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VDS Voices: Feature: Darria Hudson article

October 9, 2013

photo by Rodrigo Jardon

The School of Authentic Journalism began in 2003 as the brainchild of Al Giordano, founder of NarcoNews. Giordano started NarcoNews in 2000 to report on the drug war to the English speaking world, to connect the United States and other parts of the world with the rest of the Americas, and to expose the awful damage being wrought there by the American “War of Drugs” and escalating globalization. NarcoNews also spotlighted ongoing resistance from the Latin American people to the corruption and oppression also wrought by the drug war, a resistance that often went unprinted, unfilmed, and unnoticed except by the people closest to the struggle. It was not long before journalists from all over the world were clamoring for more than just reporting—they wanted support and training for doing the hard work of authentic journalism: telling the untold stories of people’s movements by the people themselves.

     I first heard about SAJ through the Fletcher Summer Institute for Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict last June in Boston. Giordano and one of the School’s longtime instructors, Greg, as well as several students gave a presentation on the necessity for movements to create their own media—essentially, to tell their own stories. I was intrigued and impressed, but could not see myself going. Yes, I’m a community organizer, but I’m not a journalist. I'm still figuring out what it means to be a minister. What could I offer? And what could I do with whatever I might learn?

     “Just apply,” Al and Greg told me again and again. “Apply, and you’ll see.”

     I did eventually apply and was accepted. With support from VDS, I was able to go. And I did see eventually why they wanted me there.

     This year’s School of Authentic Journalism was held from April 17-27 in Mexico City and the nearby countryside. Each school is divided into 40 “scholars” and 40 “professors.” The scholars are all young, gifted community organizers, journalists, photographers, artists, writers, and bloggers from all corners of the globe. Our professors were either veterans of social movements in their home countries, or past scholars who brought their expertise back year after year to share with new classes.

     Two of these professors were men whom I consider heroes of community organizing: Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian union organizer and strategist of the Cochabamba Water Wars in 2000, and Mkuseli “Khusta” Jack, who led massive boycotts and ongoing protests in Port Elizabeth during the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and 1990s. I had read and heard about both men and the movements they had successfully lead, and I had written papers about Khusta for my undergraduate coursework on students in nonviolent struggles.

         Oscar and Khusta were not the only heroes that I would get to rub shoulders with for two weeks. I could (and perhaps will someday) fill pages about the dozens of other brilliant minds and strong hearts that I met at SAJ. Reporters, artists, rock stars, bloggers, bartenders, and healers from Spain, Serbia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Texas, California, Alabama, and New York City—we came from all over the world with remarkable experiences and skills, with a passion for changing the world around us, and for sharing our stories with one another. Each intense day revolved around morning and evening plenary sessions where professors shared with us what they had accomplished, how they did it, and what we could take away for our own movements. In between plenaries, we worked in teams to record collaboratively some of the stories of struggle in our midst (the results can be read on NarcoNews’ website).

         Perhaps the most memorable of these conversations came towards the end of our time together, when Mercedes Osuna took the stage. Mercedes is an organizer in the state of Chiapas, where the Zapatista indigenous rebellion began in 1994, and has organized civil society in solidarity with the revolutionary community in the nearby city where she lives. Mercedes had intrigued me throughout our time together; neither of us spoke the other's language, but she, nonetheless, reminded me strongly of other powerful and mysterious women that I grew up around in Georgia—Church mothers and midwives, prophets, and healer women. I knew that I had to find a way to speak to her, just to hear her story, and maybe even share mine.

     The session that Mercedes led was about journalist safety in conflict zones and the responsibilities that reporters have to the security and safety of the communities they encounter there. It was the question and answer section, however, that moved me the most, and led to a conversation that I will never forget.

         One of the questions from the assembled scholars came from a young American photojournalist who asked Mercedes for her advice to women working in male-dominated fields, like journalism. Mercedes' response was unexpected, but decisive. The most important thing to do, she advised, was never adopt a victim mentality—a mistake Mercedes contends is often made by feminists, to bewail their particular circumstance of oppression without helpfully changing it.

     “Yo soy no feminsta,” she informed us in her usual no-nonsense tone.

     Feminism, she said, invariably leads to divisions among those already oppressed. At this point, I could see an international contingent of feminists throughout the crowd frowning in quiet concert.

     “What you ought to do, young lady,” Mercedes advised and as translated, “is to get together all of the women around you, get organized, and demand that your needs be met and your presence recognized as essential to the success of your community. Women are and have always been the strongest core of any movement, and you, with the support of your sisters, have to ensure that that is understood.”

      The tension amongst the women was palpable by now, and feminists from four different continents were positively wriggling with consternation but remaining silent out of respect for Mercedes and waiting impatiently for her to finish, but clearly aching to blurt out what one young woman from the UK eventually did: “But that's feminism!”

         And indeed it is. But not the feminism about which Mercedes had been told. After some lengthy exchange about what feminism is and is not, Mercedes was still resolute. Feminism is divisive. The Zapatistas, she said, already know that women are essential and divine parts of the movement, and that there is no job that they cannot do, and no role that they cannot play. There is neither solidarity nor strength without them, and they are included at every level of decision making. From Mercedes’ perspective, feminism was a set of foreign political ideas articulated to and for privileged, educated elites, something that may work for college girls, but not for her or the Zapatistas. More than one self-avowed feminist left that conversation exasperated and confused. I was no exception, but I was also more determined than ever to sit down with her, and I knew exactly what I wanted to discuss

photo by Alex Mensing

     The next morning we began breakfast with hundreds of uninvited guests that had joined us over the course of the school—hungry bees made homeless by forest fires in the nearby mountains and attracted by the fruit and honey-laden breakfast that was served to us outdoors each day. Some of us had become accustomed to the bees, picking them out of our yogurt and willing ourselves not to make too many sudden moves. There was quite literally a swarm of them each morning of our last week together, and many of the school's scholars and professors had found ways to avoid them as much as possible during mealtimes.  

     Mercedes, however, was completely unbothered by them, and dozens were buzzing around us as we talked. Johanna translated as I began to tell Mercedes my story about encountering womanism and womanist theology—how my studies helped me to understand the lives and the struggles of my mother, grandmothers, and great grandmothers, and taught me to read their stories and my own as a sacred text, a divine guide in my development as an agent of social change. How reremembering, to use Toni Morrison's hallowed term from Beloved, the narratives of Black Southern working-class and poor women and men— like my family—has shown me something essential that was never truly forgotten: The truth—the real, authentic way toward wholeness and healing—is through valuing our own experience and creating spaces where healing and affirmation can flourish. I also told her how womanism is different, yet closely related to feminism, and how it is essentially just a word and a set of language given to what already exists: the real, lived experiences of other Black women such as I.

     Mercedes nodded, telling me that she was familiar with the struggles of Black women in the American South, women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Septima Clark. She nodded even more when I told her that the way that she described how the Zapatista communities center around women reminds me of the communities in which I was reared and which were always anchored by a mother, aunt, or grandmother. She continued to nod sagely.

     “Many people use the analogy of a hand when describing a community,” she said. “Any real movement is made up of many parts. I’ve organized with the intellectuals, the farmers, the unions, the lesbians, the socialists, the students, the elderly, the children, and the women. All of these identities and more are essential, yet distinct, like the fingers on the hand. And when you bring them all together,” as she curled her strong brown fist tightly, “they can strike a mighty blow.”

     I was nodding, too; I have heard this analogy used many times. But then came the surprise.

     ”La mujere es el pulgar.” (The woman is the thumb.”

“Without the thumb,” Mercedes told me, “you can hold nothing; you can grip nothing; you cannot work; you cannot create; you cannot carry. I understand what you are saying,” she said. “A strong community knows how valuable its women are.”

     The conversation, however, did not play out as smoothly as the dialogue I have recounted. Several times I tried to intervene with Johanna's translation, noting with what little grasp of Spanish that I have, that instead of using womanism or mujerista as distinct terms, she was translating them as “Black feminism” or “Latina feminism”.

     “No,” I tried to explain. “The terms are an important difference!”

     I really wanted to be sure that Mercedes could hear the distinction that I was making between the “feminism” that she had flatly refused, and the third-wave feminisms of color that had arisen after the feminism of the privileged bourgeois—one that she essentially had described in the plenary and in our breakfast conversation. Johanna, however, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and distracted by the bees. Between translating for Mercedes and listening to my suggestions for word choice, she would swat or wave away an inquisitive bee or three. Eventually, I decided to muster up my best Spanglish and try to communicate my point to Mercedes myself. After watching Johanna struggle with the bees, Mercedes leaned forward to quiet us both.

     “No no no. shhh. Mira.”

     “Quiet,” she instructed us. “Watch me.”

      She made no sound, and only a couple of  slight beckoning movements with her wrists. The already incredible number of bees swarming around her began to increase. The cloud around Johanna and me lessened. More and more bees left our plates of fruit for hers. Soon, an astounding number of honeybees flew around her. They covered her plate, walked along her hands and face, and she continued to talk calmly to us and eat her breakfast. I watched speechlessly as she picked up her fork and waited until the bees on the fruit had buzzed lazily away, then alongside the bees, she ate, piece by piece, fruit drizzled in honey and yogurt.

     “You have charmed the bees!” I exclaimed in Spanish.

     “No. Yo soy no encantadora. Yo soy la mama de las abejas.”

     ” No, I’m not a bee charmer. I am the mother of the bees,” she smiled mischievously and winked at me.

     We finished our talk, and I marveled not only at Mercedes' mysterious communion with the bees but also at the subsequent calm that I felt as they surrounded me, too.

     Mercedes looked hard at me, and conceded. Perhaps there was more to feminism than she had thought, or heard. If there were feminists that understood the struggles of women of color, women in struggle, and women in community with men, children, and elders, then maybe she could be one after all (maybe).

     She told me to work on my Spanish so that she could hear more about this “womanist theology” that I had mentioned, and we left the bees to finish their meal.

     As she was concluding her session the previous day, Mercedes referred us, the scholars of the 2013 School of Authentic Journalism, to the bees.

     “These bees,” she said, “have all come to this place from far away because they were stirred up by fires, and are now hungry, and searching for a new home. We must be like the bees,” she said, “that will pollinate and cross-pollinate, bringing life-giving pollen from place to place as they look for a place to settle. We have come together from all over the world, to take each other’s stories and lessons learned home with us. From there, we have an opportunity to bring back something to help our own movements grow and spread.” 

     From Mercedes, from the bees, and from everyone that I met and all that I learned at SAJ, I take this lesson: Authentic journalism is an act of resistance—telling and making space for the telling of true stories of people’s experiences challenges the mainstream attempts to obscure injustice. Sharing these stories is also resistance, a necessary act that incites growth and human flourishing. It also belies the myth that our struggles are disconnected. When we tell our stories and when we listen to others, we are building community. Our resistance is never alone.

     Theologically, this is profound. The struggle for justice creates a common ground, yet on this ground we have a responsibility to resist untruth with the authentic telling of our stories. It is also our role to create on this common ground space for all stories to be told, not just our own. We must listen actively for truth and be willing to amplify stories that are being drowned out because they disrupt the status quo. We must always seek to be authentic and intentional in the language of our story-telling, for our stories reveal the contexts from which we come. Clearly, the story of feminism that was originally introduced to Mercedes was one that was not inclusive of her experience, and as a result did not resound with her as liberative. Language can obscure, but it can also reveal and liberate. Authentic storytelling, as with authentic journalism, intentionally includes and makes room for people’s stories to reach each other in a way that resounds with the truth and relevance. We cannot, however “speak for” anyone. No scholar, minister, servant, or advocate can be a “voice for the voiceless” because each story has its own voice. Some voices and some stories may be deemed too disturbing, too upsetting for the mainstream. But that does not mean that they are mute. It is our responsibility to step back or aside to allow unheard stories to come forth, but not to cover an authentic voice with our own. It is our responsibility to find the courage to tell our own unheard stories.

This article will be the first piece of my writing to be published, and I have been terrified during the writing of every sentence. But if I have learned anything from Mexico, from the School of Authentic Journalism, and from Mercedes, it is that as organizer, minster, student, and perhaps as a writer, part of my struggle against injustice is the simple, powerful act of witnessing authentically and in community with a global family determined to pollinate the world with testimonies to truth and justice.

Learn more about NarcoNews and the School of Authentic Journalism at