I was in Geauga County for a very short time before they made me a general assignment reporter. Because I was one of the newer reporters, if there was an early morning where a young black kid had been shot dead in the streets, they would send me out to talk to the families. And what I could never get over was, here I was, a white woman, showing up in the poorest communities in Cleveland, predominantly black if not completely, and not once was I turned away, ever. I could not imagine an African-American reporter showing up on the porch at 8:30 a.m. in a lot of the suburbs we covered and asking to talk.

Some reporters embrace this fantasy of how they’re just above it all and don’t have to reveal anything about themselves—they’re just out to get the story. Showing up on those porches, one of the first things I’d say is, “I’m really sorry for your loss. I’m a mother and can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through right now.” Part of why I was able to close the distance is that I was talking to mothers and I was the single mom of two kids myself. But that only takes you so far.

People who are seldom interviewed can’t believe you want to know their opinion. Once they believe you care about what they have to say, it’s mind-blowing how much they can trust you. That’s a fragile responsibility. In the white, working-class neighborhoods, the women particularly couldn’t believe that I cared; you’d often get this nervous giggle—“What, you’re writing this down?”

And with a lot of working-class guys, who chuckled at the whole notion of having to answer any questions from a woman, I’d go up and introduce myself as Chuck Schultz’s daughter, daughter of a utility worker, Local 270. And we’d start talking. They’d give me a hard time, but I always felt comfortable with gruff white men because that was my dad. In a working-class community, if I’m a utility worker’s kid, I’m all of a sudden the American Dream for their kids because I got a profession. I was never just a reporter. The only way I was going to get in was to be honest about who I am. Why would they trust me otherwise? I wouldn’t have trusted me. It was my job to give them reasons to trust me.

I did a series in 2002 called “The Burden of Innocence.” It was about a man, Michael Green, who’d been in prison for 13 years for a rape he didn’t commit. I’ll never forget when Michael’s stepfather looked at me and started shaking his head. I said, “What’s the matter, Mr. Mandell?” And he said, “I can’t believe you keep coming back here and it isn’t because someone’s been killed.” And I looked at him and said, “You know, fair criticism, but I’m going to keep coming back, and eventually you’re going to believe I’m here for a different kind of story.”

‘I get tired of the cynicism’

The columnist slot opened up as I was working on that story. It was the perfect time, because I’m not sure how much longer I could have kept reporting about things like Michael Green and not having opinions about them. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t become a columnist.

What sort of person would you be if you’re covering the economic devastation of a growing part of the country and don’t have an opinion about it? I don’t want to be that kind of person. I was never a cynic about politics and I think that’s because I came from a union background. We knew that only in numbers were people like my family, my relatives, going to get any power. So you wanted to know politically who was against you and who was for you. And I’m a feminist—so how could I be completely cynical about politics, when I could look at the laws that changed the lives of my gender? I get tired of the cynicism.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.