Journalist Andrea Elliott’s Brief But Spectacular take on seeing the unseen

For the last decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott has been following Dasani, a child who grew up in homeless shelters and foster care in New York. Elliot’s new book, “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City,” expands on her 2013 profile of Dasani, poverty and opportunity in America. Elliott offers us her Brief But Spectacular take on seeing the unseen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the last decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott has been following Dasani, a child who grew up in homeless shelters and foster care in Brooklyn, New York.

    And Andrea Elliott's new book, "Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City," expands on her 2013 New York Times profile of Dasani and asks readers to question their views about poverty and opportunity in America.

    Tonight, she offers us her Brief But Spectacular take on seeing the unseen.

    Andrea Elliott, Author, "Invisible Child": We tend to love this romantic story about poverty, which is that it's something you escape, that, if you work hard enough, that if you are talented enough, and maybe with a little bit of luck, you can make it.

    For every kid who makes it out, there are so many more who are just as capable, just as talented, just as willing, but who face barriers that are much greater than their own talent and willpower. And we don't ask ourselves why so many of those kids don't make it out.

    We just tend to celebrate the one who did, because it lets us off the hook, in a sense. And yet it is the path that I believe most represents what poor kids have to struggle with in this country.

    I will never forget the first moment I saw Dasani and her family. They were walking out of the shelter in a single file line with Chanel, her mother, at the front of the line. They just exuded this togetherness as a family, this strength, this unity.

    And over the next near-decade that I continued to follow her, I watched that family get broken apart. I watched her survive things I never imagined on that first day meeting her that I would witness.

    One of the first things she said to me was: "My name is Dasani, like the water." Her mother named her for the bottled water because she wanted Dasani to have a better life. And that bottle symbolized this other America, the people who could afford to pay for water.

    Her grandmother Joanie named Dasani's mother Chanel after the fancy perfume, which she spotted in a magazine, at a time when that was the closest you could get to this other life.

    To watch the Dasani grow up was heartbreaking and wildly inspiring. It is an incredibly high-wire act to survive deep poverty. It requires all kinds of small miracles of genius to just get through the day. It's really important to reach past the labels that are given to a kid like Dasani, homeless, foster kid, poor.

    Those labels are an invitation to delve deep into history. Her great-grandfather fought in World War II when the military was segregated, returned with three Bronze Service Stars into redlined Brooklyn, unable to get a mortgage, unable to work in his chosen profession, and wound up earning about $200,000 less than he should have earned over the course of his lifetime, unable to buy a home, which is so critical to family wealth.

    That road was cut off for Dasani's family. For many years, I would describe my work as an attempt to understand. It's almost a trope that journalists reach for. That's how we explain our work. The root of the word understand is understandan, which means to stand in the midst of.

    I think, if I did anything in this decade with Dasani, it was to stand in the midst of her life. And that was the greatest privilege of mine.

    My name is Andrea Elliott, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on seeing the unseen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very powerful.

    And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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