Tag Archives: social justice

Companions, Not Champions

Our Backpack Journalism team has learned a lot about “letting go and letting God” over the last 48 hours.

This Monday we experienced our first unexpected complication when the airline cancelled our flight to Amsterdam – the one we had specifically booked together as a class months ago – merely days before our scheduled departure. We were suddenly thrust into an uncontrollable situation, forced to quickly change our original travel plans so that we could still guarantee an on-time arrival in Entebbe by the end of this week. Fortunately, thanks to John’s persistence with the travel agency and Delta Air Lines, we’ve all managed to procure seats on different flights. Unfortunately, we’re separated into smaller groups for our first international flight, meaning that we’ll need to be extra vigilant with our camera equipment (Although, John’s scared us enough about losing our gear and ruining the documentary that we’ll probably hold onto the devices like our lives depend on it…which, is not an implausible outcome should we – God forbid – leave behind a camera charger or tripod…).

Also, fun fact: Our class will reconvene next month in Amsterdam. I mean, sure, we’re only apart for one travel day, but it’ll be June 1 when we reunite so that technically counts! Funny how random coincidences like that happen, but I digress.

Your CU Backpack 2018 adventurers: [bottom row, left to right] Lizzy, Carol, Izzy (peekaboo!), Natalie, Ben, [top row, left to right] Brick, Matthew, John, Andrew, Tim, Zach and Jacob.

As you can probably imagine, the days leading up to our Uganda trip have been nothing short of hectic. We’ve withstood crash courses in videography and interviewing techniques; we’ve crammed in lessons on approaching trauma through a journalistic lens and critiquing postcolonial narratives in Africa; we’ve sustained an abbreviated seminar in ecclesiology and how the Church has redefined its mission and identity after the monumental Vatican II. On top of riding out an information tidal wave, we’ve scrambled to pack, take care of last minute obstacles, and fine tune the smaller details. It’s exhausting and overwhelming at times, but it’s also been a great bonding experience. I already feel significantly closer with individuals from this year’s Backpack group than I did at the beginning of Boot Camp, and I’m excited to continue fostering those deeper friendships as we brave the unknown together.

The chaos of Boot Camp has also helped influence me toward a more reflective mindset. As our preparations move from vision to reality, I find myself contemplating my motivation behind journeying into the developing world to witness suffering. What can I offer to a people who have endured hardships beyond my comprehension? Why am I going out to capture human devastation and another’s trauma when I know that our project will not make the impact necessary to improve that individual’s quality of life? What do I personally gain from exposing myself to the epicenter of a social justice issue?

These are difficult questions, but necessary ones. Too often we who come from privileged places fail to examine our own motives before entering vulnerable spaces. We’re quick to presume that any minor charitable action compensates our shallower intentions. We readily perpetuate dominant, egocentric narratives to dismiss the uncomfortable truths that make up realities on the margins. We assume that our willingness to engage with impoverished individuals points to our inherently good, altruistic nature. We don’t like discomfort; we’re more content to pretend we’re the solution rather than to acknowledge when we are the problem.

Undisputed acceptance of myths born from entitlement is a dangerous practice and can be particularly harmful to the community you interact with. Sans critical self-examination, one unwittingly falls prey to the trappings of volunteerism, a form of dehumanizing people who are suffering by capitalizing on their image to boost your own social status. Furthermore, you can become tone deaf to oppression – especially when you stand to benefit from injustices.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t subscribed to some of these injurious attitudes in the past, nor will I claim that I am capable of perceiving my own cultural blindspots. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out whether my inclination to pursue social justice stories is entirely pure.

Although I don’t have the answers to all my questions yet, I do know one thing for certain: that Backpack Journalism is an opportunity for accompaniment, not achievement.

In “Unfinished Houses: Building the kingdom on God’s time,” John J. McLaughlin argues that the most important component to service work is developing meaningful relationships with the individuals you serve. It’s not about completing work that will make a discernible impact or fixing the issue, although those efforts are not without their value. Rather, it’s about surrendering yourself “totally to God and God’s poor,” listening to those who are suffering, doing your own small part, and leaving the rest to God – a practical application of let go and let God, if you will.

And that is fundamentally what Backpack Journalism is about. We are not called to be champions for the refugee crisis, but we have been given a chance to form companionships with each other and the people we’ll encounter. We probably won’t affect as much change in these individuals as they will in us, but that is the beauty of accompaniment: the human relationships you experience have the power to follow your heart and mind even after you’re gone.

As for me, I’m working to keep my heart and mind open.

A Call to Bear Witness

Four years ago, I listened to a small panel of journalism students and faculty professors describe the unique networking and writing opportunities offered by the Department of Journalism, Media & Computing (JMC) at Creighton University. Like every other prospective student sitting in on that early morning session, I perched stiffly in my banquet chair and concentrated intently on the panelists’ expressions, attempting to gauge their sincerity as they exalted the JMC Department, while also pretending that I wasn’t embarrassed by my mother’s frantic note taking beside me. Every now and then, Mom’s pen paused dramatically mid-scribble, prompting my glance her way so that she could flash me her signature “Did-you-hear-that?” raised eyebrows, followed by the “If-you-don’t-ask-a-question-I’m-going-to-ask-one-for-you” smirk.

Quite a lot of pressure hung over this particular journalism panel (although I’m sure none of the department’s representatives realized it). At the time, I was an indecisive high school senior who was in the final leg of my college tour, anxious to find the right collegiate environment where I could thrive. I’d never heard of Creighton until a month prior to my visit; I didn’t know what a Jesuit was, much less what being a part of a Jesuit institution meant; and as a Californian spoiled by warm weather and our swanky In-N-Out Burgers, I wasn’t too inclined to migrate to Nebraska any time soon. Needless to say, Creighton was at a slight disadvantage in terms of convincing me to apply.

As the panel discussion continued, the conversation turned to a study abroad program called Backpack Journalism. My interest was immediately piqued. The concept of shooting a mini documentary to shed light on an injustice as it is experienced in a different part of the world seemed right up my alley. Backpack Journalism blended two of my strongest passions: versatile storytelling and social justice – interests which I had previously considered mutually exclusive. I fell in love with the idea of utilizing journalism to provide a voice to the voiceless, to share stories that matter.

In that moment, as I watched clips from previous Backpack Journalism adventures and heard about the meaningful relationships that students had built with their global subjects, I realized that I had found what I was looking for. This program catapulted Creighton to the top of my universities list; I knew that if I was committing to Creighton, I was also committing to Backpack Journalism.

Rachel, my roommate of four years (right), and I (left) adventuring in my home state. It’s crazy to think that if I hadn’t heard of Backpack Journalism several years ago, I may not have met one of my best friends.

Cut to four years later. I am now about to embark on a two week pilgrimage to Uganda as a participant in the very program that helped me find my home away from home.

This year the Backpack Journalism team will bear witness to Sudanese refugees who are staying in settlements throughout Northern Uganda. We are going to investigate the lived realities of involuntary displacement, the modern impact of historical trauma and sociopolitical conditions in Africa, and the Church of Uganda’s spiritual and practical impact on the refugee crisis. In the process, we’ll (hopefully) gain a broader perspective on real world issues, in addition to discovering a beautiful humanity that is often distorted by Western society.

I’ll admit, I’m finding myself in a bit of emotional flux as our trip looms closer. I couldn’t be more excited to develop narratives with the individuals I’ll encounter and to learn new storytelling techniques through videography. And of course, it feels almost unreal to finally be participating in the study abroad program that influenced my decision to come to Creighton.

At the same time, I feel slightly anxious about stepping so far out of my comfort zone and entering these vulnerable places (If I felt a public spotlight while sitting next to an overenthusiastic parent taking copious notes, how am I going to feel filming b-roll with strangers out in the field?). In these moments, I have to remind myself that the stories worth telling aren’t the ones that we observe from the sidelines – they’re in the midst of the action.

To my dear friends and family members reading this blog, please keep our small group in your thoughts and prayers over these next few weeks! Pray that we remain conscious and intentional throughout our journey; that we grow spiritually as well as intellectually; and that we can survive the few grueling days of Backpack Journalism boot camp.

I’ll end my first blog post with a verse that has been on my mind lately. In my opinion, this verse perfectly captures the call to bear witness that we young journalists and theologians feel compelled to follow:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” : Isaiah 6:8

Lights! Camera! ALASKA!

We practiced how to set up all the necessary equipment and did interviews on each other. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes!
We practiced how to set up all the necessary equipment and did interviews on each other. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes! Photo by Kari Welniak

“Lights! Camera! Alaska!” is the perfect phrase to describe how I feel right now. I believe that we all are ready to take action and use the skills we have learned throughout this week and fulfill our purpose of this trip. Even though this week of bootcamp has taken a little bit more of my energy each day, I find myself getting even more excited each day. I can already tell from just this week that this will be one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had so far in my life which only makes the excitement grow stronger. Everything about this week has been inspiring in many different ways. Each person in our group contributes their uniqueness in a very special way and I can even feel the beginnings of our family. There is definitely something to be learned from everyone in our family! It is almost like we are one giant family going on an “education vacation” (Term coined from Madeline Zukowski’s blog. Check it out! http://cubackpack.org/alaska2014/its-an-education-vacation/).

I am most looking forward to trying new things that will push me out of my comfort zone. I think the first step of my going out of my comfort zone is leaving my home of 20 years, Omaha, Nebraska, and going basically off the grid away from friends and family for 15 days. However, it will be rewarding in the end when I can finally cross off “Alaska” on my bucket list.

To me there is some scary element into raising tough, thought-provoking questions that creates some uneasiness in some people. These questions range from climate change to the effects of cultural domination. However, this week has really inspiried me to feel that it is our duty to raise these questions because it will create more social and conscious awareness not only in myself, but in the people that we talk and show the final documentary to. We have touched on these topics briefly in class this week by discussing and reading articles. However, it will be interesting to be able to elaborate more on these questions by asking the people who are directly affected by it in Alaska. I find this exciting and inspiring because it is a different type of research than what I am used to.

I have also discovered that playing with the camera equipment and iPad minis can be really distracting yet really fun. I’ve already caught myself a couple of times producing little short movies and thinking in the mindset of a filmmaker, “Oh that would make a great film!”. I also find myself using photography and videography terms (f-stop, aperture, ISO, rule of thirds, etc.) when taking so-called “professional” Instagram photos. Is the possibility of a future of a becoming a journalist, director, photography, or producer in my horizon? Maybe i missed my calling when I was little and would produce a family newspaper by interviewing my brothers and sisters (Mom, Dad, Amy, Sara, and TJ remember these?) Who knows! I am still pretty dead set on becoming a dentist, but I think the skills and lessons that I have learned will broaden my view and awareness in our world.

My only minor concern for this trip is the plane. I am terrified of planes! Oh well, this trip is all about going out of our comfort zone, right? 🙂 It probably won’t settle in completely that I will be in Alaska until I am on that plane. Alright, time to start packing!

Peace out, Omaha!

P.S. – How crazy is it that my next post will be in Alaska?!

P.S.S. – To only prolong my packing here are some cool Yup’ik phrases:

Hi. Waqaa.
How are you? Cangacit?
I’m fine. Assirtua.
Thank you. Quyana.

Burns

Upon returning from Uganda we have discussed the difficulty in deciding how to best react to the poverty we witnessed in such places as Ave Maria and Abia. Also, reading some of the personal stories of those who are sacrificing a life of comfort for a life serving the poor can reveal inadequacy in my own efforts to fight injustice (see the efforts of Paride Taban for example).

On this note, Dr. O’Keefe pointed out that to be discouraged by this inadequacy to the point of stagnancy in one’s own efforts to serve others is the wrong response. It is like the person who does not vote because he/she believe that their vote won’t matter in the grand scheme of an election. While I may not have the money to support one candidate and noticeably sway the outcome of an election, if I do not vote I support and perpetuate an unhealthy ideology. This ideology says one person cannot make a difference in a world of 7 billion humans.

This thought has crept into my mind several times since I have been back in the United States. Seeing the poverty in Abia desensitizes the problems I have witnessed in America. But to think that because something is worse makes lesser problems not as real is once again the wrong response. It is a fatal path that can lead to inaction. Just because I am not in Uganda does not mean I cannot make a better world at Creighton. Bigger problems should make smaller problems more real; they should awaken us to all injustices.

I speak to myself when I advocate for both small and large changes, to not be tempted by the whisperings of inadequacy. To say that the poverty in Uganda marginalizes the problems here is wrong. Both should be given attention and deserve action fighting the problem.

At Ave Maria, a young child no more than a year and a half old is carried by his older 7 year old sister. 1 in 3 of the children at Ave Maria are HIV positive, while many are orphans.

Initial reflection on backpack journalism

Ever since the end of my freshman year at Creighton University, I have uncovered an interest in understanding new cultures outside of my own. The Jesuit education has also reinvigorated a sense of wholeness with my fellow man. With this connectivity comes a sense of purpose in ensuring the health and wellness of others. An intrigue in social justice and service for others has had a major impact on my life as a college student.

The Uganda Backpack Journalism class provided an opportunity to fulfill both of these personal interests. It is a gateway to a culture starkly different from the America I experience. With that said, one question that I hope to be able to answer conclusively at the end of this trip is if this project did indeed improve (or will improve) at least one less fortunate person. Time will tell.

Ugan-duh!

You know, the fact that I’m going to Uganda hasn’t really hit me yet. I’ve spent most of (well, ALL of, really) my life traveling. I’ve lived in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Central America, and many different parts of the U.S. and Canada. I think I’ve become a little desensitized to the idea of traveling to a new destination. Which probably seems strange, but the way I see it: no pre-flight butterflies and panic attacks is pretty awesome sometimes.

A year ago, if you had asked me what I thought would be a new and exciting experience for me, I would probably say this, “God, I would really love to be on my own somewhere in Europe, meet a lot of people, travel a lot, and learn about my roots.” Since this isn’t a year ago though and since I already had that experience when I studied abroad in Ireland last year, my answer to that question is probably more along the lines of “well, I’ve been hearing a lot about East Africa lately…”

But in all seriousness, I think the opportunity to do what I’m about to do is one I’ve been looking for for awhile. In the past few months, I’ve gotten very involved in issues of social justice as well as read up on issues facing different parts of the world, such as the conflict in the Arab Spring, or the ethnic cleansing in the Sudan. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a direct exposure to these kinds of problems, which is something I believe is necessary in understanding how to solve said problems. It is my hope that by going on this trip, I’ll be able to have that exposure I need, while also being able to tell an interesting story through media that others should hear.

Being a Computer Science major, I relish the opportunity to solve complex problems using systems. Being a Journalism major, I’m incredibly interested in information, people, ideas, and cultures. In my mind, the world is one big system, made up of all the people in the world sharing information, culture, and ideas with each other. When it comes to solving problems the world is facing, such as poverty, genocide, economic and social injustice, war, or corruption, I always think that, with such a complex system with infinite potential at our fingertips, why shouldn’t we be able to solve the problems of the world?

It’s my hope then that by going on this trip, I’ll be able to:

1. learn about issues that I’ve read a lot about, but have had no direct exposure to,

2. learn new skills like video shooting and editing,

3. develop my existing skills like writing and interviewing,

4. learn about the people of Uganda and what their story tells,

5. hopefully have some good laughs and good conversation with some interesting people.

Let's hope these people are as fun as this picture makes them seem.

 

As well, I have some other, more personal goals I’d like to share, which will be part of another blog post I intend to write pre-departure.