and parts of Africa as evidence of this phenomenon.
An example of Dash’s work on the underclass is his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for the Washington Post — an eight-part story he wrote in 1994 that revolved around the life of Rosa Lee Cunningham.
Cunningham, 53 at the time, lived in a notoriously rough part of Washington, D.C., and represented what Dash described as a modern American crisis: poverty and crime in the urban heart of the city.
Dash later adapted the series into a book about Cunningham called “Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America.”
His experiences with long-form journalism were firsthand accounts of working with the American underclass.
Dash became involved with a project to report on rehabilitation of U.S. prison inmates in 1971. Over the course of several months, he interviewed a father and son who were incarcerated in the same Washington, D.C. prison. Neither man could read.
“That told me that this process of rehabilitation could not work. They had never been habilitated,” Dash said.
Further research uncovered that people unable to read were being pushed through the city’s school system.
This look at the effects of poverty was just one of several for Dash, who went on to report the rising rates of adolescent childbearing in urban communities.
Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite school, introduced Dash at the Must See Mondays event.
Gilger met Dash through his work with the National Center on Disability and Journalism, a center affiliated with the Cronkite School.
“He’s an amazing journalist,” Gilger said in an interview before the lecture, citing Dash’s time reporting on Angolan guerrillas in Africa. Dash racked up an approximate 2,100 miles on foot through war-torn Angola, Gilger said.
“He’s someone I want students to know,” she said.
In her introduction at the event, Gilger cited Dash’s work on Cunningham and her family as being one of the top 100 works of 20th-century journalism. The list was compiled by the New York University journalism department.
She also noted Dash’s expertise on issues of diversity in journalism, and said she feels this is an important topic of discussion for journalism students.
“Issues of diversity affect all levels of journalism,” Gilger said. “They are not confined to one type of reporting.”
In addition to speaking on this topic, Dash provided students with interviewing tips that helped him when working with people who were not always willing to open up.
“Your eyes will reveal your judgment,” Dash said.
He said that journalists must be careful to avoid allowing personal feelings to affect their interviewing skills through expression in their eyes and their voices.
“(His lecture) really inspired me,” journalism freshman Josh Burton said.
Burton said Dash’s discussion of the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in American society stood out the most to him. He feels that people get caught up in today’s politics and celebrity stories and forget about other groups.
“I think, as journalists, it’s our duty to represent them,” Burton said.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org