KALIMPONG, WEST BENGAL, INDIA – Fred de Sam Lazaro had anticipated this moment for years, and he waited quietly for it to unfold in the courtyard of Gandhi Ashram School.
Father Paul D’Souza, director of the Catholic elementary school, told the 230 girls and boys sitting in the courtyard that they would hear from a guest, “but she is not really a guest. She is one of our own. And she is all what you can become.”
Kushmita Biswakarma walked in front of the children and paused to wipe away tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, before D’Souza put an arm around her shoulders. She took a deep breath, raised her violin and played “Yo Nepali Sir Uchali” (“Pride of Being Nepali”) to an audience enthralled by every sweet note.
De Sam Lazaro beamed. Biswakarma had delivered – with precision and power. She followed with two more songs and promised to return to play again.
The performance was 14 years in the making. It served as a homecoming for Biswakarma, 27, who first picked up a violin as a 5-year-old at Gandhi Ashram, and as an affirmation for de Sam Lazaro that his 2004 story for “PBS NewsHour” on her and the school had made a difference both for a musical prodigy and a school tucked into the Himalayan foothills.
It wasn’t his most important story in 33 years as a PBS correspondent. It didn’t lead to changes in government policies or regulations, as some stories have, nor did it compel systemic changes in the economies of developing countries. But it did illustrate the impact of an education on a child and a community.
And that is what continues to motivate de Sam Lazaro – what has led him to report from 68 countries and pursue “solutions-based journalism” that advances the common good. It’s also what brought him to St. Thomas, home of his “Under-Told Stories Project” on PBS since January 2016.
De Sam Lazaro is a changemaker.
De Sam Lazaro was born in 1956, the youngest of 12 children, in Bangalore. His father manufactured Sam Lazaro pianos in Shanghai, China, and his mother was a physician. The family returned to Bangalore in 1951 after Mao Zedong took control of China.
One of de Sam Lazaro’s sisters moved to San Francisco after their father’s death in 1972, and he and his mother joined her three years later. He enrolled at the College of Marin and met Kay Drechsler, who was from Cloquet, Minnesota. They fell in love and he followed her to Duluth, where they enrolled at the College of St. Scholastica. He graduated in 1981 with a degree in media arts; she became a teacher.
De Sam Lazaro did an internship after his junior year for Minnesota Public Radio in Duluth and it turned into a full-time job as a senior. “In the early 1980s, the economy was tanking with mining layoffs, and I was on the air a lot on the MPR network, plus I had pieces on National Public Radio.”
De Sam Lazaro caught the eye of KTCA-TV (now TPT) in St. Paul, and the station hired him in 1985 as a field reporter for “Almanac,” a new public affairs show. Two months later, the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” predecessor to the “PBS NewsHour,” hired him as a regional correspondent. He spent 1987 on a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he became interested in the outbreak of HIV and AIDS and covered the automotive industry in Detroit.
He did stories for PBS while on vacation in India and persuaded the network to allow additional coverage from there, delivering “street-savvy, bright pieces for a fraction of the normal cost because I could function as a native and was well-networked.” He continued to cover Minnesota news and grew his international portfolio with trips to Asia and Africa. He became a regular contributor to “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” also on PBS, and produced its “Wide Angle” documentaries on farmer suicides in India and democracy in Congo.
During that period, the concept of an “undertold” project germinated, along with the possibility of putting things online, he said. His idea gained traction after he gave the commencement address in 2001 at St. John’s University and spoke with Brother Dietrich Reinhart, the president.
“He was an avid viewer of my work and a very generous spirit,” de Sam Lazaro said. “He told me, ‘It would be nice to have you here on campus.’” He made a successful pitch to the Skoll Foundation, which funded PBS programs and supported social entrepreneurship initiatives (the foundation remains the project’s largest sponsor). As he moved forward, he pondered what to call the new program.
“We had to find something wide enough for content areas not frequently covered by mainstream media,” he said. “We didn’t want to call them ‘Untold Stories,’ because they had been told. ‘Under-Told Stories’ seemed to fit.”
The “Under-Told Stories Project” began at St. John’s in 2006. Some people scratched their heads when hearing that a national news show had ties to a university, but it made sense to de Sam Lazaro because “we had this capacity to partner with an academic institution to enrich the whole body of work. Faculty could provide scholarly interpretations of what I was writing and use my material as a teaching tool.”
Reinhart died in 2008 and de Sam Lazaro moved the project to St. Mary’s University three years later. In 2012, he met Julie Sullivan, then executive vice president and provost at the University of San Diego, at a conference in Mexico. She became president of St. Thomas the following summer, and they reconnected two years later.
“We had breakfast and I had a suspicion she was interested in my work,” he said. “She is willing to take risks and she asked me, ‘What would it take to get this at St. Thomas?’”
De Sam Lazaro was attracted to St. Thomas because of its ambition to become an Ashoka Changemaker Campus (approved last year). He saw it as an opportunity to blend his stories with efforts to evolve a culture of social innovation on campus and, ultimately, at 40 other Ashoka schools.
“I thought Fred would be a perfect fit at St. Thomas,” Sullivan said. “Fred shares the stories of social innovators around the world who are improving the human condition and advancing the common good. Consistent with our Ashoka status, we are integrating his work into our curriculum. It is important for students to understand the complex challenges faced at home and abroad by our fellow neighbors, to identify areas where they are passionate about making a difference and to be empowered to do so. Through his stories, Fred illuminates inspiring role models for all of us, and particularly our students.”
The last two years, he has taken a St. Thomas communications and journalism major on an overseas assignment. This year, senior Deborah Honore did video work with him in India.
During the 2017-18 academic year, 15 St. Thomas classes across 10 departments used his stories to spark discussions or create case studies.
His stories impact in a myriad of ways. They have led to changes in laws, policies and attitudes, and individuals and organizations have received significant contributions after he profiles them.
“All of that is nice,” he said, “but it’s not my fundamental goal. I’m not an advocate. I have always operated within a journalistic mentality, and I don’t think about where a program would ricochet. I want to find good stories and tell them well.”
Patti Parson, a “PBS NewsHour” producer since 1983, said de Sam Lazaro is an excellent storyteller who brings several qualities to his work: “He cares about his craft and people, and he has a deeply embedded ethical sense. People trust him, and that’s why he has such great access.”
Nikki See collaborated with him as a producer from 1999 to 2016. He amazed her with his ability “to find something unusual in a story – something to catch the viewers’ imagination. And, above all else, he is such a good writer.”
A trip to India
A trip to India in March illustrated the challenges, frustrations and exhilaration de Sam Lazaro regularly experiences.
On the trip, he wanted to write about how drought-stricken farmers in southern India have adapted in arid, soil-poor farmlands east of Bangalore.
He also took a trip into the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, where hundreds of farmers committed suicide in recent years because of drought losses.
He interviewed climate scientists and lawyers in Delhi and Bangalore and recruited the CEO of the Foundation for Ecological Security to spend a day in the fields with him. He found a success story in how the foundation worked with farmers from several villages to restore forests, desilt bodies of water and manage scarce water resources by rotating crops in fields aided by drip irrigation. But he still didn’t have the right angle – the right person – to bring the story alive.
And then it happened. While a translator helped interview three farmers, one of them stood out. He had earned a degree at a Bangalore university but didn’t want to live in the big city. Neither did his college-educated wife. They settled on a 5-acre farm where, with 11 dairy cattle milling around them, they talked about how they wouldn’t trade their experience. “We are so happy,” she said.
The power of music
The story was easier to identify in Kalimpong, home of Gandhi Ashram School and the alma mater of violinist Biswakarma.
De Sam Lazaro first reported about them in 2004. The late Father Edward McGuire, a Jesuit from Canada, founded the free school in 1993 for children who lived in poverty. He insisted students speak only English at school, an hour’s walk each way for some.
McGuire also provided dozens of violins, because he believed in the power of music. Every student learns to play the violin, and some pursue the viola, cello or piano. Biswakarma remembered her first day of school more than 20 years ago.
“I didn’t want my mother to leave me and I was crying a lot,” she said. “Father McGuire gave me a violin to distract me. I was so fascinated that I didn’t realize my mother was gone and then came back to pick me up. I loved going to school because of the violin.”
At age 13, Biswakarma enrolled at a music conservatory in Munich, where she studied for four years, before six more years and a performing arts degree at Nuremberg University of Music.
“My whole thrust, since I went to Gandhi Ashram, was to play in a professional orchestra,” she said. “But I came to realize that no longer was my dream. I wanted to create my own musical career.”
And she has. She returned to India, settled in Mumbai to freelance with orchestras, is involved in Bollywood productions, has a YouTube channel and teaches violin. Teaching allows her “to share my knowledge with students and give them direction on what music can do for their lives,” she said. “In India, many think music is just a hobby, but it can be much more.”
She typically doesn’t get nervous before a performance, but she was this day.
“When Father Paul introduced me, telling them who I was, that took me back to my days here,” she said, “and I got a little emotional.” Her comment drew a smile and a squeeze from her husband Tilak KC, a high school teacher in Mumbai.
On this day, the younger students gather for an opening assembly and sing the school anthem, and D’Souza leads them in the “Our Father.” Most are Hindu and only 20 percent are Christian, but D’Souza has not received objections to the prayers. “We have an openness here,” he said, “and we have to pray wherever we are. The ‘Our Father’ is a universal prayer in many ways.”
At the end of a day in which she tutored students and met with faculty, Biswakarma sits on a terrace for an interview. She marvels at what transpired with the students and speaks fondly about growing up in a home with a loving family, attending Gandhi Ashram and playing the violin. She calls de Sam Lazaro “an inspiration to us all” and a good listener who “has built a platform for stories which create awareness around the world. In doing so, he initiates positive change.”
He probes softly with his questions and elicits smiles and laughter. The interview over, the entourage moves to her parents’ modest stone home built into a nearby hillside for tea and biscuits in a small, softly lit kitchen. After returning to the hotel for dinner, he reflects on how stories like Gandhi Ashram and Biswakarma make his job rewarding and bring him back for more.
“When I stop having fun, I’ll be done,” he said. “I want to create an institution that survives me. There are roles for these kinds of stories. I don’t want to see them get lost in the shuffle.”
He paused and smiled: “And I’m still having fun.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.
Lazaro’s Five Favorite Stories
Fred de Sam Lazaro hesitates to choose a “best” or “favorite” story that he has produced for PBS. In addition to his 2004 story on Gandhi Ashram School and violinist Kushmita Biswakarma, here are five others:
- Aravind Eye Hospitals, founded in 1976 in Madurai, India. His 1989 story also was his first foreign story for PBS. The organization has had explosive growth – 32 million patients, including four million cataract surgeries – and is the world’s largest eye-care provider. “I did a follow-up story in 2010,” he said. “I had not seen these people in 20 years. They told me, ‘You have no idea how much you raised our profile. You put us on the map.’ On a personal level, that is satisfying. Yet all I did was to turn over a rock.”
- Sister Cyril Mooney, principal of Loreto Day School in Calcutta, India. The Irish nun, who moved to India in 1956, became principal of the elite school in 1979. Four years later, she opened its doors to underprivileged children “to cut through inequities in society,” de Sam Lazaro said, “and have kids from all stripes sit with each other.” He produced stories on her in 1999 and 2009.
- Father William Cunningham, a Detroit priest who co-founded Focus: HOPE after riots in 1967. The civil and human rights organization worked to resolve discrimination and injustice by feeding and training the urban poor. De Sam Lazaro produced stories on the project in 1997 and 2009.
- Andrew Youn, a St. Paul area native who used $7,000 of his own money to found One Acre Fund in Kenya. The nonprofit offers farmers an acre of land, credit, insurance and good-quality seed and fertilizer, and they repay loans at harvest. The project has grown from 38 farmers in 2006 to more than 500,000 in six African countries.
- Katie Meyler, founder and director of More Than Me Academy, which provides free education for 180 vulnerable girls in Monrovia, Liberia. She went to Liberia 12 years ago to work as a volunteer for six months and is still there. Time magazine named her (and other Ebola fighters) its 2014 Person of the Year for work on the front lines of the epidemic. The weekend after de Sam Lazarro’s story ran on Meyler, viewers contributed $31,000 to her school.