The Man Who Raised a Fist, 50 Years Later

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Tik Root | The Atlantic (October 2018 Issue)| Photo: Associated Press

In the boyle heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, tucked between a gas station and what looks to be an abandoned warehouse, sits a former ceramics factory that now houses the studio of Glenn Kaino, a prominent conceptual artist. One morning in April, Kaino opened the back door and ushered inside the Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith; Smith’s wife, Delois; and me. We were greeted by an imposing stack of 70 or 80 cardboard boxes. “What are those?” asked Smith, who at 6 foot 4 towers above Kaino. “Arms,” Kaino responded. “Those are all arms?” Delois exclaimed.

The arms are not just any arms, but fiberglass casts of Smith’s actual right arm, made from a silicone mold that Kaino took a few years back. Dozens of replicas are now strewn across the studio, in various states of preparation. Each one extends from the shoulder to a gloved fist, every vein and ripple of muscle discernible along the way. When any of the arms is held upright, its significance is immediately evident.

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How Belize Is Restoring Its Coral Reefs and Damaged Ocean

Tik Root | National Geographic | Photo: Brian J. Skerry/National Geographic Creative 

BELIZE CITY – The Astrum helicopter company launches from a base less than five miles from where Belize City meets the Caribbean. In the backseat, to my left, is Belizean Senator Valerie Woods. Across from us are two representatives from international ocean protection organization Oceana, which organized the flight. The country’s minister of state, Carla Barnett, climbs into the front seat.

“I haven’t been in a helicopter for a long time,” she mutters, pulling on her headset. The doors shut, and we’re off.

As we rise above the trees, Belize City starts to spread out in front of us. But that’s not our destination. Side-skirting downtown, we head out over the water—where the true treasures lay.

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Paint Fight

Tik Root | Mother Jones | Graphic: Selman Design

In 1998, Fidelma Fitzpatrick, a young associate at the Motley Rice law firm, was wrapping up her work on the groundbreaking $246 billion national tobacco settlement when a new case landed on her desk. The state of Rhode Island—which had a disproportionate number of children with elevated blood lead levels—wanted her firm’s help suing the paint industry.

So began a decadeslong legal battle to hold paint manufacturers accountable for cleaning up old houses still coated in toxins. Fitzpatrick played a key role in the Rhode Island case and now spearheads her firm’s involvement in similar litigation. And the argument she proposed using to take on the paint companies is being applied to a widening array of state and local public health lawsuits—especially important given the Trump administration’s apparent reluctance to regulate industries.

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2018 PyeongChang Olympic Coverage

Fireworks explode during the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Christian Hartmann/REUTERS)

I covered the PyeongChang Olympics primarily for The Washington Post. I spearheaded The Post's daily Olympics newsletter, as well as wrote features, sport guides and interviews both during and prior to the Games.

A few of my favorite pieces were about a the man who sharpens U.S. figure skates, the U.S. women's cross country team, comentators Tara Lipinsky & Johnny Weir, and the twentieth anniversial of a backflip

In total, I produced more than three dozen stories, which were shared tens of thousands of times. Below are links to that work. 

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The Jamaican Apple Pickers of Upstate New York

Tik Root | The New York Times | Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist

Seth Forrence is the fourth-generation manager of his family’s apple farm, Forrence Orchards, in Peru, N.Y. He is only 41, but the business, he said, has changed drastically during his lifetime. Traditional varieties like McIntosh and Cortland are slowly giving way to the sweetness of Honeycrisp and SnapDragon, and the trees are getting smaller; up to 1,200 can be packed into one acre. But there has been one constant during his time on the farm: the Jamaicans.

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Doctors Are Prescribing Park Visits to Boost Patient Health

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Tik Root | National Geographic | Photo: Corey Arnold/National Geographic Creative 

South Dakota doctors routinely write prescriptions for everything from painkillers to ointments. This year, however, they’ll have a more novel option at their disposal: park prescriptions. Printed on a notepad with an “Rx” symbol in the top-left corner, a park prescription instructs a patient to take one free day at “any South Dakota state park or recreation area.”

Doctors get these prescriptions through a new program run by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and the state‘s Department of Health. Although the initiative was piloted in 2015, this is the first year that prescriptions will be available statewide.

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Changing the Face of National Parks

Tik Root | National Geographic | Video: Paul Rosenfeld, Tik Root

Ollie Simmons first met Kieonne Dawson on the uphill leg of California’s Mission Peak trail. “She was looking kind of nervous because the route was so steep,” he remembered of the wet and dreary trek a few years back. Striking up a conversation, the two exchanged numbers, kept in touch and were soon dating.

Mountaintop love stories are rare. And, for a black couple, they’re practically unheard of. While the National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 last year, African Americans still represent only about seven percent of park visitors. In comparison, they make up thirteen percent of the national population. Latinos, Native Americans, and other non-white visitors are similarly underrepresented. The rest—some 78 percent—are white.

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Start-Ups For the State

Tik Root | Foreign Policy | Photo: Juan Herrero

In a village on the road to Musanze, Rwanda, a group of teenagers is gathered along a dirt embankment. Among them is Jean Damour Nshimiyimana, 19, who dropped out of school and has been earning what he can as a bicycle courier. He’s lounging with his friends but would prefer to be working. Business is slow. “Getting a job isn’t easy,” he said. “No matter how small.”

He’s far from alone. Youth make up some forty percent of the population here and, of them, nearly half are either unemployed or underemployed. And while the problem isn’t unique to Rwanda, or even to Africa, the government’s proposed solution is.

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Life under curfew for American teens: ‘it’s insane, no other country does this’

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Tik Root | The Guardian | Photo: Eliana Aponte/Reuters

Around 11pm, on a temperate Friday last August, Officer Troy Owens was patrolling south-eastern San Diego. Peering through his driver’s side window into the darkness, he scanned the streets until his eyes stopped on the corner of 47th and Market. “Somebody trying to hide from me?” he wondered aloud. “Yup,” he answered, swinging the SUV around, and turning on the flashing lights.

Owens, who has worked for the San Diego police department for nearly 20 years, pulled toward the curb and got out of his car. As he approached, three teenagers slowly slunk out from behind an electrical box: a boy, David, 15, whose identity, along with those of other minors, is being protected, and two girls. Heads hanging, shoulders slouched, they knew they were caught. All three were soon searched, handcuffed, and put in the back of cars for the ride to the command post – a local Boys & Girls Club.

Were the teenagers picked up for using drugs? No. Drinking? No. Had they fled a store without paying for their goods? Hardly. Their crime: being out past curfew.

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The Elephant Chief

Tik Root | Harper's Magazine | Photos: Juan Herrero

As we approached the shore of Lake Ihema, Eugene Mutangana slowed the Land Cruiser to a stop. Our boat would be arriving soon, he said. Mutangana, the head of law enforcement at Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, had agreed to help me search for Mutware, an infamous ten-foot-tall African elephant who had lived in the area for decades. These days he spends much of his time camouflaged in the brush surrounding the lake. “I wish it would shine,” said Mutangana, looking up in vain for the sun amidst a thick wall of clouds. “When it shines, it leaves bush and comes to water.”

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Your Genocide Guide

Producer: Tik Root | National Geographic | Film by: Juan Herrero 

As the head guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, Serge Rwigamba leads heads of state and VIPs such as Angelina Jolie through his country’s deeply painful past. The task is also very personal: He lost his father and countless other family members in the 1994 genocide. The role, he says, is therapeutic, a way of understanding his trauma. Like any job though, it comes with its quirks, characters, and challenges.

God's People Don't Deserve This

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Tik Root | Newsweek | Photos: Juan Herrero

John Muir was a fervent believer. Not just in science or conservation or the National Park Service, which he championed. The founder of the Sierra Club and father of American environmentalism also believed in God. “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God,” Muir wrote in his 1897 essay “The American Forests.” “[For centuries] God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.”  

This sort of religious language was “very much present in early conservation movements,” says Evan Berry, an associate professor at American University and author of Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism. George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, also invoked faith, and many of the environmentalist leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century were Congregationalists, a traditional Protestant sect, says Berry.

But then God abandoned the forest.

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Seeking An Edge

Tik Root | The Washington Post | Photos: Amanda Swinhart

BOSTON –  Kelly Cooke has played professional hockey for three years, though this season there’s one big difference:  she’s drawing her first paycheck from the sport. Just because the players in the upstart National Women’s Hockey League are now being paid, however, that doesn’t mean they’re getting rich.

For Cooke, hockey is still a part-time job. Twice a week practices are often bookended by 10-hour days as a paralegal at a local law office. That’s not to mention the refereeing gigs on the side. “It’s definitely a busy life,” she said.

With salaries, though, the NWHL is certainly taking women’s hockey in a new direction. And while the pay is modest — ranging from a $10,000 minimum to $25,000 — it has helped the league contend with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for world-class talent.

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Nascar Says Goodbye to Jeff Gordon—and the Golden Era He Created

Text: Tik Root | The New Yorker | Video: Juan Herrero, Tik Root

With two laps to go at Martinsville, drivers were racing not only each other but a sinking Virginia sun. If the light left, the race would end early. Screaming through the corners of the half-mile-long track, brake temperatures climbed well past the thousand-degree mark, and the rotors began to glow. Jeff Gordon led the way, and the crowd was on its feet. The early-November race was Gordon’s last at Martinsville Speedway, and another milestone in his twenty-third and final season on the Nascar circuit. While farewell tributes had been abundant throughout the year, wins had not: in thirty-two starts, he’d yet to be victorious. Each time he came up short, his shot at an elusive fifth championship grew more distant and his send-off more bittersweet.

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Luke Somers's mother on kidnapping: I blame the US more than I do al-Qaida

Tik Root | The Guardian | Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

In late September 2013, Paula Somers learned that her son Luke had been kidnapped in Yemen. The next day, four FBI agents showed up at her doorstep in Washington state.

The group – including a hostage negotiator and a victim specialist – came with a slew of questions for Somers and her son, Jordan. Eager to help, they detailed their last communications with Luke, and other information they thought might be useful. At the end of the meeting, the agents left printouts with suggestions on what to do if the kidnapper made contact, along with a cassette player to record a potential call.

The proposed scripts were formulaic at best. The cassette player was broken. It was an ominous start to a more than yearlong engagement with the US government that only went downhill, and ended in Luke’s death.

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In Rwanda, Building a “University in a Box”

Wyatt Orme & Tik Root | Medium | Photo: Juan Herrero

Under a bright, midday sun, a large group of prospective college students waits in the parking lot outside
 Kepler University, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The results of the morning’s admissions tests will soon be taped to a large window next to the school’s entrance. For many of those waiting, acceptance to Kepler could mean an end to their poverty. One young man, who cleans dishes at a hotel to support his family, says earning a spot here would be the “first happiness in [his] life.”

The student hopefuls stand and sit in small groups and speak to one another softly; their conversations are mostly drowned out by noise from nearby construction sites. Everyone appears calm, even though just a third of those who took this morning’s exam will advance to the interview stage after lunch. When the results are posted, our man learns that he’s not one of them.

Kepler has been testing groups of applicants like this around the country for the past month. This year, they received around 6,700 applications for 150 spots, which puts their acceptance rate at roughly two percent. Last year, Harvard’s undergraduate acceptance rate was triple that, at six percent.

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This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting