Several thousand middle and high school students, undergrads and graduate students, were immersed in the worlds of Haiti post-earthquake, former child soldiers in Liberia, and families in northern Afghanistan last week as the Pulitzer Center's Global Gateway program made its way through St. Louis with journalists Anna Badkhen and Andre Lambertson.
In classrooms with as few as ten and auditoriums with as many as 300, from Clayton, IL to Carbondale, MO, Badkhen and Lambertson presented rarely-seen views of family life in conflict zones in more than 20 schools and universities.
Drawing from many months living among a family of 30 near Mazar-e-Sharif, Badkhen explained in detail the pressures facing ordinary Afghans, from unreliable electrical power and drinking water to failed schools to persistent droughts.
"Afghanistan has been at war since the beginning of recorded time," Badkhen pointed out. Yet its social fabric is strong and enduring, a fact that surprised many of the students.
An undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, echoing an observation made frequently during the week, asked whether it was difficult to work among the "fractured societies" of Haiti and Afghanistan.
Badkhen challenged the students to re-examine their preconceptions of life on the ground in Afghanistan, explaining how her host family worked together to provide for itself, sharing water-gathering, cooking, and cleaning duties and abiding despite the dangers and privations that come with war.
Many students also wondered whether Badkhen found herself at a disadvantage as a woman reporting in a conservative Islamic society. "I cannot tell you for sure, because there is not another version of myself who has tried to do this as a man," Badkhen joked, quickly adding that in fact she was allowed more access because she is a woman. A Western male journalist, Badkhen noted, would find it almost impossible to speak to women in most Afghan households. She has been permitted to speak freely to both men and women.
Lambertson's photographs, taken over more than a dozen visits to Haiti and months in Liberia, brought students into the lives of real people caught up in crises that are too often presented as faceless tragedies. He told the story of a preacher with HIV, who despite his illness traveled widely among the tent cities near Port-au-Prince to provide counseling and support, of a teenage girl who works to support her disabled aunt, of a young man who has put down his gun and picked up a camera.
Students often lined up to speak to the journalists individually after the presentations, asking them how they started in their work, what a typical day was like in Mazar-e-Sharif or Port-au-Prince, and what the future prospects were for people in the areas covered. They also frequently asked for advice on becoming a professional journalist.
"You need to support each other," advised Lambertson, who then joined in a group hug of McKinley High School students. (Video clip below)
The theme of "Women and Children in Crisis" helped to unify the journalists' diverse reporting, and provided students a consistent lens through which to examine their materials. Although wars and natural disasters affect the most vulnerable disproportionately, the journalists helped students see that societies are interconnected, and that the circumstances of women and children should not be discussed without some inclusion of men as well.
While the work was often difficult emotionally, the journalists strove to show the students how much they had in common with the people in the reporting. "Joy still exists in these ravaged areas of poverty and starvation and war," wrote a student from Hixson Middle School in Webster, after seeing Lambertson's presentation.
"Mr. Lambertson's work, even though it's often very sad, makes him keep trying to be a better and better person," said another middle school student.
The Pulitzer Center seeks educators and schools interested in partnering with us to expand our reach. We are eager to further develop the student reporting component, working with schools and after-school programs to raise awareness of these issues. Global Gateway resources are also adaptable to general public and community events. To request more information, please contact globalgateway(at)pulitzercenter.org