Raised in the California suburbs, Kari Lydersen remembers reading Studs Terkel’s book “Division Street America” at the age of 11. “It was this old, orange hard cover, probably my parents’ copy, and I loved it, I absolutely loved it.”
Ten years later she’d find herself living in Chicago, not far from Studs’ Division St., reporting for StreetWise. She even had the chance to interview Studs early in her career. Kari can’t remember what they talked about, but she remembers that he was classic Studs—he told stories.
“The kind of empathy and wonder he has for regular people and his passion for bringing to life the stories of regular people has been something that inspired me, and I’ve aspired to do that myself throughout my career,” says Kari.
As someone who loves to explore the corners of Chicago, as well as places farther from home, Lydersen says, as a freelancer, she often spends more than she makes when traveling somewhere to report a story.
This doesn’t concern her though. A long-time Washington Post reporter for the Chicago bureau, she admits those perks of paid travel were nice, but traveling and writing are inter-twined for the California native, and she can’t give it up, even if it means money out of her own pocket. “I think the most interesting way to see a new place is to write a story about it.”
Her ability to see the connections between issues others might see as disparate has produced impactful stories on topics including mining in land sacred to Native Americans, union organizing campaigns, the national railroad network, workers’ rights and wage theft, immigration and environmental justice. She has written three books, and her stories have appeared all over the country in outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Reader and The Chicago Reporter.
Kari came to Chicago to attend Northwestern University as an undergraduate. A national champion in marathon swimming, she says the swim team is the reason she chose Northwestern, but journalism is what kept her here.
“There are just so many stories in Chicago. The city is overflowing with them,” says Kari. “There are so many groups doing great things, it almost feels like cheating. That’s what I love about Chicago and being a journalist—getting these stories out and having them driven by great characters.”
When asked if she thinks she’ll still be reporting 10 years from now, she smiles knowingly, “Absolutely.”
Kari teaches journalism at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute and lives in the Pilsen neighborhood.
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