By Jess Dankenbring, ’17
In 2013, writer Paul Salopek began a 21,000-mile, seven-year journey on foot, recreating the path that our ancestors took some 60,000 years ago. His project, Out of Eden, focuses on slow journalism and the art of storytelling. This spring, Don Belt, an adjunct journalism instructor who has worked for National Geographic for 30 years as a writer and foreign editor, worked to bring Salopek’s journey to life in the classroom and help students take his methods of slow journalism and apply them locally.
“What matters to Paul is journalism and literary journalism in particular,” Belt said. “He’s uniquely equipped to be out chasing around the world because he is at home anywhere. He grew up in Mexico, being dragged from one place to another by his artist father. He crossed his first international border when he was six years old. He’s truly a citizen of the world in ways that nobody else I know is.”
Slow journalism is key to the course and refers to the process the Salopek used to create his extensive project.
“Because Paul is walking, he’s moving slow with these stories, not zooming past in a car,” Belt said. “He’s not parachuting in like a foreign correspondent. He’s walking through these stories and accumulating detail and storytelling at every stage of the journey. That same principle can be applied to our community.”
One of the first assignments Belt gave students was to take a walk somewhere in Richmond and make a really detailed map about what they found. Before embarking on their walks, the students met with Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) staff at the UR Downtown campus for an overview of how CCE community partners are addressing some of the city’s most pressing issues. Then the students went into the city and recorded gnomes, sidewalks, stray dogs, public art, signs, and other details.
“All of that could be looked at as material for a storyteller or a journalist or a geographer who wants to understand what life is like in that community,” Belt said.
When Belt proposed the idea of the course to journalism faculty, he did so wanting to make sure that it would be open to students of a variety of majors.
“This subject is applicable to many different disciplines,” Belt said. “By studying the methodology of Paul’s reporting, you can cover your community, you can cover your neighborhood, and you can cover your street in a way that will surprise you with the things you find out by slowing down.”
The course did ultimately attract students from journalism, geography, science, and education—and a variety of applications for slow journalism followed. Garrett Fundakowski, ’16, a math and biology major, was able to use the class to connect to his work with Richmond Ambulance Authority.
“The health care system is very interesting to me and topics proposed for this project look at how poverty affects health care,” Fundakowski said. “Richmond is unique because it has something like 12 hospitals in the city limits — and maybe a few outside the city limits — that Richmond Ambulance Authority will transport patients to. There are a whole lot of stories that you can get from that. There are a lot of people that come in contact with a patient from start to finish.”
Whether the students go on to become journalists, health care workers, or something else entirely, Belt hopes they’ll continue to find opportunities to slow down and look around.
“All of my students have an innate interest in just learning about the world,” Belt said. “What we lack is meaning. We have no shortage of information. What human beings have always needed from the very beginning is meaning. What does our life mean on this planet? What is our role in this community? What are the deeper meanings of what we’re hearing and seeing?”
Photo of Don Belt by Ed Kashi.