Asylum City is currently LIVE on Kickstarter!
Alex V. Hernandez is the engagement editor for 90 Days, 90 Voices and a reporter with Block Club Chicago. You can find him on Twitter at @AVHndz. The Kickstarter campaign “Asylum City: Stories of Immigration and Sanctuary” can be found here. An interview with Alex follows below.
THOMAS: Your Kickstarter’s campaign talks about the Asylum City project, which is made up of a photo essay, feature articles, oral histories, a graphic novel, and an educational ebook. That’s a lot to take on!
ALEX: It is! The 90 Days, 90 Voices team is made up of award-winning journalists and cratives. We began our storytelling project around the time of the first travel ban that President Donald Trump signed on Jan. 27, 2017. Our goal was to look beyond analysis of the Trump administration’s immigration policies and elevate the voices of the people being impacted by them.
When we first started we weren’t even a nonprofit yet, just three journalists and an artist that felt these stories needed to be told. Our first stories were self-published on our website and for the majority of the time 90 Days, 90 Voices has been around we’ve been an all volunteer operation.
Thanks to the responses we’ve gotten from readers, we were eventually able to partner with publications like The Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine and the South Side Weekly to collaborate on stories and publish our content in their respective publications.
So for example, the South Side Weekly was a partner in a project we completed earlier this year titled “La Vida de La Villita: The Life of Little Village.” For that collaboration the 90 Days, 90 Voices team produced a dozen bilingual comics and stories about the challenges undocumented immigrants face in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, which is known as “the Mexico of the Midwest.”
For Asylum City, we’re taking the same approach we used in that previous project but shifting our focus to explore the life and death consequences of seeking sanctuary in Chicago with a focus on the voices of asylum seekers.
Seeking the safety of asylum is not a crime, but if you’ve been watching the news there’s been a growing trend to paint those hoping for refuge here as criminals. According to the United Nations there are over 68 million refugees seeking safety worldwide. That’s the largest displacement crisis since World War II.
And President Trump isn’t alone in trying to criminalize refugees and asylum seekers, it’s a growing global trend.
Asylum City is our most ambitious project to date and we expect it will take six months of reporting to really dig into this topic. And because we’ll be working with a larger group of Chicago reporters, photographers, and artists for this project we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign.
The goal is to raise $10,000 by Nov. 15 to fund this ambitious project.
THOMAS: What is your take on the perceived value of journalism, whether it’s tension between networks, newspapers, and the White House or the use of crowdfunding platforms to support getting these stories out?
ALEX: When I was in college my favorite journalism professor Karen Ann Cullotta drilled this saying into my head, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Chicago Evening Post journalist Finley Peter Dunne coined that line for one of his columns in 1902 and it’s stuck with me ever since. Regardless of the medium a journalist uses, the guiding principle should always be holding powerful people, like those in the White House, accountable and amplifying the voice of the marginalized.
I think that’s where that tension you’re referring to comes from; the current administration is uniquely adverse to watchdog reporting. Whether someone is in the White House or the leader of a local school board, no one should be immune to public scrutiny.
And while the need for an aggressive and diligent free press is more important than ever, funding quality journalism continues to be a struggle. But platforms like Kickstarter are providing a unique path for projects like Asylum City to be funded by readers who believe this kind of journalism is important.
THOMAS: One of your sample panels uses Comic Sans. That’s the question.
ALEX: That is a creative choice that I will defend to my dying breath. Just kidding.
The current Syrian comic is a work in progress. Sarah Conway is our editorial director and she was able to speak to a man who fled Syria right before the country’s civil war began. He’d been conscripted into service and was unhappy with the injustices he was seeing during his tour of duty. He chose to flee the army and eventually made his way to the United States to seek asylum.
I took Conway’s interview transcripts and turned them into a comic book script and then an artist named Jon Brown began illustrating the comic. Using the transformative storytelling techniques I talked about earlier, we worked with the asylum seeker to make sure we were being thoughtful and as accurate as possible in translating his journey into sequential art.
An example of this is the train panel. When Sarah spoke to him, he described being on a train crossing the desert after he had been drafted. Brown is an amazing artist, and when he read my script of that part of the story he drew a very sleek, modern train. When we showed the preliminary artwork to the asylum seeker he complimented Brown on his skill as an artist, but said that train was too nice to be the one he rode.
The asylum seeker then showed us some photos of the type of rusty, utilitarian train he was on. Making sure sources like asylum seekers have agency in how their personal stories are told is very important to the 90 Days, 90 Voices team. And creating a nonfiction comic from that asylum seeker’s story is one of the things I’m most excited about in our Asylum City project.
THOMAS: One of the “Things You Should Know” mentions: “Our narratives seek to provide relevance and context and avoid being careless with language. Can you elaborate on the difference between careful and careless language surrounding immigrant and refugee narratives?
ALEX: Since our inception we used transformative journalism techniques — a set of ethical standards to specifically address the unique dangers facing someone who is a refugee, asylum seeker, or of undocumented status who chooses to share their story with journalists for publication.
The 90 Days, 90 Voices team believes in minimizing harm to sources by both balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort and showing compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. We want to avoid “the second wound” — the hurtful impact that thoughtless, inaccurate, and careless reporting can have on vulnerable immigrants often fleeing war, instability, and tragedy.
THOMAS: There will be drive-by readers who see your project and think, “What an important project. What powerful stories,” without chipping in or diving deeper. What can you share from some of the stories that will knock people’s socks off?
As part of our Asylum City project we want to produce a stunning photo essay and deeply-reported feature story about Venezuelan asylum seekers, the largest group by nationality of people currently seeking refuge in the United States.
For context, one of the people we spoke to during our initial reporting for Asylum City is Melanie Schikore, the executive director of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. It’s a faith-based nonprofit that responds to the suffering of people affected by immigration detention, deportation, and post-detention through pastoral care, advocacy, public witness and other initiatives.
One of the things Schikore stressed when we spoke to her is that every asylum seeker she’s spoken to through her work has undergone trauma. No one becomes an asylum seeker by choice, it’s something that happens to people. And while they are fleeing their home country to seek safety in another country they also often face horrible circumstances because they’re vulnerable as they travel through countries that they don’t know.
We at 90 Days, 90 Voices think allowing asylum seekers to share their stories in their own words is really important. We want to give them back some semblance of the agency they may have lost when they were forced to flee their home and try to gain asylum in the United States.
But again, we can’t complete Asylum City without your support. Please consider donating to the project on our Kickstarter.