By Robert Joiner
Nerinx Hall High School in comfortable Webster Groves is miles away -- a world away -- from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But on Tuesday night, crises unfolding there came a little bit closer to home.
Inside a auditorium at Nerinx, three journalists told a hushed audience of mostly students about their work on women and children in crisis, all funded or commissioned by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The center's mission is to shed public light on events occurring under the radar of most media.
Two of the journalists told the audience stories of innocent, impoverished Nepalese girls becoming virtual slaves to help their families make ends meet and of the hard but heart-felt life in destabilized villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape has become a weapon of war. And they also learned how some journalists are becoming the story -- in Iraq, for example, where one of the journalists recounted the difficulties and dangers of reporting in a country where she is looked upon as the enemy even by some members of her own family.
Joining the Pulitzer Center in its work in St. Louis is Civitas Associates, whose mission is to inform young people about world issues. Arthur H. Lieber of Civitas likened last night's presentations to learning about the Civil War by "turning back the clock and talking to journalists who were there. You'd be able to talk to people, question them, challenge them. It's no longer just something passed along. This is very real, and that's one of the critical values of this program."
Tuesday's night program combined first-hand accounts by the journalists, video presentations and interaction between the journalists and the audience. The session was so engaging that some students stuck around for an hour after the session ended to continue their conversations with the reporters.
The Pulitzer Center and Civitas are sponsoring events at several schools, public and private, in St. Louis this week. The center's work began in St. Louis but has since expanded to schools in other cities. In addition to the presentations, students are encouraged to explore material on the Pulitzer Center's website, to write essays, and to research issues, such as violence against women in their own communities, to learn whether the local problems mirror or differ from those covered by journalists working on stories underwritten by the Pulitzer Center.
The center's director and founder is Jon Sawyer, who won several Overseas Press awards when he worked in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau. As if to underscore the value of the Pulitzer Center's work, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation awarded its 2009 prize for best international reporting on television to Michael Kavanagh, one of the journalists at Tuesday night's session. The reporting on which the award was based was commission by the Pulitzer Center. Kavanagh teamed up with WorldFocus for his report on rape as a weapon of war in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The pieces came together because Kavanagh and videographer Taylor Krauss of WorldFocus happened to be in the same strife-ridden African country as fighting intensified last fall. Sawyer marvels at how rapidly the technology is evolving to make projects like this one happen. Big name commercial and cable TV outlets competed for the Kennedy award. Yet the prize was won by people with next to no experience in video and by a video organization, WorldFocus, that began as an experiment less than a year ago.
Kavanagh said Tuesday that he was proud to be part of those seeking to enlighten the world about events ranging from genocide in Rwanda to the plight of women and children in Congo.
Meredith May, a San Francisco Chronicle feature writer, echoed those comments. May reported the moving story of 83-year-old Olga Murray, a woman from Sausalito, CA, who founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation that rescues young girls from domestic servitude.
Destitute farm families are paid about $75 for allowing their daughters to work as live-in "kamlari" servants in the homes of higher-caste families. Once they are servants, the girls reportedly have no protection from rape and other forms of abuse. May reports that Murray offers parents a pig or a goat -- worth more than $75 -- for promising not to allow their daughters to become servants.
In some instances, May reports, Murray also pays the $100 fee to allow the girls to attend school.
The third journalist, Alaa Majeed, said that her story became as much about her own personal plight as her work as a reporter in Iraq. She told of having to overcome sexism and death threats as she tried to do her job as a journalist. Even some members of her own families considered her a spy and disapproved of her work. She eventually became an exile, obtained a green card and now lives in the United States.
She said the American presence has destabilized Iraq, creating refugees, causing males in households to be detained, leaving families without breadwinner and forcing women in some instances to turn to prostitution, theft and other crimes to support their children.
Among those in the audience were Drew Jennings, a Parkway South teacher.
"It's really hard growing up in the middle of America to understand the power of culture," he says. "Having access to the experience of journalists covering events can help us understand culture and help us understand why we care or don't care about issues. There are lots of things that we can learn from these presentations."
Maureen Orbe, who attended the session with her daughter, Shannon, said the presentation offered St. Louisans a way to become connected with others around the world. She says her family seeks to expose the children to many world events, and that the presentation gave her and her daughter, a Nerinx student, a frame of reference. They can "go home and talk about the issues."
After last night's presentation, Sawyer told the students that the stories demonstrated that a "change of attitudes is always possible when you take ownership of the issues."