Melissa Block

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

As co-host of All Things Considered from 2003 to 2015, Block's reporting took her everywhere from the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the heart of Rio de Janeiro; from rural Mozambique to the farthest reaches of Alaska.

Her riveting reporting from Sichuan, China, during and after the massive earthquake in 2008 brought the tragedy home to millions of listeners around the world. At the moment the earthquake hit, Block had the presence of mind to record a gripping, real-time narration of the seismic upheaval she was witnessing. Her long-form story about a desperate couple searching in the rubble for their toddler son was singled out by judges who awarded NPR's earthquake coverage the top honors in broadcast journalism: the George Foster Peabody Award, duPont-Columbia Award, Edward R. Murrow Award, National Headliner Award, and the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award.

Now, as special correspondent, Block continues to engage both the heart and the mind with her reporting on issues from gun violence to adult illiteracy to opioid addiction.

In 2017, she traveled the country for the series "Our Land," visiting a wide range of communities to explore how our identity is shaped by where we live. For that series, she paddled along the Mississippi River, went in search of salmon off the Alaska coast, and accompanied an immigrant family as they became U.S. citizens. Her story about the legacy of the Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta earned her a James Beard Award in 2018.

Block is the recipient of the 2019 Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, awarded by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

Block began her career at NPR in 1985 as an editorial assistant for All Things Considered, and rose through the ranks to become the program's senior producer.

She was a reporter and correspondent in New York from 1994 to 2002, a period punctuated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Her reporting after those attacks helped earn NPR a George Foster Peabody Award. Block's reporting on rape as a weapon of war in Kosovo was cited by the Overseas Press Club of America in awarding NPR the Lowell Thomas Award in 1999.

Block is a 1983 graduate of Harvard University and spent the following year on a Fulbright fellowship in Geneva, Switzerland. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband — writer Stefan Fatsis — and their daughter.

What does it mean to lose your land, your language, and your heritage?

For Alaska Natives, these are existential threats.

On a trip to Southeast Alaska, I traveled to one village that is finding new ways to survive: Klukwan, ancestral home of the Tlingit tribe.

Nestled along the banks of the Chilkat River, Klukwan is quiet and tiny, home to about 90 people.

It all started with vellum.

We were led to believe that Queen Elizabeth's speech opening a new session of the British parliament next week was being delayed because it had to be printed on vellum: a parchment made from the skin of a calf.

And, that ink on vellum takes quite a while to dry. Hence, the delay.

Fascinating! So British!

Well, it turns out, the Queen's speech used to be inked on vellum, but those days are long gone.

Now, it's printed on goatskin parchment. But don't be fooled: there is no actual goatskin in the Queen's goatskin.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Alaska is home to about 18,000 fishermen who harvest nearly 6 billion pounds of seafood each year. Salmon dominates the catch, five species in all: chum salmon, sockeye, king, coho and pink.

For a taste of Alaska fishing life, we head out with a father-daughter fishing team as they go trolling for king salmon in the waters off Sitka, in southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska is known as the Panhandle:

It's a long, narrow strip of mainland coastline, plus 1,000 islands and the braided waterways that surround them.

In most places, there are no roads connecting the communities there, so Alaskans depend heavily on ferries: the Alaska Marine Highway System.

If you fly into Haines, Alaska, you'll be on a prop plane so small that your pilot will call the roll.

"Melissa." Yup. "Mary." Yes. "Joseph?" Right here.

Just 2,500 people live in Haines — a small town in southeast Alaska surrounded by water. The scenery is incredible, with snowy mountains and lush green forest beyond. The city center is just a few blocks, with several bars, a few restaurants and a beautiful, award-winning library.

What happens to a town when a key industry collapses?

Sometimes it dies. But sometimes it finds a way to reinvent itself.

Case in point: Ketchikan, Alaska, where the demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation.

Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber have now turned to jobs in tourism.

It's an identity shift that makes the city far different from what it was in the logging heyday.

"It was this boomtown!" says longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins. "It was just a crazy, wild frontier place."

In rural Alaska, providing health care means overcoming a lot of hurdles.

Fickle weather that can leave patients stranded, for one.

Also: complicated geography. Many Alaskan villages have no roads connecting them with hospitals or specialists, so people depend on local clinics and a cadre of devoted primary care doctors.

I followed one young family physician, Dr. Adam McMahan, on his regular weekly visit to the clinic in the village of Klukwan.

Before we headed out on our latest road trip for the Our Land series, we put a call out on social media, asking for ideas of places we should go in Arizona and New Mexico. Shannon Miller's suggestion really caught our attention: "White Sands are the only white gypsum 'sand' dunes in the world. They are actually crystals and it is beautiful."

How could we resist?

There's really no place like it on the planet: White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico. It's the world's largest gypsum dunefield, miles and miles of stunning white landscape.

Depending on where you sit, the U.S.-Mexico border is:

a) a dangerous frontier that allows drug traffickers and illegal immigrants to cross freely into the U.S.

or

b) a familiar frontier that is navigated as a regular part of everyday life.

For people who live along the border in the twinned cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, it's nearly always the latter.

The sister cities are known collectively as Ambos Nogales, or "Both Nogales."

Think about the avocados you mash for your Super Bowl guacamole, or the fresh tomatoes you enjoy in the winter. There's a good chance they came from Mexico.

Our southern neighbor is the United States' leading supplier of fresh produce, providing 70 percent of the fresh vegetables we import and more than 40 percent of our fresh fruit imports. That trade has boomed since NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — was signed in 1994.

Pick a street corner in downtown Hamtramck, Mich., and you'll be struck by the incredible mix of cultures crammed into this tiny, 2-square-mile city.

A Catholic church across the street from a mosque. Polish pastry shops, sausage factories, and grocery stores promising "the best Polish food, shipping to Eastern Europe," side by side with Bengali clothing shops that sell richly embroidered dresses and headscarves. And you'd be remiss if you didn't stop in the many Yemeni restaurants serving fragrant lamb and discs of flatbread the size of hubcaps.

Think of the Mississippi Delta. Maybe you imagine cotton fields, sharecroppers and blues music.

It's been all that. But for more than a century, the Delta has also been a magnet for immigrants. I was intrigued to learn about one immigrant group in particular: the Delta Chinese.

To find out more, I travelled to Greenville, Miss., a small city along the Mississippi River. I meet Raymond Wong in Greenville's Chinese cemetery, right across a quiet road from an African-American cemetery. Wong's family has long been part of a thriving — but separate — Chinese community.

We hear a lot about U.S. companies laying off workers and shipping jobs overseas.

So, amid the global pressures to downsize, how do you hang onto your workforce?

We went looking for answers in Chelsea, Mich., home to a family owned manufacturer that's managed to thrive over four generations, since the company's founding in 1907.

The Chelsea Milling Co. is better known as the manufacturer of Jiffy baking mixes. You know the ones. They come in those signature little blue and white boxes: mixes for muffins, cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, brownies and more.

If you're in Clarksdale, Miss., home of the Delta blues, everybody says you have to go to Red's juke joint. The hole-in-the-wall club is the real deal. It's just a small room, a few tables and a fridge full of beer. Red lights are strung around a low ceiling. On the night we visit, octogenarian Leo "Bud" Welch plays in the center of the room, hunched over a sparkly, hot pink, electric guitar. Red Paden, the owner, sits out front, surveying from behind the bar.

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