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.
While we were in Uganda, toward the end of the trip we would often mention how we wouldn’t be able to process the trip until after we got back. Interviewing, trying to get b-roll, it was stressful, it took time, and often made us less present in events then we would have liked.
Transcribing, then reading back and trying to organize the story for our documentary has really been the processing. There are many interviews that I wasn’t around to listen to, people whose stories I wasn’t around to hear. There were images and things that I wasn’t around to capture. Coming back, I’ve been able to see these things, along with review what I already knew.
There’s so much.
Lewi, Sr. Rebecca, the girls at St. Mary’s, and others I never got to hear their full stories. I had heard the spark notes version at best during the trip, but coming back to transcribe them I learned of the senseless bombings and killings in Uganda, of the plight of young women and child brides.
I had shot b-roll of a guard understanding that he was important at the school, but understanding little else about it. He had seemed a little suspicious with us there, and generally like he didn’t want us to be there bothering him. I remember leaving feeling a little confused to why we needed to bother him.
I found out while transcribing Sr. Rebecca that men commonly came to the school and posed as relatives of the girls so they could get the one they had bought as a child bride. I found out that some of the girls had specifically said that the presence of this guard helped them to feel safe. I found out that men had even showed up that morning and had been turned away.
It made a lot more sense why we were bothering him after that.
The entire process of editing has helped to bring context and understanding into my experience of Uganda, and it has also helped to put pressure on the necessity to make sure that others will be able to understand this experience.
It will be interesting to see how we can come down to do that in a 20 minute film, and if it will truly help people to understand and respond in a way that’s appropriate.
It’s been a weird return to the United States. The first news that I received after plugging in my phone at the Minneapolis airport was that my grandfather had died early that morning. In a lot of ways, my experience since has been trying to make sense of two tragedies: The larger humanitarian crisis happening in Uganda with the refugees and the stories I had heard from them, and my own more personal tragedy with the death of my grandfather.
Both of these events really deserve to be looked at separately. There is nothing that should link them besides my timing and proximity to them. They are independent tragedies.
Yet, it’s impossible for me to separate them. In processing my grief with the one, the other always found its way in, forcing me to process both almost together. That’s why I feel I need to talk about both together, and don’t think I can simply explain how I’ve felt since my arrival back in the United States.
I know that I’m nowhere close to having processed either and will probably spend a lot of time thinking about this experience throughout the rest of the summer.
Ultimately, the best way I can put my feelings right now is that I feel weird. There’s some guilt, lots of sadness, a little bit of disillusion. Guilt, for where we’ve left countries like Uganda, for not having been there at the end of my grandfather’s life. Disillusioned with death, with the capacity of humanity to do good, and whether if there is that much good.
We often talk about reducing the suffering of humanity. Many of the places where Christian theology intersects with politics and sociology tends to focus on ways of making a so called “Kingdom of God.”
Yet, it’s difficult to think about an end to suffering when it’s so prevalent in life, or to even imagine a place in which it ends. In Uganda, suffering is prevalent anywhere that you look. In the United States, we have done a lot to reduce suffering, yet it would be hard for me to say that my mother or grandmother or the rest of my family wasn’t suffering. It’s disheartening to think that despite all we have done, there is still prevalent suffering here, and that there is virtually nothing we can do about this suffering. Death remains inevitable, and the people that are left behind after will always feel the passing.
Today, we ended the last of our pre-trip preparations. We distributed camera equipment for carry ons, printed and made sure we all had our documents together, threw in a little ecclesiology, made some super impressive b-roll, threatened us a couple of times in there about not forgetting camera stuff at home, and then we all got together to reflect on how we all felt about all that.
A little tense, John. But also excited. My current line of thought is relating it to the first day of kindergarten, but if kindergarten could be 3,000 miles away from your parents instead of three blocks, and lasted eighteen days instead of eight hours. There is a definite chance it could change my life, and lot’s of ways it could go wrong.
So, essentially, how my first day of kindergarten felt when I was actually in kindergarten.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that’s exactly where I want to be right now. There’s a subtle enjoyment I find in not knowing what’s going to happen. I feel like it’s an environment that I thrive inside. Just letting life kind of push you where it wants you can bring you into a lot of situations you wouldn’t find if you tried to push it around. I seem to be spacing out and unaware of what’s going on in the first place, so when everyone is on that level I’ve got a step up on them. I know what I’m doing, in a weird way in which I absolutely don’t.
It’s an attitude that I hope serves me well in the airport.
Also throughout the rest of Uganda.
But I don’t want that to fall into a comfort. This should be a challenging experience, and it’s important to remember that. Uganda is different from my day to day life, and there should be things that make me uncomfortable, and not just from having to sleep in an airplane seat. So that’s in some way what I’m really hoping for on this trip, to be uncomfortable.
Gross, that’s cheesy. Not a fan of that line. I’m finna end on that, so you can all feel uncomfortable with me in the name of solidarity. May you all feel a discomfort.
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.
I think the best way to describe the way this experience altered me is by what something Nico said during our final reflection. He said something to the effect of “We’re not just putting names and faces to the issue, we’re putting real, actual people to the issue,” and he could not have been more right.
It wasn’t just seeing these issues firsthand that got to me, it was learning about these issues and then meeting and become friends with the people these issues affect that really changed me I think.
And I’ve said this a million times, but I think it’s so special and so important that we have the ability to share these stories and these people with an audience. I think that’s an incredibly powerful tool and has led me to appreciate and love journalism and all its many facets and capabilities so much more than I already did.
As far as the issue itself, I think the biggest thing is that it makes me wonder what else is out there that I don’t know or that is so largely misunderstood. It just blows my mind that all of this is happening right under our noses and people, including myself, have been able to remain so ignorant about it. Again, I think that makes me appreciate the importance of journalism and makes me want to discover and share more.
It also blows my mind, from a political standpoint that there’s such a lack of knowledge. I would love to see politicians visit Kino and look at these issues firsthand before passing policy and legislation. This is an issue that cannot be resolved from afar, because the bottom line is that things aren’t working because there isn’t a concrete enough understanding of what the issues are.
I guess, to that extent, I find myself getting frustrated by our political system and by the backwards structuring of it all. But overall I think this trip has helped me understand how incredibly powerful journalism can be.
On Tuesday, May 31st, we went to the Tucson courthouse. Carol and John told us that this would be for our personal learning experience rather than something that would be in our film. Our field trip took us to Operation Streamline.
I won’t bore you with the facts that you can lookup online, but I want to tell you about my experience.
This was my first time being inside a courthouse. Of course I have seen some courts while binge watching Law and Order. But this was my first time physically being in a courthouse. I read through a Most Wanted list while I waited outside the courtroom. Freaky.
When I walked into the courtroom, I could smell the stench of sweat and filth. I could hear the sound of chains in a never ending chorus. As I looked around, I saw rows on rows of people chained by their feet, waist, and ankles.
I sat down next to my partner in crime, A.J., and we made eye contact and shared a brief smile, not knowing what we we were about to witness. I don’t know what came over me, but before anything had even started, tears were streaming down my face. I looked over to A.J again and he whispered, “Already?!” We both laughed a little and he offered to go get me Kleenex but the trial was about to start.
All of the migrants had headphones in so that they could hear the translator who repeated the judges words in Spanish.
As I listened to the judge, I understood most of what he was saying, but was left confused for various parts. I thought back to being told that many Mexicans do not even have an eighth grade education. If I could barely understand with my advanced education, I couldn’t imagine trying to understand the court system of a foreign country. The judge asked them if they didn’t understand to stand up. I wanted to stand up. But like them, I was paralyzed with the fear of looking stupid, out of place, like I didn’t belong.
The judge asked them to raise their hand if their ear pieces weren’t working, but their hands were chained.
One lawyer asked the judge if her clients could go first as she had places to be.
Migrants went up, five by five, to answer questions.
A woman went up, head down. When the Judge asked her if she was a US citizen, she let out a regretful sigh and answered no.
My heart sank as more tears ran down my cheeks.
I heard the judge list cities of where these people had crossed. I heard Nogales. I heard Sassabe. I heard Tuscon. All places that we had been and had become familiar with. All places where I couldn’t imagine being out in the desert for more than a morning.
After each set of migrants had individually answered the judges questions, they were sent out of the courtroom. I saw their faces and thought of all the people I had interacted with at the Comedor. People I had danced with, laughed with, played games with, talked to, the stories I had heard. It all came back.
I felt as if I was in a some sort of nightmare.
When I came back to the realization that this was real life, I noticed I hadn’t stopped crying. I also realized that it had been over an hour since the trial had started. I looked around and saw that I was the only one crying in the entire room. I felt like a fool.
We left about halfway through the list of migrants. A lawyer came out and asked us if we had questions. Yes, I had questions but I didn’t know where to begin.
The question that I was able to formulate was why they couldn’t say that they were seeking asylum from the drug wars going on or that their families were starving back home.There had to be another way, right? Instead of having criminal charges put on your record and being sent to jail?
His answer kind of confused me. It was something along the lines of it would be a different process, in a different court and there wouldn’t be enough evidence.
Someone else in the group asked how often he sees the same people getting charged again. This time his answer was crystal clear. “It depends on how hungry their families are or the condition that they are in, whether or not it’s safe.”
I cried much of the way home and during the reflection that we did once we were home. After what seemed like eternity, I took a nap, hoping that my dreams would be more peaceful than what I had just experienced.
I wish I could just take a nap and when I wake up, my troubles and the troubles of my brothers and sisters would have perished. But sadly, that’s not the way things work and I’m still trying to figure out why things are the way they are.
When talking about the border it is easy to turn it into a conceptual political issue. However, there are so many people living this reality and they are the ones who make this issue so compelling. They are the ones who humanize this issue. These are some of the people we met…
Jim and Sue own the Chilton ranch in Arizona. This is a 50,000-acre ranch. Jim, in 2003, won the title ‘Rancher of the Year’ and has testified in front of Congress six times. Sue, spent five years on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Jim and Sue are a ranching power couple.
I went with the first group, with Jim, to set up the interview at the ranch. We quickly learned Jim was a jokester. On our way into the ranch, with a while to drive still, Jim pulls over, saunters up to our van and says he is glad we made it through all the congestion. We were in rural Arizona and had not seen a single car on the drive. He then immediately, walks back to his truck and we finish the drive to his home. Jokes like this continued throughout the day.
Jim and Sue’s house was beautiful. Honestly, like no other house I have ever seen. The master bedroom was circular room made of 16 windows, which Jim designed himself. In the foyer of their house sat a stuffed cougar. Jim told us the day he got the cougar he placed it in the door to scare Sue when she came home.
Jim referred to Sue as Super Sue, and it is apparent why. Sue was buzzing around whether she was preparing and cleaning up the potluck at the church, leading the choir, getting ready for the interview, or just making us feel at home. It was clear Sue rarely stopped moving. Sue couldn’t be more than a couple inches over five foot and wore bright blue cowboy boots. This couple was just so genuine a few times throughout the day I had to remind myself I was not meeting my own grandparent’s friends in rural Iowa.
I talked to a man for only a couple minutes after church in Arivaca, Arizona (a small town), but I managed to find out he was originally from Sioux City. Sioux City is a small town in Iowa my grandma was from. This was a nice reminder how small the world really is.
Father Neeley is a Jesuit who led us around Nogales for a couple of days. He has a commanding bass voice, a full white beard, mustache, and a cowboy hat. He learned Spanish in his 30s over a bottle of alcohol and before working at the Kino Border Initiative he was a professor of marketing. He taught a class about wine marketing because of his connections in the wine industry and was the faculty advisor for one of the school’s fraternities. I do not think I have seen such pure excitement as when Father Neeley got to see the drone fly in rural Arizona.
We were given a tour of Nogales, Mexico by a lawyer and his historian friend these two would contradict and passive aggressively argue about the real history of Nogales. One would tell one story and then the other would explicitly tell us all that the other was wrong, then telling us his version of the historical event. This went on until we were late for our dinner reservation and had to say goodbye.
John was our tour guide on the desert walk. He had long white hair, shorts, and sandals. He was a Quaker and the most peaceful person I have ever met. He quickly climbed a rock wall, told stories of casual conversations with border control, and slyly dropped that he had to be back in Minnesota for a court date due to a protest he had participated in. The most telling encounter I had with John is when he told us that shoes were optional on our desert hike. The desert hike was filled with cactus, thorny bushes, and we walked on gravel, yet shoes were only recommended.
We went to Saguaro National Park where we met Cecil and Carol. Cecil was an Arizona biologist who studied the horticulture and amphibians in the park. Carol used to be an editor at National Geographic, yet sat back and let Cecil have his moment as he informed us about all the wildlife in the park, which included instructions on getting high by licking the backs of frogs.
Father Neeley and Ivan a Jesuit in training (which is not the official title) came over to dinner one night. With them was a man who casually mentioned, half way through dinner, his career as a UN ambassador. He then retired to work in the Vatican before actually retiring to his new home in Spain. He worked in Pakistan, Bosnia during the war, Geneva, Spain, and the list goes on. He worked in the Vatican and told us about his nice photo with the pope. He shared stories of his time in Europe and Africa over pizza sitting in a plastic Adirondack chair.
We ended up going through border checkpoints almost every day. Every experience at these checkpoints was a little bit different. However, the best experience I had at one of these checkpoints was just quintessentially Midwest. Our vans had Creighton University printed on the side. On seeing this a border control agent from another lane jogs up to our car and tells us he is also from Nebraska. We small talk about why we are in Arizona and our mutual knowledge of the somewhat small town he was from.
Ultimately, the people we met on the border were why this trip was such a good experience. They helped add complexity and a human face to this highly politicized issue.
There are no easy solutions to immigration. There are issues in every sector and across both sides of the border. The corruption that is the immigration system means that we are far from having a solution.
I can walk away from this project saying that I still don’t understand everything there is to know about immigration. Some of the questions I’m left with include:
I need to know why we have not had immigration reform before this. I need to know why we are constantly seeking the most simplistic answers to the most difficult questions. I need to know why we cannot band together when we clearly know the wrong of something, but refuse to do anything about it.
I am deeply concerned about my beautiful and wonderful country turning into one I am no longer proud to live in by those who wish to turn us back in time to “ greed is good.”
I can only hope those dearest to me will not drop the ball, but fight for the rights of all who are here to live in this land and respect the people who have come here for a better life.
This experience has drastically changed what I thought about immigration. I went in thinking one thing and left with thinking another.
I encourage whoever is reading this blog to educate themselves on immigration. It is a very real situation that is happening right outside. Seek out sources and individuals that challenge your current way of thinking.
The biggest fear people have when it comes to immigration from Mexico is that we are letting criminals and drugs stream over the border. To a fairly large extent, this is true. The problem comes with our government’s inability to separate the drug trade from people who are crossing to escape violence and reunite with their families. Because this distinction is not made, all Mexican migrants are essentially treated the same. People often ask why migrants can’t simply cross the border legally. There is a 20 year waiting list for Mexicans to get a visa, even though immigration into the U.S. is actually the lowest it’s been in 50 years. Waiting 20 years is probably not a viable option for immigrants fleeing from violence, or trying to get to the family they’ve been separated from. So, all migrants are forced to cross illegally. Many of these illegal immigrants carry drugs across the border. Border security has been increasingly heightened and militarized, making it harder than ever for migrants to safely make their way into the United States. So, these migrants have very few options. This is where the cartel comes in. They know the border and the surrounding areas extremely well. They are able to successfully go back and forth across the border with no problem. In this way, they become many migrant’s only hope. Migrants pay thousands of dollars to cross the border under the cartel’s protection. This means more revenue for the cartel and more backs to load their supplies of drugs onto. Essentially, by making the border inaccessible to anyone, we are causing migrants to aid in the very practice that we fear most about immigration: criminality and drug smuggling.
This knowledge and this frustration that I have developed over the course of this trip is what makes this trip different from any experience I’ve ever had. It was such an intense few weeks of learning and growth that led to so much understanding about the complications and misconceptions of the issues at hand and I don’t think I could have found that anywhere else.