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Students converse with Pulitzer Prize winners in lunchtime Q&A

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first married couple to win journalism’s highest honor, took questions from Elon University students Thursday in a Whitley Auditorium conversation on the education of girls, their roles as storytellers and the “white savior complex.”

From left: Resa Walch, chair of Elon University's Department of Health and Human Performance; Sheryl WuDunn; and Nicholas Kristof. WuDunn and Kristof are the first husband-and-wife team to win the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor.

The education of girls in the developing world is one of the most effective ways to create positive change, and according to two Pulitzer Prize winners visiting campus Thursday, it’s also one of the biggest threats to male extremists who use violence to suppress women of all ages.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, took questions from Elon University students on Oct. 2, 2014, in Whitley Auditorium prior to headling Fall Convocation and the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture in Alumni Gym.

Topics ranged from how the duo separate their human instincts to help others from their professional roles as unbiased reporters; potential difficulties of working as a woman in certain parts of the world; and their predictions about the effects of ongoing protests in Hong Kong, where college students are opposed to China's influence in local elections.

The most time was spent on the themes of educating girls - a subject on which Kristof had just featured in a New York Times column about ISIS and other extremists - and the "white savior complex."

“Educating girls is a pretty broad way to address a lot of issues, through different mechanisms,” Kristof said of helping to educate girls everywhere. “One of, if not the most important, is the impact on birth rates. If you educate a girl, it has a dramatic effect on the number of children she’s likely to have, and there are so many problems in the developing world correlated with birth rates.

“Beyond that, I do think that societies that are completely male-dominated, especially dominated by young men, have an aggressive character to them. Some scholars argue the reason the American West was so violent in the 19th century is that it was dominated by young men. They’re certainly not perfect, but when girls are educated and move into the formal economy and the civil sector and the government, and they have a strong voice, it moderates national behavior.

“Extremists recognize very clearly the threat that comes from educated girls.”

WuDunn further elaborated on Kristof's remarks.

Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof
“It’s also important to recognize that women provide a stabilizing force in some of these cultures. When they take on a formal role in the economy, they start competing with men,” she said. “It means that women are much stronger when they have a voice, and that’s hard for certain cultures when they’re not accustomed to it.”

Kristof and WuDunn spoke about the “white savior complex” of Westerners who travel to developing nations to solve problems. They suggested that rather than too many Americans or Europeans attempting to solve African problems, there instead aren’t enough.

From diseases such as Ebola to armed conflicts in the Congo that have left millions dead over the past few decades, the region sees relatively little help from outsiders. If these things were happening to white people, Kristof said, the Western world would have responded much more quickly.

However, he said, there’s a related point to consider.

“In general, whether it’s journalists or humanitarians who write about Africa and other parts of the developing world, we focus so much on the problems that we leave people with the impression that the whole region is a mess,” he said. “If we’re writing about Africa, and all we’re doing is covering Ebola in West Africa and the Congo conflict in Central Africa and terrorists in East Africa, there is some risk that we leave Americans with the impression that this is what Africa is like .... Write about the problems and cover them, but periodically try to acknowledge that it’s unrepresentative and that there’s a lot of progress being made.”

WuDunn continued the conversation on the “white savior complex” by sharing the story of her grandmother, whose feet were bound as a child with a “barbaric” cultural practice that forever left countless women unable to walk. Foreign missionaries were horrified at the practice. Over time, working first through Chinese intellectuals and, eventually, local marriage associations, the practice was dropped.

Elon sophomore Alex Vandermaas-Peeler introduced Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof at an Oct. 2, 2014, Q&A with students in Whitley Auditorium three hours before Fall Convocation and the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture.

Neither WuDunn nor her mother ever had to experience that disfiguring practice.

“I’m so thankful that the foreigners had come in and tried to eradicate it,” said WuDunn, who soon pointed to a larger lesson. “What we learned is that what matters is the method. You have to work with the locals, show that something is a partnership and that we need to work on something together. We don’t want the credit. We just want you to change a practice that is barbaric.”

Kristof and WuDunn won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their New York Times coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement and have co-authored three best-selling books: “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”; “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power”; and “Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia.”

Resa Walch, chair of the Department of Health and Human Performance, moderated the lunch hour discussion. Elon University sophomore Alex Vandermaas-Peeler introduced the two journalists.



Eric Townsend,
10/2/2014 5:40 PM