Last August, I took a leave of absence to pursue a Nieman Fellowship for journalists at Harvard University. Brenda Payton, whose column anchored this space for many years, stepped in during my absence. Now that I'm back, we're handing off again.
Hello to my old readers, and welcome if you are reading my column for the first time.
I thought I'd begin this new chapter by telling you a bit about what I did while I was away.
The Nieman Fellowship is given every year to 24 journalists -- half from the U.S. and half from other countries. It is a precious gift of time -- a rare opportunity to step off the deadline treadmill and spend an academic year at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying anything one's heart desires. The idea is for journalists to recharge their batteries and return to
journalism with a renewed sense of purpose.
Before I left, I wrote about my frustration and exhaustion after five years of reporting on Oakland's never-ending street shooting epidemic. I was sick of counting bodies. I wanted to be part of the search for solutions. That meant trying to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving the shooting in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods and trying to find programs and strategies that had been effective in reducing shootings in other cities.
For the past several months, I've read articles in research journals that I was able to get for free through the Harvard library system but would have cost a fortune otherwise. I've interviewed top law enforcement officials and crime researchers: Anthony Braga, a professor of criminology at Rutgers University who has just begun a study in Boston to try to find out where illegal guns are coming from and how they are being acquired; David Hemenway, a
professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and renowned firearms expert, to learn what a so-called "public health approach" to addressing urban street shootings would look like.
William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor of social policy whose landmark book, "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor," blames the lack of work for much of the dysfunction in inner city neighborhoods.
I attended a conference of top police leaders and criminal justice experts at the Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice and Policy Management. I was the only journalist invited, it was off the record and I wasn't allowed to speak. Yet I was able to hear top police officials like Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy discuss the challenges of urban policing with his peers, including our old friend, former Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts, now Baltimore police commissioner.
Nieman Fellows get to audit classes at Harvard as well as MIT. It's like choosing between all of your favorite foods at one giant buffet.
I chose a survey of African-American history course with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates was an adviser on the film "12 Years a Slave" and held a free screening of the film for students.
With Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician who directs the Center on the Developing Child, I studied research about how toxic stress interferes with normal brain development in young children, increasing the risk of anti-social behavior later.
I studied classical music.
A Harvard Law School professor taught me to play poker as a way of learning strategic thinking.
I learned how to use new interactive digital storytelling tools at the MIT Media Lab and to shoot and edit short videos with a smartphone.
I attended a magnificent lecture/performance on the history of the Jazz Orchestra at Harvard by Wynton Marsalis with members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
I gave Sanghar Rahimi, a fellow Nieman, his first-ever ride in a car with a woman behind the wheel. Sanghar survived covering the war in Afghanistan for The New York Times, and I'm happy to report he also survived my driving.
I made friends with a wonderful bunch of journalists from all over the world and their partners.
At first, it was a little intimidating sitting in classes with brainy kids less than half my age who could shop for shoes online and follow a lecture on brain science while it took me a week just to figure out how to get my assignments off the course website.
But after a while, I stopped thinking about how old I was by comparison and settled in for the amazing ride.
I look forward to sharing what I learned in future columns.