Having devoted a majority of my college career to journalism, I’ve come to consider it an art form. The technique of interviewing. The process of editing. The craft of storytelling. Despite spending years honing those skills, I now realize this passion of storytelling is something I have taken for granted. I have become so accustomed to telling someone else’s story, I had forgotten that sometimes it’s more important for them to tell their own.
During our five weeks in Cambodia, we have partnered up with the Siem Reap-based NGO, the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF). Each of us has been assigned to various projects, from working with students in classrooms, to helping PLF graduates expand a start-up business. Of course, when I was informed that PLF was looking to redesign its media curriculum, I felt excited to lend a hand. Working alongside Florencia (another student of Lang in Cambodia) and the organization’s two media teachers, we reinvented the curriculum and ran a pilot class with six students. Now that we’re nearing the end of our time here, I can confidently say that these youth have far more to offer to me than I do to them.
One of the exercises in the media class was to create a storyboard for a photo series. Prior to going out and taking photos, students had to come up with ideas for what they wanted their story to be about. I was asking one of the students what she wanted to show in her photo story. She said she didn’t have any ideas, so I told her she could tell a story about anything she found interesting or thought was important. And then she told me, “But I don’t think other people care about what I think is important.”
It’s quite easy to overlook this exchange. Yet, it is undeniable that this sentiment is illustrative of the way many underprivileged youth here in Cambodia feel about their relationship to the larger world. I wanted to say the following to that student: “The feeling that there is some sort of universal indifference to your opinions about your life, your people, or your country, is the result of intergenerational trauma from oppressive leaders even beyond your own borders, a massive bombing campaign and genocide, a lack of the most basic infrastructure from education to proper sanitation, and countless international organizations transplanting ill-fitting “solutions” to your home, a place those strangers are often terribly unfamiliar with. I wanted to tell her that there is a history behind the statement she made – a history that does not need to repeat itself.” I wanted to tell her that the first step in charting a new path forward is to allow Cambodians to write a new story themselves.
This rewriting isn’t literal either. It shouldn’t only be applied in the context of media and journalism. This type of self-determination should become integral to the work of every organization, especially foreign, that enters a new place. Development workers should not solely be thinking of how they can identify problems and how they can fix them, but rather how they can work alongside Cambodian people to carry on those projects themselves.
I just graduated from The New School this May, and I had a plan that now seems in some ways contradictory to the politics I believe. Now, I have started the process of reassessing my method, and seeing how I can apply this newfound knowledge to whatever role I choose to occupy in the process of change, whether it be through a career in journalism or development.