August 1, 2017

Sarah Stillman on shedding light on human rights issues

Sarah Stillman, staff writer at The New Yorker, always gravitated towards stories at the margins of mainstream storytelling.

Sarah Stillman believes that narrative is a powerful tool to draw attention to the unseen or unheard stories, because it’s through actual connection to human characters that we alter our thinking about things that we otherwise feel we don’t need to know about. “People don’t really care about issues so much as they care about the stories and the characters that bring those issues to life”, she says.

Now a National Magazine Award winner and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Sarah has been passionate about writing since high school. When she was 16, she wrote a book titled Soul Searching, as she had been frustrated that most of the reading material available for teen girls assumed they’d only be interested in boy bands and lip-gloss. “I was frustrated, too, that most of the books about female adolescence focused on the various traumas that can afflict girls during that period: eating disorders, depression, drug addiction, and more. The sort of book I wanted to read – but couldn’t seem to find on shelves – was about how girls could actually take some control over their own lives and contribute to their communities: a book that took girls seriously as change agents in their homes, schools, and world”, she said about writing the book.

Just six years after graduating from Yale, Sarah had written for The Nation, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic’s website. When it comes to reporting, Sarah says she is one of those reporters who likes to cast a really wide net, research-wise. “Reporting, for me, is an incredible joy – or, at least, a rush of fascination and adrenaline and a sense of how lucky I am to get to do what I do”.

In 2011, she wrote The Invisible Army, one of her first immersive, narrative pieces. Sarah wrote about the conditions in which workers lived in American units in Afghanistan and Iraq. “As soon as I arrived, I noticed that these workers were ubiquitous. Everywhere I went, they were cooking all of the food, they were cleaning the latrines, they were trucking all of the goods from here to there. You couldn’t be in Iraq and not see them”, she explained.

After this experience she co-taught a seminar at Yale on the war in Iraq. She also ran a creative writing workshop for four years at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in Connecticut. Sarah said she learned a lot about “what it means to use literature and personal narrative as a means of building trust, across time, in environments built to disassemble”.

Sarah wrote a series of articles about the US criminal justice system. She explored the consequences of both decades-old policies and attempts at reform in Taken, an article about rampant use of civil forfeiture in Tenaha. The piece has been cited in court challenges to such seizures, and in 2015 federal cooperation in the practice was prohibited. In addition, in 2016 she published The List explaining what happens when juveniles are found guilty of sexual misconduct.

For the article Where Are The Children?, written in 2015, she traveled across Mexico with Central American mothers whose children or husbands had disappeared while trying to enter the US.

Sarah is also the Director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, devoted to long-form reporting on immigration and refugees, and won a an impressive list of awards: a National Magazine Award in 2012 for her reporting on abuses of war-zone workers, the Michael Kelly Award, the Overseas Press Club’s Joe and Laurie Dine Award for international human-rights reporting, as well as the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism. Her reporting on the high-risk use of young people as confidential informants in the war on drugs received a George Polk Award and the Molly National Journalism Prize. Currently, she is focused on studying U.S. immigration enforcement and incarceration in the age of President Donald Trump.

Register for #Story17 to hear Sarah talk about how the narrative form can create empathy and how we bring experiences to our audiences, especially those about people they don’t normally pay attention to.