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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
Five weeks ago I walked into a room with 13 strangers in it. The majority were journalism majors and they were all older than me. I asked myself, “What are you doing here?” I had no idea that I would have an experience of a lifetime.
Now I have 13 new friends who I know I can always say hi to. Getting to know them as a group and on a personally level is one of my favorite things from the trip. I have gained confidence in my abilities to write and in being able to talk to strangers and not be shy.
I’ve learned so many things on this trip that I cannot share them all in this blog. The thing that will stick with me the most is the stories I heard in El Comedor. Before I went down to Nogales I thought of immigration as huge political mess, which it is, but now that I have faces and stories that factor into this mess I am on the side of allowing more migrants to seek asylum in America.
Being with the migrants made me the happiest. Hearing their stories was very moving and inspiring. They also made me think of how lucky I really am. Also they made me think how I can help in this large issue of immigration.
One thing that I will do differently based upon what I learned is to just live each moment like it’s my last. This trip was a true blessing to me and one I will never forget.
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.
After spending two whole weeks in Nogales, Arizona in our own house, we had reached our last day in town. It had been a blast staying in the same home as everyone else and getting to know each other through games of Mafia, Tenzie, and Golf/Trash, through the number of dances parties that were held on the patio and in the kitchen, and through working together on meals for everyone (we never cared about having too many cooks in the kitchen). We had all gone through so much together; through times of both physical and emotional stress, we were always there for one another and always supportive of each other. We heard so many different stories from migrants and activists alike, interviewed so many people, and captured so much b-roll that we were all exhausted by the very end of the trip.
So after weeks of grueling hard work, our last day was spent at Patagonia Lake in Nogales, Arizona, where we were able to relax before heading back to Homaha. The day was filled with swimming on the beach, ballet lessons, drone flying, good food, and great company. Even better was being able to end the day with a relaxing meditation session led by John, letting us completely unwind before going back to the house for the night. Despite the fact that people on the beach were laughing at us and commenting on how we looked creepy, all facing one direction with our eyes closed and our hands slightly raised, it was still a nice experience.
It was a great break for all of us to finish off our trip and leave on a lighter note, and I couldn’t think of a better way to mark the end of our journey.
My comfort zone is located in several odd locations: any rollercoaster, local coffee shop, or airplane.
However, you won’t find it anywhere near spicy food.
You won’t find it by a scorpion.
You definitely won’t find it behind a camera.
After two weeks of hanging out with all of the above, it felt incredible to be welcomed back with words.
I was in my element in Hitchcock 203. The satisfaction of seeing the story sprawled out on the surface was spectacular. (Side note: I love alliteration. Can you tell?) I loved collaborating with my teammates and organizing our hundreds of pages of material. It was much harder than expected to make the cuts; I wish our movie could be a day long, but I don’t know any film festivals with that requirement.
Overall, I loved reading the interviews again. That’s when I knew we had something special, when I was excited to read an interview that I already knew by heart. The writing team would shout out great quotes from the transcript they were reading and we would all comment on how much we adored it. Praise for our people became a regular pastime in that room. I hope… No, I know that we will make them proud.
I have a wonderfully excited feeling about this film and I cannot wait for you to watch it.
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.
With this year’s CU Backpack trip being my first, I was expecting a variety of different interviews and different outcomes. Our professors told us that in the past, some interviews had been flops and couldn’t really be used in the final cut of the documentary. However, every single person we interviewed on this year’s trip were absolutely stellar, without a single bad interview. And with these stellar views came some stellar quotes, as well. Here’s just a few of some of the most memorable ones for me:
“The only law is love your neighbor. Now you tell me how putting up a wall is loving your neighbor. You tell me how deporting women and children back to a place we know they will get killed is loving your neighbor. It may be loving yourself because you want to hold onto your things, but we are making decisions based on material things, not on human beings. And that is no way shape or form something that we cannot tolerate as American citizens.” – Father Peter Neeley, S.J.
“The wall that’s a few miles from here would not be there if there weren’t walls between our ears, all of our ears. We have walls. We’ve built walls. We don’t even know that they are there, cultural walls. And until those walls are taken down, the other ones won’t fall.” – John “Lil John” Heidt
“If you go along the wall and then you see it, it’s pretty ominous, right. It’s like a scar, it’s a step backwards in history, and it will one day be looked at by people and wonder what we were thinking. It represents the worst of us, our ignorance, our fear and our arrogance. That’s what it represents. And when you have those things, those are powerful.” – Isabel Garcia
“[The migrants] are people with dignity who deserve everything, it is just that evil that makes them feel they don’t have any rights. I am sure you have seen at the comedor that people come in with a certain face and they leave with another face. Being treated well as human beings with dignity really lifts their spirits.” – Sister Maria Engracia Robles Robles, M.E.
“What we try to teach people when they’re in the Comedor is actually because you are made in the image and likeness of God, have inherent dignity, as a human being you have dignity. Because of that dignity, you have certain rights. These aren’t rights that a government can give or take away, these are your rights because you are who you are, just because you were born, just because God created you.” – Joanna Williams
It’s a word that we learned on our very first day in Nogales. One of the Kino Border Initiative’s main goals is for groups to leave with an understanding of the complicated reality of migration. After two weeks on the border, I can’t imagine anyone leaving without complication packed in his or her baggage.
I thought I learned complication from the desert walk, our discussions with people who work on the border, Operation Streamline or the migrant’s stories, but I didn’t understand it until I got back home.
When my family asked what I learned, my mind went blank. I felt like every question, every frustration, every sign of hope was at the tip of my tongue but couldn’t escape; I had so much to say, but no way to say it.
That frustrating feeling was when I truly understood the layers of complication that migration carries. I always knew the layers were there and I uncovered even more during the trip, but to know and to understand are not the same thing.
I think this is part of Kino’s magic; they taught us as much as they could, but left the understanding for a later date.
Now that I truly understand, I am so thankful for the outlet of film.
Even though I often find myself frustrated and overwhelmed with migration’s level of complexity; knowing that there will be an epic film full of b-roll and sick edits, gives me relief.
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:
A lot of our days in Arizona started off very early, whether it be for getting b-roll or to get ready for the long day ahead of us. One day in particular, we were all out of the house we were staying in by 6 in the morning to take an early morning desert walk in Arivaca, Arizona, where we would walkfor two miles on the path that migrants take when they are traveling across the border.
During this walk, we were lead by our tour guide for the day, John Heidt, or as we lovingly called Lil John, who is an activist that works closely with the No More Deaths organization. Throughout the walk, he would give us information one why the route we were taking was a migrant route, and described the grueling journey most of them take to get to this point. We stopped to listen at some points, and even walked to a makeshift shrine made by migrants that had bottles and jugs of water for travelers to drink from. We ourselves left many bottles of water and several cans of food for anyone who would take the trail.
John spoke elegantly about the issue of migration to us and what these travelers go through to make it into the US. One of his statements that stuck with me throughout the trip was about how we, as Americans, tend to have borders in our ears, and unless we take those walls down, we cannot take down the actual wall. I spent a lot of time during the trip reflecting on that particular quote, and understanding that our ultimate goal of the trip was to, in fact, help take down some of those cultural walls through the final product of our documentary.
While it was only two miles, it took us about 4 hours to get through the trip, and all of us were completely exhausted by the end of it; and this was only an insignificantly small fraction of the length that migrants who cross the border have to travel. It gave me a slightly better understanding of the hell migrants have to trek through, albeit a very small example of that. It made the drive back to our house much more reflective, trying to imagine walking all the miles that we drove out there to Arivaca. I guess you really can’t understand what others go through until you walk a mile, or a few hundred, in their shoes.
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.