Journalism and Trauma: How the Truth and Trauma Meet

This past Friday, I took part in an highly engaging conference at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism's office at Harvard University called "Aftermath: Journalism, Storytelling, and the Impact of Violence and Tragedy." Journalists from various publications and media outlets were present, including the few I met from National Public Radio, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, among others. Many are or have been war correspondents, including for the present Persian Gulf wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Academics, trauma specialists, professors, students, and activists were also in attendance. The first day of the two-day event took about ten hours for all the panels and presentations to finish.

Columnist/novelist Pete Hamill did one of the morning presentations he called "The Republic of Trauma." From war, to natural disasters, to urban violence, Mr. Hamill has been there. Panels during the day included correspondents who covered wars in the Balkans, Cambodia, Colombia, Iraq, inner-city America, and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

I was on a panel called "Documenting Violence: Investigating, Narrating and Challenging its Root." The moderator was Margarita Martinez, a freelance filmmaker and journalist from Colombia. The panelists included Julia Reynolds, a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey County Herald in Monterey, CA. She has spent many years on the crime beat and also produced a documentary film called "Nuestra Familia/Our Family" about barrio gangs in Salinas, CA. Also present was Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer--she presented an extraordinary case of a young teenage Latina girl who was shot in the face by an enraged boyfriend. A clip of the girl, named Johanna, reading a poem to the perpetrator at his hearing was deeply moving. My friend and collaborator on research, study, and articles concerning the rise of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador from 1993 to 1996, Donna DeCesare, presented photos of a two-week writing/painting project she did with imprisoned women in Colombia. A long-time international and award-winning photo journalist, she is also Professor of Documentary Photography at the University of Texas, Austin.

I did my presentation on how to regenerate from trauma and the importance of journalists staying around to cover the healing process when trauma has affected people and communities. I drew my experiences from the thirty years I've had working with street gangs and other troubled youth, prisoners, the homeless, and disaffected all over the country -- but also in Mexico, Central America, South American, Europe and Japan. I also used the example of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore as an institution that uses the arts, inner creativity, and imagination in renewing community.

I had to leave the next day so I missed another round of panels and talks, including from my friend and Tia Chucha Press author, Patricia Smith, who last year was nominated for the National Book Award for her poetry collection on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

When I was there at the Walter Lippman House, where the Nieman Foundation is housed, I sat in the Robert C. Maynard Suite, named in honor of the late African American journalist, editor and publisher (former owner of the Oakland Tribune). Mr. Maynard was also a mentor of mine. I took part in the 1980 Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC Berkeley when Mr. Maynard was the director. I was pleased they decided to honor his legacy.


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