Alexandra R. Garfinkle

by Brendan Pedersen

In late 2015, years before applying to the Dow Jones News Fund or New York University to study journalism— before she knew she wanted to do journalism— Alexandra Garfinkle was driving to Flint, Michigan, looking for a story.  

The city of 98,000 was in the midst of an environmental crisis. Starting in early 2014, Flint’s residents began to notice problems with the water. Sometimes it tasted funny, they said. Sometimes it was brown. In November 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed what the families of Flint had already guessed: their water was riddled with toxic levels of iron and lead.

Garfinkle, a University of Chicago graduate and Miami native, was making the four-hour drive to Flint to document the crisis just as it began to emerge in national news. She wasn’t a communications, economics or political science major. She had studied performance art, and she was driving to Flint to create a piece of documentary theater — a kind of work that relies on testimonials, where actors are asked to emulate real interviews to a live audience.

But as the project progressed, Garfinkle began to feel the borders of theater stretched thin by the scope of Flint’s story. “It was just so much information,” she said. “I was frustrated by the limitations of theater to effect change.”

At the same time, she says she realized the core of the problem. “Flint is a money story,” Garfinkle said. “If Flint hadn’t been so wrangled in debt, the water crisis never would have happened. And because that was a money story, it opened me up to thinking, well — if this is a money story, what else is a money story?”

Garfinkle wasn’t a stranger to finance; her father was a Florida real estate investor. (“I spent my entire life hearing about loans getting refinanced and so on and so forth.”) But she wasn’t exactly an enthusiast — after the 2007-2008 crisis, business became synonymous with volatility. “The south Florida real estate market was sort of the canary in the coal mine, and our lives fell apart,” Garfinkle said. Studying performance, she was able to keep an arm's length between herself and the business world she left behind.

But more than a year after she had started her work in Flint, Garfinkle’s doubts persisted. M.C. Steffen, Garfinkle’s University of Chicago classmate, collaborator and close friend, recalled sitting in a bar with her after catching a show, when she told him she was thinking about leaving the performance world to become a journalist.

“I remember she directly asked me, ‘Does this change how you feel about me at all?’” Steffen said. “I immediately said no.” While theater and journalism may have felt like two different worlds — one defined by intimacy and immediacy, the other by distance and objectivity — he said the mission of either profession could be the same.

“I think there are mediums that have different tools but the similar goals,” Steffen said. Reporting makes up the foundation for some of the most evocative stories in the public sphere, while theater “makes it personal, effective and transcendent. It’s a symbiotic relationship where each benefits.”

Fast forward to now: Garfinkle, 25, is a Marjorie Deane Fellow at New York University, where she’s pursuing a Masters in business and economic reporting. This summer, she’ll be working for TheStreet, Inc. in New York City through the Dow Jones News Fund, focusing on stocks and markets. She wants to be an investigative reporter once she finishes her degree next December (she’d go anywhere, she says).

The news business wasn’t her first love, and she says theater will stick with her. “I still quote Hamilton,” she said, laughing. But she also quoted an old southern-ism: “You dance with the one who brung ya.”

There are a couple ways to translate that. For Garfinkle, who spent years trying to get as far away as possible from the financial world that defined her adolescence, it explains how she wound up at the edge of a business-reporting diving board. “We have to acknowledge who we are and where we come from to be any good at anything,” she said.