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Leon Dash: Lessons in Listening

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Every journalism class in America should include the story of Leon Dash, an African-American reporter for the Washington Post who more than a quarter of a century ago rented an apartment in one of Washington D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods and spent a year living there trying to find out why so many young girls were getting pregnant.

And they should read the following passage from his book based on the series that ran in the Washington Post, When Children Want Children that set aside his (and everyone else's) assumptions about the story.

I met Tauscha Vaughn for the first time on a hot, sunny afternoon of September 7, 1984, and we talked for several hours in her family's living room. She appeared to be a tough, extroverted, self-assured girl. She knew where she was going and what she wanted out of life. She was sixteen. In three days she would enroll for her junior year at Ballou High School, in the far-southeast corner of Washington, DC.

For an hour I kept asking questions about what teenagers know, don't know, or misunderstand about contraceptives. Obviously tiring of my probing, Tauscha leaned forward over the coffee table and looked at me as if I were a naïve child.

She spoke in a husky voice. "Mr. Dash," will you please stop asking me about birth control? Girls out here know all about birth control. There's too many birth-control pills out here. All of them know about it. Even when they twelve, they know what (birth control) is. Girls out here get pregnant because they want to have babies! You need to learn what's going on inside people's homes these days!"

Her words shocked me into silence. I tried to regroup my thoughts. This was only my second interview for The Washington Post with an adolescent on the subject of teenage childbearing. And it was not what I expected. I thought to myself: Stop! Drop all assumptions, presumptions and extrapolations from your childhood. It's time to listen.

Lucky students today continue to benefit from what Dash can teach them about "immersion" journalism and the reporter's role in exposing and explaining the lives of the most marginalized among us. Dash is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is the Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism and Director of the Center for Advanced Study.

Dash went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1995 for "Rosa Lee's Story" an equally extraordinary reporting feat of focus and illumination -- he spent four years chronicling the story of Rosa Lee Cunningham -- a Washington D.C. heroin addict who had eight children by six different fathers and was dying of AIDS. His book Rosa Lee: A Mother and her Family in Urban America detailed how poverty, a lack of education, negligible parenting skills and a transplanted legacy of slavery in the South created a life so seemingly foreign yet ultimately familiar and relateable.

In a recent interview Dash opened up about both these projects, as well as what he teaches young journalists today and his thoughts on the black underclass in 2011.

His signature "immersion" interview methodology began during the year he lived in the Washington Highlands projects and repeatedly interviewed the young girls about their pregnancies. After his epiphany moment when he realized the girls were choosing to get pregnant he went on to fully explore the reasons why.

"I think the decision boosted their status among family and peers -- and filled an emotional niche, a human need, an emptiness they wanted filled." he says, "And frankly it was because they weren't getting a quality education -- even at the elementary level they knew they were not prepared to go into the job market. Many had low reading levels, they were acting out in class and walking the halls to get suspended -- they were ducking class because they didn't have the reading skills. It was avoidance - they had never been taught to read."

Dash attributes the same lack of a decent education to the troubled life of Rosa Lee Cunningham.

"When I look at Rosa Lee and say 'there for the grace of God go I, I really mean it," says Dash, "My parents were working class civil servants but had middle class aspirations for me and my brother." Dash recounts a time when he was an 8th grader in public school in Harlem and his father asked him a simple civics question that completely stumped him. "My father told me years later he hadn't realized until that day that the school system had deteriorated so badly." His parents transferred him to a different public school and then to private school in midtown Manhattan.

"Rosa didn't have the kind of options I had... when she was growing up her mother was raising her in the southern rural tradition to be a domestic in white people's homes. While her brothers went out to play after school she was required to pull the sheets and do the laundry. She told me she would say to herself under her breath 'I'm not going to work in white people's homes.' And she didn't."

Nowadays Dash requires his students to pick a subject and interview that person a record seven times to learn to get the real story. He insists they tape the interviews in order to establish eye contact and rapport with the subject. The first interview is restricted to their earliest memory of school up until the completion of their formal education. The second is confined to family history -- childhood memories up to age 18 or so. The third involves church life (he emphasizes that even agnostics and atheists arrived there on some kind of journey), the fourth centers on life outside the family -- relationships with friends. Then it gets interesting.

"Between the third and fourth interview contradictions should begin to emerge," says Dash, "and the next three interviews focus on contradictions without saying they are contradictions, and then the real details pour out."

He continues, "Everyone is who they are today because of what went on before, what was prologue. This exercise is a discovery project, I give clues and direction...you're not going to get the truth from anyone you're talking to until you establish rapport and that person takes off his or her public mask. It's a mask we all wear and to get this person to take off the mask, it has to be voluntary and you as the interviewer have to be neutral. It won't work if they think you are judging them."

Looking back, Dash shares why he chose the stories he did and how he reported them.

"I wanted answers," he says, "When I returned from to Washington in 1984 from Africa (Dash served as the Post's West African bureau chief from 1979-1084) a friend had told me that 53 percent of African-American kids were born to single mothers- I was stunned - how did that happen? And when she added that over a third of the mothers were adolescents I had to find out why."

That statistic is even higher today. "I was shocked by 53 percent," says Dash, "It's 70 percent today. What does that say? The situation has worsened, significantly. Now, 26 years later, 70 percent of all black children born in America in 2010 were children of single mothers and that number is increasing. The black middle class doesn't want this material written about - they see the larger white society seeing blacks as a monolith - that the behavior of one part of the black community is the behavior of all blacks. They don't want this discussed in any depth because it feeds into stereo types. Well, my position is let's get over that and get on with presenting the reality of the black poor. And that reality is devastating and getting worse."

As Black History Month comes to a close let's celebrate the work, the patience and the heart of journalist and teacher Leon Dash.