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 experience as a whole, ever since we met the first time even during the school year right up to the last time we met on Thursday at John’s house, has been an experience I’ll certainly never forget. There have been an innumerable amount of moments during this journey that will likely have a lasting impact on me and the way I carry myself in my everyday life. This experience was one that gave me a sense of fulfillment.
For starters, I had absolutely zero experience or confidence in myself dealing with camera settings or video editing. After this project, I’ve armed myself with at least some knowledge of how to go about not only filming things in the first place, but also organizing the video afterward, which has also shown me that I really enjoy it. Running the interview questions were also a task I really enjoyed doing.
Being able to see all the different aspects of Uganda that we did was also something that I’m grateful for. From the city conditions to churches to the schools and the extensive open space, the experience of truly surveying what this country was like and how it was different from what I know helped me form a better perspective of the world. Like I mentioned before, I had never been outside the country farther than Canada or Mexico. This trip did a lot for me in terms of both affirming my thoughts and also changing some of my views on what a region like Uganda would truly be like. Visiting many different areas of the country and being able to see it was special.
While I had so many experiences and was armed with a lot of knowledge during our trip, it can be hard to figure out how to do something with what I saw and heard. After much thought, I believe the best thing I can do back at home is involve myself with refugee situations, and come ready to discuss the topic backed with facts. Refugees are often a hot topic in the United States for obvious reasons. Getting to not only see but talk with just a few of them in Uganda gave me a first-hand look at where they’re coming from, what their goals are, and what their lives are really like. I owe it all to this trip. I’ll never forget it.
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.
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.
Yesterday was unique because we had the entire afternoon and evening to just do whatever we pleased. Everyone took a different approach to exploring Bethel, but once night fell, we were all pretty exhausted from our week of activities. Around 10:30 PM, AKA right as I was about to go to bed, Tony and Nichole announced that they were going on a sunset walk. Naturally, sleep became unimportant and several of us tagged along.
The sunset was unbelievable. Casting the most gorgeous rays across the sky, I felt like we were walking directly into the sun itself. As night began to fall, the sky became a canvas of purple, pink and blue brush strokes. Blending into a masterpiece right before our very eyes, I couldn’t help but feel the magic of this town.
On our walk back though, I was heavily reminded of the real reason we’re here. Three children, ages roughly 16, 12 and 8, the first of which I had met earlier that day, walked us back to the Church. We were talking and getting to know each other, each parties equally interested in the lifestyle of the other. We asked the oldest how late she normally stays out, and she responded with 2 or 3 AM. Naturally we asked how late she sleeps in and she responded with, “about 1 PM; my mom usually is drinking by then. Not my dad though.” And the youngest told us that he is already chewing tobacco. Heartbreaking.
We’ve all had such an amazing trip so far, but it’s easy to forget that despite how many native people we connect with, our trip is not the reality of life here in Bethel. People are struggling with poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, historical trauma and trying to live a life based on subsistence and culture despite the pressure to change to the western way of thinking.
It’s like sleeping with masks on to block out the sun. We’re able to dream of wonderful things and focus on the beauty while ignoring the painful reality around us.
One thing that I will never be able to explain is my temporary shift from night owl to early bird while in Uganda.
My mornings in Uganda typically included the eager crows of roosters as my own personal alarm clock, misty fog in the distance, and a nice piece of bread with honey and fresh fruit. Back in the United States, morning is usually a stressful whirl of figuring out what I need to accomplish in the day. In Uganda, my mornings were the least stressful time of day because for that small period of time, I was not worried.
It was a refreshingly calm period of time amidst our hectic and often unpredictable schedule of events
Marcus Aurelius said, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” There are few moments in the United States that I have ever dedicated to appreciating the simple fact that I am alive. However, the thought crossed my mind each and every morning I spent in Uganda.
I found myself waking up even earlier than necessary just to spend more time sitting with my breakfast and taking a minute just to breathe. I didn’t worry about what we needed to film that day, how long we needed to be on the bus, or even which day of the week it was. For that short period of time, I let myself just be. I embraced the minimal number of bugs in the air and welcomed the warm sunshine on my face.
Morning begins every new day and every new day should be celebrated.
To say this trip has been an emotional roller coaster would not only be slightly cliche, it would be an understatement. It’s more like the roller coaster broke down while we were upside down…then it started to pour rain. I’ve seen the pain in people’s eyes behind their smiles, the harsh and unfair conditions in which much of this world lives, and unimaginable suffering. I’ve been overwhelmed, impatient, and frustrated. There’s been times when I just wished I could pause the world long enough to gather my thoughts, but someone pushes fast forward instead.
During our reflection a few nights ago, Dr, O’Keefe said, “You all came here for a reason.” And we did. I did. I was not entirely sure for the majority of this trip (hence the awkward “Meet Gabby” video, there’s a reason I spend my time behind the camera) and I don’t think I will ever be able to reach a definite conclusion, but I’m getting there. I know I brought the mood down in that opening paragraph, but sometimes you have to be overwhelmed to understand and to feel weak to discover strength.
I’ve seen the power of giving, the power of forgiveness, and the power of kindness. I’ve laughed, danced, sang, and smiled. I came here to remind myself who I am, what I want to do, and where I want to go. So yes, these have been two of the most emotionally tolling and challenging weeks of my life, but they have also been two of the best. I’ve had the opportunity to experience a new culture filled with generosity and a welcoming spirit, pretend to be a famous filmmaker with my fancy camera, and learned to appreciate all that I have in my life. Not to mention, I’ve formed new friendships with all the students and teachers on this trip, but I am sure I will dedicate an entire blog to them later.
I can’t believe it’s our last night in Uganda and that I will be on a plane in just about 24 hours. It’s all happened so fast, yet when I look back at it I feel like I have been here for months. I may be ready to go home, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to leave Uganda. Then again, Uganda has earned a special place in my heart so it’s not really going anywhere.
Keep on keepin’ on
“Don’t let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert.” –Albert Schweitzer