Other Writing
Columns for the Chicago Sun-Times

The idea for ‘Reporting Lives’ came from Debra’s own work as a journalist, reporting about Chicagoans’ responses to the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Check out some of the columns she wrote for the Sun-Times as she explored this issue.

Preparing for Africa trip is a workout


‘I hate her,” I thought, as Ann demonstrated the most efficient way to pack a duffel bag. Two months before we were set to leave for Africa, all her gear was neatly organized and stored in those little canvasand-net packing cubes. Also, all her climbing clothes were cute and fashionable, especially the pale green down jacket that looks awesome on her because she’s tall and thin but would make me look like an unripe grape.

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New slant on life found in mountain venture, glimpse at African poverty


“We’re back,” I typed into the subject line of the e-mail. It was all I really wanted to say, and I hoped it encompassed all my friends and family wanted to know: The Boyfriend and I were home, safe and no longer incommunicado. We were not, however, ready to start answering questions. Still, the questions came. Did you make it to the top of Kilimanjaro? Did you get engaged? Did you really not bathe for an entire week?

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Debra Pickett reports from Nairobi: ‘Orphan porn’


You’ve seen the teary ads about saving the children. But helping people is harder than sending a check. And you can’t just save the cute ones…

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Listening trumps reporting on this Africa mission


In one of my first jobs out of college, I worked for a big executive. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I did get a very nice office, and I got to make up my own title, which was “executive communication specialist” or something similarly ridiculous. The essence of the job was that I followed the big executive around, wrote down things he said, then assembled his collected utterances into speeches and articles.

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It takes a village, but what if the village isn’t enough?


Even if you don’t have an affinity for languages, there are certain Swahili words you pick up very quickly when traveling in east Africa. Like mzungu. Once enough kids have shouted it while staring and pointing at you, it does rather quickly dawn on you that it means, well, white person.

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I do have other interests, but while I’ve got your ear…


At a certain point, a person crosses a line between having a passionate interest in life and being a screaming, crashing bore. There’s the militant vegetarian who can’t resist telling you about the tragic life of veal. And the bride who seems genuinely to believe that you care about her flower arrangements. Or the sports fan who moves — very slowly – through the five stages of grief after every home team loss. Not to mention the new mother who thinks it’s necessary to describe to you in great detail how her baby eats and sleeps and poops.

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“Americans like to fix things quickly. They don’t understand why problems linger.”


“This is a very interesting kind of meeting,” Wangari Maathai says politely. “I have never been to a meeting like this one.” She has spent most of the last day and a half inside the cavernous halls of McCormick Place, a guest at the direct sales company Shaklee’s giant annual meeting, an almost- evangelical affair with splashy awards presentations for top salespeople, singers, dancers, a laser light show and a full gospel choir.

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Silent treatment of world’s outrages only goes so far


It was a stupid thing — the kind of thing that happens all the time — that set me off. It was just some words, spray-painted on a building. A racist scream, captured in black spray paint. I don’t know why it got to me the way it did. There is a certain point, after all, when it becomes just tremendously uncool to get upset about these things. You probably remember the girl in high school who, on any given day, was seriously worked up about Apartheid, the whales, nuclear proliferation and/or toxic waste. No one liked that girl.

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Why help needy in Africa but ignore Chicago’s plight?


I was that girl you knew in college who’d always buy lunch for the homeless guys. How could a person, I wondered then, walk into Burger King, buy a meal and walk out again, right past the man begging for change on the corner? And so, even though my financial situation was pathetic enough that I knew the location of all the campus ATMs that dispensed money in $5 increments, I always got an extra sandwich to give to someone on the way out.

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Fight for a better world won’t always go the way you want


I gave up on saving the world a long time ago, right about the time that the kids who didn’t mind being poor got into one line at the career planning center and I got into another. But, in recent years, I’d begun to think I had a reasonable shot at making a difference in the lives of a few hundred children. Having lucked into finding a Chicago organization, Global Alliance for Africa, that identifies and supports community groups working with kids who’ve been orphaned by AIDS, I’d started to think of myself as one of those people who has a “calling.

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