2016 has somehow become notorious for “the bad stuff”. International tensions, political uproar, tragic, violent deaths.
It’s some of these deaths that The New York Times Magazine has taken a spin on. In its “The Lives They Lived” issue each year, writers highlight the influence of prominent deceased people, often with unique anecdotes. In 2016’s issue, published December 25, the story that caught my attention particularly was that of Gwen Ifill.
Role models often appear with a thunderclap, a bright flash on a dark horizon, but can feel remote and evaporate just as quickly. Gwen Ifill was different.
In this piece, writer Sara Mosle tells Ifill’s story through her profound impact on two of Mosle’s former journalism students, Sophie Sabin and Isabel Evans. These girls’ journalistic aspirations quickly became tangible thanks in part to Ifill’s strong encouragement.
Sophie had the chance to interview Ifill via Skype in 2014, and she asked Ifill why “this important person, who had this really busy schedule” was taking the time to talk to her. Ifill answered, “Well, Sophie, it’s because I was you.”
Isabel had learned that race, ethnicity and gender were hurdles she had to jump. Her admiration of Ifill began when she noticed that Ifill, despite her own race, ethnicity and gender, had “never been held back”.
Sophie’s and Isabel’s mindsets remind me of my own — starting out timid, but quickly becoming imbued with a drive to ask the hard-hitting questions and tell the important stories, and facing the challenges of being a young, female person of color. Even though I never had a relationship with Ifill akin to those of Sophie and Isabel, I can find my role model in her through the lives she touched.
The editor of the annual “The Lives They Lived” issues, Ilena Silverman, talked on the podcast Still Processing, another product of The Times, about the purpose of the issue: finding humanity.
“Everyone is sort of looking for the deep humanity in their people,” Silverman said, referring to the writers’ goals. On the general audience for this issue, people who are moved and upset about these deaths, she said, “I feel like at its best you’re reading these stories and you’re going deep into people’s lives and deep into particular eras and that you just actually feel good.”
And in a year end that dramatized and dwelled upon the bad, I think it’s valuable to search for that humanity and cause for celebration, and just actually feel good.