“The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.” Nicholas Kristof

New York Times reporters and Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn share their journey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there and how we can learn from others to make a difference.

"One of the best ways to fight poverty is to educate women and give them economic opportunity."- Sheryl Wudunn

They have written best-selling books: China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Emy diGrappa (00:03):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences, and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwy.org.

Sheryl WuDunn (00:17):

And, we thought, “Again, this is Asia.” And, we began to tease something out that maybe this is kind of more broad than just Asia, and just China, and then, just Asia, and we weren't even sure if this was, um, a real book, but we wrote it (laughs) and it turned out to be Half the Sky.

Emy diGrappa (00:39):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care? And, what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And, what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why.

Today we are talking to Pulitzer Prize winning authors, filmmakers and journalists, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Welcome.

Sheryl WuDunn (01:27):

Thank you for having us.

Nicholas Kristof (01:28):

Good to be here.

Emy diGrappa (01:29):

Our focus today is to talk about your personal passions for the two books you have written, Half the Sky, and A Path Appears, your work as journalists, and your support for the humanities as I have read in Nicholas's articles in the New York Times. First of all, Sheryl-

Sheryl WuDunn (01:44):

Mm.

Emy diGrappa (01:44):

... just talking about your books, your first one, Half the Sky, what was your passion in writing that, and what was your journey down that road to start that book?

Sheryl WuDunn (01:52):

Well, actually, the first book we wrote was China Wakes, way back after we were living in China as foreign correspondents for The New York Times, and that actually was the seeds for what later, many years later became Half the Sky, and that's because, first of all, Half the Sky comes from a Chinese saying, basically, Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao Zedong, who said, “Women hold up half the sky.” And, when we were living in China, we noticed that there was a slight feeling of discrimination against women, in the sense that there were many babies who were female, who were missing from the Chinese population, and over the years, accumulated, it turned out there were 30 million missing female babies from the Chinese population.

                 And, at the time, we thought, uh, we wrote about this in China Wakes, our first book, and we thought, ”Well, this is just China.” China is full of contradictions, very, very fascinating country, full of good and evil, so we just, you know, relegated it to that, and then, we moved to Asia, to Japan, and we wrote a book about Asia, and also, there was a chapter that, in the book o- on women, there was discrimination against women also in Asia, but again, it was one chapter in 20 plus chapters, and we thought again, "This is Asia." And, we began to tease something out that maybe this is kind of more broad than just Asia, than just China, and then, just Asia, and we weren't even sure if this was, um, a real book, but we wrote it (laughs) and it turned out to be Half the Sky.

Emy diGrappa (03:19):

And so, from there, you went from Half the Sky, and then, went on to write A Path Appears.

Sheryl WuDunn (03:25):

That's right.

Emy diGrappa (03:26):

So, how many years later was that?

Nicholas Kristof (03:28):

It was five years later. Essentially, after we wrote Half the Sky, people kept asking us, “So, what do I do?” And, we wanted to answer that question. I mean, it seemed to us that a lot of Americans want to make a difference, aspire to find some kind of greater purpose or meaning, but [inaudible 00:03:41] skeptical about whether anyone really can make a difference, or are distrustful of A groups, and often, frankly, legitimately, and so, we wanted to re- address that, and kind of give people a sense of what they can do either with money or with time that really will truly make a difference either at home or abroad, and it was always A Path Appears.

Sheryl WuDunn (04:01):

We also wanted to broaden it beyond women and girls, because there were so many people saying, “What about the men and the boys?” Because, they are definitely part of a society that needs to help change attitudes towards women, and it really is men and women, boys and girls working side by side to change the attitudes towards women, but also, to change attitudes towards people who are underprivileged, people who are impoverished, and we found that there were so many fascinating things that people were doing, so many innovative startups, both in the for profit, and the not for profit world. It was just a, “Wow, ho- how can we haven't been hearing so much about all these myriad things that are going on?” And, we said, “Well, we've got to write about this.”

Emy diGrappa (04:39):

Do you think the media plays up the negative, and doesn't tell you about the inspiration of these people's lives, and maybe the, the stories that inspire you that there is a good side to a human (laughs) nature, and, and you don't just see all the horror?

Nicholas Kristof (04:52):

You know, I think there is a legitimate problem that we in the news business, our role is to cover planes that crash, not planes that take off (laughs), and in the context of aviation, we understand that, though there're planes are taking off all the time. I think in the context of global poverty, in particular, people don't, and they sort of think that, th- (laughs) you know, the whole world is a mess, that there's no improvement. In fact, there's been spectacular improvement, child mortality dropped in half since 1990, huge gains in girls literacy, and other areas, and we still are in the business of covering planes that crash, but we still have to provide that context to underscore that there has indeed been progress, and there can continue to be progress if we focus on the right things.

Emy diGrappa (05:34):

Tell me one of your favorite inspiring stories that really has touched your heart in your travels?

Sheryl WuDunn (05:40):

Well, there is a story about a little girl named Rachel. We write about her in A Path Appears, and she's about eight years old, and living in Seattle, and she hears about, from her church, the fact that in, in parts of Africa a lot of people don't have clean water, and she was just horrified, this is something that she grew up with, that, you know, she had clean water. How come other people don't? And so, she decided to raise money through Charity: Water for digging wells in places where people don't have clean water, and so, she set as her goal $300, and a few days before her ninth birthday, well, she wasn't going to make it. She was a little disappointed. Then Rachel and her family got in a car crash. Rachel was critically injured, and she was sent to the hospital in critical condition, and people wanted to show their sympathy, and they remembered her fundraiser, it's a birthday fundraiser on Charity: Water, and they started donating, you know.

                 So she, you know, raised way past $300, and then, her family had to make the heartbreaking decision of pulling her off life support, because she wasn't going to make it, and then, that, at that point, people basically, there was an outpouring of sympathy way beyond what it was beforehand, and see, saw past $500,000 up to basically $1.2 million dollars. She raised $1.2 million for the cause, and it was a dramatic loss for her family, but her mother, a year later went out to visit the families who got clean water, because of what her daughter had done, and when she went out there, and she visited the, the mothers and the daughters who knew her story, at each well, they placed what you could call a tombstone thanking Rachel for what she had done, and her mother just broke down in tears saying, “Oh, this is what my daughter did, she did far more than what I have done in my lifetime.”

Emy diGrappa (07:25):

Mm.

Sheryl WuDunn (07:25):

So, it made her think, “You know, Rachel had a real purpose in her life.” And so, it makes us all think, you know, what is our purpose in life?

Emy diGrappa (07:33):

That brings tears to my eyes, and I did read your book (laughs) and I did watch the film documentary, but just hearing you recount that, that's an amazing story. How about you Nicholas?

Nicholas Kristof (07:43):

People often ask why we focus so much on women and girls, and, you know, it's partly because what we've seen in terms of the impact of investing in, in girls as a way of transforming societies, and one place we saw this was in rural China. In 1990 we were writing about so many girls were dropping out of school, because they were girls, and we chose as the [inaudible 00:08:06] for this phenomenon, this girl who just dropped out of sixth grade, for one of $13. Her name was Dai Manju, and we wrote about her, and her picture was on the front page of the New York Times three columns, and so, you can imagine readers wanted to support her, they flooded us with checks for $13 for the most part, and we also got one wire transfer for $10,000.

                 We took all this money down to the school, and they used that money to ensure that all girls in that village would be able to stay in school as long as they can maintain the grade, that for the first time in this village your academic prospects will be a function not of your chromosomes, but of your capacity. That was in 1990. We followed up periodically over the years, and it's kind of extraordinary. I mean, all of China has gotten richer, all of this province, Hubei has gotten richer, but this village is truly transformed. That girl herself became the first in her family to graduate from elementary school, from middle school, from high school, became an accountant. So many other girls who otherwise would have ended up in the rice paddies got a great education in, uh, ways that didn't just advantage them, but helped the whole community.

                 So, you go back (laughs) and it's sort of extraordinary how this village has been catapulted way above all the others all around it, because of this complete fluke, this accident of these gifts to that one school back in 1990. It's a reminder of the power of educating girls.

Emy diGrappa (09:28):

So, I just have one last question before we leave, and since I work for the Wyoming Humanities Council, I wanted to ask you about your support for the humanities, and I've read some articles that you've written in support, and I want you to just tell our audience about that.

Nicholas Kristof (09:44):

We obviously need the sciences, and we need people to have the rigor of math, and quantitative methods, but I think there's sometimes a tendency today to just shrug at humanity's and think they're a ticket to nowhere. In fact, I think that often they do convey a certain skill, and critical thinking, a capacity for analysis that benefits whatever one may end up doing, and I think that also, it's important to remember that scientific abilities also need to be regulated in ways that are determined not by science itself, but by the ethical concerns of a larger society. If we have the capacity to tinker with our germ line of our genes, so that we can change the human genome indefinitely, that's an incredible decision that we as a society will have to make, and that's one that is going to be informed by ethics going back to Socrates and Aristotle, fundamentally, will depend as much on the humanities as it does on the sciences.

                 Sure, the scientists are transforming the world. We definitely need sciences, and those quantitative methods, but we also need a dose of humanities to leaven them in this 21st century.

Emy diGrappa (10:56):

Well, you know, I heard a professor say it shouldn't be called STEM it should be called STEAM, and should add the arts (laughs) and the humanities in there. One more thing that I was just thinking of because you're such a beautiful couple, and how did you meet?

Sheryl WuDunn (11:08):

We met in Los Angeles, and we were basically introduced by a friend [crosstalk 00:11:11].

Emy diGrappa (11:11):

Oh, yeah? (laughs).

Sheryl WuDunn (11:12):

A fellow journalist, so, uh, and we're ever grateful to her. I mean, you know, (laughs) we've seen her a couple of times, and it's just so funny.

Emy diGrappa (11:18):

Matchmaking still does exist.

Nicholas Kristof (11:19):

(laughs).

Emy diGrappa (11:20):

How many children do you have?

Nicholas Kristof (11:21):

We have three kids.

Emy diGrappa (11:23):

Ooh.

Nicholas Kristof (11:23):

Three wonderful kids.

Emy diGrappa (11:24):

That is so great. Well, it's so wonderful to see you together, because I have a daughter. She decides she wouldn't marry a man who wouldn't be willing to adopt, and so, they adopted a little boy from Hong Kong, and they really, I mean, that's her, been her heart's desire, is to have an orphanage, and so I was thinking about you to how you really have to have the same heart to do what you do.

Sheryl WuDunn (11:47):

And, we're always really admiring of the people who are on the front lines, working in refugee camps. I mean, my heartbreaks when I think of the work that they do. I mean, really, we're just writers (laughs).

Nicholas Kristof (11:57):

We're just in the lighting business, we shine our spotlights on those people, and they're out in the, on the front lines, take incredible risks, doing extraordinary work, and it's a privilege to shine our spotlights on their work.

Emy diGrappa (11:57):

Thank you so much.

Sheryl WuDunn (11:57):

Thank you so much.

Nicholas Kristof (11:57):

(laughs) thank you.

Emy diGrappa (12:15):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This Think Why podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkwy.org.