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Binghampton

From a summer in Memphis.

I remember the last time I stolled the streets of Binghampton. I was in high school on my fourth mission trip with Service Over Self (SOS). My church group and I had crossed the state line to spend a week serving in one of the most well-known, and also one of the poorest, neighborhoods in Memphis. I remember looking at our homeowner’s house for the last time as our van pulled away, taking a moment to admire the new shingles that would now keep the home safe and dry.

I remember this feeling. Kind of that inner swell you feel when your dad smiles at you after your team won a softball game or when you walk across the stage at your high school graduation and feel the joy of your family and friends pushing you forward. It was kind of like that, but I don’t think it was pride in a job well done. No, I think that emotion I felt driving away from a community that is being revitalized shingle by shingle comes from the knowledge I, in a small way, helped further a mission far bigger than myself.

Tomorrow, I’ll find myself on the sidewalks of Binghampton again. I’ll be one of 45 college students working full time at SOS this summer, a job I have been dreaming of since junior high. I’ll be working on one house and with one homeowner in the Binghampton community throughout the summer to transform the neighborhood and empower the people in it.

I still can’t believe they hired me. I’m incredibly nervous. But I also feel that same swell again. You see, Binghampton is a broken spot right in the heart of Memphis. It has been for a while. But SOS and others who feel the call are working with the community to change that. Sure, this summer I’ll be working to give someone in Binghampton a roof that doesn’t leak, windows that aren’t broken and a foundation that won’t shake. But more than that, I’ll be putting all I am into one small part of this beautiful, incredibly large picture that’s unfolding.

By building relationships with the people of Binghampton, I get the amazing opportunity to help them revitalize their community. In return, they and everyone I encounter through SOS will teach me more about humility, faith and hope than I have ever learned. I’m incredibly blessed to call Binghampton my home for the summer. I can’t wait to walk on those streets come tomorrow.

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Shoe-leather reporting and Girl Scout cookies

I just watched the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” because, obviously, that’s how I de-stress right before finals week.

I followed Woodward and Bernstein as they met with officials in florescent lit parking garages and drank tea with sources on the stoops of their houses. And something struck me. Instead of instantly dialing a phone number or sending an email, how many times this semester did I actually get my butt out of newsroom and go, you know, be a reporter? The answer – not near enough.

So, I changed that this week. The education team at the Columbia Missourian has been working on a huge eBook project about the soon-to-open Battle High School (it’ll be publishing soon, so keep an eye out). For our reporting to be as well-rounded as possible, we needed to gather the perspective of folks living near Battle. Sounds easy enough, right?

And thus my adventures in shoe-leather reporting began. It was a sunny Monday afternoon when I pulled into one of the neighborhoods right across from Battle. I was ready. I was channeling my inner Woodward and Bernstein. I was going to get some people to talk to me. It was going to be great.

I bounded up the stairs to the first house, pulled out my reporter’s notebook, flipped to a new page and pressed the doorbell. Here we go! … And there went my first notch of confidence. Because no one came to the door. I took a few seconds, paused for that last just-in-case moment, and hopped over to the next house. Ding-dong. I strained to hear life behind the door. There was some rustling and I swear I saw a man lift up the shades. Hope stirred anew. I prepared my “Hi, I’m a reporter from the Columbia Missourian” speech. Except, again, no one answered the door. The same thing happened after the next three doorbells I rang. My confidence was now trotting right alongside my shoes.

Finally, I approached a red brick house with the front door slightly opened. This was a perfect senario. They can’t hid behind an open door, and they certainty can’t ignore me.  I slowly eased my way up the steps with caution, hiding my notebook behind my back (I had decided that made me look too threatening). I knocked timidly, swinging the door open a little further. A women was standing in the living room, holding a cigarette in one hand and folding laundry with the other.

“Excuse me ma’am,” I start off, about to get to my please-talk-to-me-I’m-a-reporter bit.

But then she interrupted me.

“Aren’t you done selling those?” she asked, her head cocking to the side in a kind of amused annoyance.

“Uhhmggggm,” is essentially what I respond with, before recovering a little bit and asking, “Am I selling….what?”

“I thought you girls were done selling cookies by now,” she says, taking a step closer to the door.

And it all clicks. She thinks I’m a Girl Scout, selling Girl Scout cookies. Apparently, I’m not a 20-year-old education reporter (And let me tell you, I thought I was dressed pretty professionally). No. I’m actually 12-years-old with a wagon full of cookies somewhere behind me. Remember how I said my confidence was at ground level? This woman just dug a 6-foot hole.

My response at this point was either to laugh or to cry, so of course I laughed. I collected myself, climbed on out of that hole and ended up having a really great conversation with this lady about the impact Battle has had on her neighborhood.

So, here’s my conclusion: Shoe-leather reporting is hard. It’s awkward. There’s a reason journalists nowadays are so much more comfortable hiding behind phone lines and emails. But if I let the fear of getting out there and approaching people get to me, I’m just chained to a newsroom. That’s not the reason I wanted to become a journalist. I love meeting people and hearing their stories, even the ones that mistake me for a 12-year-old cookie-pusher.

If I had stayed in my little newsroom bubble, I would have never heard about how this lady has been living in that house since Battle construction started. I would have never found the excitement in her eyes when she talked about seeing the Friday night football lights from her front yard. I would have never heard the joy in her voice when she talked about the neighborhood kids walking just a few yards to school instead of riding a dirty, hot bus.

So, here’s to getting ourselves out of the newsroom more often.

I have no doubt that my pride will take a few more blows, but I think that’s a good thing. And I’m sure I’ll collect some great stories along the way. Also, if any of you Girl Scouts out there have some extra Thin Mints, I know a lady looking for some.

“Reporter”

As Nicholas Kristof and crew rode into an impoverished community in Congo, children with hunger-strict faces and dirty clothes chased after his jeep. I don’t remember what color the car was, but if I had to guess, I would say it was white.

If you have never seen “Reporter,” you should. Regardless of how you feel about Kristof (disclaimer, I’m a fan), you’re in for an incredible documentary that raises important moral questions for the journalist and average-joe alike.

I’m going to try to touch on just one of these issues from the perspective of an aspiring journalist. Probably the hardest part of the film for me was watching the mental process behind one of my journalistic heroes. As a columnist for the New York Times, I knew that Kristof doesn’t hesitate to tell the gruesome stories in order to shock the American public into action. I respect that method, even. Take this column about Malawi, a country I knew nothing about until I started reading Kristof’s columns. Kristof is well-known for starting his columns with a human face and voice, a human that is suffering. In “Reporter,” I watched Kristof seek out the worst case senario he could find, deciding finally on a dying woman named Yohanita Nyiahabimama.

As I followed Kristof across Congo in search of his Yohanita, honestly I felt a little queasy. And a little mad. Was Kristof exploiting Yohanita to write the most powerful column possible? Was he deceiving the American public by finding the worst example of the turmoil in Congo he could? But then a different thought entered my mind. Is there something as “too much” or “too far” when it comes to genocide? Because genocide was what Kristof was witnessing. It’s what America wasn’t seeing. Is it really a terrible thing if Kristof goes and finds the saddest story he can because he knows that’s what is needed to soften our disaster-hardened American hearts?

A part of me stills feels uneasy about his process. But I can’t argue with the results Kristof has brought about through his writing. You see, I have this crazy notion that journalists have the power to show the world that change can be brought about with words. Not guns. Not violence. Not political manipulation. Just words that inspire public response. Kristof has proven that’s possible. And I think that’s justification enough.

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