Roger Thurow interviewed Nelson Mandela about a year after the leader of the African National Congress was released from a Cape Town prison in 1990 after a 27-year sentence, and Thurow, like many, quotes him often.
"It always seems impossible until it's done," Thurow - referring to the South African leader - told a group of about 120 high school students from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy when he spoke to them Thursday at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center. The students, whose school is in Philadelphia, were on a field trip to Washington, DC this week. Thurow visited them to speak about his most recent reporting, which focuses on global hunger and food security.
People never thought the Berlin Wall would fall, Thurow said, but it did. He told students that in theory it should be easy to feed the planet: "Farming is simple. You grow food. Overcoming poverty is not an act of charity; it's an act of justice." It seems impossible until it is done, he continued, emphasizing that there is work to do: One in four children's growth in developing countries is stunted.
Thurow reflected on the moment he found his passion as a journalist, an experience he also describes in a TEDx talk he gave in April 2013. During the famine of 2003, a relief worker in Ethiopia said to him: "Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul.” He calls this his "moment of great disruption."
"You don't know what's going to be the passion that ignites your career and your life," he told students, encouraging them to remain open to all career possibilities. Thurow himself initially wanted to be a sports journalist in the midwest. Now, after three decades at the Wall Street Journal, he is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a Pulitzer Center grantee, working on a project called "1,000 Days: To Save Women, Children and the World."
Thurow showed slides and short film clips and told stories of smallholder farmers in East Africa, people who are, ironically, some of Africa's most hungry; they can't afford to grow enough food to feed themselves.
One student asked how often Thurow saw one of his most compelling subjects, an Ethiopian boy who almost died of starvation at age five.
"We don't do a good job as journalists of coming back to stories, to people," Thurow said. "I think that's a valuable thing we can do." He showed the students a recent picture of the boy, who is now fifteen, severely stunted and in first grade, but smiling proudly with his schoolbooks. There was a collective intake of breath.
"Were you able to do anything to help any of those people?" another student asked, igniting a conversation about the role of journalists in crisis situations.
"It would have been so easy to pull $200 out of my pocket, but it would have messed up the whole narrative of the story," Thurow said. He also emphasized that his interviewees considered education a top priority; they found the choice between paying school fees and paying for food a wrenching decision, and Thurow pointed out that two young people in the film clips said "Without education, you're not a person."