Friday, April 23, 2010

Whitworth journalism alumna reflects on internship at the Center for Justice, travels in Southeast Asia

Jessica's story appeared as part of Tim Connor's article, "At Work in the World," which appeared in the Center for Justice's April 2010 "Justice Calling" newsletter

For a young woman who was deeply inquisitive and who loved to write, Jessica Davis, '08, arrived at the Center for Justice in early 2006 with an awkward problem.

"I was afraid to talk to people on the phone," she remembers. "I really had a fear of it."

It's a laughing matter now because I'm on the phone with her while she's taking a short lunch break from her job as a one-woman news bureau in southern California's Coachella Valley (Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park). Among other things, I'm asking her what was going through her mind in May of 2008 when, only recently having overcome her fear of telephones, she defied the military government of Myanmar (Burma) to smuggle in medical supplies and smuggle out video and news photos in the wake of a natural disaster.

"I didn't realize how dangerous it was until I left [Myanmar]," she says, even though one of her vivid memories is of a Burmese soldier cocking his gun at her and a companion as they tried to circumvent a checkpoint and approach the house of dissident Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suellen Pritchard leans back in her chair and smiles when asked what she remembers about meeting Jessica Davis for the first time. It was January 2006 and Davis, feeling bored and restless, wanted to do some community service. It just so happened that the university's community service coordinator–fellow Whitworth student Alise Delzell–was on her way up to the Center to scout out possible internships. So Davis hitched a ride with Delzell and became, in short order, one of the first students from Whitworth to become an intern at the Center's Community Advocacy (CA) program.

"Do you remember what she needed help with?" I ask Suellen.

"Talking to people," Suellen replies. "She was very shy. Not really withdrawn but very shy. I remember that about her, because when I found out she was working for The Whitworthian (the Whitworth University student newspaper) I was shocked. I was like, 'Jessica Davis is working for the Whitworthian? Are you serious?"

Alise Delzell, who's now the Operations Director at the Spokane affiliate of Boys and Girls Clubs of Spokane, has a similar recollection.

"She's not a wallflower," Delzell says affectionately about Davis, "she has a strong presence, but it's a quiet presence."

And so they went to work. Suellen and Jessica. In 2006, all the CA interns were packed into the fishbowl and Suellen asked her shyest intern to watch and listen as she and the others took calls. And then Suellen would ask Davis to give it a try.

"It was kind of like watching a flower bloom," Suellen says. "She was just kind of closed when she came in. And when she left, she was nothing like that. She was able to just rock on the phones. There was this remarkable change, all in one semester, and it flowed over into her Whitworth reporting as well, because I remember I was just like, 'where did this girl come from?' She was just amazing."

Suelen has vivid memories of both Davis and Delzell, who also went to work for her in the CA program. In her black binders and on her Facebook page, Pritchard now has hundreds of faces and names and stories of interns who've spent a good chunk of time not just learning the ropes in CA, but literally allowing the program to exist on such a modest budget relative to the hundreds of clients the program helps.

When Suellen became the Community Advocacy coordinator at the Center–not long before Davis and Delzell made their visit–she could only think in terms of the work the Center would be doing for our clients. What she didn't anticipate is what it would do for the interns, how the experience in the trenches of fighting for the poor, disadvantaged, and disabled would propel them to make giant strides in their personal growth.

"I never thought of that portion of it when we started Community Advocacy," she says. "At first, I was just overwhelmed. I thought 'I'm never going to be able to pull this off because I'm going to be constantly training. And, you know, what is their (the interns) level of learning going to be? Am I going to have all these personalities to cope with. I'd never been in a manager's position, or done anything like it. But Jessica was among the first students who came in and every single one of them was just amazing in their own way. For me it's been such a gift to work with all these students who are on the same mission as I am, to change the world in the same way. They want to make a difference. They love it."

As a young woman doing her internship at a law firm, Jessica Davis says her experience at the Center for Justice gave her several important lessons and one of them, a bit ironically, is that she really had no interest in becoming a lawyer.

"When I did the work for the Center for Justice," she says, "I realized that my talents weren't in the law. It helped me realize that I was going in the right direction."

The direction was toward journalism. But even that path led her to what can, for some, be a sticky dilemma in that there can be a big difference between exercising compassion and the ostensibly dispassionate practice of reporting.

Jessica doesn't see it that way, or at least not in a way that presents her with an irreconcilable conflict.

"First, I'm a human being," she says. "And as a human being I value justice. I believe journalism provides justice in ways that are similar to the Center for Justice, because we [journalists] give voice to the voiceless. We are often giving a voice to people who can't speak for themselves."

As Jessica got deeper into her studies and her work as a reporter for the student newspaper at Whitworth she says she began to realize she had "a huge hole in my education" and that she "really needed to travel abroad and challenge my world view."

For her senior year she had the opportunity to study either in Asia or Africa. She chose Asia and relocated to the University of Hong Kong where she shared her dormitory room with Chinese medical students.

"Because I was such a fast writer," she says, "I finished my course work early."

And that gave her an opportunity to do other things, including teaching English in southwest China and traveling to Malaysia and Singapore. What she discovered she enjoyed the most was her time in Muslim parts of Asia where she found the people remarkably friendly and laid back.

"I'd never been to a country where there was the call to prayer, such a change in the rhythm to time, and the remarkably different architecture. Their whole way of approaching life is so different than ours."

She decided to stay in the Far East longer than she'd originally planned, making trips, blogging and freelancing articles.

Jessica had already made arrangements to visit Myanmar on a tourist visa, to attempt some surreptitious journalism, when a category 4 typhoon, Cyclone Nargis, got to Myanmar first, striking hard in the Irrawaddy Delta region, killing thousands of Burmese people.

She found herself grounded in Bangkok, with the airport closed in Myanmar.

"I was just kind of in shock," Jessica remembers. "I was horrified about it when I learned about the number of people who'd died. I just felt I had to do something."

A major complication in visiting Myanmar, even on a good day, is that since 1962 the country has been governed by a military junta. In modern times, the regime is something of an international pariah because of its brutal human rights abuses. Since 1989, the military leadership has confined the leader of the Burmese Democracy Movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, to her home. The residence is a living shrine to those struggling, at great risk, to bring democracy back to the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the toll of the natural disaster was exacerbated by the Myanmar regime which, having thumbed its nose at the international community for criticizing its human rights record, was determined not to show any signs of weakness by accepting foreign assistance. It told the world it could handle the tragedy on its own. There wasn't going to be any news footage of foreign relief aid being handed out to Burmese cyclone survivors.

But that wasn't going to stop her. She went to work organizing her fellow travelers waiting in Bangkok to smuggle first aid supplies into Myanmar.

"We went to a drugstore in Bangkok," she says, "and just cleaned it out, basic medical supplies. We shared them on the plane and split them among many people, in different compartments, in our clothing and spread them out to make it look like they were personal supplies."

For Davis, she had planned to wear the traditional loose, flowing clothing of the region anyway, so it just allowed her all that much more room to hide things on herself.

"I was trying not to look like a U.N. volunteer or an American tourist," she said.

She also wanted to bring things out of Myanmar. In a real sense, she was a humanitarian mission going in, and a human package of smuggled journalistic cargo, including her own photographs, coming out. She did almost all of her traveling on foot to avoid being in a car that could be searched. Her small and easily concealed Canon SD 870 camera was perfect for her photography.
"The gist of it was that I went to Burma because I was curious to learn what had happened and I still chose to go [after the Cyclone struck]," she says. "I thought that if I could get some images, then I can get out what was really going on. I felt really compelled to release the images and get those images out."

None of which surprises Suellen Pritchard.

"Oh, yeah, that's Jessica," she said when she heard about Davis's adventure. "That's the girl who left here."

The images would show that the Myanmar government was failing, miserably, to do what it said it could do, which was to address the needs of cyclone victims without outside help. But Jessica's guides also led her to Burmese nationals who wanted to smuggle out other images.

"I had a few close calls," she says. "I wound up meeting a smuggler with video of people talking about being beaten. I smuggled that out. He had interviewed monks in hiding. I mailed the videos to an advocacy organization when I got out."

She stayed a week before she had to return for a meeting in Hong Kong. Jessica says she didn't fully realize how much danger she'd put herself in until she got out, but vividly remembers being confronted at gun point when she and a British national tried to get close to the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is detained. Fortunately, she says, her British companion was able to calm the guard by speaking in Burmese while Davis held her hands out to show the guard she was submitting to his demands to leave.

As she talks about it a year and a half later, though, the memories that are the most vivid to her are from the days she spent with the Burmese people in the countryside near where the cyclone hit.

"I was struck by the generosity of the Burmese people," she says. "It was one of the most beautiful cultures I've ever experienced. They were in the midst of this horrific crisis and they were offering me food. It just blew my mind. They're so strong, that's what became apparent to me."

She confesses to being somewhat torn between her promising and successful life, now, as a busy American reporter in Southern California, and the urge to return to Burma and other places in southeast Asia where she experienced a joy and richness to life that she genuinely misses.

"I try not to think about it too much," she says, with a wistful laugh.

For now, she says, her main objective is to become a better writer, with a clear understanding that this is her gift, and the best way she can improve the world around her.

"It was really tough for me when I worked at the Center for Justice," she says about the tension between her wanting to directly pitch-in and help people, and the broader good she realizes she can do by writing about peoples' experiences.

"Helping people is really where my heart is. But my talents are in journalism. I have to focus on that because that's how I can help people."