Meet the Fellow: Erica Hellerstein

For most of my life, “shoe leather reporting” has resonated in the same registers as out-of-vogue activities and dad-specific nostalgias, like “darning socks” and home improvement by way of “some elbow grease.” My father, for example, talks about shoe leather reporting in the context of exposing corrupt 1950s Jersey City mayors. Erica is the first person of my generation to say the phrase to me. And when she did, she was direct and completely unromantic about it. Whatever notions I held of shoe leather reporting as a bygone affair were soon vanquished after reading Erica’s published work.

I asked, jaw open, how she possibly managed to have her journalism school Masters thesis wooed and published by The Atlantic. She turns to me, as if presenting and rubbing a piece of thin leather, “It was all shoe leather reporting.”

Whether she’s reporting on the rise of abortion pills in the U.S. or criminal injustices in the rural South, Erica employs doggedness, fearlessness, aggressive reporting, and mighty fine writing. With a smile that opens doors and a toughness that won’t relent, she seems to have the qualities editors want in an investigative reporter.  She likes being in the thick of it.

When I asked about the polarized reader responses to her investigatory work on the illegal use of abortion pills in the U.S., Erica is unflinchingly: “I like it. It doesn’t scare me. I am drawn to dark shit and going up against institutions…For me, I feel ignited when I’m getting into the gnarly stuff. And spending time in the field is also really important to doing that kind of work.”

Her conviction for this work has deep roots. This was clear during our first long conversation together, enjoyed during an early morning hilltop walk before our IWMF hostile environment training. Erica’s father is a scientist and her sister is a social worker.  She choses her path as an investigatory journalist according to the mantra adopted by her parents: Do what you love and make sure it makes a difference.

Erica loved writing from an early age. Finding a career to do good by it, in a way that was satisfactory and social, took time.

Argentina (my adopted homeland!) plays a critical role in her way-finding.  Erica, a creative writing major, studied abroad in Buenos Aires during college. While there, she tried her hand teaching creative writing to disadvantaged youth. The work was fascinating from her view and, as she came to realize, the view of others. Erica wrote a journalistic piece about her experience with Argentine orphans for a JHU Public Health Journal. With her first kind note from an editor and a piece published in print, Erica caught the journalism bug. Perhaps more importantly, she found a landscape where her voice fit and flourished. Erica has been writing about Latin America ever since.

Later, Erica landed an internship at The Nation that had her “skipping to work” and, then held a successful run as a writer for a Latino human rights organization. Finally, Berkeley called her back to her West Coast home to complete a degree, and now legendary master thesis, at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. All the while, Latin America held her gaze.

Erica talks confidently about the landscapes she knows well, and patiently about the stories she believes deserve devoted inquiry. At the heart of Erica’s drive is a higher calling to illustrate the fragile state of human rights today. She wants the details and to share them; Erica is quick to point out obscure historical roots to a political topic and the tentacles of globalization all wrapped up. When discussing the U.S.’s long-standing ties to escalating violence in Honduras, our country of IWMF Adelante reporting, my new colleague and friend says to me calmly and confidently: “If you divorce all the context from that conversation, you aren’t having that conversation.”

– Clare Fieseler