That’s how Patrick Alexander, cofounder of The John Alexander Project, describes the selection process for the organization’s 2011 Above the Fray Fellowship.
Ultimately, the one-two punch of Nina Porzucki’s “infectiously honest” personality and unique pitch—she will travel to Guangzhou, China to report on a community of African immigrants dubbed ‘Chocolate City’—won over the selection committee.
Launched in 2010, the Above the Fray Fellowship honors the memory of John Alexander, a wunderkind journalist who died of sudden heart failure at 26 while on assignment in Chongqing, China, in December 2007.
At the time, John was reporting for Koppel On Discovery; he had previously worked for National Public Radio. NPR is a partner on the three-month fellowship, which provides rising-star journalists the opportunity to cover crucial but under-reported stories from locations abroad.
Last fall, the project’s first fellow, Brian Reed, spent 30 days in Kiribati—a tiny Pacific Island nation pronounced KEER-ih-bis—filing dispatches for NPR that put a human face on a populace at the beachheads of climate change.
To label China’s ‘Chocolate City’ as underreported would be an understatement.
“Nobody at NPR or anybody on our side had even heard of this place,” says Patrick. “When I was reading pitches for the fellowship, I would ask myself: ‘What would John think?’ Had he known about this story and this place when he was in China, he would have gotten there, there is no doubt in my mind.”
Home to more than 20,000 African immigrants, ‘Chocolate City’ is a 10-square-kilometer marketplace brimming with activity, chockfull of traders buying cheap Chinese goods.
A statement released by the project paints a more vivid picture:
Since 2003, the number of African immigrants, predominantly Nigerians, has grown exponentially. Many immigrants arrive in the Guangzhou airport with no more than a bus number and instructions to go to the market to search out their fortune. From reject designer clothing to pirated DVDs to human hair extensions, anything goes in the marketplace. It's all cash and it’s hardly regulated. It's the wild, wild east and the potential for success is equal to the chance of failure.
“The idea that there is an African barbershop in the middle of a Chinese market or the idea that there is African music about life in China really intrigued us,” says Patrick.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Porzucki is a stringer for PRI’s The World, where she reports on stories of language and culture. She had previously worked at StoryCorps.
Like his brother John, “Nina is really great at talking to people, she is a really good listener,” says Patrick. “Her honesty is so infectious that you just want to talk to her, so the idea of her hopping into a taxi and talking with a cabbie while he drives around this marketplace was just so exciting to us.”
That the Project’s second-year fellow will be reporting from China is particularly ironic, says Patrick. “We never really thought we’d send someone to the world’s most populous country. We were thinking about like places like Kiribati, which were off the beaten path and there was nobody there and a country that no one had heard of.”