Be the voices for the voiceless, says Kristof

Nicholas Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer award winning journalist whose op-ed columns for The New York Times have captivated the nation. His bi-weekly commentaries on current international events, as well as the publication of multiple books with common themes of human rights and development, have positioned him as an essential voice for those interested in being globally aware. Mr. Kristof delivered a talk titled “Why Students Should Care About the World & Change It” at Northwestern University on October 13. The event, co-sponsored by the CGL, GLI, Buffet Center, IPD, Medill and the Study Abroad Office, was open to both students and members of the public.

_MG_2276“Get outside of your comfort zone,” Kristof emphatically began his speech to a captivated audience of over 600 at Cahn Auditorium on Monday. Guests showed up in force to hear Kristof, a renowned journalist who is said to have “rewritten opinion journalism.” Kristof is known for telling the story of broader issues through the stories of individuals, a method that gives readers a chance to connect and identify with causes. This shone through in Kristof’s speech as well, as he led with a story of a 9-year-old girl who made a huge change in the lives of thousands, simply by making the decision to give her birthday gifts as donations to help get clean water in Ethiopia. As Kristof painted the picture of Rachel’s story, the crowd was hushed, and when the final total of her cause was revealed – $1.2 million – there was a communal gasp. “That is what trying to engage in a larger cause can do,” Kristof says. “In lives that are so chaotic, so busy, so much going on, this is something that can provide an overlay of purpose or meaning for all of us.” And this is the power of Kristof’s strategy; building powerful connections using the words he so skillfully weaves together to build a story that feels so real and close to audiences.

In 2009, Kristof co-authored “Half the Sky,” a book about women’s empowerment, with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The book was widely acclaimed, spawning a PBS broadcast event, a Facebook-hosted game and a significant amount of conversation across the country. “After writing Half the Sky, it seemed to us there are an awful lot of people who would like to make a difference, would like to find some kind of a larger purpose, have an impact, but don’t really know what to do,” Kristof recount. “They feel that the problems are so vast that they really don’t know they can have an impact.” This feeling, that the world’s problems are so big they cannot possibly be solved, is one of the main myths Kristof aims to disprove through his work as a journalist and an advocate. “But it also seems to us,” he said, “that we have new understanding, new tools, new platforms that do enable us to have greater assurance now that we can have a greater impact than we could some time ago.”

The biggest challenge Kristof sees in making these impacts is an empathy gap. People who have become successful in this country often attribute their success solely to their own hard work, he says, and forget about the circumstantial situation that may have affected them as well. This is part of the barrier to making a difference.

This year, Kristof and WuDunn have released a new book about becoming effective global citizens, titled “A Path Appears.” The book highlights their recent research surrounding people who are making a difference in the world, through efforts of highly varying levels. The fight against ‘opportunity gaps’, as Kristof calls them, should be our main priority, even more so than a fight against generally deemed inequality. “Issues of opportunity seem paramount,” Kristof says. “So how do we create more opportunities for people?”

He uses a few examples of how parenting decisions from birth make a significant difference in the future development and opportunities for their children. Yet these gaps are talked about much less frequently and have easier solutions than more notable causes. It is these topics that Kristof hopes to bring to light with the release of his new book.

There’s no question that Kristof has become an important public figure for many of the causes he writes about in his column. As his name has become more familiar within households across the country, he has found it challenging to become more than just a journalist, and in some cases, the sole source of international information. His priorities are getting facts right, being smart about what he says, and doing his best to hold his own feet to the fire.

Kristof denies a higher sense of purpose behind is massive dedication to human rights throughout the past few decades. Instead, “what drives me is seeing the things I see.” This was true with his research into female trafficking during “Half the Sky,” with his thorough reporting during the genocide in Darfur, and now for research around opportunity gaps in “The Path Appears.” Yet, while each of these causes can at times seem incredibly broad and overwhelming, Kristof’s main point of the night is how each individual can make a difference in their own way. There are three strong ways to get involved: donations, volunteering and advocacy, he says.

Kristof says he often pushes back to criticism about solving international problems while there are problems closer to home that also need attention and support. To this, he says, “I don’t think that our empathy or compassion should depend upon the color of somebody’s skin, or the color of their passport. It should be a broader humanistic concept.”

It is this kind of larger thinking that has made Kristof such a powerful figure of our time, and a man who has inspired so many individuals around the globe. On Monday night at Northwestern, his talk encouraged all in attendance to join him, step out of their comfort zones, and speak up for the voiceless.

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