Journalism professor gives lecture on the underclass

By Kate Gleason

Journalism professor Leon Dash gave a lecture titled “Journalism and the Underclass” Tuesday evening at the Tryon Festival Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Introduced as “the great” Leon Dash by fellow journalism professor John Fountain, Dash spoke about his career in journalism and how he interviewed and wrote about members of the underclass.

The audience was comprised of students, professors and others interested in this group of people known as the “underclass.” Members of the underclass, according to the handout distributed before the lecture, are “distinguished from the poor by petty criminal enterprise and criminal recidivism.”

As a reporter for the Washington Post, Dash worked first on the Foreign Affairs Desk, covering numerous assignments overseas. Dash said he then decided to switch his focus and cover stories on the people living in inner city Washington D.C. He wanted to try to understand them, and “tell their story.”

Dash was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for an eight-part series he wrote about a family living in poverty in the housing projects of Washington D.C. Tuesday evening Dash spoke about his experiences covering an area of society so often neglected from typical news stories and programs. He talked about the reasons why many young women growing up in the inner city wanted to get pregnant, about the lack of quality education available and the prevalent drug use and distribution in these parts. Dash said that when he first decided to pursue the story, he had ideas in his head about the reasoning behind so many young women becoming pregnant.

“However,” he said, “it turned out to be nothing that I expected or anticipated at all.”

Dash uncovered a variety of reasons behind the growing number. He said some young women were looking for love and felt they could get that love from having a baby. Yet others had babies in an effort to hold on to their boyfriends.

Still another mother of a girl he interviewed said her daughter became pregnant in order to keep up with her two girlfriends. Throughout his career, Dash said he has interviewed many individuals, often asking them about sensitive subjects such as birth control and sexual history when writing about the increase of teenage pregnancy in the projects. Dash compared interviewing someone about sensitive subjects such as these to walking through a minefield.

“One must speak and act carefully,” he said.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, Dash wrote about a woman named Rosa Lee and her family. Lee had eight children, and was involved in drug distribution, drug use, theft and prostitution throughout her life. By the time her children grew up, six of the eight were drug addicts or criminals serving time in jail.

“All of her children had been affected by her lifestyle,” he said.

Dash wrote his series on Lee and her family in an effort to understand a family trapped, it seemed, in poverty.

In closing, Dash held a question-and-answer session so members of the audience could have a chance to ask him about different parts of his career.

Dash addressed the recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina, adding that the natural disaster “blew the cover off the underclass of New Orleans.”