Being a disabled journalist is lonely: Let’s change that together

Image caption: Isabelle Ulfsdotter and Áine Kelly-Costello presenting at Gothenburg University. Photo/Patrick Jowett

Update: response from book launch organisers Hostwriter follows this post.

One night in Hamburg

As I clambered up the wobbly boat stairs, across a connecting bridge and down similar, steep steps, a blurry montage of words followed me: hierarchy, subaltern, inclusion, power, “leave no one behind”…

***

My friend Ariadna and I had arrived slightly late to a side event to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, Germany. It was one of several conference events to take place on the  M.S. Stubnitz, a boat cabin event organisers described as rustic. You could also call it cozy, if, that is, you were able to get in. Featuring steep, wobbly, narrow stairs, and similarly shaky narrow gangways connecting different sections of the boat, it was completely inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with mobility impairments. 

This particular event celebrated the launch of the book Unbias the News, where some authors read and commented on thought-provoking excerpts from their chapters before taking questions. It’s an important and timely book, about the myriad ways media representations reproduce existing power structures. But I couldn’t help noticing those same structures at work while, during question time, I asked Ariadna if we could exchange our current vantage point, from which we could hear the discussion but not be seen, for somewhere visible. Why? So far as I had heard, no one had yet mentioned anything about disability during the event, nor practically all conference, to my knowledge. I couldn’t take the silence any longer. 

Ariadna agreed to try and find us a better position. We made it back up the rickety staircase we were sitting on, down some more similar steps, and negotiated a cramped backstage area crawling with cables. We perched on a spare segment of bench, and I put my hand up. I felt self-conscious holding the microphone. I told the other participants that I was blind and had worked as a journalist, that I had been hired through informal affirmative action, and that I thought newsrooms should be more creative and flexible about finding ways to give disabled people a foot in the door. I said that having disabled people in the room was a step towards more authentic and nuanced journalistic representations of disability that didn’t buy into inspiration or pity stereotypes. If memory serves, I highlighted that media providers should also pay attention to the accessibility of both their physical premises and the software they use.

Narrow metallic steps leading to the gangway
Gangway to the boat venue

Narrow and steep metallic stairs on the boat
Stairs on the boat

Being a disabled journalist is lonely

In preparing for a presentation on disability and journalism last month, I started brainstorming about what it’s like to be a disabled journalist. This list has come from my own experience, conversations with friends and reading. 

  • You battle inaccessible or otherwise challenging aspects of your job regularly (usually which could have been designed differently).
  • You may then need to ask for assistance often, and explain the same problems regularly to multiple people.
  • You often have to work harder than your non-disabled colleagues to prove yourself or compensate for the ways in which your disability makes things slower. You feel this pressure.
  • You are afraid of disclosing non-visible impairments, for which flexible working arrangements or other accommodations would be beneficial, in case you are then treated as fragile or less capable.
  • You may face (usually unintentional) discriminatory or ableist assumptions or beliefs from your colleagues or from the people you are reporting on.

It shouldn’t be this way

The thing is, with accessible systems, and adaptable, inclusive practices, being a disabled journalist would be a whole lot like being a non-disabled journalist, all else being equal, and when fortunate to work in countries valuing freedom of the press. I’m talking, for instance, about the challenge of pinning down angles, the humility in being able to ask questions of an enormous variety of people, the inadequacy the first time someone yells at you for doing your job, or the satisfaction when you find out something you wrote has made a difference in someone’s life. 

We’re not there yet

The recent presentation I was brainstorming for was part of a student-organised series on media and power at Gothenburg University. Another blind journalism student, Isabelle Ulfsdotter, co-presented with me, and we endeavoured to cover a lot of ground in an hour.

We discussed terms like disability, ableism and inspiration porn. We introduced some complexities around disability identity, language and choice of images. We highlighted some disability-related frames and angles that merited reporting on, and others which can be harmful. We explored how to make news content more accessible. Finally, we delved into what being a disabled journalist can be like, and constructive suggestions towards levelling the playing field.

Here’s where you come in 

Isabelle and I have chosen to share our presentation with anyone who wants to read it, along with the recording (apologies for the lack of transcript, and let me know if you have any problems accessing either). Naturally, they are only intended as an entry point into the topic, not a definitive guide. Also, fair warning that, being a product of a Kiwi (me) presenting with a Swedish person (Isabelle) in Sweden, the presentation has a few country- and language-specific references in it, but I think it is largely applicable at least across the English-speaking Western world.

If you happen to be a (non-disabled) journalist reading this, I’d really appreciate if you could check the presentation out. Listen to it while you commute or cook dinner or something. If your newsroom has a messaging channel for general resources and you think it’s useful, paste the powerpoint link in there maybe?

The upshot

The only way we’ll create more authentic disability-related reporting, along with accessibility and inclusion in the field of journalism, is if non-disabled journalists also champion those goals. The other day, one of my (sighted) lecturers told my investigative journalism class that everyone’s data visualisations must include the information in a screen-reader accessible format. This gave me real hope. I need it, because I’m not sure how much more talk about diversity–with no mention of disability–on a rustic, cozy, inaccessible boat I can take.

Update: I got in touch with Hostwriter, who organised the Unbias the News book-launch, to share this post. I received a prompt and thoughtful response, published below:

You have definitely brought up a very good point about our venue in your post. Our book actually has an article about the difficulties journalists in wheelchairs face, yet it was not something we ourselves thought to ask about the M.S. Stubnitz venue before booking our event there. The journalist who wrote the article about journalists with disabilities for our book was from Brazil and we could not afford to bring him to the event in Hamburg, so we featured the journalists that were going to be at the event. We are thankful that you did bring up the topic in your question afterwards.

Because we think that this is a very important issue – and because your post really calls out something that we and all conference and event organizers need to do a better job at – we would like to offer that we could republish your blog post at our own Unbias the News website. To acknowledge that we can all do a better job of inclusivity in event organizing.

I would like to let you know that our Hostwriter office is actually situated so that we can host events that are easily accessible to journalists with mobility issues. In fact, we have had journalists who use wheelchairs attend past events we hosted at our office. It is something that is important to us, and we acknowledge that we could have done better at the GIJC in Hamburg.

Home again?

When does one feel at home living somewhere new? The question surely yields as many answers as there are people who’ve ever found themselves trying to capture the essence of home, once it outgrows the notion of being tied to a single house. I’ll explore some of the ways I’ve started to find a home in Gothenburg.

Reading

Maybe moving countries makes you want to explore the meaning of life more. Whatever it is, I associate moving to Sweden with making more time to read than usual. However little Gothenburg itself may have to do with the bookworm effect, I’ve found reading to be grounding and offer welcome reflection time. Here are five recent highlights/recommendations:

  • Always another Country by Sisonke Msimang: This candid memoire intricately and unapologetically explores the state of flux and introspection that comes with searching for belonging, treasuring family ties and being relentlessly rejected or sidelined or questioned for being different.
  • When they call you a terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele: A memoir from one of the three Black Lives Matters incubators (Patrisse). Reading of the lived experience of her family holding on to love in the face of socially accepted brutality against black lives enriched my appreciation for the courage and determination that lies behind the rise and rise of the movement.
  • Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis : The left-aligned Greek Finance minister who determinedly attempted to guide Greece—and the rest of Europe—out of the financial crisis onto more solid ground has created an illuminating, if depressing, account of his months in office. My hazy image of the EU’s finance’s being controlled by competent, if misguided and overworked, representatives was replaced by far less appetising fare by the time I finished.
  • The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: I love how Riggs, diagnosed with cancer, chose to use her writerly talent to reflect on life. This at times light-hearted and at times profound read has a knack for making you think about how life’s big questions are intimately connected to its fleeting moments. 
  • She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey: : Do you want some insight into how two courageous women journalists, with the backing of their editors, worked tirelessly for months to expose the history of Harvy Weinstein’s sexual harassment? Read this, especially if you want to understand more about careful, thorough journalistic process.

 

Learning Swedish

Although my classes are in English, Swedish is definitely the default language on the street, in the supermarket, filling in forms, etc. There’s something reassuring about the days when you understand the person explaining where the train platform is or reading out the menu in Swedish that bit better than you did the last week or the last month. I enjoy the challenge of having a new language to sink my teeth into, even if I occasionally wish I could insert an AI chip with an expansive vocabulary, excellent grammar and an intuitive understanding of Swedish PUN’s into my cerebral cortex.

 

For me, one of the main drivers to keep, erm, chipping away at it, has been access to information. There are Swedish public lectures and the like, and the national TV and radio naturally broadcast in Swedish too. Finally, one artist I’m devouring at the moment, who’s also teaching me plenty of Swedish, is folk band Triakel. Here’s one beautiful if morbid song for the days when phony people taking advantage of your friends are too much to bear. Being a folk band, I promise they sing about life’s lighter side too…

Multiple communities

I'm sitting at a table with two friends. We're all eating.
Eating is a good bonding activity in any country.

My course is set up in such a way that all 23 of us Masters of Investigative Journalism students take all our classes together. You know, a bit like moving through subjects in intermediate, where you stayed with the same group of people. We also have a lot of group assignments. On the whole, I like this arrangement a lot, mainly because I have a lot of time for many of my fellow baby investigative journos, so the fact that it’s comparatively easy to hang out after class or whatnot is wonderful. As a blind person, this set-up also has distinct advantages. If it weren’t for the fact that we do many assignments in groups, I’d have to go out of my way more often to have someone, say, download some images for me, or check that my powerpoint *looks* legible, etc. But this way, those visual details fall into the natural division of tasks within the group 

On another practical note, I appreciate that, if I suspect I’m missing important visual contextual info, I can actually call out in class and ask for a clarification. Obviously that’s not something I love doing, but being in a small room of people who know me (as opposed to a lecture theatre) makes it infinitely easier. 

 

Another community which I’m fortunate to be finding is that of fellow blind people in Sweden. I’m particularly impressed by the strength and organisational skills of Unga med Synnedsetting (Youth with a Vision Impairment), which is a well-established organisation which arranges conferences and activities for its members around the country. Also, attending your first US activity is free. Soooo guess what I got to do for free in December:

  • Stay at a hotel close to Gothenburg and devour its all-you-can-eat breakfast (hello 2x free Swedish pancakes, creamy porridge and hot chocolate)

I'm standing in front of a tree with christmas lights on it, and a similarly adorned building is to my right. There are people, and more trees, in the background.

Get entrance to Lyceberg, which is a kind of theme park and markets cross, which decs itself out for the season at hand (Christmas counts as a season at Lyceberg. So does Halloween).

  • Dig into a burger at Max for lunch — a most beloved of Swedish burger chains which I had not yet tried, replete with the length of queue you’d expect, but worth the wait.
  • Go on rides (not free, but fairly cheap), including a thrill-inducing wooden roller coaster, and another, a spinning extravaganza.
  • Dig into a julbord (“Christmas table”, in the sense of “all the (Swedish) food on the Christmas table, which you can actually eat in December before Christmas has arrived). I didn’t itemise what I was devouring very carefully, but I’m pretty sure I had some sil (herring) and potato, some excellent smoked salmon, some beetroot salad (also traditional), and some vegan meat-without-the-meat balls.

Do homes move?

I did most of my growing up in New Zealand. Most of my going to school, swimming, getting embedded in music, learning Spanish, going to the beach and folk festival in summer, listening to my favourite bird the tui, staying at rustic Air Bnbs, becoming a campaigner and giving Auckland Uni’s anti-fossil-fuel-divestment administration some grief in the process, getting my first role as a journalist. I could go on. Aotearoa is a home, a place where many of my roots are buried deep.

 

When I left the country in August, I knew my parents would be moving, of all coincidental places, to the north of Norway, where my father received a job offer. They’ve now sold the house that I thought of as “home base” since I was 15. I walked around it on my last day in NZ and said goodbye out loud to all of its rooms. The house had not been the same since the end of May, anyway, when we had to put to sleep our 15-year-old canine family member and most affectionate companion. A kind of movable home still lives in our family gatherings, though. The last one was in Ireland over Christmas.

 

Now, I’m back in Sweden, but tomorrow I move house! I’ll be in Gothenburg proper this time, far closer to my classes. And I will wonder, once again, when does one feel at home living somewhere new?

 

Here’s what I learned when the muckrakers united

I stood or sat, phone in hand note-taking or exchanging contact info, in a sea of reporters listening to each other. I perched on cramped benches, sometimes on the floor, a chair if I was more punctual and decisive than usual about session selection.

 

There we were, 1700 investigative journalists, academics, non-profit directors, students, others connected to the field, converging into a noticeably finite amount of space. The vibe was disconcertingly friendly, and networking sessions were timetabled in for you. I sometimes remembered to eat.

 

In the blur of four days in Hamburg at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference, here’s a snapshot of what jumped out for me.

 

1. Collaboration is the future. It’s also a tangle of logistics

Collaboration was a buzz-word, and I think it contributed to the sense of openness, and the lack of hierarchy that came across during the conference. As a blind journalist, collaboration is more a survival strategy than a nice idea for me, so this literal assurance that I was not alone was encouraging.

 

Sessions for networking, as well as collaborative strategies, between journalists and NGOs, locally, cross-border, and global featured prominently. Strategic tips, paraphrased by me, included:

  • Make time to sit down and systematically work out what’s in it for each partner, clearly and early
  • Make your data open but user-friendly
  • Assign/resource a project coordinator

 

Also, if you can help it:

  • Don’t accidentally have two partners talking to two anonymous sources who alarmingly turn out to be exactly the same source
  • Don’t move the publication date you agreed upon
  • Don’t forget to be vigilant of the factors that concern your partners e.g. print magazine deadlines are sooner than digital, logistics of getting sources already talked to by print onto camera for TV, press freedom restrictions in many countries.

 

2. What’s keeping you awake at night?

 

It was also reassuring to see verification and fact-checking play a central role in the presentation line-up. Editors, we heard, who are satisfied that reporters have individually fact-checked themselves without seeing proof aren’t being thorough about their job. For investigative reporting in particular, that should mean resourcing line-by-line checking of stories, and also frame-by-frame if there’s a visual component. 

 

But, Nils Hanson from SVT (Swedish Public Television) advised, once you’re done with that, there’s one more question a vigilent editor can pose to the reporter (I may be paraphrasing slightly):

“What’s that nagging detail keeping you awake at night?”

 

3. Try the thing that didn’t work two years ago

 

Sage advice that was true for many organisations at a particular time in a particular place is worth listening to, but making time for regular, considered experimenting pays off, too.

 

This was a tip from Monika  Bauerlein, CEO of American long-form Magazine Mother Jones. She said that against-the-grain strategies from writing longer-than-advised emails to readers, to revisiting Facebook and Twitter fund-raising in 2019, have paid off for the magazine. She also emphasised that readers were far more willing to give the magazine much-needed money when the organisation was open about its strategy and rationale for pursuing reader-funded independent, well-resourced reporting on priority topic areas. 

 

4. Not the content, the metadata

 

Edward Snowden’s leaks, six years ago, revealed the potential significance of metadata to the world. I wasn’t really paying attention then, but when Paul Meyers of the BBC demonstrated just how traceable even a photo’s metadata is (where taken, when, by what device etc.), I naturally feel more stalked by my own phone. The intended message, no doubt, was to not underestimate what you may find hiding in metadata should you decide to comb some during an investigation, along with practical tips for doing that.

 

5. Reciprocity beats begging. Also, read obscure journals

 

I’m likely to freelance sometime in the near future, whether by accident or design, making me a sponge for practical advice on the matter of how to get a foothold.

 

Saudi freelancer Safa al Ahmad pointed out that if you’ve helped someone out in the past, they’re a lot more likely to remember you. Obviously, there are ethical and unethical ways of giving help, but keeping in mind that your dinner conversation mate now might just be your future collaborator or editor is in your self-interest. 

 

Another speaker, I think it was Mark Schapiro from UC Berkeley, advised finding a rather obscure niche, and updating yourself regularly within that niche – reading journals, court-cases, anything. that sounds like a sensible way of spotting angles the rest of the world’s freelancers might not have seen yet.

 

6. Talking to the camera

 

In a session on interview techniques, veteran reporters Cheryl Thompson of NPR and Scott Zamost of CNBC both hammered home the need for honesty and building trust with sources, especially for encouraging them to talk on camera. Also, Zamost added, it’s worth checking why, exactly, they may be so reluctant to talk to you; it might have little to do with the subject matter and a lot to do with how they think they look on camera.

 

Thompson also had two other tips:

  • Ask one question at a time; if you don’t, the interviewee will pick the easiest one
  • Silence is golden; if you make a habit of interrupting your interviewees, you’ll often never know what potential insights you missed

 

7. Looking for the human angles on climate breakdown? Ask the communities most affected

 

This shouldn’t be newsworthy advice by 2019, but I think it bears repeating, especially as it’s a message I’ve seen struggle to break out of campaigning bubbles into mainstream reporting. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Bolivia to the (Norwegian) Arctic, presenters emphasised the need for more climate stories centred on people and communities. That means stories about impacts, but also about creative but necessary forms of adapting, where we find and profile those new ways of living. 

 

8. #HoldTheLine: An attack on one is an attack on all

 

This hashtag was the rallying cry of the Conference keynote, delivered by Philippine reporter Maria Ressa.

 

Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of Philippines news site Rappler, speaks from an epicentre of such attacks, having herself been turned into a prime target through her unapologetic coverage of the drug war and pro-Duterte propaganda.

 

“I have done nothing but be a journalist,” she reminded around 1700 journalists that night—”I have committed no crime.”

 

“Our battle is your battle,” she continued.

 

“Protect the rights guaranteed by our democracies or watch them slowly erode in plain sight. This is the challenge for all of us today … What can we put in place today to protect our tomorrows?”

 

9. The women behind the reporting

 

The most powerful session I went to, the one that was about finding vulnerability and solidarity and courage, was called survival strategies for Women Muckrakers. Ten award-winning women investigative reporters told us about their personal experiences. They talked about the burn-out that they spent years not talking about, being a working mother, taking your own security seriously when no one is resourcing it, processing covering violence when men conflate emotional reactions with weakness, investigating your own rape, and a lot more.

 

The session operated from the premise that it’s not just the tools and techniques that we learn from, it’s also how we, as humans (as opposed to, say, computers) handle actually doing all the stuff we’re talking about. Obviously this time the focus was on the shared experience of being a woman. But I believe considering this streak of sharing human learnings as an integral component of the conference in future has the potential to create more trust, closer bonds, and better investigative reporters. It’s about leveraging tools to build each other up while showing us what nurturing well-being, resilience and solidarity looks like.

 

10. Not just turning up: full participation means planning and care

 

I have a vague idea about how hard the three Conference organising partners, and numerous volunteers, worked to make the Conference truly global, a great networking opportunity, and appealing to a variety of interest areas within IJ.

 

Here I’ll zone in on my own experience. When I emailed the organisers to find out if volunteers could show me, as a blind attendee, between venues and where the food was, they suggested I could bring someone with me to the conference for that purpose. So I went with my friend and classmate Ariadna, and, apart from her astute observational skills which will make her a wonderful investigative reporter in her own right, I seriously would have struggled without someone else looking after the logistical side of figuring out the bus+train+walking from accommodation to Conference, and the logistics of getting between the multiple Conference and meet-up venues. Without that help, it wouldn’t have been impossible to participate, but the logistical side would have been draining and time-consuming.

 

Technology, in the form of the Conference app Whova, was also extremely beneficial, particularly for contacting other attendees. Whova wasn’t entirely screen-reader accessible, but its digital networking powers were still significant.

 

I’ve provided Conference feedback about the importance of planning for accessibility within all aspects of the event organising, as well as making space for disability-related reporting topics and networking within the main programme, within a stronger diversity and equity focus lead by marginalised journalists. A reduced registration fee for student attendees and others from low-income backgrounds within countries not eligible for travel subsidies would equally have been welcome.

 

So there is space to improve, I won’t sugar-coat that. But the organisers’ commitment to facilitating a truly friendly, non-hierarchical-feeling environment where investigative journalists and others connected to the field could learn from each other and spread ideas was laudable. I have the responsibility to be a more astute, careful, creative, patient and courageous reporter as a result.

 

Looking for hope? Reflections from a climate campaigner and journalist

Tipping Points of Hypocrisy

 

As about four million strikers took to the streets on Friday, a part of me felt relief. Here comes, surely, some kind of human-powered tipping point for climate action. It was a similar part to the one that felt elated and hopeful when Auckland University divested from fossil fuels in late August, yielding to prolonged pressure spearheaded by students, staff over five years. The divestment campaign was one I helped to found and was closely involved in. Over that half decade, we built a movement of educated citizens with not only the courage but also the skills to hold our educational institution to account.

 

Yet this same institution, the one that committed to divestment less than a month ago, is now gaining notariety for being the only University in New Zealand not to support the climate strikes. If the country’s largest educational institution is intent on touting its sustainability credentials on the one hand, and on the other fails to put its institutional weight behind citizen-powered uprising condemning climate breakdown, where does that leave us? 

 

***

 

In truth, i’ve been feeling more despondent than usual about our global powers making a concerted effort at stemming climate catastrophe lately. I happen to have been in sweden last friday and in Germany this coming one, meaning I end up missing either country’s action. I suspect the source of the slump is grounded, more deeply than that, in personal reasons, to do with being on the other side of the world from the communities and climate justice campaigners I know. I suppose familiarity counts for something, though in Sweden of all countries, I didn’t expect to feel that way.

 

After all, Swedish social norms that strongly encourage those with the resources to make more environmentally-friendly choices in their lives, at their best, lead to greater respect for the planet and our role of living in harmony with it. They lead, too, to more opportunities to bring up climate breakdown in conversation which, again at its best, could translate into collective action. Greta Thunberg, at the epicentre of the school/climate strikes movement, embodies this kind of reasoning perfectly. So where does that leave me?

 

Deceptively simply, I think, it leaves me studying investigative journalism and trying to articulate how I want to use my more public-facing voice.

***

 

Journalist + campaigner = Switched-on Human

 

this morning, I read a debate on the relative merits of whether the discipline of verification and supposed imparciality is more rigorously achieved and worthwhile if journalists make every attempt to omit themselves from their writing. If your readers know more about your values and views, former NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller’s argument goes, because you’ve consigned them to print, you’re going to be more likely to hang on to them.

 

In agreement with Glenn Greenwald’s rebuttles, I would say, conversely, that the benefit of the transparency can in fact lead to greater accountability to explain how you reached those positions, and that putting this very human process into print is a service to readers. The risk of echo-chambers is always high, but journalistic rigour involving robust fact-checking, an interest in the grey areas and accountability to all actors at its core also provides, I think, precisely the sort of nuance echo-chamber conversations soon lack.

 

Ultimately, though, I arrive at this position because I think journalistic integrity has the potential to make the world a much better-informed place, and that divorcing that integrity from an ability to act on that knowledge bolsters both the myth of a single version of truth and also the power divides between “the press” and everyone else. One version of facts exist, but different framings for those facts abound, and journalism sells stories, not facts alone.

 

You could also say, and you wouldn’t be wrong, that I arrive at this position because I would find it difficult to live with myself if I thought campaigning had a right to exist in a vacuum away from research and accountability from diverse sources. and Equally, I would find it hard to live with myself if I was obliged to avoid standing up for paths that, as I conclude from doing journalism, can create a better world. 

 

***

 

Envisioning a Better world

 

What do you do with a crisis of epic proportions but without a blueprint for change? You spend a lot of time saying no to what you don’t want in your new world. No will always be important, but without a vision, the “no”s add up to wearing confrontations.

 

I think that’s why I’m starting to regain a sense of grounding reading Naomi Klein’s new book On fire: the (Burning) Case for a Green New deal. Climate justice, she argues compellingly, must finally pull us together, in our movements for reclaiming diverse citizen power, and for choosing to reign in the free market and deregulated profit operating at the cost of the planet. Either we commit to that blueprint, or we condone a world where we sacrifice some people, i.e. people’s homelands and communities and lives, over others.

 

As such, the book draws out what rising white nationalism and alt right movements have to do with climate denialism, exactly. Many of the loudest and best funded climate denialists, Klein argues, have strategically chosen to sew doubt about the science as a way of avoiding the conversation about a transformational vision which would spell far less power for them. Non-white, distributed power is the world they are intent on fighting against.

 

Klein’s endorsement for a systemic seachange of epic proportions, then, is not simply making the case for getting behind a blueprint you can say “yes” rather than “no” too; it’s also an alarming warning about the types of decisions which instead end up on the table when we fail to do so.

 

Where Journalism comes in

 

In a world where vestid government and corporate interests are blocking that seachange, accountability reporting is more crucial than ever. That could be articles like this piece, shedding light on the gargantuan carbon emissions of the US military, or this excellent feature, profiling the Kiwi scientist who hardly anyone listened to when, in the 1970s, he helped prove that fossil fuel emissions were driving climate change. (Frighteningly, a quarter of christchurch’s mayoral and city candidates still aren’t listening).

 

Journalists are spotlighting the effects of the lack of early, decisive climate action too. Conversations about Southland properties that will end up under water are only raising a rising tide of questions, and increasing droughts are dehydrating our national birds, while Pacific climate warriors are forced to demand, again, that world leaders shoulder their proportion of climate responsibility.

 

But consuming all this information is only the first step.

 

Speaking up, however unpopular

 

We also have to start conversations like this one, about stopping the individualistic and eventually sacrificial narratives where disabled people become liabilities during disasters, instead capitalising on one more reason for creating accessible places and inclusive communities. We have to amplify the voices of indigenous and multiply marginalised youth activists like Isra Hirsi and Brianna fruean. They have salient interconnected insights into what’s at steak, who is at steak, in the future they’re inheriting, when we fail to hold major greenhouse gas emitters and their regulators accountable. We have to keep taking our cues from people like Greta Thunberg, who, being autistic, was ready to disregard detrimental social norms in favour of saving the planet, and, I’d argue, saving us humans as a species from ourselves.

 

***

 

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to feeling hopeful. Black Lives Matter organiser DeRay Mckesson, in his book On the Other Side of Freedom: the Case for Hope, describes it as “the belief that certain outcomes can happen”. It is a state of potential. It’s usually me who is the one encouraging my friends to hang on to hope. 

 

I’m sitting in my spacious, quiet room in Sweden as I write. I stop typing and put my hands in my lap. I don’t know what to say, where to end. Unusually for me, I started writing this with no clear idea of where it would lead. I just felt I had to write, had to hold on to words and language as a kind of lifeline through climate-related uncertainty.

 

Through language, Mckesson says, “we find the gateway to liberation, to justice, to freedom”. The Pacific Climate warriors rise up because “we’re not drowning, we’re fighting.”

 

In my stomach, I sense a faint but persistent re-kindling. I hope it’s called courage.

 

After the rain – my first month in Sweden

A few days before class on my way home, I step off the train to discover a deluge. I have over a kilometre to walk, I’m wearing shorts and a light windbreakder, and the water gods are having a ball. The cold, unrelenting pelts are all I can hear and feel and I try not to panic. My housemate kindly saves me with his car.

Two days later, I invest in a raincoat and I find half-price gumboots the next morning. The waterproofing symbolises my attempts to tame the overwhelming chaos of moving continents.

***

In class, we’re asking what defines journalism. In a chaotic world of content overload, disinformation and never enough time, how should we find, verify and package our stories?

Out of class, I’m asking what defines living fulfillingly, for me. In my quest to dig temporary roots in a new city, how should I stay healthy and connected, optimise my learning and contribute to communities?

I came here because I wanted to follow trails that begin with that first question, what is journalism. Specifically, what qualifies reporting as “investigative” and how can I do that investigative thing well. I’ve found no shortage of reading on the topic, and am beyond relieved that this is 2019 and my books of choice are proving refreshingly easy to access online.

But I’ve spent at least as much time determining what lies at the core of stability and fulfillment half way around the world. On the days when I’m warn down reassuring extremely concerned passers-by that I’m capable of getting wherever I’m going, or where I misjudge and miss the half-hourly train, or when I learn the hard way I need to own a raincoat and carry it always, I have to focus. I have to remind myself not just about the IJ course I excitedly discovered on google, but also of my priorities.

So far, I’ve gotten the hang of a new kitchen, learned the routes to the supermarket/train station/class and gotten through the start-of-year quick-news-assignment blitz. I’ve found an Irish music session, signed up to the model UN group, and have a Social Sciences Environmental Student association (try that five times fast) meeting on Tuesday.

I'm standing on the small swedish island of vrångö with two friends. You can see a boat dock and fields in the background.

On a miraculously and unseasonably sunny afternoon, I even picnicked and explored with classmates on nearby island Vrångö.

***

With a new friend, I walk over the hilly cobblestones from Språkcafé to the nearest tram stop. That café is a magical spot where you can find others wanting to speak/practice the same language as you by noting the flags indicating as much above each table. On thursdays, my day of choice, the selection is French, Spanish, Catalan and swedish. I haven’t spoken French or Spanish much all year and I relish the mental workout despite the rust.

On the train home, I hear the torrent begin as we pass Partille, one of the stations before mine. I put my raincoat, scarf and gloves on and brace myself. At home, I change and attack my liberally dripping hair with a towel (more use of my hearing won out over a hood or umbrella).

I’m hot by now and it’s after ten but I head to the freezer anyway. I free a scoop of strawberry ice cream from its cardboard box and tuck in. It’s been a month since I arrived in Sweden. There will always be the time and need for more questions, but for now, I’m content knowing that I’m getting better at finding the literal and metaphorical ice cream after the rain.

My Faithful Travel Companion

As a familiar Irish lilt comes to life in a pub in Sweden I have never visited, I want to cry. Instead I pick up my flute to join in.

 

This is the Irish trad (or traditional) session culture – all you need is a space (preferably a pub to quench the thirst), a handful of trad players, someone to kick off a tune and away it rolls.

 

In a new city, there are few things more reassuring than finding a familiar community, and though I’d yet to say more than hello to the players, I was at home in seconds.

 

Back at my Swedish house, music was also hard at work with its bonding powers. A housemate plays piano. Another adores everything to do with flying and planes. After a few jams, and reprises of Les Mis’ On my Own, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida and the Qatar Airways boarding music, the living room felt even cozier.

 

The comfort is a familiar feeling, if I wind the clock back four years.

 

In Montpellier, France, I bonded with my host mother’s granddaughter as we taught each other our piano favourites. My solfege was rusty and my French was slow, but it didn’t matter. In Salamanca, Spain, I made some of my best friends through the university choir. Our songs traversed Eastern Europe to Mexico, and after rehearsals we often found tapas and got chatting.

 

Earlier this year, in Tokyo,Japan, I took pride in performing waiata (Māori songs) with my fellow New Zealand delegates. I also got to farewell the Japanese delegates with my flute – that’s where the photo above comes from. And every year that I return to the National (but actually international) Braille Music Camp near Sydney, Australia, I remember the joy of a shared hobby and of passing along music knowledge to a younger generation.

 

Music, this versatile and universal hobby, is definitely a keeper.

 

 

Leaving a trace through Gothenburg

It’s a balmy day by Gothenburg summer standards, 20°C and not too windy. Four of us, two Kiwis and two Finns, pause outside a café on a bustling Gothenburg street, long enough for me to register it’s the first café I’ve been to in Sweden.

“I wonder if they have kanelbular here. The cinnamon buns?’’ I say. I try and fail to recall what other Swedish delicacies I’ve read about.

“We have those in Finland too,” comments Mirja, one of the Finns and my coursemate-to-be. The café does have chokladbollar,, though.

I can’t try a cinnamon roll but there’s coconut-covered chocolate instead. Not bad. My Kiwi friend Anna asks if they eat those in Finland too.

“A little.

Mirja and her friend order in Swedish. Mirja says her Swedish is rusty, though she studied it for nine years at school. “In Finland, it’s compulsory to provide all services in Finnish and Swedish now,” her friend explains. “Swedish-speaking Finns in Finland are the biggest minority, and vice versa .”

Sweden, it turns out, colonized and ruled Finland for about six centuries, until 1809, and the effects linger. The country, my housemate would later tell me, does not reciprocate by teaching its students finnish.

***

i, a European-presenting woman, am standing beside a weathered wooden boat. the blue paint is pealing off and turning to white.
This photo is a trace, of my being here and of the path that the 25 and many other assylum-seekers took.

The next week, my Kiwi friend Anna and I visit Gothenburg’s Museum of World Cultures. In the immigration exhibition, we find a wooden fishing boat, perhaps six metres long, that was used to smuggle 25 people across from Melilla * (a Spanish-controlled city in North Africa) to Almeria, Spain. “the boats,” are guide explains, “are usually burned when they are found.” What is it, I wonder, about removing traces? Our guide says photos of these haven’t been prominent in the media, and he encourages us to take our own.

***

Two reindeer, in about three metres in front of the other, feed on grass in a paddock. There's some kind of grain plant behind them, and trees further in the background.
Reindeer

Later that day, anna and I hunt out the zoo. It’s nestled into a hilly park. We grab cheap ice cream, and head for the petting area. Anna loves the smell of the horses, familiar and comforting. I’m delighted when a baby goat leaps onto my leg and nibbles my jacket enthusiastically, even while I fulfill my human obligation to gently reprimand it. I’ll never take a chance for a tactile encounter for granted, especially not when playing tourist. When the petting area closes, we wander further up the hill and pause beside paddocks of Swedish cows (huge, apparently), elk and at least three kinds of deer. Some reindeer populations, a sign informs us, are still owned by the Sami people, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. I do a bit more googling when I get home and find that reindeer husbandry has traditionally been a key occupation for the Sami people, and that one in eight (2500/20000) of Sweden’s Sami population still live this way. It’s the only mention of Sami I’ve encountered so far since arriving in the country.

***

I want to dig into these realms of histories, of roots that come into view when you are looking for them. It’s one way of understanding where I am, when I’m in a new place.

Another way of understanding where I am involves mastering routes of an entirely different sort, like the one to my nearest train station, even on one of the town’s frequent rainy days, where the whoosh of the traffic is amplified. Any diversions from the most direct route should be temporary, and only mildly inconvenient rather than disorienting. I’m almost there on that one.

***

There’s a week to go till classes start and I’m excited. When I finished uni in 2017, I knew I needed a break from studying after five years, despite missing the security of its routines and communities. Now, the prospect of slowing down and focusing in on one overarching subject is inviting, especially in collaboration with classmates from across the world, and a city I have so many questions for.

 

*I *think* the guide said the boat came from Melilla – somewhere in North Africa, anyway.