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.
The world is a peculiar place. Within it’s bounds, it can hold an uber-successful juggernaut of a country founded on exploiting others by force. Just a few thousand miles away, the opposite side of the spectrum is fully on display. Blatantly displayed in the streets, the residents of eastern Africa interact and go about their daily business completely different. Ironically, the people of the latter region appear that they couldn’t possibly be of the same world as the first.
Before I came to Africa, this difference was something I more or less expected. However, I had not considered the state of the more populous areas. When I thought of Africa, my mind defaulted to the vast open plains, people few and far between, the rain taking turns to show with the sun. While these areas certainly exist, places like Kampala were a whole different animal. I likened the setup experienced in the town like someone did a “copy-paste” all over the city. Over and over, you’d see several cramped stores together almost always featuring a unisex salon, food place, beauty store, drug store, and so on. For blocks on end, the town featured buildings as such, with several thousands of people perusing the streets, on the way to something, I’m just not sure what. Trash piles, stray animals, and parked motorcycles all occupy a large amount of space in the already crowded, poorly formed roads.
Ultimately, I suppose the point of this blog is that the world is where many different people living in many cultures and climates with many different ideas and experiences are all trying to carry on together. In 16 hours of transportation, I was taken from one place to another that felt like two completely different worlds. I’m still processing that.
It’s impossible to predict the new experiences you’ll gain when you enter a foreign space for the first time. For instance, I never imagined that I would feel adventurous enough to suck on a tilapia’s eye (I wish I could say that I managed to swallow it like the other brave students who attempted stomaching the Ugandan delicacy, but I couldn’t stick it out once I tasted its salty cornea). I also didn’t expect to let go of my inhibitions and dance like no one was watching at a cultural performance, crazily swaying my hips to the African drums and laughing uproariously with other uncoordinated visitors from all over the world. And I most certainly did not anticipate the incredible generosity and welcome I have received from the Ugandan people.
Uganda is not a comfortable place to live by any means. 84 percent of Ugandan youth are unemployed, and only 46 percent of college-educated people have jobs. There is a significant economic divide between the poor and the wealthy few; the majority live on less than $1 USD a day and struggle to meet basic needs such as food security or healthcare, while the rich minority reap the benefits from the financial disparity. Malaria, a tropical disease transmitted through mosquito bites, is a real threat, but the simple antibiotics that may help reduce risk for parasitic infection, such as Doxycycline, is not affordable for individuals living below the national poverty line.
However, despite having very little and struggling greatly, the Ugandans are some of the most generous people I have ever encountered. They are generous in their compassion for other people, quick to sympathize and offer aid if possible; they are generous in their love for Christ, demonstrating their devout faith by connecting God back to all things; they are generous in their time, patient in listening to another’s story and ensuring that individual feels heard; and they are generous in their laughter, taking great joy in the simple pleasures of life.
One moment of generosity that particularly stood out to me involved a seven-year-old boy we met during our first afternoon in Kampala. While we were enjoying a late lunch at Caffe Java, the restaurant staff brought out a large chocolate cake to the boy, who was celebrating his birthday with his family. After blowing out his candles, the boy cut the cake into multiple bite size pieces and began moving from table to table, offering peripheral restaurant patrons a bit of his dessert.
When the boy reached our group, it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted to share his cake with us. In the United States, we don’t give food off our table to strangers; such a gesture probably wouldn’t even occur to us. But here was this child, who did not have much, unselfishly giving up his cake for people he did not know, making sure that every one of us was fed. I couldn’t believe that a seven-year-old was capable of such love for his fellow human beings. It was a profoundly touching and humbling experience.
For the rest of our time here and beyond Backpack Journalism, I want to practice the same generosity that flows through the Africans’ hearts. I will work to offer more of myself to others, to give attention more than I receive it. And maybe one day, I will be able to emulate the same generous spirit as the boy who felt compelled to share food from his table.
It’s funny — I imagined that Uganda would change my heart, but I never expected to be moved so quickly.
My body clock is adjusted, I’ve gotten over the new bathroom arrangement, and we’ve moved past the days of afternoon breaks. This Uganda trip and the reason we’re here became much more real today as the team finally moved into our first filming session, working with JRS as we learned more about their programs, outlook, and grounds. Thanks to the wonderful outlook and background given by Kizaza and Father Kevin among others, the group got a lot of what I’m hoping is good b-roll and interview footage. I was very doubtful of one idea that continued to get repeated to us: the story will unfold when we get there. Instead, I chose to be nervous about my interview, of which I was running the very first one we did. However, when we actually started, I realized that everything would indeed work out and develop on its own.
I was really amazed by the work JRS continues to do for people of all regions around them, with what most would consider very limited circumstances. However, they navigate it well and continue to do great work with so many individuals. Tomorrow, we’ll return again to get more footage, interviews, and hopefully a greater understanding of what this project will do.
Disclaimer: this post is a little late and outdated. Due to spotty WiFi and the fact that I wrote most of this on a Delta napkin, I am publishing now.
After about a 26 hour travel journey, we have finally arrived in Entebbe, Uganda. There were definitely a wide range of stages of emotion during this 26 hours: exhaustion, delusion, fear, nervousness, excitement, optimism, and relief. While flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I started thinking about my own conception of time.
These 26 hours felt like the longest amount of time that I’ve engaged in one “activity”. I watched movie after movie, read page after page in my book and the time still passed painfully slow. Then I thought about how differently a 26 hour time period feels during the school year when I’m a student at Creighton. A 26 hour time period goes abnormally fast and usually I can’t fit in as much as I would like in a time frame that small. Life feels like it moves fast in some ways and then slow in others. Then once I whip out my handy phone calculator, I can average that my 20 years of life have accumulated to be around 175,200 hours. That’s a lot of hours but so many of them hold the greatest moments of myself, my experiences and my connections to others.
As this trip to Uganda adds about 432 hours to my life, the fraction seems small in comparison to the 175,200 I have already lived. However, I hope that these 432 hours prove to be eye-opening. I hope that they are challenging. I hope that I am ready for them. Time is something that we all have, but not something that we all use to the best of our ability. I have tried to use a chunk of the time I’ve had on this earth to challenge myself.
The week before we left for Uganda, we engaged in “video boot camp” at Creighton where we were given a crash course to gain a base knowledge for what we need to know about being videographers. At first I felt overwhelmed and, at times, like I was too far out of my comfort zone. But during our travel time, I realized that does not exist. Making this movie is something that I will be able to accomplish, and I will be able to do it with the best team around (26 hours of travel can really help with group bonding!). For the first time in my life that I will take on the role as a journalist, I hope that the narrative we are telling does justice to the truth.
Game time is now. I’m ready to have, what I hope will be, a rich 432 hours.
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.
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.
One of Paul’s letters stands out from the rest. Usually, his writings focus on reaching out to communities and churches which he has already been in contact with, and is reinforcing a teaching or giving advice. Romans wasn’t; instead, it was written before Paul arrived in Rome. It was meant to be a letter of introduction — the cover letter for his ministry to the Romans. Paul wanted to introduce himself and explain his ministry to the new church before his arrival.
This week, I started “boot camp” for Backpack Journalism, a program that has us traveling to Uganda to create a documentary about the ongoing refugee crisis that is happening at the edges. I’ve started learning bits and pieces about how to use a camera, and why I’m doing that completely wrong. This is my letter to the Romans.
Well, obviously this is a little less high minded, but this is my introduction and explanation to the ten of you that will probably read this blog for why I’m traveling to Uganda next week.
First of all, a little bit about me. I grew up in a town in the middle of nowhere in northwest
Iowa called Rock Rapids that has a lot of people that would be angry I called it a town in the middle of nowhere. I’m going to be a senior next fall at Creighton, and I’m studying theology and political science. Yay writing papers. I’m planning on pursuing a career in ministry (Reformed, not Catholic, so I can keep my Christian Mingle profile running).
So, why am I going to Uganda?
It’s an opportunity to experience a story that’s unique to Uganda and to be able to make that unique story something others can relate to and learn from in their own life. The way Uganda deals with refugees is something that is sure to be different from that of my own home communities here in the United States. There are things to be learned about how this small African country deals with the problems that face it and its neighbors. Things that can be learned, and brought back home.
Next to these experiences, I wish to be able to get better at that last part: bringing it back home. I believe God calls us to do justice, and there are few ways better to do that than advocating for those at the margins of our societies. I hope that this opportunity gives me the option to learn about film making and writing that will give me a better grasp and ability to share these experiences, and others like it in the future.
Finally, if this pastey white boy is ever going to get a tan, he’s going to need some high powered rays. My mother won’t let me stand shirtless in front of an open microwave, so I guess I’m going to have to do it the normal way that nature intended.
I look forward to the trip, and can’t wait to keep you all updated as it happens!
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
There are few things that bring back memories of my childhood quite like sitting down at the kitchen table in the early morning hours to read the local newspaper. From the time that I learned how to read, I was infatuated with the newspaper and would excitedly spring out of bed at 6:00 am on the dot in order to ensure that I had as much time as humanly possible to read about everything going on in the world around me before school. There were two sections of the newspaper that really stuck out to me – the sports and world news sections. By reading these two sections, I was able to experience all of the “important things” going on in the world without ever having to leave the comfort of my hometown situated snugly along the U.S. – Mexico border. In particular, stories about far off places with seemingly unpronounceable names in Asia and Africa captivated my imagination and filled me with curiosity. One day, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember telling my mother that I would go and visit these far off places and write stories about them as a journalist. I remember her just sort of chuckling about my constant comments about this dream. Nevertheless, I insisted that one day I would really visit these far off places and write about them as a journalist.
Fast forward a few years and suddenly my home snuggly situated along the U.S. – Mexico border and its sister city just across the Rio Grande were the center of the news stories that I loved to read. Witnessing these stories firsthand was completely different than reading about them. Corruption, poverty, rampant crime, and bloodshed became harrowing realities instead of far off issues that others had to deal with. With these horrors, my childhood innocence and almost everything that I had loved about my home disappeared.
Almost as quickly as these horrors descended upon my home along the U.S. – Mexico border, they disappeared without a trace. Even though they have disappeared from the the front pages of newspapers across the globe, the horrors of what took place never truly left my mind. Instead, they have left a lasting impact that has inspired me to truly be the change that I want to see in the world. These horrors have inspired me to strive for justice and to seek out ways in which I can bring justice about.
For me, the Backpack Journalism program represents a truly amazing way to bring about justice and awareness in the world that I live in. It allows me to tell the story of people living on the margins of society suffering from a violence much like that which struck my U.S. – Mexico border home. I truly feel that the way to end the world’s suffering is to highlight the issues faced by marginalized members of the human population. If more people are aware of the things plaguing human society, there are sure to be more people willing to go out and fight for justice and bring forth positive change. As a future journalist, Backpack Journalism offers me the opportunity to make a difference in the world around me by utilizing the skills of my future profession – while at the same time fulfilling my childhood dreams. That’s why I am participating in the Backpack Journalsim program.
I chose Backpack Journalism over traditional courses because I believe it offered experiences that are beyond the abilities of traditional learning and would enhance my life. I was attracted to backpack journalism because of the many things it had to offer. Some of the things that drew me into backpack journalism are gaining course credit while studying abroad, participating in the creation of a documentary from beginning to end with a group of individuals, experiencing another country, and adding to my current skill set. I learn best from hand on experience and cannot think of a better way to do that than through the participation of an actual project; the project location is an added bonus. I feel that graduating with ‘real world’ experience will help me in my future.
I am not entirely sure what I hope to gain from the experience. I assume that I will gain much more than I could possibly imagine at this point because I have never traveled outside of the United States. I am convinced that I will gain skills working with video, knowledge about the refugees in Uganda and a new perspective of the world. I have intentionally not considered what I want from the trip because I don’t know what to expect and I am more likely to embrace whatever happens by not having preconceived notions. I typically plan things out well in advance and this trip leaves me feeling like I am standing on the edge of a cliff. It is exciting and scary at times. I look forward to the experience: good, bad, and neutral.
It’s been a wild week. It’s included lots of late nights and early mornings, trying to listen and absorb seven hours of information a day, leaving the classroom with my head spinning and wondering how I ever survived high school without drinking a single cup of coffee.
I left the classroom this afternoon after a week of bootcamp with both a feeling of excitement and nervousness. One moment I’m ready to get on the flight, get to Alaska and start meeting the people; the next, I’m anxious about packing and embarking on a trip which will force me to step out of my comfort zone.
I touched on this in my last blog post, but I’m most excited about the chance to meet the Yup’ik people and learn about their culture and way of life. We’ve talked a lot this week about what we know about the Yup’ik. We know they treat nature and especially animals with a lot more respect than we often do. We have also talked about the people’s experience of cultural trauma, caused by an age of modernization and a desire to respect tradition. These conversations and topics have been interesting, and I’m excited to hear about them first hand.
I’m also thrilled to have the chance to be a part of a documentary film team and know at least a little about each aspect that goes into making a documentary. I’m so excited to work with our group. Each member has so much talent to bring to our project, and throughout this week we’ve become a little family.
With all the excitement comes a little fear. I’m nervous I have yet to pack, I’m nervous about squeezing everything into one big suitcase, and I’m nervous about living in a place for two weeks that I’ve seen once or twice on a map.
In terms of documentary film making, the video equipment terrifies me, even more so now that I’ve learned the basics of video in a matter of five days. I’m imagining a moment during this trip when we’ll have an interview to do and we’ll have to set up cameras and I’m going to forget how to focus the camera or set the shutter speed or f-stop. Luckily I’ve got a dozen other people who have my back.
Despite all my worries and fears, during our reflection today I heard some really good thoughts. Two graduates who had gone on previous Backpack Journalism trips came to sit in on our reflection. Matthew Dorwart went to Uganda on one of the Backpack trips, and his advice was to be present in the moment. We shouldn’t worry about what we’re doing tomorrow, or the 10 page paper we’ll have to write when we get back. Be present or we’ll miss out on the big and little moments, on the setbacks and breakthroughs.
Something that also struck me was Nico Sandi‘s reflection. He mentioned that it’s important for us to be respectful and keep in mind the community into which we are about to enter. We’re 20 (sometimes obnoxious and loud) students entering a community about which we know little, and they don’t know much more about us. Learning about the community and helping them tell their story is what is most important, the ultimate goal of this trip.
My goal is to keep an open heart, let the experience touch me, and pack as lightly as possible.