Journalist Casey Parks turned a familiar topic into a compelling narrative by reporting deeply and avoiding the temptation to reduce education characters to archetypes.
By Alexander Russo
Last year, Livingston Award finalist Casey Parks left a highly coveted enterprise reporting gig at The Oregonian to enroll in Columbia University’s Journalism School Masters of Arts program.
Last month, a story based on her MA thesis was published in the New Yorker, which details the experiences of Dorian Ford, a 31-year-old mother of two boys who’s trying to finish her degree at Grambling State, a long-struggling HBCU.
Journalism about inadequate K-12 education and the college completion struggle is nothing new. And yet, Parks’ story stands out. The writing is lovely. She seems to empathize deeply with her characters. She’s clearly done an enormous amount of reporting. “It’s the reporting that makes the writing,” said Tali Woodward, the veteran journalist who edited the MA version of the piece, in a phone interview last week.
In the following Q and A, Parks talks about how the story came to be, how education writing can suffer from being “just” about education, and her techniques for making sure that her characters are more than archetypes – even on deadline. Parks’ thoughts are accompanied by a handful of comments from Ford, the main subject of the story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length — and may include some spoilers.
Parks’ New Yorker story came out the week of Thanksgiving, to widespread acclaim.
Alexander Russo: Why did you leave The Oregonian to go to grad school? People must have thought you were crazy.
Casey Parks: I had always regretted not having had a deeper education. There was a lot of stuff I had always wanted to know, and the program at Columbia was a mid-career program where you take classes on anything you want. But I thought I was crazy. At the Oregonian, I had an enterprise job covering diversity, and I worried that I would never have a job that good again. But I really wanted to write about the South.
AR: What were the hardest parts of reporting and writing this story?
CP: One challenge with a story like this is that it relies so much on reconstructed narrative. The first scene, I was there for it. I could write down everything that I saw. It’s a lot harder when you’re not there. It requires a lot of your sources, because you have to ask them very nitpicky questions, and you need details that they might not see as important, like “Do you remember what you ate for dinner that night 12 years ago?” The other tough part was that, when I started, Dorian really thought she was going to graduate in December. I had thought the story would end triumphantly with her graduating. It became harder to tell and report when she didn’t graduate. I saw her teach [at her former high school] one day. I knew then that this scene has to be the end. It had to work.
AR: How did you adjust your reporting relationship with her during this tough time?
CP: She was extremely bummed. She had family in town, and she was still trying to persuade her professor to let her graduate, so she did not return my phone calls as often as she had before. I wasn’t sure should whether I should give her space or whether I should watch her cry. I decided to give her space and went to the graduation without her to get a sense of what she was missing. Ultimately, when I came back to her over and over again the next few months, I was glad I hadn’t pushed too hard in December. But I wasn’t sure in the immediate moment what the right decision was. I was definitely nervous.
Ford (pictured above) says that it was a challenge “to be completely open and transparent about everything,” but calls the process of being part of the story “the experience of a lifetime.” She says she took one course four different times, despite having been a top student at her high school. “So many people don’t graduate college.”
AR: How did you choose the opening scene, which opens with the sentence, “Dorian Ford preferred to do her homework in the bathtub.”?
CP: I wanted to open with one that brought all the tensions of her life into one scene, and I thought this one worked because it showed the ways she was trying to balance motherhood with writing research papers — something she’d tell you was the hardest part of college for her. It also allowed me to show some of her financial situation, while also explaining that, though she didn’t have a lot of money, she grew up in a quiet neighborhood that bears little resemblance to the stereotypical versions of poverty we often see depicted. The scene takes place in two houses, one owned by her mother and one owned by her sister, that show her family has worked hard to be successful. And yet the kids who live in those houses are zoned to schools that the state knows will not set them up for academic success.
AR: What was the idea behind the outline that you settled on for this story?
CP: Most of my stories follow a basic formula: I want to begin the story with a scene that poses a question, that sets up the tension of the story, and ideally, I’d like it to be as close to present day as possible. In this case, the big question of the story is “Will Dorian graduate?” From there, I go back to the beginning and let the rest of the story unfold chronologically.
AR: How important is story structure to making a long piece like this work for readers?
CP: I am obsessed with structure. I have to outline on yellow legal notepads, and I usually do several drafts of outlines before settling on the right one. I also diagrammed a bunch of my favorite magazine stories—most of them by Katherine Boo or Rachel Aviv—to see how the stories I like work. Tali and I spent a few meetings talking about how to alternate between Dorian’s narrative, the school’s narrative, and all the context we needed to weave through. Then Tali and I outlined it together.
AR: What’s your favorite sentence or moment in the story – the one you had to fight to keep?
CP: I used to fight a lot more over that favorite sentence when I was younger. Now I’m more open to being edited. Editors also want the best for the story. I think my favorite part is when Dorian’s son Matthew tells her, “I desire to be a math genius.” That line has never stopped making me smile. So many stories about black boys in particular don’t ever show them in that way, yearning for an education. It is such a sweet goal, him out there punching on that phone, trying to use it as a calculator. Everything that Dorian was trying to do was to make a better life for her son, though she knows how fraught his dream could be. It is also a really sad moment for me. The whole story is encapsulated in that moment. It’s a black kid dreaming in a world that is not going to support those dreams.
Parks’ favorite moment from the story, where Ford’s younger son declares, “I desire to be a math genius.”
AR: How has the response been so far?
CP: I don’t think I ever had a story tweeted or liked that much. I don’t try to judge myself by social media, but I’m happy that it’s getting read. The coolest part is seeing people in Shreveport read it. People are rooting for Dorian. It’s a very long story, so to have people who are not journalists read 8,400 words, or however long it is, is amazing. I have heard from a few people who had different experiences at Byrd or Grambling, though, who didn’t like the story. I do think there are a lot of Dorians out there, but ultimately this is her story, and there are others out there with different middles and endings.
AR: Why are folks responding so strongly?
CP: One reason may be because Dorian was so open with herself so that other people could see themselves in her. The interesting thing about her story is that it has a lot of scope. A lot of times stories get pegged down to be about one issue. But all these systems overlap with one another. This is a story about Grambling, but it’s also about the elementary school she attended, and the high schools Byrd and Woodlawn. It’s about Shreveport itself. I think Dorian and her family’s willingness to go through their entire life story that way gives readers a chance to really see how complicated it is.
Ford says that this first image of her and her son is a favorite. “I had just shook some life into him and reminded him that although it’s raining and you’re sliding everywhere, the game must go on! That’s life, go face it head on.”
AR: How do you think about being a white person writing about communities other than the ones you know first-hand?
CP: I spent three years on the diversity beat at The Oregonian. That meant I wrote about a lot of people from communities I don’t identify as. The main advice I have is to have humility. It’s not only being willing to learn about those communities, it’s also understanding if people don’t want to teach you about them. Every community has different cultural norms, so I try to be humble and communicate that I want to understand your community without saying ‘tell me everything there is to be about being Chinese’ or whatever the case may be. We shouldn’t put people in that position.
AR: How did you address racial differences between you and Dorian in this piece?
CP: It didn’t come up with Dorian because we have a lot in common in other ways. We both grew up in the same part of the country, our mothers were both young when they had us, we’re the same age, and we’re both first-generation college students. However, I did wonder a lot writing this story how people would see a white person writing about HBCUs, especially about the times when Grambling doesn’t look good in the story. I imagined someone saying, ‘there are so many things to investigate, why would you look at the grad rate of HBCUs?’ But to me Grambling was a victim of underfunding for many years. I wanted to be able to contextualize the story, to show it’s not just that Grambling was failing as an institution. But I definitely felt nervous about that.
AR: What new thing did you have to learn to make this story work?
CP: I didn’t know a lot about academic research before I went to Columbia. But it helped me a ton to understand the larger forces and stories. In particular, Marybeth Gasman, who studies HBCUs, and Susan Dynarski, who studies economics and education, especially as it relates to first-generation college students. I learned more about why poor students struggle in college, and also about what colleges have been able to do to help them succeed. I read a lot of studies on just how hard the FAFSA is to fill out, about how important college match is, about the non-academic barriers—transportation, for instance—that derail a student’s education. There are a lot of proven interventions, but some are quite extensive and expensive. All the academic research taught me how to ask Dorian better questions and also to situate Grambling’s story in a broader context. One thing I learned is that though HBCUs have low graduation rates, they still produce a disproportionate number of the nation’s African American graduates, especially in STEM. So they are much more successful than the portrait that is sometimes painted of them.
“Take a lesson from Casey,” says Ford (right). “She told my story, not a portion of it. She did it all, from my point of view and from a historical point of view.”
AR: What insights or advice would you share with education reporters?
CP: I think that education reporters have a really tough job. There are so many privacy concerns. How do you get a bigger view? You’re meeting people at schools. You have to thread in the pedagogy. It’s tough to fit all that into a compelling story on deadline. My favorite education stories follow people out of the schools into their homes. They widen the lens so we can see the world in a larger context. You get to know the teachers themselves as human beings. I think sometimes in education stories no one is a real, complex human; they’re just an archetype. There’s good reason for that. It takes a lot of time to get to know people, and reporters don’t always have the luxury of waiting. But anytime you can show someone as their own unique person, showing what motivates them and what they have going on beyond the world of school, is to me really illuminating.
AR: How do you get that broad human depiction into your work, especially when you’re on deadline?
CP: There is a story I wrote recently about undocumented kids playing soccer in New Orleans, and I wanted to know what their neighborhoods looked like, what they did at home. It was a short, quick story, so I didn’t have time to go to their home, but I wanted to see them as people with neighborhoods and bedrooms and lives, so I asked them to describe those things for me. Long ago, when I was a baby reporter I got assigned to cover the state chess tournament, and I was writing about this kid who had won. I asked him, ‘Where do you keep your trophy,’ and he told me that he kept it in a safe at home because his two-year-old brother would chew on it otherwise. At night, after his brother went to sleep, he took it out of the safe, then slept with it in his bed. That is a detail about school but it’s not in school, and, 12 years later, I can still imagine that kid hugging his trophy as he falls asleep.
‘Complicating the narratives’ in education journalism (Amanda Ripley)
Behind the scenes of ‘America to Me’ (Kevin Shaw)