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.
“Who we are, and who we are capable of becoming, depends very much on the stories we tell, the stories we listen to, and the stories we live” – Emmanuel Katongole
Well hello all! The time has finally come for Creighton’s Backpack Journalism program of 2018 to begin, and I could not be more excited. My name is Natalie Lynam and I am a rising senior in the Heider College of Business at Creighton. I am a Seattle, WA native and have dreamed of going back to Africa ever since I visited Marrakech while studying abroad during the fall of 2017. This time, this study abroad experience to Uganda, is telling a way different story.
I am looking forward to the growth and new perspectives I know this experience will give me. What drew me to this program included the ability to tell a story that is so different than the one I live out every day. I look forward to the people that I will meet and I already commend their vulnerability and courage for telling their story. I know they will help shape mine.
This experience, this growth, this story, starts now. I hope you all follow along, it’s going to be a wild ride!
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.
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
As the two white Creighton vans pulled out of the McGloin parking lot this morning, it was and still is difficult for me to fully comprehend what’s ahead. Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. This past week has been amazing and surprising and I’ve learned so much but we’ve only scratched the surface.
A big part of me still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be doing this. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: I have an amazing opportunity to capture people’s lack of opportunity. In my first ever college journalism class, the first thing my teacher emphasized to us was the centrality of storytelling in journalism. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with this idea of long-form, narrative journalism. In my first ever Creighton class, my theology teacher emphasized to the class the importance of using your degree for social justice. That is also something that has stuck with me. That’s why I find it so incredibly humbling to use the power of storytelling to hopefully do some good in the world.
It’s scary to be actually moving forward with this work because it’s something that I care so much about doing in the long-term. It’s also incredibly exciting. I feel confident in what I’ve learned so far, but I’m definitely nervous about applying this knowledge in a real and meaningful way.
Though, by this standard, I am not the quintessential image of a storyteller I am participating in the Backpack Journalism program to Arizona and Mexico to better understand the skills needed to responsibly tell others’ stories. The fictional character of the grandpa in The Princess Bride demonstrates the success of storytelling. For him, the story is already there, all the grandpa does is illustrate the book so that his grandson, who was originally reluctant to hear the story, empathizes with the plot and characters. That is what we are trying to do in the next five weeks. Through this experience I hope to gain more knowledge on genuinely telling other people’s stories in a way that allows for the audience to be interested in the process and outcome of the story. I want to work to be able to make conscious decisions that better a narrative.
This skill of constructing a narrative connects my collegiate studies. I am studying history, graphic design, and dance. At face value, these fields seem random and not intertwined. However, in reality, storytelling is truly one of the main things that unite these programs. History is the telling of certain narratives to support an argument and when done correctly uses narratives often forgotten or originally omitted. Graphic design is visual communication—telling a story without an emphasis on text. Lastly, dance is storytelling though physical movement. Storytelling connects my interests but its significance is much greater than that.
Storytelling allows for voices usually ignored to be heard, for forgotten stories to be shared, and when done right works to inform its audience on the truth while creating interest and empathy. I chose Creighton as a place to explore different mediums to present these narratives and on the Backpack Journalism trip to Arizona and Mexico I hope to work toward becoming a more skilled visual storyteller. I am participating in the Backpack Journalism program to Arizona and Mexico to start the journey to becoming my version of the grandpa from The Princess Bride (a storyteller).