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.
When I studied abroad in Rome last year, one of my favorite professors forbid photographs. He would take us to the most beautiful churches in the world and go absolutely ballistic if he saw a student snap a photo.
Despite my initial annoyance, I learned how to appreciate whatever was in front of me (something very hard to do nowadays). Besides filming and updating the Snapchat, I didn’t take pictures during my time at the border.
Thankfully, my classmates did.
Here are some of my absolute favorite people/memories:
The border is a complicated and sometimes, intense place. One way to wind down after a long, heavy day was to hang out with my incredible Backpack family. While we were there to learn, we laughed a lot and made memories that I will smile about forever. In the style of one of my favorite movies, 10 Things I Hate About You, here are the 10 things that I “hated” about this experience:
I hated stepping outside of my cooking comfort zone.
I hated the way my dance moves looked on Snapchat.
I hated losing my breath from laughing too hard on the long van rides.
I hated the deflated beds that created so many jokes in our room.
I hated being caught as a member of the “mafia” during our silly game.
I hated how my classmates cheated at Tenzi.
I hated the way we all looked out for each other.
I hated the pressure of picking the perfect song when I had the aux cord.
I hated how my cheeks would hurt from smiling during our hilarious dinner chats.
But mostly I hated the way I didn’t hate it, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
There has never been a definitive, defining moment in my life where I thought, “Yes, this is it. This is why I want to be a lawyer.” I’ve just always sort of known.
Although we had been prepared for what happens during Operation Streamline, I still felt a familiar feeling of excitement when I entered the courthouse. I find law and the idea of justice to be intriguing because visiting courts is like taking a peak into my future.
When I entered Operation Streamline, however, I felt shame. There were about 60 captured migrants in chains and headphones. They were quiet and they looked scared. Despite how angry I felt when I saw the chained people, that anger didn’t compare to what I felt when I saw their lawyers. They looked carefree and comfortable. They were standing around casually chatting with each other and laughing while their clients sat alone. These were the people I was supposed to look up to?
Now, the moderator in me has to be fair; I have no idea what the lawyers said to the clients before entering the courtroom. They could have been kind and compassionate, I don’t know. What I do know is that if I were in a new country, surrounded by a language that I didn’t understand and waiting to hear my fate, I wouldn’t want the person who was supposed to be fighting for me to look like they were on a lunch break.
My inner optimist would like to believe that these lawyers are good people. They are defending one of the most vulnerable populations, after all. But I want the migrants to feel respected. I want the process, despite it’s regularity, to be respectable.
Although the whole Operation Streamline process, not just the attorneys, disturbed me. I don’t want it to scare me away from my chose career path; I want it to inspire me to be better.
I guess you could say that it was my definitive, defining moment.
Pulling the last few weeks together I’ve learned quite a few things. I can officially say I know how to operate my camera fairly efficiently. I’ve learned to cook a few more meals and laugh a little harder. The trip was nothing short of complicated but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The people I traveled with became my good friends. Nights of mafia and golf/garbage made sure that I would never be able to forget them. And honestly that was probably my biggest fear going in, not being able to make friends. I’m both shy and introverted. I have a few close friends and I rarely stray out of that group but all of the amazing people on this trip made it easy to reach out. Sure they made jokes about one another but the jokes were never said in a cruel fashion and I think that made it safe to open up.
My highlights were the evenings, at least the ones where we were awake enough to hang out. I’ve never seen so many dance parties while doing dishes or people willing to create a feast big enough to feed 16. I can now say from experience that from the outside it’s interesting to watch a group grow closer but from the inside it’s amazing.
I only had one real lowlight: Operation Streamline. That’s not to say that the information we were constantly receiving wasn’t hard to process or that it wasn’t devastating to see people at their lowest but neither of those things calcified in my mind as much as Operation Streamline did. The callous court room and general disregard for the migrants’ humanity burrowed under my skin. How could I look at our justice system, which was supposed to be just and humane, and not feel like it was missing the mark in a brutal way? I’ve known for a long time in the form of statistics that the justice system was failing but seeing it played out before my eyes took that knowledge to a new level.
The reality of Operation Streamline led me to think about what I can do. And to be honest I still don’t have an answer beyond advocate and agitate. I know that if I remain silent I am choosing the side of the oppressor, therefore each time the opportunity comes up to discuss these issues I must not remain silent. Beyond that I know there will be opportunities to continue cultivating change, I am just not aware of them at this point.
I know that I have been changed by this trip and I look forward to seeing how those changes take root. I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended this trip and I am glad to call everyone in this class my friend. I am also thankful to you, the readers, for keeping up with this blog and supporting us on our journey.
I’ve always tried to live according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” It’s a simple quote but a high order. To me it means putting aside worldly things like money and consumerist success in favor of holding myself to the standard of helping others, even if helping is just being present with someone.
When I was very young I realized that my general fear of blood and distress in the field of mathematics meant that I would never be a doctor or a nurse. But when I went to Guatemala in tenth grade I learned that there are many ways to help that don’t require a medical license. It was there I decided to become a journalist.
While in Guatemala I read a book called Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti by Gerry Hadden. The book opened my eyes to the world of journalism and the realities of Latin America. Realities that paralleled what I was seeing in the community I was living with. For the first time I felt like there was something I could do to help: write. Visiting the border has only reaffirmed that calling.
The border for me serves as a reminder of what happens when the media capitalizes on fear. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old journalism adage. I think it is an outdated motto that has unfortunately taken over the journalism world in an effort to keep afloat in an era of citizen journalism. The border reminds me of what happens when journalists fail to report on people. When we dehumanize people because they don’t come from our country, we overlook the human rights violations in favor of supporting our own interests. I hope to be someone who helps change that or who at the very least manages to remind people that there is a world outside our individual bubbles. A world that is crying because of the death and destruction we choose to ignore.
With interviews that often lasted longer than an hour, editing the documentary down to just 25 minutes was a significant challenge. The writing team had its work cut out for them initially; scouring the transcribed interviews for quotes that beautifully summarized everything we had just learned to create a coherent narrative.
Before splitting into our groups as editors and writers, the class built a rough story outline based off Kino’s goals to humanize, accompany, and complicate the issue of immigration.
It was such a natural outline I began to think about how that framework should be used in each story we tell. For example when I talk about my little sister as someone with a disability rather than as a disabled person, I am humanizing her. Her disability is a part of who she is but it is not all that she is. In the same fashion when talking about someone who has been deported, it’s important to remember that they have inherent human dignity, which should be implicit in any retelling of their story. They have been deported but that is only one part of their history, not its entirety.
After seriously considering the idea of the humanize, accompany, and complicate framework, I realized that it’s the way all stories about people should be understood. When I was a younger my pastor put a significant emphasis on learning how to listen deeply. Listening deeply implies that the listener isn’t thinking about how they will respond to the speaker but rather the listener is genuinely engaged with the speaker’s narrative.
While the bottom line is that the general audience will get what they want out of a story, its incredibly important to build every story off this framework. Even in fictional writing, telling a tale about a person without humanizing them makes it impossible for the intended audience to reap the message. Harry Potter wouldn’t be much of a story if all we knew about him was that he was an orphan.
Although our documentary veered off this track later in the week, because it was originally built with that outline, the story accomplishes those goals. It tells a story that we as a Jesuit university can be proud of because it maintains the principle of inherent human dignity in all persons.
The ride home in our van was quiet (and by quiet I mean I was asleep for most of the ride and probably couldn’t tell you whether it was noisy or not). But during the moments I was awake and even the ones where I wasn’t, the camaraderie between everyone was unmistakable. As we sat at Dr. Zuegner’s friend’s house, we told jokes and laughed with one another like we’d known each other for years instead of just a few weeks.
For better or for worse our shared experience on this trip was a bonding agent and I like to think it was for the better. Over the two weeks in Arizona we saw each other through some good times and some hard times. We cried and laughed, we talked about the afterlife and Dr. O’Keefe’s love of Taylor Swift. We’ve practiced meditation beside a lake and learned about some of the terrifying situations migrants face.
In my experience bonds like the one our class has aren’t built by casual interactions. They are built on the foundation of something arduous. In our case it was immigration. Watching the dehumanization on both sides of the border is difficult to say the least and yet our group handled it by being there for one another. At night we sang and danced. We played mafia and tenzi. We bonded by being vulnerable with one another whether in games or reflections or even just discussing what we had seen and heard that day.
That bond is what makes the trip home so bittersweet. When we get home we’ll be pulled back into our routine. We’ll continue to meet and sing the coyote song until our rough cut is finished and then we will go our separate ways.
There is no walking away from a trip like this without feeling some sadness at the prospect of it ending. When we get home there will be no playing mafia together in the evening or dancing to Dr. Zuegner’s excellent playlists. There will be only the knowledge that we are tied together by an experience inexplicable to those who have never built friendships in rough terrain, so to speak.
I feel close to each and every person in our group. I am glad to have shared the hard times and the good times over those two weeks with this specific group of people. I know that each of them will carry a place in my heart for a long time to come.
Disclaimer: Every time I’ve tried to write this last and final blog post, I’ve started to cry. Which isn’t ideal because I am in a public place. This is my official apology to the customers and workers of Beansmith Coffee and to Aly Schreck and Maria Watson for putting up with me. Be prepared for sap
I’m not sure how I want to start this last and final blog post. I’ve tried to write the opening at least ten times. But I am struggling to come up with a clear and coherent way to describe all of my emotions. Currently I am depressed, overjoyed, elated, excited, tearful, emotionally drained, full (mentally and physically) and so much more.
Today is the final day that we will all probably be in the same room together. It’s been an interesting 4.5 weeks. All 15 of you have grown into my favorite friends. It’s hard to think back to when we were awkward acquaintances all pretending that we weren’t nervous to talk or show our true selves. Look below to see us all in our awkward glory.
But here we are 4.5 weeks later. Best friends. Journalist. B-roll experts. Camera aficionados.
After a stressful and difficult past year, I almost thought about not coming on Backpack Journalism. My grandma who turn 89 yesterday has been in and out of the hospital for the past year.
Before I was about to go on the trip my grandma was hospitalized for the second time with pneumonia. I was anxious to go on the trip because I was worried about my grandma and her health.
While in Nogales, my grandma was hospitalized again. I didn’t tell anybody in the group. I also found out the same day that my 18 year old cousin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I immediately regretted being there. I wanted to be with my family and with my mom. I discussed with my mom going home early, but she told me that I needed to do this trip. That it was important for me to be apart of this. I listened to my mom and decided to handle how it how I usually deal with things. I threw myself into the program. I distracted myself by reading, cooking with the group, hanging out with everybody and being truly present in Nogales.
While it was hard for me to do, my sadness and tears quickly turned into a smile. I was told by a couple of group members that I am always smiling. While I do this unconsciously, I am smiling because of them. They didn’t even know what was going on, yet they managed to encourage and push me to do and be my best. I think that says a lot about the people who were on the trip. They are some of the best people I’ve met. During our last and final reflection, I told the group that I was thankful for them. These rad kiddos are so wonderful that I can’t even begin to thank them. Even now that our trip is done, I am still left with a constant smile on my face.
Too happy to see the haterz
During the trip something I kept thinking about was what can I do now? So it’s appropriate that Carol asked us this question in our final blog post, What is one thing you can do differently based on what you learned?
After meeting and listening to peoples stories I think the best thing I or anybody else can do is to stay informed and to inform others. It’s important to humanize immigration. It’s a complex human rights issue. I hope that because of what I experienced in Nogales I can be a source of information for those who have question or to challenge their thoughts on the issue. By no means am I an expert, but I feel as though our documentary will encourage others to go and bear witness to the conflict at the border.
While I’m not necessarily satisfied with that I think it is important to realize that I can only do the best I can with what I have with where I’m at.
I don’t want to end this blog post because that means this is all truly over.
I am thankful for all the individuals that I met. I am thankful for John and Carol for bringing this project to Creighton (you guys are amazing).
If I can take anything away from this experience it is to say yes. Thank you Carol for teaching me to be open and to say yes to things even if it is difficult.
This experience has transformed my understanding of community in a number of ways.
We’ve seen how the border lands can harden the hearts of people through grueling physical challenges of the desert and the threatening control of the cartel, but we’ve also seen how the community there can heal any physical or emotional wounds. For every heartbreaking story, we heard two hopeful stories of people working together towards justice.
Community is the fuel of every fire there — fires of hope, justice, dreams, spirituality, friendship, and family. There is more of an emphasis on community than anything else. Poverty emphasizes living within the means, and finding faith in reality, however simple.
Living simply without man-made pressures of excessive materialism has allowed these people to focus on community and relationship. These people don’t work for nicer cars, branded watches, or giant houses — they work for their families and children to have better lives. They find joy in community — the intersection of communication and unity.
Communication, in its many forms, connects people across different realities to unify us all in the common threads of our humanity. Laughter, smiles, tears, hugs — the kind of communication that does not require words, are the types of gestures that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. Where norms, expectations and values vary across different political and economic cultures, these types of communication remind us that no matter our differences, we’re all created in the same likeness of God. We, as humans, possess all of the same emotional capacities of love and compassion, but also heartbreak.
It has been fulfilling to be reminded of these consistencies of humanity, and carry those memories with me beyond the border lands. In addition to that, I am particularly grateful to have been able to record these intentional conversations (i.e. interviews) and images of the reality of Nogales and bring them home to share with the world.
I was reminded of the way communication can unify the communities of migrants and activists in Nogales. I was reminded of the way communication allowed us to be in solidarity with these people, despite cultural barriers. And I was also reminded of the way documentary-style communication can bear witness to the rest of the world. Our documentary has taken on a life of itself. Now the stories we heard won’t end with us, they’ll continue on to plant seeds with anyone willing to listen.
On Saturday, our group went on an interesting adventure. We followed a soft-spoken Quaker man, whose white hair was longer than mine, into the desert in order to gain a better perspective on what migrants go through on their journey north. Our fearless leader, “Lil John” as we called him, took us under barbed wire fences, over walls of rock, and through uneven rocky brush lined with heavily thorned desert plants under the early morning desert sun. I went through 4 bottles of water.
As we moved from the cattle path to the migrant trails, the reality of where I was didn’t really hit until crawling under the second barbed wire fence of the day. While brushing myself off on the other side, someone pointed out a discarded sweater. It looked like it used to be white, but was torn, weathered, and caked with dirt, turning it a stained dark brown. It appeared a migrant had discarded it right before crawling under the barbed wire we’d just come through.
As the trail continued, I noticed the occasional rusty can littering the sides of the trail. After a while, we reached an opening in the valley trail. A small shrine had been erected out of a natural opening in the side of a small cliff. A tree branch to the right of the shrine had gallons of water hanging from strings with messages of prayer and good will written across them in Spanish. On the ground lay several more gallons of water, as well as cans of beans. The shrine itself was decorated with candles, crosses, and images of St. Mary.
It was an incredibly surreal place to see in the middle of a trail that meant death and pain for so many. In the midst of illness, death, injury, and pain that lines this journey for so many, there is a small ray of hope and comfort. Ironically, that aid is provided by a group of activists from the very same nation that at once draws and rejects people. The same country that hunts these migrants down on this journey, also produces people who aid them on the way.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t know what to think about this juxtaposition. I guess it reminded me the more positive aspects of The United States’ system after two weeks of feeling frustrated by my country’s continuous blunders. Out of all the backwards policy, the ability and the choice to help people in need still remains.