Four Takeaways from NPR’s Ari Shapiro at JHSUM’s 35th

As a journalist, a Jew, and a person living in 21st century America, I was able to learn from NPR’s All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. Last week, Shapiro spoke on “Immigrants: Making a Difference” for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest’s 35th anniversary. He shared many takeaways from his experience reporting with immigrants, and here are my takeaways from his.

“It’s The Power Of Stories To Give Us Freedom”

“I feel like my goal as a journalist, as a story-teller, is to sort of cut through our preconceived notions and our snap judgments,” said Shapiro. The border with Mexico is in the news every day, and our views are so entrenched it can be difficult to get past what we think we know.

He said, “I think we often think of what’s happening on the southern border as kind of a cat and mouse game.” There are the border patrol agents and the immigrants, the brown people and white people, but Shapiro said, “It’s so much more a mixing bowl.”

In his reporting, Shapiro met a pair of next-door neighbors and best friends: an immigration lawyer and a border patrol officer. Their story freed up my mind to consider a nonbinary reality.

Tell a Big Story By Telling A Small Story

Shapiro said this is often done in journalism, but we also tell big stories by telling small stories every day: that’s why we have metaphors! And we all share the human experience, which is the big story our lives tell.

But in relation to immigrants, Shapiro said, “I think right now, global migration is one of the biggest stories, geographically, that you can imagine.” And this can be told through the individual stories of migrants. Shapiro said the experience of migrants is the same whether fleeing Venezuela or Syria or whether Rohingya Muslim or Jews of the 20th century.

We Are All The Same: Human

Shapiro quoted the Haggadah. He said, “In every generation, each person is obligated to see themselves as having personally left slavery in Egypt. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; now we are free.” As Shapiro stressed, it wasn’t ‘them’ who were slaves, and not our ancestors, but us. 

He noted our nasty habit of othering. In an NPR piece chronicling migrants and their journeys as they flee Venezuela on foot, Shapiro did something journalists never do. He spoke in the second person: “You climb up into the mountains,” “You reach the first big city since the border.”

Shapiro said it’s too easy for us to other people we hear about in these stories, and he “did not want to give people that escape hatch.”

“We Fail To Treat The Living Examples As Fully Human.” We Contradict Ourselves.

I’m not even going to try to say this myself, because Shapiro said it so well.

“Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile, and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human. Think of the hero of the stories that we tell: Moses in the book of Exodus, Ulysses in the Odyssey. We revere people who flee their homeland when they are in text. In life, we more often regard them with suspicion, fear, and judgment.”

Let that sink in.

And to wrap it up, another quote from Shapiro:

“Generally speaking, immigration is one of the most important stories today. And while this archive tells a specific immigration story about a specific group of people to this part of the country, all over the world, people who are not that different from any of us are being displaced and relocated. And I think that by understanding the immigrant experience, we can better understand what’s happening in the world today.”