PBS NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from what he calls the “global south,” but lives in Highland Park, and has a new Winona-based funder: St. Mary’s University.
It’s not every journalist in these economically stressed times who can find a university benefactor, but for De Sam Lazaro (disclaimer: MinnPost board member), it’s the second.
Collegeville-based St. John’s was an earlier partner for Under-Told Stories, de Sam Lazaro’s reporting/teaching project. He would travel to places like Sudan, PBS viewers would see the results, and students at St. John’s would get a literally real-world seminar every fall.
Why the move to St. Mary’s? “I forgot to write in my contract that the president not die,” de Sam Lazaro says.
He had a personal relationship with then-St. John’s president Dietrich Reinhart, a dedicated internationalist who resigned in 2008 because of health concerns and died months later. “It happened during an economic downturn, the embrace of the program wasn’t there any more,” says de Sam Lazaro, whose relationship with the school ended last year.
St. Mary’s is funding Under-told Stories at a bigger scale — about a quarter of the project, with the bulk coming from the NewsHour, he explains. The idea is to bring back material that is “valuable in the classroom, anecdotes that don’t make it into stories. It’s not the same as textbook learning — we speak plain English, and the method seems to appeal to students.”
St. Mary’s — like St. John’s, a Catholic school — offered a couple of differences. St. Mary’s Minneapolis campus is 81 miles closer to de Sam Lazaro’s front door than Collegeville, and the grad-school student body at that Phillips neighborhood campus includes many émigrés from Under-told Stories countries. (The school also has a Nairobi campus.)
“On balance, it’s certainly true that St. Mary’s in Phillips is more reflective of the world we go to compared to St. John’s, which is much less diverse,” de Sam Lazaro says. “But on an intellectual level, there’s appeal to both places. It was good to reach behind the ‘Pine Curtain,’ as they say [at St. John’s], but at St. Mary’s, the presence of students from around the world changes the interaction.”
De Sam Lazaro — whose formal title is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership — says he’s out of country about eight to ten days a month. The Under-told Stories roster features stories from Pakistan, India, Israel, Jordan, Cambodia, South Africa and Kenya — and that was only the last half of 2010.
Not bad for a guy who worked for KTCA’s “Almanac” for two months in 1985 before becoming PBS’s upper Midwest bureau chief, de Sam Lazaro’s eventual gateway to the world.
“We try to make the foreign less foreign,” he says of Under-told Stories. “Why are we engaged with Malawi, with the Congo, what relevance is there to us as Americans, as Minnesotans? Not just in a moral vacuum, but in terms of economic and security interests, what opportunity there is for students. We also look at social entreprenuerialism as a way to look at the world’s problems. We’re not sugar-coating stories, but we’re casting things as solutions-oriented.”