I joined Girls Write Now as a mentor three years ago when I was having my quarter life crisis; I didn’t know if I wanted to stick with podcasting or go back to being a digital reporter. I had a friend/frenemy win a Pulitzer and I was getting down on myself. That is, until I was matched with my first Girls Write Now mentee. They helped me better understand the reasons I’m a journalist: to work with and engage communities, hold people and organizations accountable, and help shift the narrative.
One of my mentees, Amy, was responsible for convincing me to leave my full-time, salaried job as a podcast producer with CNN to create “Hazard NJ,” a podcast about the impacts of climate change on hazardous Superfund sites in New Jersey. (I’m not sure Amy knows how much their advice helped me move forward with my passion.) Another mentee was also passionate about the project and helped with some of the show’s episode research.
Each mentee I’ve worked with has really proven to me that journalists can use their voice to build empathy and connect with others. That’s what I’m doing with “Hazard NJ” and what I do as a mentor: build empathy and connect with others.
Mental health has also been a topic of conversation with my mentees. I’ve been honest with them about my time in high school when I spent a semester attending school from home (with a really bad dial-up connection) because I was sick. And the time a childhood friend of mine died by suicide our sophomore year.
The latter event is one that influenced my decision to be a journalist. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and was suddenly transformed into a journalist or anything, but this moment made me realize that journalism has problems respectfully reporting on complex communities.
I’ve been open with my mentees about growing up as an only child in a single-parent household facing economic hardship in a small town in Texas. As much as I dislike my hometown of Seguin, Texas, I sure do talk about it a lot (my mentees can confirm this). There’s always at least one mention in my calls with my mentees and on the “Hazard NJ” podcast. Sometimes my background couldn’t be more different than that of my mentee. But we always seem to find points of connection – like being unable to ride in the backseat of a car without getting motion sickness, or our love of cats.
We don’t talk in platitudes. Most of my conversations with mentees are about finding solutions to serious, real-world problems in our communities and the world. From climate change to gentrification, we talk about the ways these issues have impacted our lives and how we can work together to make a positive change.
It’s always interesting to hear from my mentees about what it’s like to grow up in New York City. I never thought I’d live here. I visited the city for the first time when I was 18 years old, when some of my family moved from Texas to Poughkeepsie. I was bored one day and hopped a train to Grand Central. When I arrived, I was so out of my element it wasn’t even funny. This was before smartphones, so I had no clue how to get anywhere, so I wound up walking in squares near the station. I remember buying a shirt or something and getting cursed at by the cashier for calling him sir.
So, I never thought I was going to move to New York City. And then I did. It may be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I took that risk, the one I talk with my mentees about the risk of safely getting out of one’s comfort zone and allowing oneself to make mistakes, which inevitably will happen when experiencing new things.
I made my fair share of mistakes: I rarely advocated for myself at work, I didn’t set boundaries, and I was passive aggressive toward my friends and family. Now, at 32 years old, I have a better understanding of how the brain works – and, looking back, it was very obvious my full-frontal cortex was not fully developed (that’s the part of the brain that’s used to make decisions and isn’t usually fully formed until around the age of 25).
I joined Girls Write Now as a mentor after the age of 25. It’s been a constant in a sea of change. I started out as a mentor in my 20s, having recently returned to New York City from grad school in London. I wasn’t thrilled with the job I had at the time, which left me feeling wholly uninspired most days.
I was looking to give back to a community focused on writing and get back into creative writing. It was important to me to give back because I had writing mentors throughout my life that kept me in check.
There was the Gifted and Talented teacher in elementary school who saw past my sub-par math grades and invited me to apply to the program. She wanted to record me reading one of my horror short stories and include the tape with my application. At the time, I didn’t think the story was all that great, but I appreciated the fact that she saw potential in me as a writer.
Years later, while I was going through my childhood memorabilia that my mom keeps in a box in the laundry room, I watched that tape for the first time. (I was wearing Mickey Mouse overalls and a blue peasant top for some reason.) Yeah, that story was pretty good. I felt like I may have peaked as a writer in elementary school.
I’ve suggested to my mentees before that they should keep a copy of every story they write and re-read these stories years down the line. It’s not only a way to measure progress as a writer, but it can spark new ideas or ways to build on old ideas. For instance, that horror short story I wrote in elementary school? I’m adapting it into a novella and a screenplay, which will definitely be more gory than the original story.
So often we get caught up in our own stuff. For me, that’s the constant pressure to showcase success with awards and the coveting of my friends’ desks at The New York Times, which I’ve only recently stopped calling “the place that won’t hire me.” But my mentees help me disentangle it all. And even when they’re asking me if I was alive during the moon landing or questions about life before cell phones, I’m grateful to play a small part in their lives and in their development as a writer and an adult.
Hazard NJ is an environmental podcast series from NPR and NJ Spotlight News examining prominent Superfund sites around New Jersey and the people living on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Hazard NJ recently won the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media’s New Jersey Journalism Impact Award.
Jordan Gass-Pooré (she/her) is an award-winning podcast producer and investigative journalist with more than a decade of journalism experience. Presently, Jordan is the creator, producer, and host of “Hazard NJ,” a limited-series podcast about the impacts of climate change on hazardous Superfund sites in New Jersey. This podcast is in collaboration with the PBS affiliate NJ Spotlight News. Prior to this, Jordan was a producer of CNN’s podcasts, “Chasing Life” and “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction,” both hosted by Dr. Sanjay. She is also a producer of the investigative podcast “Sounds Like Hate,” created by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Until 20 Productions. She has a master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas State University.