Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
I anticipated that I would finish the five weeks with new knowledge of immigration, the ability to turn a camera on and other practical skills every journalism student should know. I had no idea that the knowledge would change me. I know, I know that it sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true.
Because of Backpack… I am a seeker of truth.
Because of Backpack… I am margin traveler.
Because of Backpack… I am a listener.
Because of Backpack… I am a team player.
In my first blog, I wrote about how I am a “Yes Woman.” And even though I found this trip by saying no, it taught me that it is almost always right to say yes. By saying yes to the early morning B-roll, the extra interview, the longer explanation… I have learned so much and gained an incredible amount of confidence. It is Because of Backpack that I have grown as a writer, a film maker and as a friend. Saying yes, even to something that scared me, has been the greatest decision of my life.
Because of Backpack… I am thankful.
So, what is something I can do differently based upon what I learned? I can stop worrying about needing to say no and start embracing my love of yes.
I rely on trust a lot, probably too much. Trust in my decisions and myself, trust in God, trust in those I surround myself with. I find myself thinking, “It’s all going to be okay, it’ll all work out,” definitely more than once a day. Fortunately, with most things I’ve experienced in life, everything really has worked out, and usually even better than I had anticipated.
Thinking back to earlier this year when talk of the 2016 backpack first began, I remember initially being disappointed that this year’s trip was to southern Arizona. With past trips including destinations like Africa and Alaska, Arizona sounded unadventurous. Looking back, I realize a) I was doing the trip for the wrong reasons and b) I was ignorant of the severity at what was happening on our border.
But, back to what I was saying about trust. I trusted that this trip would be beneficial to my learning in someway, and now after returning and having time to think about it, I realize it was more than I could have ever imagined. And with this, I realize that this trip is so much of what being educated at Creighton is about. As I go into my final year of undergrad, I am astonished at how my understanding of education, learning and being successful has evolved.
In talking with a fellow classmate and friend on the trip who recently graduated, she made a note on Jesuit education that stuck with me. “Having a Jesuit education will take you apart and put you back together in whole new way.” It made me think of earlier this year, watching the speeches at the funeral of Creighton’s former president, Fr. Schlegel. In one of the eulogies, a man made note of one of Fr. Schlegel’s favorite quotes, “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
At the time I could grasp the concept, but I couldn’t fully relate. After this experience, I think I get it. I will never be able to un-see what I saw, and thus I will forever look at immigration through a new lens. This experience is just an example of what learning and education should do. Beyond becoming more knowledgeable on a subject, you should be challenged to critically think about complex issues with difficult solutions. You should meet with those who have less than you. You should leave your reality, and put yourself in the reality of the world. You should ask yourself how you define success.
Throughout college, my idea of success has always involved getting good grades and having a solid internship. But in the theology portion of this course, we watched a commencement speech given by Jon Sobrino. The theologian said, “Being successful in life is being human. And being human means I will say first of all, to live in the real world in which we live.”
So more than anything, to educate yourself you should leave your reality, and put yourself into the reality of the world. And that’s what Backpack Journalism does.
As humans, we easily forget. We forget moments, feelings and stories. I want to remember the sadness I felt listening to Daniela talk about her father coming to the states and watching her live out a dream he never could. I want to remember the guilt I felt as I watched migrants treated as criminals in the courtroom. I want to remember the joy of being in an unfamiliar place with optimistic people who wanted to learn as much as I did. I want to remember the discomfort of hiking in the desert. I want to remember the names, the faces, the handshakes of the migrants who made the concept of migration more than just a concept to me.
When I hear them called illegal aliens, I will speak up and remind them that they are humans. To my congressman, who wants a concrete wall at the border, I will a write a letter, expressing other solutions to border security. But more than anything, I will work to live into this reality. This reality that there are more questions than answers, more injustice than peace, but always more hope than despair.
And with this, I have trust that it’s all going to be okay, it’ll all work out.
I started writing this blog when our group took a desert walk with the infamous Lil’ John. I was about halfway through it when I found myself holding down the delete button. All 237 perfectly crafted words were erased in a matter of seconds. That was the problem. They were perfectly crafted. They were artificial. It wasn’t me.
I wasn’t prepared for how the desert walk would affect me. Even today, I feel an ache in my stomach when I think about it.
Let me start by saying that I am not much of a hiker, so my first thoughts as I walked through the “moderate to easy “ trail were negative. Our usually silly group seemed more serious as we slipped and stumbled on the path. We were wearing athletic gear, sunscreen, had water and were well rested. But we were all struggling. My selfish, negative thoughts subsided when we stopped to hear Lil’ John talk about the migrants.
For the first time, it was easy to understand the migrant reality. I could imagine why people twist their ankles, run out of water, get lost or lose their life in the desert. It was hard for me to believe that anyone ever made it out.
Even though I was on the border, talking and serving the migrants every day, I couldn’t really comprehend that this was real. For some reason, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I walked the path in the desert.
The moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life was when I first spotted a shirt. It was long sleeved, grey and looked like something one of my brothers would wear. It was proof. It was a reminder that this was real. That it belonged to someone.
It hurt when that reality hit me. It hurt that I would never know his name or his fate. I wanted to save him and knowing that I couldn’t and knowing that there were thousands out there was crushing. I think about that shirt and the man who left it all the time.
I want people who are against migration to understand that no one would want to walk that desert trail unless they had to. I want those people to think of their families and what they would do to save them. I don’t want them to step into his shoes, I want them to wear the grey shirt.
When I interviewed Fr. Neeley, who used to work in detention centers, he told me that the guards would call migrants by letters and numbers. According to Fr. Neeley, dehumanizing migrants made it easier to mistreat them. For me, this was one of the most disturbing moments of the interview. I couldn’t imagine categorizing another human to avoid my own reality.
For this blog, I will do just that. I will tell the story of a migrant that I met and only call him by A22. I want to prove to myself and to the readers, how uncomfortable and disgusting this practice really is.
I had just finished cleaning up the evening meal at the comedor. Almost all of the men and women whom I encountered during dinner spoke Spanish. I communicated with a smile, service and a lot of Spanglish. I was surprised when A22 approached me and even more surprised when he spoke perfect English. A22 wanted the proper translation of an English word for his friend and asked for my help. Somehow A22 and I went from speaking about synonyms to telling his story. Right away, I could tell that A22 just wanted to be heard, and so I listened.
A22 came to the country when he was just 13 years old on a temporary visa. He stayed when it expired and started to make a life for himself in Arizona. He fell in love and had a son with his American girlfriend. After his son was born, his girlfriend became a drug addict. A22 told me that the plan had always been to marry her to become a real family and to also earn his citizenship.
“People always ask me why I didn’t just marry her. I know I wouldn’t have been deported if I did, but I couldn’t. The drugs took over her life. It ruined our relationship and it ruined her role as a mother. I wasn’t going to do that to my son. I wasn’t going to be that stereotype,” said A22.
At this point in A22’s story, I was almost in tears. The far right likes to believe that Mexicans are all criminals who will cheat the system to enter the country. A22 was a perfect example of how this idea is untrue. There are people with citizenship who do not have the moral compass that A22 holds; his girlfriend is a great example.
A22 won full custody of his son and split from his girlfriend. After some time, A22 made, what he called, a human mistake. He got back together with his girlfriend. His girlfriend became pregnant again and, according to A22, she continued to do drugs during the pregnancy. A22 told me that she was receiving the drugs from her brother.
“I made a mistake. I was so angry with her and her brother. This is my kid that she was hurting. She wouldn’t stop. He kept giving her drugs. I tried to warn him. She was killing my child. I had to do something,” said A22.
A22 assaulted his girlfriend’s brother, was charged with a felony and was deported in April.
“I just want a second chance. Why don’t I get a second chance? Is it because I’m brown? Is it because I’m different? I tried to tell the judge I was protecting my family, but he didn’t listen. Why does she get to keep our kids and I have to leave? I don’t get it,” said A22.
A22’s first son is now in the mother’s custody. His second son was born with Down syndrome and a missing limb because of his mother’s drug abuse. A22 has never met him.
A22 has been in Nogales for about a month. A22 shares an apartment with other migrants and has a job that only pays him about $10 a week. A22 is developing a case with a social worker to return to the country and raise his sons. It could take six to twelve months to process.
I’ve always imagined what it would look like. Long travel days. Poor hygiene. An air of excitement. I can happily say that I was almost right. Our group’s hygiene is on fleek.
Over the last two days we have traveled over 1,400 miles in a total of 24 hours of driving. There has been sleeping, singing, sight-seeing and more sleeping. Our already fun group grew even closer; I guess two vans full of antsy students is to blame.
Even though we were driving to the border, we didn’t discuss it or our mission much. The vibe of the van changed when we approached the outskirts of the city. The beautiful desert scenery was obstructed with border control and a giant drone searching for immigrants in the mountains. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a movie rather than my own country. We played inspirational music and remained silent until we approached our home for the next two weeks. Those final moments in the car set the mood for our mission.
Here is a quote that I have kept with me in travels throughout Europe a that I see fit for this journey:
“A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again,” Macrina Wiederkehr.
Today was, by far, the most draining day of bootcamp.
It could be that it is day five of our intense training into the documentary world. It could be that I procrastinated on packing. It could be that we participated in an emotional discussion with alumni of the program. It could be that we discussed heavy topics, such as the guilt that comes with privilege. It could be that we watched a documentary about teenagers who only have the option to join a gang or migrate. More than likely, it is a combination of all of these reasons.
After an exhausting day, I was excited to go home, relax and get some sleep. Well… It is 1:58a.m. and I am laying in bed next to a duffle with a broken zipper and a grocery bag full of Gushers.
I am nervous I didn’t pack the right things. I am mad because I smudged my freshly painted nails. I am cranky that I have to be up in four hours.
Aren’t I annoying? After all I’ve watched and learned this week about the struggles that Mexicans and Latin Americans endure just to enter my country, my biggest problem is that I can’t fit my flip-flops in my bag.
In class, John brought up the point about how easy it is to forget one’s privilege when one is surrounded by people with the same privilege. This documentary is meant to give a voice to the voiceless and make those who are are deaf to the issue hear. He also discussed how their was a John before Africa and a John after Africa
I hope that listening to and telling these stories will increase my awareness of my privilege and put my “problems” into perspective. I hope that I can turn my guilt into inspiration. I hope that I can find the Natalie after Noglaes.
Wow. Three days before we leave and I have to say this really snuck up on me. I feel a mixture of emotions including nervous, excited, anxious, nervous, and enthusiastic, and somehow all at the same time.
This week has been intense to say the least, and I have tried to retain as much knowledge that was thrown at me as possible. Now I truly know why they call it “bootcamp”. Even if I were to have a horrible time in Alaska (which I am sure I won’t), it would have been worth it because of the amount that I have learned this week.
However, even though it has been a lot to take in and process, I honestly wish that we had at least another week to really get everything down. We don’t though, and I have accepted that, and I am actually all right with it.
My list of concerns is a whole lot longer than my packing list, and that’s saying something. What’s on that list doesn’t include things like “Getting eaten by a bear” (as I’m sure we have all heard more than a few times) something like that would just make for a cool story.
Some examples would be things like: getting everything right with equipment, remembering all the correct settings to use for the camera and when to use them, actually being a help, and getting along with everyone. …oh and being the one person in the group to sneeze during an interview when we desperately need to be quiet (that’s a big one on the list). Saying “I’m a little overwhelmed” would be a bit of an understatement. But all I can really do is try to learn, adapt, and contribute anything I can, whenever possible.
My worry list however does not outweigh my excitement by any means. I can honestly say I am glad that I am doing this. Hell, on top of that, it will be good for me.
I think that the whole idea with the Yup’ik word “Ella” that John presented this morning was brilliant, and really hope we can go that direction with it. I find the Yup’ik culture fascinating, and I can’t wait to learn more about them. I respect the way that they view life, and it is somewhat humbling in a way. I am eager to learn more about the Yup’ik people, and perhaps some of their religious/spiritual beliefs even cross over with my own.
Soon we will be able to count down the hours until our flight leaves, and as I am typing this, I’m beginning to realize how soon we will actually be in Alaska. There’s no going back now, and I wouldn’t want to. Well, I better continue packing!
My ordinary pre-chaotic packing rituals have begun. As I’m staring into my room just now, I see a sea (haha pun?) of random clothing, supplies, and necessities for an experience that not many can say with such certainty.
I am going to be shooting a documentary in Africa.
It doesn’t even feel real, to be honest. Yet, that reality is only less than 36 hours away from the truth. I would be going to Africa. I would be seeing the sights that would be on TV and the internet. I would be actually talking to people that I could only dream of talking to. I would be visiting another country in….Epcot!
Okay. You may be wondering, “Why the hell does Epcot, a super fantastical journey of adventure (otherwise known as a theme park) have absolutely anything to do with this trip?” Well, let me tell you. When I was a kid, my mom would always pop a video of Disney’s Epcot into the VCR to get my butt to sit down and behave. It was one of those movies that was certainly shot in the 1990s. Basically, a whole bunch of unaccompanied 9 and 10 year olds running around the park to each different country with a whole bunch of Disney cartoon characters running around with them. Seems dumb, right?
WRONG. I WAS ADDICTED. I would get so excited when the group of overall-dressed and oddly dyed t-shirted band of misfits would go to a different country and talk to the “locals” about there cultures and stuff (at that age I was more obsessed with the different rides in each country. I was most obsessed with the big splash ride In Norway.) Regardless of who had the best rides or coolest buildings, ever since then, my mom would always tell me that I was dedicated on traveling the real world and seeing the real countries, rather than the pseudo Disney counterparts. My mom would would always tell me I was going to travel the world one day.
She was right. I have traveled the world. I have been to 3 continents already (North America, Europe, and Asia), and I will be adding a 4th to that list in the near future. Instead of experiencing the rides that were in each country in Epcot, I have experienced the rides in emotion when experiencing a new location for what its worth. However, I don’t believe I’ve experienced the “Spash Mountain” of rides in the real world just yet.
But I will in a matter of hours.
I wouldn’t lie to you and say that I’m not nervous about this trip, because I certainly am. I am nervous of what my eyes will tell me. I am nervous that I will see or hear something that I know I should, but don’t want to. I have this feeling in my stomach that scares the living daylights out me for some reason.
But I also have this excitement that has inhibited me from sleeping more than 3 hours a night for the past week.
I can’t quite explain to you why I’m nervous yet, because I really don’t know why I am in the first place. But despite the nerves, I couldn’t be happier at the moment. As I am sitting in my bed typing this blog to all you readers out there, I am staring at backpack ( I am literally bringing a 60 liter traveling backpack with me. Honest to the cause, much?) comprised of a few TheNorthFace shirts, a pair of chinos or two, and a bunch of other random items.
Generally, one friend in particular would always give me crap about wearing TheNorthFace apparel around Omaha for something of a daily regime. She would always mock me, saying, “Why, do you go on crazy adventures or something?”
To think of it, yes. Yes, I do go on crazy adventures. And I have a premonition that the craziest one is right around the corner….