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Lela Nargi

2023 Nova Media Fellow

Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering the intersection of water poverty and food insecurity in several communities across the country. Formerly, she was an editor at Working Mother magazine, a journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College, and a reporter for national outlets such as People, Life, and Entertainment Weekly. Lela’s work has been recognized by The Aspen Institute and the Society for Environmental Journalists, and reprinted widely. She’s also a regular radio guest. She’s also the author of 20+ books for children on topics such as bees, birds, space, volcanoes, dinosaurs, ecosystems, and biodiversity. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her at lelanargi.com.

Media Fellowship Project

Covering the intersecting crises of water poverty and food insecurity in the United States

Water poverty, which currently affects an estimated 60 million U.S. residents, is at the core of food and nutrition insecurity and only expected to increase over time under the continued effects of climate change. Water poverty in its many forms — via lead, nitrate, or sewage contamination; inadequate infrastructure leading to loss of delivery; taps shut off due to non-payment of water bills; aquifers running dry — greatly exacerbates food and nutrition insecurity. Simply put, a person without water cannot prepare food. Even someone who only believes their tap water is undrinkable is more likely to drink sugar sweetened beverages, a risk factor for diabetes and other diet-related diseases. 

Lela will spend the next year visiting and reporting on a few of the under-resourced communities that are experiencing various and distinct varieties of water insecurity that hamper the ability to prepare and eat healthy food. These communities may include McDowell County, West Virginia, a former coal mining region that’s long contented with water scarcity; Navajo Nation, where 30 percent of homes have no running water and drinking water is often contaminated by uranium; New Orleans, where low-income nursing mothers may be subject to frequent water shutoffs due to storm surge and also experience high rates of food insecurity; the Southside of Chicago, where BIPOC communities have historically been subjected to industrial pollution that renders drinking water unsafe; Detroit, with its high poverty rates and risk of children being removed from their families if a family’s water is shut off; and prison systems like those in Illinois, where lead-contaminated water can inhibit hydration as well as inmates’ ability to stave off hunger by preparing food from the commissary.

Education and Training
  • BA, French Literature, Bennington College, Bennington, VT
Selected Honors
  • 2023 Vermont Law and Graduate School Media Fellow
  • 2021 Northeastern Indiana Local Food Forum & Expo keynote speaker
  • 2019 Fromson Journalism Fellow
  • presenter at Solutions Journalism Network, Yale Law School, and CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute
Selected Publications

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.