Sower’s Seed Lecture: Amy Costello
September 2007Amy Costello ’92
I am honored and humbled to be here before you tonight, at my beloved alma mater. Congratulations to my fellow Red Class of 2008 as you begin your cap and gown weekend. I hope you enjoy your celebrations thoroughly.
Thank you for inviting me here today to help kick-off the weekend. I plan to share with you this evening some of the ways that my Trinity education has informed my ideas about social justice and to share with you the ways in which my commitment to social justice has impacted the stories I have covered as a journalist.
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.
Fortunately, I’ve seen that the work I do has made a difference; that listeners care. I’ve received letters from people who said they had done something concrete as a result of hearing my stories. I know of a blind musician in Sierra Leone, John Sese, who was struggling away, learning to play trumpet on a rusty, broken instrument. Today, John has a brand new trumpet, donated by an American listener who heard my story. What will that new trumpet do for John? In what ways will it inspire him? How might our acts of generosity change the lives of others in small ways and in profound ways? I am convinced that any good deed ripples far beyond the one person to whom we give.
I know of a child from Africa who was adopted by an American family after they heard my story about an orphanage in Ethiopia. When I last heard from them they were trying to adopt a second child, this one was HIV positive. What contributions might those children make to America? How might they change Ethiopia in the years to come? Will the friends of this family be inspired to adopt, too?
I have a feeling that there has been other concrete results of the work I’ve done and the stories I’ve told. I will never know. And none of you will likely ever know the manifold ways that your acts of generosity, your sacrifices, your bravery or your service to others will impact your community, your country, or quite possibly, your world.
But I’d 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 a little more tonight 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.
Then I found myself thrust, unexpectedly, into a position where I was compelled to put my beliefs into action, almost against my will.
I, like you, was a student at Trinity during a time when our country went to war. The summer before my junior year, Sadaam Hussein’s forces had invaded Kuwait. By Thanksgiving, the United Nations had authorized the use of any force necessary to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
At the time, my brother was stationed with the US Army in Germany. I knew he would be part of the war if the United States decided to intervene. I was personally opposed to a military solution and wanted our Congress and the United Nations to explore a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Some of us students thought that Trinity should be more actively involved in opposing the war. I was Junior Class President at the time, and I approached Pat Mc Guire, who I think was in her second year as Trinity’s president.
I told her that students were thinking of starting a group on campus to oppose the war. I figured that our relatively new President would discourage an organized student protest on our usually quiet campus. I braced myself for her opposition to our idea. Instead, she looked me in the straight in the eye and said, “I was waiting for SOMEBODY to do something!”
With that go-ahead our congressional letter writing and petition campaign began. We called and wrote to members of Congress, imploring them to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We signed petitions. I found that doing something constructive, rather than worrying silently about my brother, was the best thing I could do.
I also found it incredibly empowering to bring people together for a cause greater than ourselves. I found it consoling, too. Knowing that many people on campus, who didn’t have a loved one in the war, were also outraged, were also scared. I no longer felt so alone.
Unfortunately, our little campaign for peace came to a screeching halt one night. I was standing in the dining hall, getting ready for dinner. My friend burst through the front door, eyes wide, and said, “We just bombed Baghdad!” Petrified, I ran to Social Hall where a TV had been set up in anticipation of a war we knew was imminent.
I watched those first images, which we are now all too familiar with: the night sky over Baghdad, and those eerie, silent flashes of light, bursting in slow motion over the city. As I watched the explosions, I feared for the civilian population who lived near the targets we were bombing. And I feared desperately for the life of my brother whom I knew at that moment was on the frontlines of the invasion.
It was too much for me to bear. I ran, alone, down the marble corridor, past the well of Main, and past President McGuire’s office. I don’t remember how or where but President McGuire herself intercepted me in mid run as tears streamed down my face. She took me into her office. I don’t remember much of what she said. But I do know that she helped to calm me down, that she listened, and above all, I knew she was sad to see me in pain. I’m sure that whatever she said to try and console me was much less important than the fact that she was there, physically present, and that I did not have to be alone. That someone was listening, intently, to my sad story.
When I was in my greatest time of need: so many people on this campus spurred me into action, encouraging me to channel my passions and my heartache into something constructive. And at those times when it became too much for me to take, I found that various members of the Trinity community, from professors to friends, knew how to console me.
Since then, 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.
But empathy has a cost. Empathy can take its toll. It’s taken its toll on me. I cannot forget all the suffering I’ve seen up close. It’s a road I’ve decided to take, of my own free will. As a reporter, and as a human being, I really wouldn’t want it any other way. And in my effort to be a compassionate person, I have laid myself bare and seen the worst that human beings can do to one another. Because I care, sometimes too deeply, about the people I’ve met, I carry the cumulative weight of their crises with me to this day. Sometimes I fear, in fact, that I have seen too much — that in my effort to shed light on the horrors that go on in corners of the world where few outsiders have been, I have extinguished some of my own inner light.
Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy the small things in life without feeling pangs of guilt. Sometimes I become aware that I’m not continuing to do enough for people and causes that need much more attention than they’re getting. But I also hope that I am a better human being because of all I’ve seen.
I like to think that I let most things roll off my back these days…cramming into the subway at rush hour, not having as many dollars in my bank account as I’d like…these things trouble me a little less than they would if I’d had a more insular life journey.
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.
I knew that I would have a desire to be close to those who are suffering by my freshman year at Trinity. Spring break was around the corner. Until then, I’d always associated spring break with parties, a prospect that appealed to me very much.
But instead of heading to a place like Fort Lauderdale, I decided to join other students who were going to pile into a van and head to Apopka, Florida with Barbara McCrabb’s predecessor, Sister Seton.
We would live with, and work beside, migrant laborers. It was a busy time of year for them. They were picking ferns in order to satisfy America’s curious and apparently insatiable appetite for Easter floral bouquets. They were paid a pittance, of course. The work was, as I discovered for myself, back breaking. We visited extended families packed into trailers, living in conditions unfit for human beings.
We saw American neighborhoods, shotgun shack after shotgun shack, that looked like those you’d expect to see in many parts of the developing world. Witnessing the underbelly of American life first-hand this way, working side-by-side with some of America’s most ill-treated workers, was the most powerful lesson I could ever hope to receive about how far we needed to go if we were to ever call ourselves a democracy…. where everyone is created equal and has inalienable human rights.
This trip to Apopka was before the days when we criminalized and demonized people who come to this country with the dream of slowly creating lives for themselves, dollar by sweaty dollar. From then on, I knew I would want to delve into this part of life, the part of life that takes place in the margins, out of eyeshot of most of us. Those were people I wanted to be with. Those were the stories I wanted and needed to tell.
And so, I ask you tonight, what story do you want to tell? It seems to me tonight’s photo essay contest, “The Story I Need To Tell,” could well be a metaphor for life. 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.
In many parts of the developing world, those who prosper are expected to give back to their extended families and neighbors and help support those who cannot support themselves. It’s a huge obligation on breadwinners. In places like Africa, which is all too often portrayed as a continent of needy recipients of foreign aid, I would argue that there’s plenty of evidence that Africa is a land of givers, too.
How about the young, idealistic judges I met in Congo who continued to turn up in court each day, representing indigent clients, even though they hadn’t been paid for months? Would you still go to work each day if you didn’t get paid?
And then there’s the newspaper editor in Sudan, who continues to turn out a daily paper that opposes his genocidal government. He shows up for work each day, lambasting the tragedy unfolding in his country, despite death threats and regular imprisonment. Would you continue to speak out if someone threatened your life? If they threw you in jail? Would you speak out upon your release, knowing you might well be taken to jail again? And possibly tortured? Africa and much of the developing world is filled with people like this. People overcoming incredible odds, defying authority, because they need to speak the truth, because they need be true to themselves, because they simply have a story they need to tell.
And when I meet people like that, such as the judges in Congo working without pay, or the Sudanese newspaper editor, I in turn, become emboldened too. If they can sacrifice so much for their ideals, what am I capable of accomplishing? How far am I willing to go in order to seek the truth?
I feel it is my obligation as a journalist to ask tough questions of those in power. Sometimes this has been frightening for me. Perhaps never more so than my trip to Darfur when I was finally granted an interview with a high level official whose government had been accused of genocide, of trying to wipe out a portion of its population through a campaign of aerial bombardments and vicious attacks on civilian populations.
When I was granted the interview, I was fresh from Darfur, where I had met many victims who’d been forced to flee their homes as a result of the government’s campaign. I was outraged by the carnage and destruction I saw. And when I finally got to sit across from the government minister, with cameras rolling, my heart was pounding. And I confronted him about the charges of genocide. And when I felt fear I simply remembered all those people, both dead and alive, who would never get to sit across from this man and ask him why. It was my responsibility to call him to account on behalf of all of those who would never have that opportunity.
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 discovered that early on, here at Trinity, during that trip to Apopka. A friend and I were placed with a young family of Spanish-speaking migrants. The daughter, who was about 10, moved out of her own room, and on to the couch, to make space for us. Her younger brother was about 7.
On our first night in their home, we were treated to a home-cooked meal. The mother had put out a spread of tortillas and rice and beans and meat. The young boy arrived at the table last. His eyes lit up and a huge smile broke out across his face. He turned to his mother and said something to the effect of, “Wow, Mommy!” The mother returned her son’s smile, and beamed with pride. I could see by the boy’s radiant face, and by his mother’s response, that this meal, which to my eyes looked delicious but perfectly ordinary, was in fact a rare occasion in this home.
My heart sunk. I had no concept of the sacrifice that likely went into making this meal possible. Here a family of field workers, with so little to spare, had given us, their privileged guests from up North, a meal which, judging by the boy’s reaction, they could scarcely afford on most occasions.
That moment, looking at the boy’s beaming face, brought into sharp relief the abundance in my own life that regularly clouds my ability, to this day, to see moments of beauty and to be grateful for small, important things, like the privilege of a delicious meal.
Since that evening with migrant workers, I have traveled great distances, and found myself returning time and time again in my mind to that dinner table in Apopka.
There was the farmer in Malawi who walked me out to his bone-dry land, showing me his crops that stubbornly refused to bear fruit two seasons in a row. He had no food to feed his family. Later that day, I watched, dumbstruck, as that same man ran out his front door and down the long dirt driveway that led from his home. He was flagging down our vehicle with great urgency. I rolled down the window and looked into his regal, smiling face. He presented me with a gourd; a dried, hollowed-out squash, as a parting gift. Its shape was beautiful, undulating curves, round and perfect; its shell a deep and brilliant orange. Nature’s glorious art. It was a sad relic, too: fruit of the earth, this man had preserved. As I held it in my lap on the long journey from his home, I realized it was a memento of better times, from the days when nature had been kind to this man.
To this day, I wish I could part more readily with all that I possess. To run great distances and with abandon. To give strangers something beautiful of mine, from a time in my life was good, and not expect anything in return.
This is the side of Africa, the side of life in Apopka, the side of extreme poverty, that we don’t hear enough about in the news media: the dignity with which people live their lives despite all the daily threats against their dignity. In this nation of ours we tend to boast about our independence and self-reliance, as if it’s something to strive for and be proud of. But I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing out on in the process. For in places like Africa, and in an increasing number of places in our own country, people have to band together, living communally the way people with little must, just in order to survive.
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, as I just mentioned, 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.
The more I traveled around Africa, the more clear it seemed to me that the violent psychoses that plague our societies, the kind that make it unsafe for women to walk the streets at night, are a unique byproduct of the so-called “developed”, the so-called “civilized” world. In places far from televisions, mass media, and the trappings of our popular, increasingly violent culture, I feel safe.
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.
Thank you very much for having me here this evening.