Piecing together the American puzzle, one encounter at a time

I was walking the streets of Deadwood, a town in South Dakota, when a window display stopped me in my tracks. “The only good journalist is a dead one,” a graphic T-shirt for sale read. Accompanying the text was a silhouette of a person, hanging in a noose under a lone tree. Surely, with a history of racial lynching and a present-day mental health crisis, such images (being sold for profit, nonetheless) would appall anyone? I had been in the country for less than 48 hours, as a journalist on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri, and the provocative messages hit home hard. None of the other passersby batted an eye.

Traveling through a divided United States was part of the reason why I applied for a Fulbright Award in Belgium, where I work for a pan-European magazine that publishes stories from around the continent. Our vision is simple: worrying trends such as environmental threats, disinformation or racism don’t stop at invisible borders. Neither should journalism.

All across the US, stores and pop-up booths along the highway sell highly politicized merchandise

The same could be said about the United States, where an unprecedented wave of polarization is dividing the country along ideological lines. Looking at if and how these challenges are addressed in a country as big as the USA, I hoped to become inspired on how to better report on the people, places, and politics that shape our world.

As a Visiting Scholar, I had the opportunity to audit three classes at Mizzou’s School of Journalism. In ‘Cross-culture Journalism’, eager 20-year olds are taught the importance of intersectional reporting. Together, we questioned power structures, fostered cultural awareness, and recognized their own biases. The “one issue at a time” approach of Dr. Prof. Cristina Mislan walked us through sociological frameworks, inviting a surprisingly open discussion between students.

The Missouri River

More than ever, Professor Mislan convinced me that today’s journalism won’t be able to catch up with tomorrow’s reality. To face the challenges of the future, we need to go beyond geographical, ideological, and personal borders. We, journalists, need to know how to engage in a conversation with our audiences rather than lecturing them. And to tell stories about underreported or often misrepresented communities, we need to know how to respectfully engage with everyone who might not look, vote, or pray as we do.

To put theory into practice, I joined the Advanced Writing class of renowned journalist Ron Stodghill. He challenged us to write from a place of vulnerability, putting as much (if not more) on the line as the people who share their dreams, achievements, and trauma with us in our reporting. So I went to church for the first time in 18 years for a personal essay, wrote about the role of race and class when recovering from a natural disaster for Vox Magazine, and questioned who was at fault for the mistreatment of Native Americans: the United States itself, who ignored the famous phrase of its then brand-new constitution that all men are created equal, or the European settlers who imported the sense of superiority that resulted in 500+ treaties with Indigenous communities, every single one of them broken over time?

Akisha Pinnell-Walls and three of her children visit the site of their old home, which was destroyed in the 2019 Jefferson City tornado. Photo by Matt McCabe & Design by Moy Zhong.

Struggling with the concept of a much-needed reckoning in regards to Indigenous rights, I opened up about an idea to Lynden Steele, the professor of my Photo Documentary class. Soon, a new project was born and I spent the next weekends driving to and fro Oklahoma. 

Missouri has no federally recognized reservations and most of the indigenous people who once inhabited land in Missouri were forcefully resettled in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas). Oklahoma now houses 39 different tribal nations, the majority of them survivors of forced displacement. Between the 1880s and (roughly) 1960s, Oklahoma was also home to 83 so-called Indian Boarding Schools, where Native American children were forced to cut their hair and bury their language and traditions. For weeks, I collected testimonies of the residential school era. The result is a 25-minute documentary on how three generations of boarding school alumni and their families are dealing with the fall-out of cultural erasure, which will be aired on Belgian national television on April 2nd, 2022.

A young girl participates in the gourd dance at the Spavinaw Powwow in October

I must admit my eco-anxiety didn’t fare well with all the miles I spent on the road. Still, I was eager to travel along the fault lines that shape the experiences and social tensions in the United States. I tagged along to rodeo shows with a high-school girl dreaming of becoming a bull rider and went to a mind-blowing Monster Truck show. I visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and had drinks at one of the 22 remaining lesbian bars in the country (for context: the US counted over 200 lesbian bars in the eighties). I stopped in towns of 40 inhabitants and cities chaotic enough to remind me of Brussels. I talked to fervent gun owners in Iowa, caretakers of Buffalo herds in Cheyenne-Arapaho territory, and Mid-Western drag queens. I discussed whether the bootstrap mentality provides independence or excuses accountability, if the American dream actually exists, and the lack of fresh bread and bakeries.

Every encounter I had, fleeting as some might have been, is another brick in the empathy bridge I’m trying to build. Because in all honesty, most of us don’t really know that much about “the other”, making it all too easy to regard the unknown with dislike and contempt. In Europe, I felt a need for journalism that goes beyond borders. In the US, I wished to go beyond the single story we often read about people, for no-one lives single-issue lives. Mixing both desires, we can build an industry that is honest in its curiosity, challenging in its reckoning, empowering in its storytelling. An industry that gives its audiences what they deserve.

A cowgirl awaits her time to shine at the high school rodeo in Palmyra, Missouri

To finish this blog and my stay in the United States of America, I’d like to thank my professors and the staff at the University of Missouri, as well as my fellow students, Fulbrighters, and everyone I’ve encountered and shared a piece of their lives and minds with me. I would like to acknowledge the original inhabitants of Missouri and Oklahoma, especially those connected to the University of Missouri, which sits on land taken from the Osage people. I would also like to honor and thank the following communities for opening their doors to me: the Cherokee Nation, the Ponca Nation, the Chilocco National Alumni Association, the Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. 

Anneleen Ophoff is a Belgian 2021-2022 Fulbright Scholar to the University of Missouri (Journalism Award). Anneleen is a multimedia journalist from Brussels, Belgium. Working for the Belgian-Flemish public broadcaster VRT for five years, she has previously focused on the themes of conflict in the Middle East, migration, foreign fighters and (domestic) terrorism. Since starting as a freelance journalist in January 2020, she has joined the ranks of the pan-European magazine Are We Europe, where she leads multimedia projects that discuss shared challenges that go beyond borders such as disinformation, identity and climate change. Her latest work is a thematic, cross-border magazine on the LGBTQ+ landscape in Europe, called The Queer Issue.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.