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environmental justice

LISTEN: Hannah Seo on diversity and optimism in environmental journalism

“People are finding really innovative ways to tell stories.”

Hannah Seo joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss health and wellness reporting and the importance of support networks for journalists of color.


Seo is a former assistant editor for the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program and currently a reporting fellow at The New York Times’ Well desk. She also talks about her poetry, gives writing tips for scientists, and shares what makes her hopeful about the state of journalism.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Seo, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

All right, I am super happy to be joined by Hannah Seo. Hannah, how are you doing today?

Hannah Seo

I'm doing very well. Thank you. I'm so happy to be talking to you.

Brian Bienkowski

So happy to be talking and seeing you. Of course you were with us at Agents of Change. And it's just so nice to see you again and have you back. And I'm really excited to hear about what you've been working on. So as you probably know, I like to start way at the beginning. And I happen to know that you had this very, a truly international upbringing. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the different parts of the world you've lived and how you think it may have shaped you and your career?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, it's been... There definitely have been a lot of places in the roster of my life. I was born in Vancouver, Canada, moved to the Middle East, to Qatar, when I was four, which is a little tiny little peninsula country by Dubai. I lived there for 14 and a half years left when I was 18 to go to Montreal for university then I went to Korea for a gap year, travelled around for a bit, landed in New York City. It's for sure every single place has been influential to my life. Without a doubt, I think the biggest value is that every place has shown me that there are so many ways to live. And I think that's something that a lot of people forget, especially people who haven't traveled very much. It's like they think that the way that they live is the only way they can live or the only way people should live. And just growing up so internationally, you really see that there's really no one answer to how people go through life or how people react to circumstances.

Brian Bienkowski

I really like that my wife and I are always looking at the Scandinavian countries and how they live and saying, Why did they seem to have it figured out? Why can they live that way with health care, and everybody has a good-paying job? But that's really interesting. And how about the weather? I mean, I have to imagine Qatar is super hot. And then Canada is super not.

Hannah Seo

One of the fun facts about me that I like to share is that the hottest temperature I ever experienced in my life, and I don't do Fahrenheit as I'm Canadian. So you'll just have to bear with me and my Celsius. But the hottest temperature I ever experienced in Qatar was 56 degrees Celsius. And the coldest temperature I ever experienced in Montreal was negative 45 degrees Celsius. So I have experienced a more than 100-degree Celsius range of temperatures in my life. And neither one of those two are livable, no human should really be out on either end of that spectrum.

Brian Bienkowski

So used to as you said, You've been in New York City now for a while. Brooklyn, do you feel like a New Yorker at this point?

Hannah Seo

Oh, I would say, short answer: no. I think... I mean, I feel very familiar. I have my places that I like to go to. I do feel quite comfortable. But I think my default state is one of unbelonging and so to not be a New Yorker kind of feels like the right status.

Brian Bienkowski

A default state of belonging, I like that. So you went to NYU's science health and environmental reporting program just such an excellent program that I've had the good fortune of working with folks like you. And everybody that goes through there is such an excellent writer and reporter. But it's very science heavy from what I understand, maybe I'm wrong about that. But from what I understand, it's a lot of a lot of science reporting. So I'm wondering where along the way you started incorporating environmental justice and thinking more about these kinds of non-science narratives?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, it's a good question. And I feel like I started incorporating justice-related themes without really even noticing just because I have had this international upbringing. And I, I just, I naturally gravitated towards stories that involve different communities that are maybe not talked about as often or people of different, including people of different ethnicities, sexualities in my reporting process, just as a way, just felt natural to me, because of just I guess, just because of my upbringing, and it didn't really occur to me that I was doing kind of justice-related reporting until afterwards, and looking back and seeing my stories being called justice-related stories. And then, and I guess I just ran with it. I yeah, I like it.

Brian Bienkowski

What do you like about it?

Hannah Seo

I like that, as as a reporter, as someone in media, I think you have a lot of, you do hold a lot of power, and just the fact that people's attention is such a valuable resource, and people have limited attention. And so being able to direct even just a modicum of that attention to people who don't normally get attention, I think is like a really valuable thing that we can do.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, I totally agree. And that's just incredibly well put. As you know, I've been asking everybody, a defining moment that shaped your identity up to this point.

Hannah Seo

Oh, man. Yeah, I knew this question was coming. And I was thinking about it. And I think I guess I have two that, that are really defining in maybe different ways, or maybe related ways, I guess. One is that in my freshman year of university, I stopped believing in God. So that was pretty defining moment in my life, I think it really helped shape my trajectory of who I am and what I care about in the sense that I, when you realize that time on Earth is a finite resource, you tend to treat it with more care. And I think I started living more deliberately after I stopped believing in God. And then the second event would be when I decided to go to journalism school, I decided to apply to journalism school, despite not having any experience in journalism. And that was a really kind of scary transition, but felt... instinctively it felt right to me. And even though at the time that decision didn't feel so weighty, I think in hindsight, that feels like a very important move that I made.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, that's very cool. I appreciate you sharing, you sharing that. So now you are at the well desk at the New York Times. So I have two questions. One is if you can just tell us what the well desk is, I think maybe it's a little bit apparent than through the name. But there's so many different aspects of the New York Times. And second, it's obviously the biggest paper in the world. What can you tell us about your experience so far?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, so the wall desk is basically how I would explain it is if the science section met the style section. It's mostly, well coverage mostly involves mental and physical health and wellness, as well as some like relationships and social science stuff. And yeah, being at The Times is really surreal. For sure, it's such a behemoth of an institution. And I think that you don't really realize how many moving parts there are until you're kind of in the machine and you're just seeing just like how much coffee like the volume of coffee that is moved every day and, and the rush to get things to print. And it's been... It's been a learning curve, for sure. And it's been a revelatory experience thus far. And I'm excited to continue my time there.

Brian Bienkowski

So you are at the well desk. And you've also obviously reported on the environment and health and the intersection of all of these things. So I was just wondering, what are some of the environmental health or wellness topics that are on your radar that you think people should be paying more attention to, but maybe aren't?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, this is a tough question. And it's also kind of tricky to answer because no matter what you say, like there's always somebody who has been thinking about this and feels like by saying that nobody's talking about this, they feel a little slighted. But I think something that more people could be paying attention to, I think especially from like a health and like wellness perspective, that I think that people kind of neglect is just how big a role structural things like the economy play in how our health and well being is influenced and how we approach our own health and well being. A lot of wellness reporting, is kind of geared towards, like "you are doing something wrong, which is why you are not well, here is a solution in the form of like a product or a practice, or some sort of consumption that you can do in order to make your life better." And I think that, you know, some of the some of those pieces of advice might be helpful, but it doesn't get at the root of the problem, which is that there are these big structural forces at play that kind of prevent certain demographics from being well, and from maintaining the best health that they can. And I would really like to see more reporting, and more attention directed to those issues.

Brian Bienkowski

And do you think that's because of the complexity and the difficulty in reporting and talking and thinking about big things, as opposed to simple things?

Hannah Seo

Yeah. And I also think it's maybe a little unsatisfying, sometimes to read a story and be like, "well, it's out of my hands," you know? I think sometimes by offering someone a solution that feels a little bit smaller and a little bit more manageable, it kind of is comforting, in a way for both the writer and the reader, but also is not entirely truthful, or at least doesn't capture the entirety of the situation.

Brian Bienkowski

So for the larger structural issues – economic inequality, structural racism, I assume these are some of the things you're referring to – Is there room for solutions reporting? I know when we start a story at EHN, we try to think about, you know, how can we have impact with this? And it almost always ends with, you know, legislation change, or, or something like that, which is such a lofty goal. And I'm wondering if it's possible to have solutions reporting, if you are incorporating these kinds of larger, zooming out and focusing on some of the larger issues?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, I guess. I think there is room for solutions reporting, and I don't have all the answers. But I do think that the first step is directing attention, like I mentioned, with like marginalized communities, I think one of the first things is to just like, make sure people direct their gaze towards places where things can be better. And and I don't know, I guess, I guess, there's also an element to... as reporters, especially on like health or environmental beats, you don't always have the expertise to kind of report on things like political change or legislation, and so it might take like interdisciplinary collaboration, in order to bring that those sorts of reporting projects to light.

Brian Bienkowski

For sure, for sure. And so you, of course, you were an assistant editor at our Agents of Change program and did some excellent work here, and you work directly with fellows on shaping their essays. Given this work, I was wondering if you have some tips, or just general advice you'd give to scientists who want to write or communicate to a broader audience, especially in light of that, the last question that we had, trying to connect these issues, which a lot of these fellows were trying to do, what advice or tips would you have?

Hannah Seo

I think that the most common comment I had for people when I was editing and reviewing these essays was to always keep in mind what the purpose is of the piece that you're writing. I think sometimes people, especially if they have an academic background, they're just so in the zone with their expertise and their knowledge that sometimes they might lose sight of what the purpose is, or what the intended effect they want out of the essay that they publish. And so if your essay is about, if your essay is about bringing to light, some sort of unreported on or lesser known issue in a smaller community, then really, whatever expertise you have, and whatever information you share, should be in service of elucidating that issue, you're not sharing your knowledge for the sake of sharing or knowledge you're sharing or knowledge for the purpose of giving someone clarity, or shedding a light into a specific landscape. And so that's, that's what I would, I would say: Just always remember, like, why you're writing the thing you're writing, and whatever you share should be in service of that purpose.

Brian Bienkowski

I know from talking to you and following you online that you read a lot. You seem to follow a lot of different people, you read a lot of a lot of different issues. I'm wondering and you can be totally honest, in light of working with Agents of Change. I mean, do you think having scientists communicate in this way a kind of personal narrative is a good thing? Is that something that we should be doing to move the needle on injustice?

Hannah Seo

I definitely think so. Absolutely. I think that, you know, people who go through the Agents of Change program, so many of them have first hand experience working with communities. And it's unfortunate that so much of media relies on things like credibility, and you have to kind of prove that credibility, And I think that when academics have experience working with communities, and then they share those experiences, the institutional backing, does lend that credibility. And it's kind of a sad thing that we have to... sometimes people doubt community experiences, and that we need to rely on these titles and these institutions to kind of verify, "verify" that these issues are happening. But the fact that, but the fact is, is that, that that who those hoops do exist, and when academics use their experiences for the purpose of shedding light on these issues, like that's, for sure invaluable.

Brian Bienkowski

And I didn't ask that as any kind of promotion for the program. I'm just genuinely curious, because a lot of scientists are uncomfortable with that, a lot of journalists are uncomfortable with writing actively about issues especially when it relates to injustice, and things like that. So I appreciate your perspective. And speaking of reading a lot of different people, and in a lot of different spaces and genres. So you are a poet, which is so cool. And I've read some of your poetry and some of it, some of it I got and really stuck to me. And some of it like most poetry, I felt like you were at PhD level, and I was in kindergarten. But when did you get into poetry? And pardon me if this is personal, but what is what is your process? And how does it differ from journalism?

Hannah Seo

Oh, thanks for reading. I don't talk about it often, because I find that it's like, when you talk about your poetry practice to people, they either think it's very cool, or they think it's like very cringy. And they think like, you're on Tumblr, or something, and just like putting out like, your emo thoughts or whatever. Um, I got into poetry in college, I just, I was majoring in science, and I felt very removed from any sort of creative practice. And I needed an outlet to kind of let off some steam and kind of process my own emotions in a way that wasn't just talking to somebody. And so I started writing, I started joining different small literary magazines on campus. And at first, I had no intention of publishing. But then I kind of found communities online and kind of learned that publishing doesn't have to be super scary, especially if you – I take rejection very well, it's one of my strong suits – and so if you take rejection well, and you're not afraid to just like send your words out into the ether, then it's, it's very doable, and I find it to be a very emotionally fulfilling part of my life. My process is kind of vague, and it really depends on what is happening in my life. Sometimes I'll just be walking and I'll have like a turn of phrase kind of pop into my mind, and I'll I'll jot it down. Sometimes it's very like story or experience driven. And I feel like I need to capture a moment in the poetic form. And then I'll document that other times. I just go through my notes. And I see that as some of my musings have follow a certain theme. And then I'll try to kind of cobble together something from what scraps I have. And it's very, it's very unregulated, and very haphazard. But yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

Probably very different than the your journalism side of life, which is probably more structured at this point. I don't know the name of the poem, and I apologize if this is embarrassed as you but they're the one that got to me most was almost like a note to a boy in your class. Talking about the different experiences you two had, I believe you're both Asian I think was what I got from it. And I just thought that was such...and I can't remember the name of the poem, but that one was like, brought tears to my eyes. It was such a strong, strong poem.

Hannah Seo

Oh, thank you. Yeah, I believe the title for that one was "To the Taiwanese boy in my third grade class." Yeah, what was interesting is that this memory kind of resurfaced recently of this Asian boy who joined my school when I was like about third grade I think. And I had I grew up with very few Asians around and at the time when this other boy arrived, I was the only Asian I think in my grade, but the thing is, is that because obviously I'm Canadian, you know, English is my first language, to me like my Asianness wasn't so apparent, and I felt that when he entered into my class, He made my Asianness more apparent by the fact that he was so not Western. He spoke broken English. And, you know, poeple kind of started associating us just by default, just because we were both Asian. And if people had a hard time understanding Him, they would ask me what he said. And I, well, I was just so uncomfortable with that, that I, I think I was rather unfriendly to him in my young years, and I, and I felt really regretful of that. So that memory kind of resurfaced. And that's, that's why I wrote the poem.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah. And you're kind of apologizing to him. And I understood it, but at the same time, it was like, "oh, Hannah, you're in third grade, do go easy on yourself." Like, we've all done, we've all done things in third grade that weren't so kind, but it's a really beautiful, it's a really beautiful poem. And when you were talking about rejection, so I used to write short stories and submit them to literary journals and got a couple, a couple published, but one of my rejections, I remember, they accidentally copied me. And it was the editors, and it said something along the lines of "I can't believe all the crazy shit, we're getting this round." Yeah, so that one hurt. I mean, the rest of them, were just your normal "Thank you so much for applying." But that one, maybe they maybe they copied me on purpose. You know, maybe it was just don't don't send us anything.

Hannah Seo

I'm so sorry. You had to see that.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, there are worse things. There are worse things in life. So do you notice any crossover or intersection in your, you know, your reporting, your health, environmental wellness reporting, and your poetry? Are they very separate?

Hannah Seo

I think for the most part, they are quite separate. But I do love incorporating scientific themes into some of my poems, I think there's some language in the world of science that I find quite beautiful, and I love just like sticking in an odd, odd sciency term or phrase in a poem. I also think my poetry really helps my journalism, when it comes to brevity, which is definitely something I could use more work on. Just like the economy of language is so important in poetry. And I think that practice kind of seeps into my journalistic prose in a way that I think it's quite valuable.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. One of the first pieces of advice I ever got in J school was omit needless words, I think that can be attributed to a famous author or writer. But yeah, it's something I think we could all we could all learn from. So I wanted to talk to Hannah a little bit about, well, diversity in journalism, but specifically, you're part of Uproot, which is a network, I think it's journalists of color for journalists of color. For too long journalism has kind of lacked in this diversity. And I wonder if you could talk about Uproot your involvement there, and any other movement on this front to bolster diversity in reporting and why it's so important?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, I think when I initially became a journalist, I didn't think about it too much. But then I realized when I joined Uproot, and when I joined things like Asha – the American Asian American journalists Association– the value of these organizations, and I think I've been trying to distill down why I think they're so valuable. And besides just like, emotional, communal support, I think a big role that they play is that it's just a way to safely share information about your experiences and a way to kind of disseminate knowledge about the industry. And like you said, when so many people in positions of power have historically been like white and male. It's, it's nice to have channels where you can just ask advice safely, without like fear of retribution or fear of like looking unprofessional or unknowledgeable. It's also so valuable just to share experiences, because when you realize that other people are experiencing what you're experiencing, or if other people are experiencing something way better, or way worse, you know, just having all of that data is it's really comforting, just to kind of place yourself in the broader landscape of journalists. And I think that I think it's really it's really great what these organizations and what these networks are doing to provide people with that space.

Brian Bienkowski

That's great. I wasn't even thinking about that side of things. You know, I was thinking from the side of kind of, to news news production. But the idea of kind of a support system is, that's really great. I can say, as an editor, the fact that these networks are springing up and an AHA and National Association of Native American journalists, as an editor, it's great to have pools of not only kind of, you know, ethnic and racial diversity, but geographic diversity when I'm looking for somebody who is embedded in a community and knows that community to have them go and do the reporting as opposed to pulling somebody to parachute in. It's been really great as an editor too. So I'm really happy that all these places exist. So it's an interesting time. To be in journalism, of course, mistrust. And there's a lot of loss in the industry. But I want to I always like to hear about people's optimism. What are you excited about? What are you optimistic about when it comes to reporting and journalism?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, I think my optimism is related to the previous question. I think that the growing diversity in newsrooms is something to be optimistic about, I think that people are finding really innovative ways to tell stories and to share information, just beyond the fact of, you know, of course, like we have cool infographics that are on new sites now. But beyond things like that, it's like, you know, even even even people like Taylor Lorenz, who's on Tik Tok, sharing her reporting on Tik Tok, and just the way that we disseminate information, I think, is really is in some ways democratising in some ways, a tricky mine field to navigate. But I think, I think I'm generally optimistic because the way that power and attention is directed, I think, is, is generally headed in the right direction, even if right now it doesn't feel like it.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, you have to take the long view, right? There are certainly some negative aspects. But overall, if you take the long view, it does seem like we're on the right path. So I agree. And I appreciate that. So I have a few more questions to go. And it's just been so great to catch up with you and talk to you today. And these are, these are short, these are short answers for me. So you can just get in and get out. And the first one is, what is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, my mom told me when I was a teenager to be bold. And I think that's the best advice I've ever gotten, even if like at the time I hated it.

Brian Bienkowski

The last concert I saw was

Hannah Seo

a rock concert outdoors at Prospect Park.

Brian Bienkowski

My favorite thing to cook is,

Hannah Seo

I don't

Brian Bienkowski

One place or thing to do in New York City that I love, but I don't go or do enough

Hannah Seo

roller skating.

Brian Bienkowski

They still have roller roller skating rinks?

Hannah Seo

Yeah, there's one in Prospect Park that I love to go to. But I just like the timing with work. It's like it's hard to get to.

Brian Bienkowski

I watched a documentary on roller rinks a few years ago, and I don't remember, I don't remember the name of it. But it is fascinating. The culture that sprung up around these, I believe Chicago was a really big place for them. Michigan, you know, around Detroit, there were a whole bunch of them. And they all shut down over the last few decades and people were crushed. It was this big cultural gathering space, for adults too, I had no idea. So cool.

Hannah Seo

Well, I've never really dug into the history of Roller Skating. But now I really want to watch that.

Brian Bienkowski

I will have to get you the name. And Hannah. Last question, what is the last book you read for fun?

Hannah Seo

I do read a lot. I try to read 30 books a year. Well, I don't know if I'm gonna hit that this year. But the last book I read was actually I re-read how to do nothing by Jenny Odell. And this book is, is amazing. Probably one of the best books I've ever read, maybe. But it's not really about how to do nothing. The subtitle of the book, I think, is more apt, it's resisting the attention economy. And basically, it's about how attention is one of the last resources that we as individuals have full autonomy over and so much of when we get when we face like dread or despair about the world around us, a lot of the times we can have the instinct to like pull ourselves apart from the world and kind of, you know, become a hermit in a cabin in the woods, or just like detach completely or like stop caring. And she says that the answer to fixing the societies that we live in is not to separate ourselves, but to kind of exist in our existing systems but also standing apart and kind of operating in this third space where you're aware of what's happening, but also actively trying to resist the flow of where people are trying to move you towards. And I'm not doing a great job of summarizing this, but it is very, very good. And I'm, I've been recommending this book to everyone I can at every opportunity.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. I you know, I've seen that at the local library. And I keep thinking about getting it. And now I will that sounds sounds like a great read for the times.

Hannah Seo

Yes, absolutely.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Hannah, this has been great. You started as an intern at EHN. And now I'm just a fan of your work and you're one of my favorite reporters. So thank you so much for taking the time today.

Hannah Seo

Oh, that's so kind of you. I've enjoyed every moment of this.

Brian Bienkowski

All right, that's all for this week. Folks, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Hannah. I am so excited to continue watching her career unfold. For more of her work, follow her on Twitter at ahannahseo.

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