PORT TOWNSEND — Fred de Sam Lazaro, the first speaker in Centrum’s new Communiversity series started right out with a news video about a taboo subject: menstrual hygiene.
It was a hopeful story, though, introducing the so-called padman of India, a husband who first wanted to help his wife.
The padman, whose name is Arunachalam Muruganantham, became a pioneer in sanitary-pad production when he began manufacturing the supplies that enable girls to stay in school after puberty.
Lazaro, who spoke to a sold-out crowd at Salish Coast Elementary School on Monday evening, is director of the Under-Told Stories project, a journalistic endeavor to illuminate real life around the world.
Lazaro’s work has aired for years on PBS Newshour and other public television programs; now he’s spreading Under-Told to communities and colleges across the country.
Lazaro’s story from India was a hit, drawing appreciative laughter and a wave of applause before it was over.
Then he showed another video piece from closer to home: Wisconsin’s dairyland. There, farmers depend on migrant laborers to keep their operations going.
In the short video, dairyman John Rosenow even travels to Mexico to learn Spanish and better connect with his workers. After that video ended, there was a pause before the clapping came.
The Communiversity program, billed as a set of “compelling cultural conversations,” had Knute Berger of Seattle’s Crosscut.com interviewing Lazaro onstage.
The two men talked about Lazaro’s particular style of journalism, the “aid industrial complex” in the developing world, the “chattering channels” on TV and the future of news and information.
Born in Bangalore, India, Lazaro immigrated with his mother, a medical doctor, and had always wanted to be a journalist.
The United States, he said, is a “paradise” for those in his profession because of the First Amendment’s protections — the world’s “gold standard.”
He began reporting from the “under-told” places such as the Indian subcontinent with a succinct goal in mind: to make the foreign less foreign.
Yet “if you’re not doing elections, politics or impeachment, you’re on the sidelines” right about now, Lazaro said. With his journalism about people and programs addressing poverty, public health and global migration, he doesn’t aspire to mass audiences anymore.
Instead, he finds a college classroom of 20 keen listeners abundantly satisfying.
“I talk to large numbers of young people who never watch television,” Lazaro added.
“What has to endure is storytelling, and getting those stories in front of eyeballs,” via schools and technology. Lazaro’s and the “Under-Told Stories”’ Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter contacts were up on a big screen for much of Monday’s discussion.
Lazaro has spent many days reporting on nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian groups that constitute the massive global aid machine.
Their work sometimes doesn’t work, he said, often due to the thing called condescension.
Consultants tend to parachute into a village and start issuing edicts.
Drain this pond to kill the dangerous guinea worm larvae, for example.
Never mind that the pond is a source of water for the community.
What works better, Lazaro said, is to go in listening to local leaders.
Then ask: Could we work together to tackle this? Partners in Health and the Carter Center, he added, have made progress in Africa and Haiti with an approach such as this.
When it comes to watching the news, Lazaro avoids the 24-hour-cycle on particular networks.
They have “an enormous belly to be filled,” and the only way these channels can keep people watching is to keep ratcheting up the tone.
“It can get very, very toxic,” said Lazaro, which is why he prefers the PBS Newshour. That’s an hour of carefully weighed reporting, “not knee-jerk, and more thoughtful, I daresay.”
When Berger asked whether he’s cynical or hopeful, Lazaro joked that if he’s not a cynic, then he’s a lousy journalist.
Seriously, though, “I don’t get cynical,” he said, “because I’m always meeting people who are doing extraordinary things … nuns who are trying to get kids off the street; doctors trying to cure the sick.”
The late PBS anchor Jim Lehrer taught Lazaro to respect the people he interviewed, and to take them at face value.
Then he quoted South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said a thing that sums up Lazaro’s heart.
“I am a prisoner,” Tutu said, “of hope.”
Centrum’s Communiversity series has presentations set for March, April, September, October and November at various locations in East Jefferson County.
The next, on March 9, brings together musicians Ravi Joseph Albright and Srivani Jade, historian Wes Cecil and Crosscut.com arts and culture editor Brangien Davis for a performance and conversation on Indian classical music.
On April 13, Cornell ornithologist Robyn Bailey talks with science and environment editor Ted Alvarez about how to help wild birds.
Information about the whole series awaits at www.centrum.org and 360-385-3102.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.