Intents and Purposes
Journalism is inherently opportunistic.
As journalists, we hunt for stories, digest them, write them and move on. Many times, the people we interview are deconstructed into smaller, logical parts – a main source, an opposition source, etc. Despite these being real people, we compartmentalize them into cogs used to prove an argument or express a point.
And while that process has its flaws, it serves its purpose for a lot of articles. So that was the mindset I had when I first started reporting on this series. I had always approached undocumented immigration the same way I approached a lot of issues, with tacit support that fits into my neat portfolio of generally left-leaning, Democratic political tendencies. Not much had gone into it at first other than, “This will be a cool story.”
It’s that same mentality I carried with me to my first reporting stop, the University of California Summit on Undocumented students that took place in May. The idea was to get introductory sources and leads on where to take the project next. Throughout the two-day event, I proceeded with the standard reporting attitude, hoping to stumble upon something or someone that would give me a story or quote.
And the ability to (report without consequence) stems from privilege. I can come and go from this story; those who are undocumented, who have to live with that reality every day, cannot. So while I have put a lot of time and research into this, and while I truly, deeply believe those original flaws in my thinking and reporting were addressed, the fact remains that these differences in experience matter.
While searching for people to interview on the second day, I approached two students who had just finished giving speeches on the stage. One of them was a girl I recognized; she had been quiet in all the workshops. I wasn’t even sure what her voice sounded like.
But when I approached her and her friend for an interview, she stopped me immediately. She pressed me for information about my past advocacy work, the purpose of my questions and most importantly, what my intentions were for using their stories.
Shocked, I stammered off some description of the Daily Bruin that didn’t seem to impress her very much. I got my interview, but left feeling jarred.
It was a moment that forced me to re-evaluate my intentions behind the reporting I was doing. Even if, in my head, I thought I was doing a good thing, it was evident I hadn’t actually taken the time to consider that my good intentions might not be enough. In reality, I was hunting for a story without examining my motivations. I was reporting as if there was no consequence.
And the ability to do that stems from privilege. I can come and go from this story; those who are undocumented, who have to live with that reality every day, cannot. So while I have put a lot of time and research into this, and while I truly, deeply believe those original flaws in my thinking and reporting were addressed, the fact remains that these differences in experience matter.
In my first column, I mentioned how it’s more pressing than ever to interject an accurate description of undocumented life into the national and campus conversation, especially given the upcoming presidential election. But in order to do that, those of us who surround the issue, including journalists, students and administrators – who are not undocumented – have to do two things: We have to recognize this inherent inequality, and we have to let the community lead.
First and foremost, it’s up to those who are not undocumented to take the time to listen and take cues from those who are. A good example of this is Freedom at Emory, an undocumented student advocacy group based at Emory University in Atlanta. The group has worked with undocumented students and petitioned on their behalf to the university administration. They were a part of the push that eventually resulted in full financial aid being given to undocumented students at the school. But their efficacy as an ally group didn’t stem from their own actions - it came from their willingness to step back and let undocumented students lead.
Reflecting on our columns and news stories, it’s evident that the most powerful moments didn’t come from my writing. They came when I got out of the way, and let those who I interviewed speak for themselves.
There are also varying degrees to which someone can be involved and still be respectful. Following a community doesn’t have to mean attending every rally or being furiously engaged in the cause. Instead, it can mean taking the time to do basic research and listening to the ideas of the community before drawing judgment or forming an opinion. That way, ambivalence doesn’t result in willful ignorance.
Informing campus conversation and engaging undocumented students is a part of the Daily Bruin’s job as well. That, in essence, is what this project was designed to do: leverage the exposure and circulation of the Daily Bruin toward drawing people to an issue and to a community of people that they may not have thought much about before.
But The Bruin can’t speak for undocumented students. Reflecting on our columns and news stories, it’s evident that the most powerful moments didn’t come from my writing. They came when I got out of the way, and let those who I interviewed speak for themselves.
The power came from people like fifth-year political science student Vlad Stoicescu-Ghica, who works the maximum number of hours a student is allowed to work per week during the academic year in order to send money home to his family, while co-chairing an undocumented student advocacy group and aspiring to attend law school. And it comes from people like UC Santa Cruz student Maria Alcantara who, despite losing hundreds of dollars to a broken legal system and being ineligible for financial aid, continues to pursue her degree. And these are only two examples; threaded throughout this project are numerous examples of sisters, brothers, athletes, activists and students whose stories did far more to illustrate the reality of being undocumented than my words ever could.
So it’s important to know when to step aside. And that goes hand in hand with internalizing this debate over one’s own motivations, because it’s very easy to think you’re doing something positive when in reality you don’t understand the real impacts of your actions. At that point, you’re like me at the UC undocumented summit: confident that I’m doing something good, yet oblivious to the effect I’m having.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions. In order to ensure that advocates, allies, journalists and students understand how best to engage with undocumented student issues, it’s best keep an open mind, not just open ears.