Action. Empathy. Nearness.
Journalist Amy Costello ’92 Presents the 2007 Sower’s Seed Lecture
Trinity’s Cap and Gown Weekend kicked off with the third annual Sower’s Seed lecture in Notre Dame Chapel. Endowed with generous support by Kelly Snider Dunn ’64 and her family, the Sower’s Seed program highlights alumnae who have incorporated into their lives the Catholic traditions of service and social justice that are central to the Trinity experience.
Amy Costello ’92 is a freelance journalist and teaches at Columbia University. For five years, she was the Africa correspondent for “The World,” a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International and WGBH Boston. Costello investigated allegations of genocide in Darfur, Sudan, for the PBS television program, “FRONTLINE/World”; her story was nominated for an Emmy award. Below is an excerpt from her speech.
Trinity was for me the social and academic bedrock from which I sprang determined and compelled to bring attention to issues that matter to me, in this beautiful, fractured world of ours. A world that is increasingly polarized between the haves and the have-nots. A world stratified between those with weapons and the vast majority who are unarmed and at the mercy of people with guns. We are all temporary visitors on this glorious planet, Earth, which most agree is in a state of peril with global warming and habitat destruction occurring at an unprecedented scale.
This is the world you will inherit and to which you will have to contribute in some way when you leave the doors of Trinity behind you for the last time on graduation day. What will you do with your passions? How will you address the injustice you see around you? What will you do about the injustice you may have already experienced yourself? How will you decide, in this world of information overflow, where the truth lies?
In my work as a correspondent, I’ve tried to seek truth. By that I mean I’ve tried to be completely open and receptive to others. I’ve done my best to approach people I interview with an open heart and an open mind; to tell their stories honestly and in the most compelling way possible so that my audience may care about the plight of those I report on.
I’ve spent time with children in Sierra Leone who have been abducted and forced to take part in war as child soldiers. I have traveled across dangerous roads in Darfur, Sudan, to meet with victims of an ongoing genocide that the world still refuses to stop. I have been at the bedside of a South African man in the late stages of AIDS, living in a tiny, musty house without one person to care for him and only aspirin to ease his unimaginable pain. I wish you could’ve seen the smile that broke out across his face the moment I walked in the door with a home health care worker.
I have sat with a trembling woman in a remote village in Congo who had a fresh bullet wound in her arm. She described to me, her voice quivering, about the rebels who had, just two days earlier, killed her four children as she held them in her arms. Surrounding her were bandaged, wounded toddlers who’d somehow survived the massacre that claimed the lives of more than 57 people that day, most of them women and children. And there have been worse things, I won’t share here with you tonight.
I have risked my life many times traveling on dangerous roads, in unsafe vehicles and helicopters, so that I could reach the side of, and hear the stories of, people who live in the shadows. I have told the stories of people who too often and increasingly measure their days not by the hour but by the time that passes between one violent act and the next.
And for me, this has been a sad and harrowing and incredibly rewarding road to travel. It’s been a road that’s left me filled with awe for the incredible obstacles I have seen people overcome. I am inspired by the resilience of the human spirit, the way people desire to keep going despite the horrors they’ve endured. I’ve been humbled over and over again by the humanity I’ve witnessed first hand. And I’ve been struck by the humanity people continue to show to one another despite everything, or perhaps because of everything, they’ve endured. People across Africa freely shared their stories of hardship and victory with me, a white woman from a privileged background. What an honor that was. And what an obligation. I carried their stories home with me as though I had been entrusted with crown jewels. Each tale and account in my possession, was given to me with such trust, and demanded nothing less than my very best in return.
My sole objective in each story I tell is to make people care about those I have met. To transform large, sometimes overwhelming issues, into compelling, dramatic stories about human beings with names and faces and voices. After all, if people turn the dial when they hear a story of mine on the radio, if they’re bored or tune out, then what’s the point of my work? If I don’t make people care about subjects I cover then I have not only failed in my job as a reporter, I have let all those people down who took the time to speak with me and trusted me with their stories….
I urge you to consider to not look outwards for reassurance that your work has impacted others. Instead, measure your success by your own barometer. If you know you are doing the very best you can, if you feel good about the work you’re doing – tangible, positive, significant results are bound to follow. Your work will make a difference in the lives of others, in big ways and in small. If, on the other hand, you are not proud of the work you’re doing, if you feel your talents are not being used in the best way possible, get out. Life is too short and this world is just in too much need of your great talents.
In my own career, I have been motivated and guided by three impulses. And I began to really listen to these impulses of mine when I was a student here at Trinity.
The three things that have driven me in my career, which had their genesis here at Trinity, are a desire to put my beliefs, and my commitment to social justice, into action. Secondly, I’ve tried in my life and in my career to listen, compassionately, much more than I speak. And the third thing that has driven my career as a correspondent and as a human being, is a desire to get up close to, and to be right beside, those who are suffering. I’d like to talk to you about these three desires, these principles if you like, that have motivated me: Action, Empathy, and what I’ll call ‘Nearness’. I’ll talk about the way that my Trinity education informed and shaped these three principles of mine. And I hope to show you how rewarding it has been to try to live out, or live up to, those principles in my every day life.
The first principle I’ll talk about is Action.
One of the things I recognized almost immediately when I started at Trinity was the way so many people around me were putting their beliefs into action, from professors to students, from the administration to staff. People weren’t just talking about things, they were doing things. I found Trinity a positive, inspiring place to live and learn. With the supportive environment of a women’s college, I came to believe, profoundly, that I could really do anything I set my mind to. And I also came to understand, not because anyone told me this explicitly, but simply by way of their own example, that I should use my talents in the aid of good causes….
Since [my time at Trinity], I’ve tried to channel my own passions, for things like women’s equality and children’s rights, to direct my outrage about the violence I see around the world, and to do something constructive – to speak out about the atrocities and injustice that I’ve witnessed with my own eyes.
And, when appropriate, I’ve used that other guiding principle I mentioned earlier, that of Empathy, to listen to those who are in pain, to never tire of hearing people’s stories. To console and listen, the same way I was consoled and heard when I was a student here. There is a proverb that encapsulates my definition of Empathy, the second guiding principle in my life.
I couldn’t find the origin of the saying. But it goes something like this, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.”
I have tried to live out that proverb in my work as a journalist. My audience on public radio and television hears me speak, of course. But every sentence I write in those stories comes from hours and hours of listening intently to the stories of others. My voice is heard only after I have spent days on dirt roads, in broken down vehicles, in rusty helicopters. In 120 degree heat. In unrelenting sandstorms. I write my stories, I speak to my audience, only after listening with every ounce of my being, as strangers unfurl their stories into my microphone.
To this day, in my life and in my work, I try to speak less and to listen more. In doing so, it has been my hope that when I do speak, my words have meaning. My words speak truth. My stories reflect as accurately as possible the world not from my perspective, but from the perspective of those who live it, and who often merely survive it, day in and day out….
In order to speak the truth, in order to live out my desire to be an empathetic journalist and human being, I’ve found it’s vital to carry out that third principle of mine, that of Nearness. Getting up close, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to those who are suffering the worst forms of abuse.
Remember that woman I told you about in Congo? Who’d lost her four children in a massacre? There was no more effective way for me to understand the instability that plagued that region, to understand the horrors of a complex and long-standing civil war, than by looking into the eyes of that grieving mother. In order to understand the fear under which she lived, I had to walk myself, under armed escort, on the very same soil on which those men had carried out their massacre.
In Darfur, after militia had carried out another campaign of genocide, I have rubbed the ash from a burned out village between my own fingers, acutely aware at that moment that this is real, that this happened. That the genocide continues to happen, as I speak here before you tonight. Then I have taken my shock and my horror and my pain and I have tried to turn out the best story I can so that people who will never walk in these places I have walked, may care, and ideally, be compelled to act…
And so, I ask you tonight, what story do you want to tell? What story do you want to tell others during your short time on this planet? If someone else wrote about your life, right now, tonight, what would that story sound like? What would it look like? Would it endure after you are gone? Or would your story fade and fizzle after you took your last breath? What mark do you want to leave? What mark do you want to leave? It’s a question I ask myself all the time.
I know that the only way I will leave a mark of any significance is if I have others to support me on my journey. I have learned, the hard way, frankly, that I need support in my quest to be strong and passionate and determined. That in order to put my ideals into action, in order to listen and be empathetic, in order to be near to others, I need to have people around me with whom I feel safe being vulnerable. Confidants who will listen to my stories, family who accept my imperfections and my many shortcomings, friends and loved ones who will catch me when I fall short of my own ideals, and love me just the same.
In South Africa, where I lived for six years, there’s a saying called “unbuntu”- roughly translated it means, “I am because you are.” It is a cyclical expression. “I am because you are.” It is a reminder of our interconnectedness. That I cannot exist with you….
While my job as a journalist can feel empowering, it can also be humbling. With each year that passes, I think I finally have the answers, and then I am struck down and reminded that I don’t. Just when I think I am the one in the position of power, the noble do-gooder, I find that the roles are suddenly reversed, and I am the recipient of kindness. I am the one with much to learn….
I am concerned about our human tendency to retreat, to avoid Nearness at all costs. What lessons are we missing out on in the process? What gifts might we have received if we’d put ourselves out there into the unknown? Next to realities that make us uncomfortable? Yes, tragedy and sorrow and heartache and inequity can be very difficult to see up close. But if we don’t get near to it, how do we know that it exists?
I fear that our society has carefully, not by accident, but by design, created a culture where the untouchables are now conveniently out of view: prison inmates, the mentally ill, the migrant workers.
What do we fear may come from Nearness? Is it simply fear of the unknown?
Instead of avoiding Nearness, I have tried in my life to seek it out. I have gone to extraordinary lengths to reach the sides of strangers. And I’ve gone to extraordinary lengths because the most marginalized, the most at-risk people, are almost always hidden from view. Those who are worst off in this world are also the most difficult to access.
When I wanted to find out how bad a food crisis was, I traveled for hours, in a four-wheel drive, down sand filled paths, you couldn’t call them roads, to reach a small village that was completely cut off from aid relief. By doing that, I could gauge more accurately how people in the region were coping. Had I stuck to city centers, I would’ve had a false impression that things were much better than they actually were.
Often the first question people ask me when they hear what I do is, “Are you scared traveling by yourself in Africa?” My answer is a qualified “no”. By and large, I have had nothing but positive, life-affirming experiences in my travels on the continent. I spent most of my time in small villages, at the ends of dirt roads. There, I have been welcomed warmly by traditional societies that still treat women with respect. I have been in places where I suspect I may be the only foreigner for miles and miles around. And I have felt completely at ease….
I have taken many risks during my career as a reporter working in Africa. There were many occasions when I feared for my life. There was the time our vehicle broke down, three times, when we were traveling in a volatile region of Darfur.
Then there were the more overtly dangerous assignments, traveling with heavily armed rebel groups.
But when I ask myself, or when others ask me, why I took these risks, I don’t have a complete answer. I think I simply felt compelled to see the conditions under which other people were living. They faced risks every day, after all, far greater than the risks I faced, so I saw no good excuse to insulate myself from those dangers.
And the risks were equal to the rewards.
Try to get out of your comfort zone, regularly. If you’re nervous, that’s a good sign. If you’re not nervous, it may be a sign that you’re not being challenged enough. Acknowledge the jitters you have, prepare yourself as best you can, and dive in.
As each of you set off on your own career paths, I will encourage you with the same words that my former Trinity professor, Dr. Joan Kinnaird, shared with me before graduation. “Follow your passions,” she said. Those words were so liberating, torn as I was between choosing a path that could’ve felt like the one that others would have liked for me; the one that seemed more ‘reasonable’. But the statement, “Follow your passions” is also a challenge. Because sometimes it means going against the grain to do what your heart is whispering for you to do.
Instead, time and time again, I’ve chosen the less expected path. The one fraught with uncertainty, physically, financially, emotionally. But for me, it is the one that feels right in my heart and in my gut. Following my passions has taken me on a path I could have never, in my wildest imagination, thought possible. It’s turned into a successful career path for me and a rich personal life, too.
Follow your passions, always, whenever possible, and I hope that you, too will find yourself on a path that may at times feel uncertain, may at times feel lonely, but I hope will always be blessed for you.