Sheryl WuDunn

Sheryl WuDunn

In “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report on American communities struggling as blue collar jobs disappear and people die of drug overdoses every seven minutes. In the New York Times-best-selling book that was published Jan. 14, the duo includes reporting from Tulsa.

WuDunn, who is a former New York Times business editor and foreign correspondent, spoke with TulsaPeople about why she and Kristoff chose to incorporate Tulsa into the book.

The book doesn’t feature many cities, but Tulsa is one of them. Why?

Well, we think (Women in Recovery) is an incredible program, and we were very drawn to that. We’ve been following that program for years and really liked it, and I’m so glad that we were able to showcase it.

We think it (Women in Recovery) can be a role model or become a template for what other cities can do, as well. There certainly are other lead diversion programs that have the same idea to divert people from prison and into rehabilitation, but this one in particular has some aspects about it that were also very important. It’s a longer program because it takes a lot longer for people to really wean themselves off of drugs (when) they’re in the throes of addiction. We like that idea. We understood the philosophy behind it and all the programming that goes into the program and the intensity of the psychotherapy.

You mentioned you’ve been following Women in Recovery for years. Have you seen that being replicated or duplicated in other places?

It has been on our radar for a long time. I think it’s a standout program. We’ve been talking to them and asking them, “Why don’t you replicate it? Why can’t this be replicated?” They’re obviously just so focused on just doing a great job, which I totally get. At some point when they feel that they’ve gotten up the experience curve or whatever, maybe they’ll try and take it national, but they just want to make sure this program is just the best it can be and serves all of the women well.

Why do you think it works so well, from what you've seen?

When I’ve talked to people who’ve gone through the program, and also talked to the organizers, they think the key component of it is ... one, that these women have to be committed, they have to say, we’re signing on to this. And they can’t just take it haphazardly. They have to be fully committed. And then the psychotherapy is extremely important. A lot of the women said the therapists were critical, and they were terrific. They really felt they had built a very close bond with those therapists. And that’s really important — trust. I think it’s extremely important for a lot of these people trying to emerge from addiction because they just don’t trust people. They’ve been basically screwed all their lives, and so they don’t trust people.

And then just the programming. They’ve really tried to hone their programming, to make sure that in every class what they teach is extremely important and relevant. Then the apprenticeships where the job is also very important because you want to get these women back into the workday world, and so that they feel like productive members of society. I think that’s also very critical.

The book is titled “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” Reading the book, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of hopefulness at times. It felt pretty “doom and gloom,” or just kind of sad.

Well, there are certainly going to be parts that are sad because that’s a reflection of reality. But we do also have a lot of hopeful things such as the Women in Recovery program. We think that offers a huge amount of hope. And so, we do partner some of the reality with some of the solutions we think can address some of the challenges that people are facing.

In the book you talk about the court fees and legal fees that can be stacked on top of a person, which is up to 36 fees per case. You quote Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler in saying the legal fee setup is a dysfunctional system. Did it surprise you at all to hear him say that after you learned about the craziness of the fees people must pay when they go in through that process?

There are so many people inside the system who would acknowledge the system is dysfunctional. The problem is they can’t do anything about it. And that’s what’s sad. You know, there’s people in Congress right now who say it’s a dysfunctional system and yet you can’t do anything about it.

It’s more that it’s great they’re acknowledging it because that is the first step to acknowledge that something is not working. But I hope that it can be taken to the next step where they can start correcting it.

You also talk about the early childhood development in Tulsa and how that’s such an important, good thing to see and how the George Kaiser Family Foundation supports that. What were your thoughts on seeing it in action when you were here?

We have written about early childhood education in the past. So it’s not a new topic. (Kristoff’s) also been to Tulsa (previously). It’s something that we care a lot about because we think early childhood education is extremely important, and we really liked what’s being done in Tulsa. So that’s why we happened to mention it, but we looked at early childhood education in other places, as well.

What do you hope is the biggest takeaway people have when they read your book?

That we have neglected a whole segment of society: the working class. When we say we are trying to help the working class, are we really trying to help them? We don’t really understand them. The people who are in power and influence — the policymakers — I think it’s really important for them to understand what a lot of these working-class struggles are and what the working woman and man are going through. For a lot of people, life really is like walking on a tightrope.

I think the book is profound. It really struck a chord with me, and I think it’s a valuable book that should be read by everyone.

We do want people to pick it up and try and bring about change. We just hope people will say, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve got to change this. This is so unbearable.” …[The government and nonprofits] cut veteran homelessness nearly in half in six years, so it is very doable.

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