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Pulitzer Prize winner says ’empathy is a muscle’

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Katherine Boo talked at a Women's Leadership Symposium. Ashley Le | Hatchet Photographer
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Katherine Boo talked at a Women’s Leadership Symposium. Ashley Le | Hatchet Photographer

This post was written by Hatchet reporters Hanna Willwerth and Tanvi Banerjee

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist, talked with members of GW’s Women’s Leadership Program on Thursday night in Post Hall about becoming leaders and addressing tough issues like poverty and inequality.

Boo spoke to a captivated audience about her recent book, “The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” The book follows the lives of several locals as they navigate the Mumbai’s Annawadi slum. Members of the Women’s Leadership Program read the book over the summer.

Shelly Heller, the director of the Women’s Leadership Program, said Boo was a good example to students for how to break barriers as a female leader.

“She took a very strong leadership role to go ahead and engage inside this community, after all she is a white Anglo-Saxon woman engaging in the environment and it takes a certain amount of leadership to do that,” Heller said.

Here are some of the main points that Boo covered during the symposium:

1. Global capital in Mumbai

Boo argued that globalization of capitalism has resulted in global exploitation. She said that multinational businesses, for example, exploit developing countries for their markets and cheap labor, which leads to poverty, inequality and corruption.

She highlighted the societal divides in Mumbai, a city that had more billionaires than Los Angeles in 2008, but also has the Annawadi slum, where only six in every 3,000 people have jobs.

“Everything around us is roses and we’re the shit in between,” Boo said, quoting an Annawadi slum dweller.

She said capitalism can create a cycle of poverty through an environment where everyone must compete against each other for scarce jobs. Higher income communities often despise and try to hide these communities, she said.

“Our advantage comes from fact that so many people have been unfairly disqualified from the competition,” Boo said.

2. What she learned

Boo said that despite their desperate situation, many of Annawadi’s younger inhabitants were resilient and optimistic about their futures. She said that writing the book helped their voices be heard, and she encouraged young people in Annawadi to challenge and investigate corruption on their own.

In one incident, a boy badly beaten by a police officer came to her with the officer’s name and told her to include it in the book. Boo also described a young garbage collector who, in a society where it paid to be selfish, stuck to his convictions.

“They’re going to confound stereotypes if you give them half a chance,” she said.

3. How can we help?

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Boo encouraged students to go out into the world, find a place where they can contribute to the society and ask themselves, “Is my curiosity greater than my fear?”

She stressed the need to address the structural cause of poverty and corruption, saying that unless people recognize the urgency of these problems, they will never be fixed.

Finally, Boo spoke about the importance of recognizing privilege and connecting to other people.

“Empathy is a muscle, the more you can use it the more you can do with it,” Boo said.

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