Nicholas Kristof thought up "Win a Trip With Nick Kristof" as a nifty way for college students to go to Africa and see firsthand how the world works—or doesn't. On the first trip, in 2006, "I managed to get the student held up at gunpoint, twice," he says. Kristof waited for the suits at his place of employment, the New York Times, to forget the episode. Then he ran the contest again.
Leana Wen was one of the winners, and last June she found herself heading off to the bush in eastern Congo with armed rebels to interview a warlord. "I was in fear of my life," Wen says. But she also found the experience "amazing," not only because it cemented her desire to improve the world but also because she learned so much from watching Kristof listen to some of the most powerless people on Earth. Wen then blogged and produced videos of the trip. "Nick showed me how being directly involved is possible as a journalist," she says.
As a columnist for the Times, Kristof is showing a new generation that journalists needn't just watch disasters unfold. They can also try to avert them by advocating for change. Kristof was among the first to apply the word genocide to the murder of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. He doesn't flinch at portraying how people in faraway lands are suffering and how westerners' complacency adds to that suffering. "If I write about an issue that people have already thought of, I change very few minds," he says. "But if I shine a light, I can force revulsion and maybe cause some action."
In 2004, Kristof picked up his flashlight and headed to the Chad-Sudan border to check out rumors of a refugee crisis. "I was just blown away by what I saw," he says. "People were being hunted down by the Janjaweed; they were getting no help. It was a pretty obvious case of people being chosen by a government on the basis of their tribe and skin color and ordered for elimination."
The horrors of Darfur seem centuries away from Yamhill, Ore., a tranquil hamlet where the Kristof family had cherry trees and a party-line phone. His parents, both professors at Portland State University, encouraged his love of reading and history, but Kristof also loved backpacking in the Cascade Mountains. Those interests converged after graduate school, when Kristof wandered through Asia and Africa, financing his travels by writing newspaper articles. He went on to distinction as a foreign correspondent. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. In the next decade, they covered Asia's transformation from economic also-ran to driver of the global economy.
Torture. But when the worldly reporter returned from Darfur, he couldn't stop thinking about a well where the militiamen would wait, killing men and raping women who came for water. Parents would send their small children instead. "I remember seeing these kids who were the same age as my daughter—she's now 10—and thinking, what if I were in that position? I couldn't imagine sending my daughter out across the desert with a donkey to face these guys who were killing and raping and torturing. But what other option would I have?"
Kristof went back to Darfur, sat down with people, listened, and wrote. "So who killed 2-year-old Zahra Abdullah for belonging to the Fur tribe?" one 2005 column starts. The political situation in Darfur is complex, Kristof acknowledges. But the moral issue is simple. "What history will remember is that this is where little girls were bashed to death in front of their parents because of their tribe—and because the world couldn't be bothered to notice."
His unflinching call to conscience earned Kristof another Pulitzer Prize, this time for commentary, in 2006. Aid groups credit him with pushing the crisis in Darfur onto the global stage and goading the Bush administration and the United Nations into at least providing aid to 2.2 million people made homeless by the fighting. Kristof has also taken on the cause of women and children elsewhere. In a January 2005 column, he revealed how he had bought two female sex slaves in Cambodia and freed them. (One, he said, later returned to the brothel.) He's not afraid to offend his liberal fans, arguing that President Bush has done far more than his predecessors to combat aids in Africa and writing that sweatshops are good because they give poor Asians a chance to work their way out of rural poverty.
While Kristof continues to report from Africa, he's also putting energy into training the next generation of questioners. "A university student finds it much more interesting to read what another student is writing than a grizzled journalist," says Kristof, a decidedly ungrizzled 48. Thus, the "Win a Trip" contest was born. Kristof's first notion, to take students to Darfur, horrified the Times's lawyers. So he shifted to slightly safer spots. This summer's winners, Wen and a high school teacher from Chicago, accompanied Kristof as he wandered. "I just go out in the village and ask everybody what's going on, who's in the village, who's got an interesting story." And then he tells the world.