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National issues through a local lens in Sarah Kendzior’s ‘The View from Flyover Country’

Writer and journalist Sarah Kendzior joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Many have come to know St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior by her Twitter, on which she posts eloquently and (by necessity) concisely about segregation, poverty, racial bias, and aggressive policing in the region.

Since Michael Brown’s death and the whorl of media attention that followed, Kendzior has sharply criticized national reporting on St. Louis, explored the protest movement centered in Ferguson, and condemned the police response to last week’s protests. But she penned sharp columns before Ferguson on many other topics of note during her tenure as an opinion writer for Al Jazeera English. Those essays have been consolidated in “The View from Flyover Country.”

Shuffling chairs in Ferguson

Ferguson struck a chord so strongly, and amongst so many, because it spoke to the experiences of those who live with the reality of institutional problems like economic scarcity, racial bias, and poverty of opportunity, Kendzior says.

She believes that the problem lies with national culture: that in America, “poverty is presented as a character flaw.” Pre-Ferguson movements—like the protests for a higher minimum wage—had already been focused on those bigger issues of economic disparity and lack of opportunity. Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, she said, became symbolic because it encapsulated those problems so well.

“And so when people came out after Ferguson, I wasn’t surprised,” Kendzior said. “I don’t think it’s surprising that when a teenage boy is shot and left dead in the road for four and half hours that people will come out and mourn, and that they will protest the conditions that lead to that kind of treatment.”

While writing about St. Louis, Kendzior began to take issue with the idea that those conditions—including high crime, low income, and poor education—are the fault of those who live in them. Kendzior says she’s visited the metropolitan area’s allegedly rough neighborhoods and has found people who are indeed trying to help shape their communities. Many, she said, simply don’t have support—either in funding or in outreach from surrounding St. Louis neighborhoods—because of the stigma surrounding their neighborhood.

Americans should not fear the riots that stem from anger and frustration of living in bad neighborhoods, Kendzior says; they should fear the apathy that allows them to abandon those places.

Protests in Ferguson aim to destroy that apathy; but with the protests came the media. Kendzior criticized journalists who ‘parachuted’ into St. Louis to cover the riots and the anger, using ‘Ferguson’ as shorthand rather than symbol. “I think overall, [parachute journalism] is kind of damaging for getting good reporting out of the region,” Kendzior said, noting that the issues of which Ferguson is emblematic are the kind journalists should take on every day.

Now, those issues have been given public fora in newspapers, websites, Twitter, and radio; but while there has been plenty of talk about Ferguson, Kendzior has seen little change in the day-to-day life of the people who live there and in similar communities around St. Louis.

She quoted an activist she’d interviewed for a recent article who said that the on-the-ground situation in Ferguson is akin to ‘chairs being shuffled on the Titanic’—and Kendzior agrees. While committees are formed and policy is debated, big, structural issues—police brutality, day-to-day poverty, and racial bias—have yet to be sufficiently addressed.

“I think there’s been a lot of discussion about Ferguson,” Kendzior said. “But what I don’t think we’ve really seen is a change in policy.”

Kendzior finds the catalyst for successful policy change nearly as frustrating as a lack of action. Black citizens of St. Louis have been pointing out injustice long before last August, she noted; but real change came about only after Ferguson’s problems became federal problems.

“It took the Department of Justice report for all these complaints which people have been making for years, either on the street or online, [to be taken] seriously,” Kendzior said, “and it’s unfortunate that it takes an outside, white, national voice to make those complaints have resonance with a broader audience.”

Other views from flyover country

Kendzior covers other issues of note in “The View from Flyover Country;” during her tenure at Al Jazeera English she wrote frequently about academia and the ways in which the ‘prestige economy’ exploits labor.

She calls academia a “caste system” that separates low-earning academics like adjunct instructors, who are the majority of professional academics, from tenured professors. Adjunct professors often do the same work as tenured or tenure-track professors, Kendzior said—research, writing, teaching—but live in poverty and are at times homeless. As job markets in higher education shrink, working in academia becomes a privileged position.

In other fields besides academia, the prestige of a position is used to justify its low salary, Kendzior said. Aspiring journalists and policy workers are frequently asked to work for free as unpaid interns or volunteers simply for the experience and their résumés—casting prestigious jobs at top firms out of reach for the less well-off. Similarly, “In order to continue in academia, to work as an academic after graduation, you need to either have a lot of money that you can pull from or you need to be willing to live in poverty or to carry on debt of your own.”

Many people, Kendzior said, have asked her if she teaches as an adjunct professor after reading her essays critiquing the system. But it’s a job that she has never been able to afford.

In America, “A job is not what pays you,” Kendzior said. “It’s what you pay to do.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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