Before Farah Stockman became a world-traveling, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, she grew up in East Lansing and graduated from East Lansing High School in 1992.
Speaking to ELi in October, Stockman credited her upbringing in East Lansing for encouraging and preparing her for a career in journalism. She remembers fondly the teachers who inspired her love of writing, including Dr. Graeber, who taught Advanced Placement English, Ms. Lawrence, who taught contemporary American history through literature, and Ms. Sheneman, who was Stockman’s third-grade teacher.
“I totally took diversity in a university town for granted,” Stockman told ELi in a recent interview. “Not everyone is surrounded by well-read and college-educated people.”
This is something that Stockman grappled with when writing her new book, American Made, which follows three steel workers in the aftermath of the decision to close the Link-Belt ball bearing factory in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Stockman’s parents both earned doctorates and taught at Michigan State University. Her mother Ida Stockman is a linguist and professor emerita in the Communicative Sciences & Disorders Department in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. George Stockman, her father, is a professor emeritus in MSU’s Computer Science Department in the College of Engineering.
The idea for Stockman’s book came after she wrote an article about the experience of Shannon Mulcahy, a veteran employee at the factory, who was asked to train her own replacement as the plant relocated to Mexico. Shannon ultimately did train her replacement, saying that she had been blessed to have the job and now her replacement would be blessed.
For her book, Stockman also followed the experiences of Wally Hall, a Black veteran employee and union member, and John Feltner, a white worker who was newer to the factory. All three workers were making a lot more than the typical person working with a high school diploma.
“It’s very tempting to say, ‘These jobs are never coming back – get over it,’” Stockman told ELi. But the jobs, as she recounts in her book, were central to the workers’ identities.
“These jobs were like family heirlooms,” said Stockman. “These jobs were status symbols for blue-collar workers.”
Factories, she said, were institutions that protected people and provided benefits. Other jobs in the gig economy seem not to offer the same.
Stockman said her number one takeaway in writing the book was how much jobs mean to people. These jobs allowed the workers to forge a path forward. Shannon was able to leave a violent man with her wages. Wally was able to start anew after serving a prison term.
In her book, Stockman also sets out to capture some of the complexities of factory work.
Factories were places where people fought for civil rights and gender equality, she said, pointing to the stereotype that factory jobs were mostly filled by white men.
And, of course, her book grapples with why workers that had traditionally voted for Democrats voted for Trump in 2016.
Stockman told ELi that most people in her circle – living in Massachusetts and working for the New York Times – were shocked when Trump won. But, in visiting the rustbelt, Stockman met people who thought Trump would bring back their factory jobs.
Covering social disparities is not a new beat for Stockman. She won a Pulitzer Prize when she worked for the Boston Globe for her series of articles about the legacy of busing in Boston.
When a vote was held on Boston’s City Council to commemorate Brown vs. the Board of Education, several members abstained or voted against. Stockman wrote about their backstories related to busing and coming-of-age during that period.
Stockman understood the advantages her background provided her, but her upbringing has also helped her understand disparities. Her mother is a Black American from Mississippi who grew up in the Jim Crow South. Her father is a white American from Pennsylvania.
Growing up, racial disparities were discussed at home, and Stockman was encouraged to interrogate the world around her.
Stockman also sees the possibility of covering a future story about Michigan, one that could include East Lansing: the history of school integration and the importance of Schools of Choice in the evolution of education in this state.
Keep stories like this coming in 2022!