Stepping into another’s world: A visit from Kari Lydersen

In a small bar in Jamestown, New York, Kari Lydersen sat with locals to get perspective in their world. Their topic of choice was the opioid epidemic.

Lydersen, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, writes frequently about how painkillers and heroin affects Rust Belt cities. As a co-director of the Social Justice News Nexus, a fellowship at Medill that focuses on investigative/social justice, Lydersen shared the importance of empathy and objectivity with Denison students.

“You have to help tell people’s stories without presenting it in a way that gives your own opinion,” said Lydersen. Lydersen spent last week with professors and students both in and outside the classroom sharing her experience.

Lydersen was invited to campus by the Narrative Journalism concentration team as a part of a series of guests speakers. Her presence was utilized by professors to help students in the concentration learn more about the best journalistic practices, especially when the topics may be hard to write about.

“Kari came as part of the Mellon ‘Writing in Place’ grant that we were awarded last spring,” said Chair of the Narrative Journalism concentration, Professor Jack Shuler. “I thought she would be a good first visitor because of the empathetic way she reports and tells stories. She also teaches at Medill at Northwestern and we’re building a partnership with some faculty there through the Between Coasts forums. As a teacher, Kari takes students on reporting trips to help them better learn how to ethically navigate new places. This is something I’m interested in thinking through for the Narrative Journalism program.”

One of her tips for students was how to go about finding the right people to interview. Since she rarely uses social media to connect to the people she wants to write about, Lydersen says a good way to get the story you want is just putting yourself out there.

“People are experts on different subjects and they want to share their knowledge,” said Lydersen. “If you start asking people eventually they will put you in touch with other people. I have also found that people open up more when you take the time to understand them. Share a little about yourself and they will share back.”

Lydersen spoke to students in all types of classes, from Shuler’s Literary Nonfiction to Karen Powell Sears’s Sex and Gender in Society. Her work served as examples of well-done long form journalism for these classes.

“I thought Lydersen was down to earth, insightful, and eloquent,” said Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing, Professor Jessica Nelson. “She did an excellent job balancing information with example. Lydersen spoke beautifully about reporting on place and people with humility, empathy, and respect. I recognized a lot of crossover between her talk and what we’ve been discussing in my 384 Creative Nonfiction class about writing family–that when we give shape to other people and their experiences on the page, we bring to bear a deep empathy, care, and dedication to dimensional, holistic representation.”

In the past, Lydersen has worked as a reporter for Midwest Energy News and freelanced for outlets such as Better Government Association, Discover Magazine, The Washington Post, People Magazine, The Chicago Reporter and In These Times.

In addition, Lydersen was a research associate at the Medill Watchdog Project. Through 2009 she was a staff writer in the Midwest bureau of The Washington Post; after that she wrote for the Chicago edition of The New York Times through the Chicago News Cooperative. She also has taught journalism at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and worked with youth from marginalized communities through the non-profit journalism program We the People Media.

Lydersen will be back to Newark November 9-10 for the Between Coasts Conference. She was the first of a series of four guests invited this semester to visit and share at Denison. The Narrative Journalism concentration will also host Jesse Dukes, an audio journalist for WBEZ Chicago, on September 27-28, Elaine Sheldon, an Oscar and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker for her film Heroin(e), on October 2-3 and Wil Haygood, a Washington Post reporter, on October 25.

Check out Lydersen’s work at www.karilydersen.net or purchase her books from Amazon.