How I Got Here: Calvin Sims

A conversation with
Calvin Sims

Dec 10, 2019

Dec 10, 2019 • by Calvin Sims

Calvin Sims

  • Foreign Correspondent and Multimedia Producer, The New York Times
  • Program Officer, Ford Foundation
  • President and CEO, International House

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A journalist. The first job I ever had was as a paperboy for the LA Times. I was ten. I learned a lot from it, because my mother made me read the paper. Her attitude was, “If you’re going to do this job, you better read the product that you’re delivering.” She also told me, “You’re delivering the LA Times, but The New York Times is better. When you do a report for school, go to the library and always look for their clippings, because those will be more useful.”

So by ten, you knew you wanted to work at The New York Times?

I did. We had a newspaper in elementary school, and I wrote for it for two years. You could see your name in print. I would write about the things the other students wanted, which made me very popular.

Did you do journalism in high school?

Yes. We lived in Compton, and the school district decided to open a journalism program. They were discussing whom to name it after. This was just after Roots, and so we sent a letter to Alex Haley asking him if he’d come and be honored and put his name on it. And he did, and it was glorious. He was a great reporter, a writer for major magazines, had done these incredible interviews. There was a lot of news coverage of the opening of the Alex Haley Journalism Academy, and from then on, I had the bug. After that, I wrote for the local community paper in Compton, and then I went to college and wrote for the Yale Daily News and other publications.

So it was straight out of Compton to Yale and The New York Times?

That is exactly what happened. It was almost dreamlike; you couldn’t have made it up. I grew up middle class, not well-off and not poor. My father was the first one in his family to go to college, which changed everything. When he bought the house that we grew up in, Compton was 50 percent white, 50 percent African American. There was white flight, but our neighborhood was very stable. He did grades 13 and 14 at Compton Community College and then went on to Cal State and got a degree in engineering. He applied for a job at Beckman Instruments. Dr. Arnold Beckman from Caltech, who created the spectrometer, hired him. He was the only person of color on the research team. He would get his name listed in the papers they published, but he was never allowed to be in the photo; he was always sent off somewhere to do research. When I found out about it, I asked, “Why did you put up with this?” And he said, “There was no HR then; there was nobody to complain to. I was lucky that I was getting paid what I was. I got my name there. But those were the rules at the time.” We have a very large family. His job allowed him to enrich us in ways that most people didn’t have. He paid for all of us to have music lessons at the conservatory at Compton College. They were $10 a lesson. Back then, that was expensive. But our parents wanted us to be exposed to all these things. They sent us to STEM summer camps, music camps. All the money he made was invested in our enrichment.

Is it true that the kids in your family had a chamber music group?

It’s true. We could actually have a quintet, including my mother. She played violin. She was the first African American to play violin at Alhambra High School in Pasadena, and she loved it. And she made sure that we all played something. I played string bass and still do. I’m not very good. But my brother Darryl plays in four orchestras and is about to become the conductor of a regional symphony.

We were very lucky. We lived in a community of about 25 families. All except one had two parents. All of the guys in my age group ended up going to college. It was just part of the culture. It seems antithetical to what the city devolved into, but by then I was off at college. And even in the midst of all of that, with the crack epidemic and other things happening, our neighborhood was still fairly stable, because of the middle-class values. We had our own community social club. We had breakfasts. People looked after each other. My father worked in a predominantly white neighborhood, so we saw both worlds. We would be the only black kids in the summer music camp, but the police would follow us if we left the neighborhood to visit people.

February was African American History Month. From when I was little, I was taught all the luminaries in the community and what they had accomplished. Lewis Latimer, who created the filament. George Washington Carver, with the peanuts. Daniel Hale Williams, who did one of the first open-heart surgeries. They would quiz you on them and tell you, “These are the footsteps that you’re walking in. You represent that.” It gives you a sense of history that is not just about discrimination, up from slavery. It’s also: “You’re part of a community of people who represent the best of the best, and your responsibility is to continue that tradition.”

Why Yale?

Because my father wanted to go there, and he didn’t get in. All I heard growing up was, “Calvin Hill went to Yale; you can go to Yale.” I loved football, and the Dallas Cowboys were my favorite team, and Calvin Hill was my favorite player. So when the time came, my father pushed me to apply there. I didn’t get into Harvard or Stanford, got into UCLA and Yale, and it was an easy decision.

How was college?

It was magical for me. I was well prepared for most of it, but not all. I had been on a college-prep track ever since kindergarten. The kids that I came into school with who could read and write, we went all the way through, never mixing with the other kids except in gym or shop or home economics. The counselors always told us, “You’re the best of this community. You’ve got this opportunity. You’re going to do well. When you get to these universities, you’re going to find that in some respects, you’re not as well prepared as others. But you have two years to catch up, because the heavy work in your major starts junior year, and you’ll have come up to speed by then.” So that was always in the back of my mind, and it was just like they said.

You were a science and engineering geek.

I was. Because my father was an engineer, and he thought the journalism thing might not work out. Also, I became intrigued by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, all this stuff on PBS. I said, “That’s what I really want to do starting out—be a science and technology writer.” That’s most of what I wrote about in college, and that’s what got me, in large part, into The New York Times.

I got an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship, a ten-week media-training program for students in science and engineering who thought they might want to be science writers or journalists. I did mine at the ABC affiliate in Cleveland. I was basically a summer intern producer. The reporter I was producing allowed me to do my own standup separately, and that was amazing, to be able to write and broadcast like that. We spent a lot of time at the Cleveland Clinic doing medical stories.

Toward graduation, I applied to work at the LA Times, The New York Times, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal. Back then, newspapers and magazines were cash cows, and I got offers at all four. But the Times was the one I really wanted. I got an interview to become a copy boy. They were called copy boys and copy girls back then. Highly competitive to get, but the job itself was to run and get coffee for the reporters, do research, go to the Bronx to the scene of a murder, write the color, ask the questions, and call it back on the phone. They’d shout “Legs!” and you had to go running. In the interview, the editor Craig Whitney says, “You’re not going like this because you’re not going to be able to write much. You won’t get a byline for the first two or three years. We make it so onerous that people just leave after a year or two. We’re trying to identify the folks who have the stamina and the know-how and the entrepreneurship and the creativity to actually get through this to become a reporter. So Calvin, don’t waste your time.” And I said, “Then why did you have me come down here?” And he said, “It just worked out that way.” So I go, and as I’m leaving the building, the security guy says, “Are you Calvin? They want you to come back up.” I went back up, was introduced to the science editor, Rick Flaste, and after a three-hour conversation, he said, “We don’t normally do this, but I’m going to try to skip you past the copy-boy stuff and have you become a reporter trainee.” And that’s what happened.

In all honesty, the Times is the best place I’ve ever worked; it is the best training I ever got. But it’s still a vicious place. The internal competition is as fierce as the external. You not only have to beat everybody else who’s out there in the market, but you’ve got people clawing at you inside, too. The internal competition is healthy; it makes you a good journalist. But someone will step over you at any given time. If you don’t have somebody looking after you, you’re not going to make it. You’ve got to find folks willing to mentor you.

Who were your mentors?

Rick Flaste brought me in, but after that, it was Al Siegal. When you get there, you know how to write, but you don’t know how to write in the Times way—what a Times story is and how to add value. Al wrote the stylebook. Rotund guy, and feared. He was the brightest person in the building. I realized I had to get somebody to help me. So I invited him to lunch. He started laughing and said, “Do you know how much I eat? I’ll take you to lunch.” And we went to a restaurant where he had a regular table, and as we ate, he said, “What do you really want?” I said, “I need a mentor.” He said, “Send me some of your stuff, and I’ll get back to you.” I sent it, and he called me over and said, in the newsroom where people could hear, “This is the worst shit I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t know how you got in here. You can do two things. You can run away and cry and say, ‘He’s being mean to me because I’m black.’ Or you can come sit next to me, and I’ll walk you through it, and I’m not going to be nice.” And that’s what he would do for me from time to time. And that’s what helped get me from reporter trainee to reporter. Sometimes people take a liking to you. Other times you’ve got to get them. Like an orphan in an orphanage: “Look at me! Take me!”

How did you advance at the Times?

After science, I did all the rounds—business, metro, D.C. I got lucky. I hated covering subways and happened to find this guy who was willing to leak me documents about the terrible shape New York City bridges were in. He got fired, and I won a prize.

Did you feel guilty about that?

No, because they were going to make him the fall guy. He called me from the transportation commissioner’s office, saying, “I’m being fired. Get over here.”

How did you get a leaker to come to you?

He saw I was covering transportation, and he reached out to me. We would meet at my apartment; he would bring tons of stuff and say, “Here, here, I made copies for you.”

So if you’re a good journalist, sources sometimes will recognize that and bring other stuff to you?

They will. And of course, then you have to verify everything and go to the other side. The administration kept asking, “How did you get that stuff?” [Mayor David] Dinkins had the evil eye for me after that. Eventually, I got the bug everybody gets, and I decided I wanted to go overseas. They said, “You’re only 28. You’re too young. You have to wait your turn. We’ll give you a region for now.” So they sent me back to L.A., where I spent a year and a half. There was a huge earthquake in ’94. I ended up taking the lead on most of those stories, which increased my visibility. Seth Mydans, who had been a foreign correspondent, was also in the L.A. bureau. He heard that a job in Buenos Aires was opening up and told me to call the foreign editor, Bernie Gwertzman, and tell him I wanted the job and could speak Spanish. I call, and he says, “How the hell did you know about that? I just got off the phone with him two hours ago! I have to check. Do you have a wife? You have kids?” I said, “No, I don’t have any of that.” “That’s good,” he says, “’Cause you could leave pretty quickly, right? This might solve a problem.” And he calls me back two hours later and says, “Joe Lelyveld [the Times’ executive editor] says you can go, but you have to leave in a month.”

So your first foreign posting was the bureau chief in Buenos Aires?

I was 30. I was responsible for Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, and sometimes Brazil. There was not much breaking news, so a lot of it was roaming around trying to find things interesting enough to have a chance of landing on page one. South America was coming out of the age of dictators. Democracy was being embedded. They were starting to prosper. A lot of what I wrote was explaining Latin customs and traditions and perspectives to Americans. Then the Túpac Amaru rebels took over the Japanese residence in Lima, Peru, and held 600 diplomats and others hostage, including President Fujimori’s mother, sister, and brother. Over time, they let almost everybody go, but they held the brother and some others for six months. Government forces finally stormed the building and killed all the rebels. We knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t say it. But I got there first: we had all these great breaking stories that explained the raid in detail. That was the end of almost seven years there.

I had done well, so was in line for a good posting next. I had lunch with Joe Lelyveld, and he says, “What do you think about language training?” That’s when you know they’re going to send you to a great post. I said, “I do very well with languages.” He said, “Okay, what about Tokyo?” So I then spent a year and a half at the Monterey Institute studying Japanese, five days a week, eight hours a day. It was terrific. And then I went to Japan, which was glorious. I was living in one of the most advanced societies in the world. I could speak the language fairly well, could go anywhere I wanted. I was the first non-Korean to go on a Hyundai trip from South Korea to North Korea. I had to grapple with questions like, How do you continue to advance stories that people don’t know about? Or, How do you handle whaling, not just from an American perspective but from a Japanese one? I was always looking for things that were counterintuitive, or things that could promote empathy. I tried to understand why things were the way they were.

From Japan, you went to Indonesia. Did you learn any new languages for that one?

I learned a tiny bit of Bahasa, but most people I dealt with spoke English well, and translators were cheap. I found it fascinating. I had never lived in a predominantly Muslim country, let alone one where the religion came by trade and not sword. Indonesia has 240 million people, 6,000 inhabited islands, 300 languages. You could travel and find stories you would not see anywhere else.

In the western portion of Papua New Guinea, there are two of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, owned by an American company. There were widespread rumors about human rights abuses there, and I wanted to check them out. At first, we were invited to go by the mining company, but then they canceled the trip, so we went on our own. I had an anthropologist showing me around, two stringers, a photographer, two drivers. We get there and start talking to human rights activists, and all of sudden, we realize we’re being followed by these goons, officially from the government but really working for the Americans. They told us we had to leave. We refused, and one evening the goons jumped me and beat me up, saying, “You want to be leaving here right now.” Afterward, I called the American ambassador. That was a bit awkward, because I had written a story about how he was accused of interfering in Indonesia’s affairs and was going to be replaced soon. I told him what was happening, and he said, “What do you want me to do about it? You’ve ruined my career. I’m done now.” I said, “My editors know what we’re doing. You need to call the goons off so we can get the hell out of here or else it’s going to be all over CNN.” He called me back a bit later and said, “You have 24 hours to get out.” So we left. That was fun.

What came after that?

After having been overseas for more than a decade, I was ready to come back. I was 41. I thought I might want to start a family. I decided to apply for the one-year Murrow Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Times didn’t want me to do it. I applied anyway, and got it. Lelyveld let me take it, but he wasn’t happy. “Oh, you want to be with the wine-and-cheese diplomats on the Upper East Side.” My time at the Council was great. 9/11 happened, and I ended up spending two years there. It allowed me to put things in perspective and think about what I should do next. It taught me about influencing policy. Journalists don’t think about that. We’re not players. At one point, for example, I was writing a paper on the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, and [the Asia scholar] Liz Economy arranged for me to go to Langley and talk with the Indonesia experts at the CIA. I wasn’t there as a journalist, so we could speak openly. It was a very fruitful exchange. More for me, I think, because they verified a lot of things, like who was behind this, who took bribes from whom, and so forth. That eventually became a documentary for PBS.

A documentary for PBS?

The Times came calling and said, “You were supposed to be back a year ago.” I said, “Oh, no, Joe told me it was two years,” because by that point, he had retired. When I came back, they didn’t know what to do with me, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had to pay a penance for my sabbatical, and the new regime in charge didn’t know me. So they said they were going to send me back to L.A. I was not happy, but I did it for two months. Then they started NYT Television, a production company, one of the new attempts to generate revenue as the market for print advertising was collapsing. I thought it would be fun to make documentaries, have podcasts, and all that. So I did it. I anchored this little evening news program on Discovery Times, and then we had a weekly program with the CBC, and we were making documentaries. We applied and got a grant from PBS for a documentary on whether Indonesia would become radicalized like the rest of the Muslim world.

Eventually, you leave the Times to go the Ford Foundation.

Yes, because the Times ended up selling my division. The documentary came out and was popular, but I had to find something else to do. Luckily, Ford came knocking—they knew me because I had tried, unsuccessfully, to get a grant from them—with a wonderful offer, to run a program increasing the quality and quantity of journalism focused on social justice issues. I had a $10 million annual portfolio. We funded things on PBS and public radio but also investigative reporting at The Washington Post (before Jeff Bezos rescued it), local media organizations that were foundering, investigative reporting consortia in Latin America and elsewhere.

It was a great job. Ten million dollars is not a whole lot of money, but used carefully, it could produce quality reporting. We had benchmarks for grants. You had to advance public knowledge of an issue in some way, be seen by large and influential audiences. If you could show impact—changed legislation, increased community activism—you’d get more money. The Chicago Reporter was getting $50,000 to $70,000 a year. It’s a newsletter that goes out to a couple of thousand people. But they broke the Countrywide scandal under a grant that we gave them. The editor was African American. She went with her husband to get a loan, and the terms were unbelievably bad. She started digging, and that grew into reporting that started a case that helped drive a settlement of billions of dollars.

How did you go from Ford to I-House?

At Ford, you get six years. They tell you in advance, “You will want to stay, but you can’t. We need fresh eyes.” So I was trying to figure out what to do next. A headhunter called me about International House. David Steinberger was responsible, actually—the guy who decades earlier had leaked me the information about the bridges and got fired. He had become the head of a publishing company, and we had reconnected. He had been asked for ideas and suggested they call me.

When I first heard I-House described, it sounded like an international dormitory, and I wasn’t sure whether the job was right for me. But the more I learned about the organization and its history, the more excited I became. By this point, I wanted to run something. And they were looking for somebody who could take this historic legacy institution and make it relevant for twenty-first-century millennials. I had helped oversee and restructure media organizations as a grantor, so I was confident I could do it. I came up incognito for a regular tour, to see what it was like, and decided that I loved it, and landed the position.

What was the potential that you saw?

In my final interview, I told them, “You’ve created a whole new value system here, one based on respect, empathy, and moral courage.” That’s what attracted me. That’s what I-House had been doing for 90 years. Our residents come from around the world, they’re incredibly diverse, and they form lifelong friendships through cross-cultural exchange.

So I-House is a hub and a training center for tolerance and cosmopolitanism?

We don’t say “tolerance,” because nobody wants just to be tolerated. We value empathy: “I don’t agree with you, but I understand why you think that way. But I can’t empathize with you unless I first respect you as an equal human being. And if I can do that, then I have the strength to be morally courageous.” We’re very careful who we pick for residency, and they form a strong community. Every single day here, there are two or three events taking place: speakers, film screenings, book events, a difficult dialogue, an indoor soccer or hockey match, an ice cream social. We had a journalist come and talk about transgender issues. A student got up and said, “I’m from a rural place in China, and we don’t even have this concept.” Everyone started to boo and hiss. I had to get up and say, “Wait a minute—this is a place of free speech. What we don’t allow is hate speech. Let him finish his question.” And he continues: “I’m just trying to get my head around this, and I’m hoping you all can help me understand, because we don’t have this concept.” It led to a good discussion. I think it’s intellectually lazy to try to squelch somebody who thinks differently or offends you. What gives you the right never to feel offended?

Looking back on your career, what are your greatest regrets?

No major regrets. I’m glad that I took risks. I’m glad that I jumped into things. I may have wallowed in some places too long, waiting for others to acknowledge and reward me for the good work I had done.

What are you proudest of?

The way I pursued stories. I went after those nobody else was covering or that would enlighten people—not just to be on page one because it was a breaking story but because things needed to be chronicled. Trying to be objective and balanced, providing context, being able to empathize, explaining how and why people acted as they did and what we can learn from that. That’s what Al Siegal taught me, way back in the day.

Any advice for those just starting out?

In anything that you do, first ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish?” You don’t want to take a job and just sit there. You should come in saying, “I’m doing this for a reason.” What is the purpose? Then you need to establish a process to get things done. Without protocol and procedure, you will eventually fail. Before you make a big decision, ask, “Have I gone through the protocol? Does this comply with my ethics and values?” You betray yourself when you go off the path that you’ve set. I’ve seen it happen many times.

This interview has been edited and condensed.