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On May 9, at the conclusion of “For the Record,” the audience was invited to stay and listen to a talk back with Amisha Padnani, the originator of The New York Times’ series “Overlooked,” which pays tribute to historically significant women and people of color who did not receive an obituary in the Times at the time of their deaths. The writing coordinators of “For the Record,” Northwestern University students Carly Mazer and Lauren Katz, were inspired by the “Overlooked” series.
Director Stephen Schellhardt, asked Ms. Padnani how she felt watching the show, knowing her work had inspired it. She spoke warmly about the production, saying “It was such an honor to see what I do at work come to life on the stage. It was really touching and very meaningful. Very inspiring.”
Ms. Padnani described how, in 2017, stories about race and gender equality were frequently in the news. She was researching an obituary for a woman in tennis and came across the story of Mary Ewing Outerbridge, credited as bringing tennis to the United States. Ms. Padnani checked the Times’ archives and found that Ms. Outerbridge had not received a Times obituary. So she started a list. Any time she came across someone who was deceased, interesting and accomplished, Ms. Padnani checked the archives to see if the person had been recognized with an obituary. In many cases, they had not.
Her list grew longer. As she shared her research with colleagues, friends and relatives, people began sending her other names to add to her list. Ms. Padnani pitched her idea to her boss. She describes him as “one of her biggest supporters at work,” but initially he was hesitant for their team to take on more work.
Ms. Padnani mentioned her idea to other people at the Times. Jessica Bennett, the Times’ first gender editor, was an enthusiastic supporter. Eventually late in 2017, her idea was given the green light to proceed. People throughout the Times’ staff asked to contribute to the project: writers, international correspondents, editors, page designers, photo editors and programmers all reached out and asked how they could help.
The first entries to Overlooked were published on March 8, 2018. Ida B. Wells was one of those recognized in the Times – just as she was one of the women profiled in “For the Record.”
Ms. Padnani described the impact the historical series has had on the Times’ readers. “The day after the series ran, I came to work and had about 200 emails. On a normal day, I could probably delete about 199 of them, but these were all from people who were inspired to write. Some wrote to say thank you. They told me how reading it affected them: One woman cried on the way to work, for this person seen for the first time in the paper. I had a lot of requests for interviews. There has been talk about a book. There’s been a gallery exhibit. There is a tv show in development.”
Ms. Padnani was asked what advice she would give to her college-age self, knowing what she knows now. She was quiet for a minute as she thought about her answer. Looking at the students and cast members in the audience, she said, “Don’t doubt yourself. If you have something to say, say it. Have confidence and faith that what you have to say is important.”