Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn talk to Stephanie Sy

First husband and wife to win a Pulitzer Prize talk about their latest project, ‘A Path Appears’

Stephanie Sy: So you have a book and a project called "A Path Appears." Sheryl, talk about where that title comes from.

Sheryl WuDunn: The title actually comes from a Chinese author who was writing a hundred years ago or so today. And he said, "Hope is like a path in the countryside. At first, there is nothing. As more people walk back and forth here and there, a path appears." It's about hope and strategies for change. And that's what we thought "A Path Appears" would be about and it turned out to be exactly the way we describe.

So the first episode focuses on sex trafficking. And this is something your other book, "Half the Sky" also focused on. But this episode was about sex trafficking in the United States. How much of a problem is it here?

WuDunn: We think sex trafficking is about foreign women being smuggled into the U.S., and that's real. That exists. But there's 100,000 girls, American girls, homegrown girls, who are trafficked into the sex trade each year in the U.S. And the scale is extraordinary, and the response tends to be that, I mean, these are victims out there. These are teenage girls, and the pimps aren't arrested … They're victims, but they're being arrested.

What's so shocking about a couple of the people that you profile in that first episode is that they were sold by the very people that were supposed to love them and care for them. In one case, you mention a girl named Shawna Goodwin, and her mom sold her to a pimp at the age of 12. How does that happen?

WuDunn: Well, obviously, Shawn's mother herself was in the business and was actually addicted to drugs and was really not in control of own world. Shawna, first of all, really didn't go to school. She failed, like, first or second grade. She really wasn't doing very well in school. And she remembers one time, her mom said, "You know, I'm gonna take you over to a friend's house." And they go over to, of course, a pimp's house. And so the mother tried to introduce her to, tried to get her to, you know, spend time with the pimp. And when Shawna resisted, her mother shot her with heroin, and Shawna remembers just sort of just falling back on the waterbed in a rush, and that was her initiation.

Another shocking statistic that you mention is that 15 percent of American men regularly purchase sex. 

Nicholas Kristof: I think that we can dramatically improve the situation, and that involves ending the impunity, ending the impunity for pimps. So Shawna Goodwin, who you were talking about, she was arrested 167 times for for prostitution. Her pimp, never. Not once. Well, if you start arresting some pimps, that is going to reduce the incentive for them to traffic these girls.

And what about the johns?

Kristof: And the johns — about 300,000 men buy sex on any given day in the U.S., 300,000. And almost none of them are ever arrested. And a lot of them have reputations that would be affected. They have things to lose. If you were to arrest 1 percent of them, that would create a real disincentive, and I think demand would drop, whatever, 25, 30 percent. That would mean there would be 25 or 30 percent fewer girls being trafficked into the sex trade.

Episode two of this series looks at poverty with the actress Jennifer Garner. She's from West Virginia. What did you find in West Virginia was perpetuating the cycle of poverty?

Kristof: We tend to think of poverty in terms of metrics of income and wealth. And there are cycles. I sometimes think that the better metric of child poverty is how many books there are in the home or how often you're hugged or how often you're read to.

And there we have situations where 20 percent of kids born in West Virginia today are born with drugs or alcohol in their system. Often it's kids having kids in ways that are bad for the mom and bad for that child. In a situation of kind of hopelessness, people then self-medicate with substances.

‘We tend to think of poverty in terms of metrics of income and wealth … I sometimes think that the better metric of child poverty is how many books there are in the home or how often you’re hugged or how often you’re read to.’

Nicholas Kristof

And you've written about this so often that the path to escape is education, really?

WuDunn: Well, the path to escape is education in the sense that that's a foundation. It's not going to be the end all. In other words, with education, you actually can start thinking for yourself. You can actually build a strategy for life. And that's really important because when you don't feel as though you know how to add 2 and 2, you just don't have a confidence, a sense of confidence. And you sort of feel that you have to go with the flow or, you know, you're not going to ever be able to challenge the whatever your status quo is. 

And it needs to begin early, really in the first two years. I mean, there's more and more research that says that is the part that matters the most.

WuDunn: Well, partly it's because the way the brain transforms, the way the brain grows. And yes, of course, when you're in your teenage years, your brain is still growing. But the most rapid period of growth for the brain is basically zero to 5 and even the first thousand days of life. And it actually even starts in the womb. So if you're drinking or you're smoking when your baby's in the womb, that has an impact on the child 15 years later.

Kristof: There's two big lessons, I think, from our effort to tackle poverty at home and abroad. And the first is that we don't start early enough, that it is an awful lot easier to help a 6-month-old than it is a struggling 16-year-old down the road. And the second is that one of the best ways to create a better environment for those kids is to coach parents to do a better job with parenting. 

Whose responsibility is it, really, to make sure that — starting from babies all the way up to adolescents and later in life — people are given the same opportunities?

Kristof: It takes a village, and one of the things that drives me up the wall is when we hear this narrative about personal irresponsibility as being what drives poverty. And of course, there's plenty of irresponsibility, and there is self-destructive behavior among the poor as among the rich.

But, for example, in the book, in the documentary, we describe a 4-year-old boy in West Virginia, Johnny, who can't speak because he didn't get a hearing screening and people weren't aware that he was deaf. And so the whole time his brain is developing, he's not getting that auditory stimulation until too late. Now that's not Johnny's fault. That's our fault as a society that we don't provide hearing screenings for at-risk 4-year-old kids in West Virginia. And for the rest of his life, he may not fully be able to participate and to contribute to society because we blew it on our watch right now with something as simple as a hearing screening.

WuDunn: Now personal responsibility's a very tricky thing, of course, so a lot of people will say, "You know, don't tell me how to raise my kid." But if you're not educated and you yourself were not raised properly by your parent — let's say your parents never hugged and kissed you when you were little or never read to you, so you never even had exposure to books at an early age — you wouldn't think about doing that for your kid too.

But we want to break that cycle so at some point, the responsibility has to be either shared, or there has to be an intervention early on and not in the sense that "Oh, you're invading our sense of personal responsibility." You really do need to work together to raise a child, to break them out of that cycle of poverty.

And is that the responsibility of government?

WuDunn: I think that it is a shared responsibility, and government definitely can play a role. They certainly, through social services — there are many programs that have been proven through randomized control trials to be very effective. 

Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof with Stephanie Sy

Kristof: I'd say it's a shared responsibility. If you look at a problem like teen pregnancy, so 30 percent of American teenage girls become pregnant by age 19. There is a huge problem here. How do we address it? Well, clearly those kids themselves have a role. And they should be more responsible about unprotected sex. Schools have a responsibility to provide comprehensive sex education. Parents have a responsibility to talk about these issues with their kids. And government also has a responsibility to provide access to allowing acting reversible contraceptives to at risk teenage kids. And so we need a full pattern here [of] full cooperation with government, parents, schools and people themselves all showing responsibility, and then we'd have dramatic improvement.

When you talk about contraceptives, it reminds me of one of the themes that I've seen through your writing in books and also through this current series, which is the belief that education on top of the ability of a woman to control how many children she has really does help to break these larger cycles. And that you have overseas and in this country still a cultural resistance to contraception in a lot of cases.

Kristof: That's right. I mean, internationally, I think that U.S. policymakers have really made a mistake in focusing on the military toolbox to try to address security challenges, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, wherever it may be. And obviously, the military toolbox is useful. In the short term especially, it can do things other toolboxes can't. I think we underuse the education toolbox and the women's empowerment toolbox. And one reason why they are so effective is that if you educate a boy, it doesn't have much effect on the number of children he'll have. If you educate a girl, it has a dramatic effect in reducing the number of kids she will have. And so if you want to reduce the youth bulge in the population, which is one of the factors that most corresponds to insecurity, to violence, to terrorism, then you need to reduce that youth bulge. And you do that in part by educating girls today.

You talk about that in your TED talk. In fact, you quote Larry Summers, don't you, in saying that the greatest return on investment is educating a girl?

WuDunn: Exactly. Educating a girl is the greatest return in on investment because she actually herself tends to have fewer kids when she is more educated. It's hard when we talk about population control. People criticized China ad infinitum when they had been promoting their one-child policy, because, yes, my goodness, that is severe. I mean, we were in China in the time, and I'm so glad that I was able to have three kids, that as Americans, we are not subject to that. I mean, we are just really grateful for it. On the other hand, if you look at countries now in Africa — and certainly India is a problem too — they have been able to bring maybe a 100 million people in the entire continent out of poverty because of all the policies that they've been trying to implement to improve the poverty situation there.

However, at the same time, because of the growth in population, there are maybe 100 million to 200 million more new people who are now in poverty. So they've got like 400 million people living under the poverty line because of the population growth. So when you actually start adding up, grossing up all those families that are having large families, it really is a huge number. And it makes a big difference.

Going back to the series, episode one focuses on sexual traffic trafficking. Episode two focuses on poverty. Episode three deals with domestic violence. And again a shocking statistic here. In the U.S., domestic violence claims more than three lives a day when you average it out. Have those statistics shifted much?

Kristof: There's actually been improvement in domestic violence in America over the last generation. And you see that in both the numbers, the proportion of women who were beaten, and in attitudes. In 1978, in surveys, half of Americans said that it was sometimes appropriate for a man to beat his wife with a stick or a belt. Now that would be an absurd question to ask. And likewise, the incidence as far as we can tell of domestic abuse has fallen by more than half in that period. Now, why? Because it used to be there was complete impunity. Essentially the police did not get involved short of a fatality. Now there is some risk that a guy is going to get taken, is going to be arrested and so even though he's drunk and he's furious, he's somewhat less likely to beat up his girlfriend or wife than he used to be.

So there are more legal protections for women?

Kristof: Yes. And this is a really hard issue, and the legal solutions don't work perfectly because often the result is to break up a family, and that's hard on the children. There are no perfect solutions here. But it's clear that impunity for a man in a household was a completely failed strategy.

WuDunn: And I think it's really important to underscore that because things are better than they were back in 1978, it shows that we can push through progress. It's slow, and at one point in time, you don't actually see the progress, but over time, you definitely see the progress.

‘Educating a girl is the greatest return in on investment because she actually herself tends to have fewer kids when she is more educated.’

Sheryl WuDunn

You also travel to Kenya for this episode of the series, and you go to a slum called Kibera. What did you find there?

Kristof: Kibera is a place where you have education failure. You have hopelessness. You have people self-medicating with narcotics. You have enormous levels of sexual violence. Half of women in Kibera, their first sexual experience is through rape, often by a relative, often at incredibly young ages. And yet in this place, which might seem the least hospitable for change, there's a remarkable organization that we focus on, led by a local kid [Kennedy Odede] in the slum who never got any formal education until he was accepted by Wesleyan to go to college there, graduated and became the commencement speaker when he graduated, is now on their board.

How did he get no education and end up at Wesleyan with a scholarship?

Kristof: He had founded a local grass-roots sort of self-help organization in Kibera. And it did things like street theater to convince guys not to beat up their girlfriends. And so a young student at Wesleyan doing her junior year abroad, Jessica Posner, she went out to work with him. And she convinced him, "Look, you've got to get an education," and he said, "Well, you know, I never went to first grade." And she said, "Well, let's work on Wesleyan." And so even though he had no transcript, no SATs, no TOEFL, they did Skype interviews, and Wesleyan took a risk and accepted him, and now Jess and Kennedy got married and started this amazing organization and this Kibera school for girls right in the slum that is the most inspiring and encouraging thing you can imagine there.

A lot of the people you describe as being transformative in their communities or making a big impact are — like, one of them is 9 years old, the one that opens up your book, "A Path Appears," Rachel Beckwith. Tell me about her.

Kristof: Rachel is a remarkable girl from Seattle who, at age 8, as her 9th birthday was approaching, heard about how there were so many people worldwide who didn't have access to clean water. And so she decided to donate her 9th birthday to Charity: Water. In lieu of presents, she asked for gifts to build a well. She set a goal of raising $300 for a well in Ethiopia. She was then bummed that she only managed to raise $220. Soon after her birthday, she was in a terrible car accident in Seattle. As she's fighting for her life in the hospital, people are trying to show support for family, trying to show support for Rachel. They think of her page, they go there, and they donate. The amount raised surges past her $300 goal, past $1,000, past $5,000. She died. She did not make it, but people wanted all the more to commemorate her life, to support Rachel's last fundraiser. They raised $1.2 million, enough water for 37,000 people. And Rachel's mom says that while there is nothing that can solve the grief of losing your 9-year-old child, that this provided not only a way to commemorate an incredibly big-hearted girl but also to provide an overlay of purpose and meaning to an event that was not just tragic but just so frustratingly random. 

WuDunn: What's very interesting is that compassionate giving stimulates a certain part of the brain that actually also is stimulated when you get addicted to drugs. So there is some conjecture — although this hasn't yet been studied extensively — that you can cultivate a habit of giving, sort of an addiction to giving.

The other theme that emerges from a lot of your writing is inequality. And Nick, you've written about how in the last 35 years in the U.S., income stagnation, loss of jobs, how education in this country has fallen behind others, written a lot about that. Is the U.S. still in a period of decline?

Kristof: I don't know that we're in a position of decline. I think we certainly have been since World War II in a position of relative decline in terms of the U.S. share of global GDP. But we were in a somewhat unusual position at the end of the war. I think we have some economic advantages. I think that our biggest risk is education, that we used to be No. 1 in the world in mass education and we've been declining steadily ever since. Among young people, especially among boys, there's downward mobility in education.

Where that extends in the future, I think, is hard to say, but it's certainly a risk factor for the country. And I think one of my concerns if that we tend to perceive threats to the United States from, you know, [the] Iranian nuclear program, which is, I think, a real concern. But not from homegrown problems like education failure that in the long run are a real risk to American pre-eminence.

And you speak with some authority on this because you sort of are a product of the American dream. Your father was a World War II refugee. How much did that inform your belief system about what can lead to opportunity in this country?

Kristof: I think that one of the things that tends to hold us back is we think that the problems are so vast and we can't solve problems because they're just too big. One of the things that I learned partly from my family background is that what one is capable of doing is having a transformative effect on a particular individual. So my dad was a refugee from Eastern Europe. A family in Oregon sponsored him to come to the U.S. And that didn't solve the global refugee problem, didn't make a dent in the global refugee problem. For my dad, it was transformative. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them taking that risk on him. And likewise, I think today, there's this danger that we tune out from these global problems because they seem too vast. And one can have an impact, real impact, on individuals short of solving that global problem.

You won a Pulitzer Prize in '89 for your coverage of the Tiananmen Square protest. You were the first married couple to receive the Pulitzer Prize together. Was that your first collaboration?

WuDunn: Actually we never were able to write stories together. We actually wrote separate stories, but we obviously covered many aspects of that period of China.

Who edits whom in this relationship?

Kristof: We both edit each other. When I met Sheryl, when we started dating, she was working for The Wall Street Journal, I for The New York Times, and boy, it's so much better having collaborated with her as a colleague rather than as a rival.

I've been reading so much of what you've written over the years in the last week, and it occurred to me that you've really evolved to become, I think, for some people, a moral compass. Was that your intention?

WuDunn: No, it certainly was not our intention at all, and I think it kind of just evolved naturally. And I certainly don't think of myself as a moral compass, because I think that there are people who are far more philosophical. As we mention in "A Path Appears," there are some people who are just role models. I could not put myself in their category. We have so many people who were just our heroes and heroines. They're the people who are the front lines actually bringing about the solutions, inventing these solutions and really dedicated their lives to how to improve society. If you're in journalism or writing books, then in a sense you have this great big spotlight. You're in the lighting business, and when you shine that on an issue that is not illuminated, that is not on the agenda, you can sometimes make people upset enough, make them spill their coffee in the morning in ways that will project the issue on the agenda as a step toward getting it addressed. And so we like to think that that is what we aspire to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

‘When I met Sheryl, when we started dating, she was working for The Wall Street Journal, I for The New York Times, and boy, it’s so much better having collaborated with her as a colleague rather than as a rival.

Nicholas Kristof

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