Ten Brown undergraduates get a crash course in global affairs journalism during winter 'bootcamp'

Over winter break, ten Brown students learned the ins and outs of journalism focused on global issues and the nuances of international reporting in an evolving media landscape at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a prestigious Washington, D.C. think tank. In one week, they learned more than they could have imagined.

How much can you learn about the practice of modern, data-driven global affairs journalism in one week? Ten Brown students found out during a special "Journalism Bootcamp" hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington, D.C. During the week, the students not only learned many of the tricks of the trade of modern journalism but also gained valuable real-world experience that built critical life skills, including the value of teamwork, the importance of consensus building, and how to persevere while navigating power dynamics and competing priorities.

Seniors Tevah Gevelber, Georgia Harrington and Anushka Srivastava, juniors Yeabfikir Alemayehu, Sofia Barnett, Alex Freehoff, Nathan Haronian and Julia Vaz, and sophomores Tom Li and Ramla Jabbour were chosen to participate in the intensive one-week training session by the Watson Institute's Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS). Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs Stephen Kinzer, himself an award-winning foreign correspondent, accompanied the group to the think tank's headquarters.

According to CSIS, the "bootcamp" is a chance to connect "rising journalists with policy experts and multimedia producers to tell pressing stories from around the globe" and for students to develop a "meaningful understanding of global issues and the nuances of international reporting in an evolving media landscape."

Tom Li, a dual concentrator in International and Public Affairs (IAPA) and economics who serves as metro section editor of the Brown Daily Herald, said the group met in early December in advance of the bootcamp to discuss possible topics. "We pitched various ideas to one another, including what a stable Ukraine would look like and democratic backsliding," he said. 

The Sahel

After the discussion, a survey was sent to the group, and they decided on a topic: the recent succession of coups that have disrupted U.S. partnerships in the Sahel, a hot, dry African region between the Sudanian savannas to its south and the Sahara desert to its north. The region includes parts of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Sudan, nations that have experienced eight coups between them since 2020. Li credited IAPA concentrator Anushka Srivastava with bringing the situation in the Sahel to the group's attention.

Srivastava said she became particularly interested in the Sahel during the spring of 2023 when she was on a leave of absence from Brown interning in the office of United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

"While looking at different portfolios at the U.N., I found the Sahel region particularly interesting," said Srivastava. The summer following her internship she spent a month doing advocacy work at International Crisis Group where she did research on Burkina Faso. "I wondered if there is something endemic to the region or if there is a policy reason that could explain the string of coups," she said. Srivastava said that after further research, she wasn't satisfied she had found the answers, "So I pitched the idea to the group to see if we could get to the bottom of it during the bootcamp."

Learning new skills

The group arrived in Washington on a sunny and unseasonably warm mid-January day and spent their first day exploring the city. The next day, they dove headfirst into the project.

"During their time at CSIS, the students did two things," said Kinzer. "First, they learned about the Sahel from experts provided by CSIS. Then, they learned various journalistic skills to help them communicate what is happening in the Sahel." The students learned skills that included data visualization, audio and video editing, and creating graphics and diagrams. Kinzer noted, "The skills the students learned will stay with them and be valuable whether they go into journalism or not."

These newfound skills were tested when the students created a special multi-media website, "Closed Doors, Open Windows?: Refocusing U.S. Strategy in the Sahel." The site, now hosted online by CSIS, explains the current crisis in the Sahel, delves into the region's history, and suggests possible ways forward. 

The students merged text, images, video, audio, graphics and data visualizations to tell the region's story. They seamlessly blended a wide array of topics critical to understanding the current crisis in the region, integrating them into an engaging and detailed presentation, all backed by quantifiable data and input from leading experts on the region.

Completing such a monumental task required the students to specialize. "They broke us off into groups of two or three for different components of the multimedia project. There was a web design and story team, as well as teams in charge of data visualization, audio, and video," said Li.

Navigating competing priorities

While working on the project, the students learned an unexpected lesson — how to navigate competing priorities. 

History and English nonfiction concentrator Sofia Barnett noted that while working on the project, the students realized that their priorities and those of the think tank were not perfectly aligned. "CSIS picked the experts that we talked to," said Barnett. "We talked to ambassadors and people in the U.N. who are doing great foreign policy work, but we didn't talk to the people directly impacted by policy — the people of the Sahel." 

The students felt CSIS expected a report focused primarily on U.S. policy toward the Sahel, while they hoped to create something centered on the Sahel and its people. "[It was] a bit contentious at first," noted Srivastava. "It felt like the CSIS staff wanted to take the project in a different direction than we envisioned. And there was a subtle power dynamic at work — we were there to learn from them," she said, "Pushing back against that kind of authority can be difficult." 

Barnett said the group believed that uncritically following CSIS's direction would be a journalistic mistake: "We would be projecting our interpretation onto something we have no personal experience with," she said. Srivastava added, "We all agreed that we did not want this to be a story about the Sahel that's actually about Russia and the U.S. We didn't want it to be a 'great power' political commentary." The students were determined that the voices of the people of the Sahel would not be lost in their policy analysis.

While this was not, perhaps, the approach CSIS initially envisioned, the Brown students remained resolute and united in their approach and CSIS proved open to the change in direction. Srivastava said, "We wanted the project to be rooted in the people of the Sahel, what they want, and why things didn't work out from their perspective instead of being about how the U.S. can use this as an opportunity to advance its foreign policy interests." "Once we realized we were on the same page about this, we mobilized and organized, pushed forward, and did not budge," she said.

Srivastava noted that time constraints prevented the group from contacting citizens of the Sahel directly, but "As a compromise, I did some outreach to interview the Crisis Group Sahel researcher, Franklin Nossiter, [who is] based in Dakar but happened to be in D.C. that week." Several students interviewed Nossiter after the official bootcamp day ended. "He had a much better finger on the pulse regarding local dynamics and grievances, and we all agreed that including [him as a] source in our final presentation made it a much richer conversation," said Srivastava.

“ I think our final project shows how resolute we were, which is why I'm really proud of it, and I'm really proud of my peers for sticking together despite the obstacles we encountered. ”

Anushka Srivastava IAPA Class of 2024

"Ultimately, we did center the story on the people of the Sahel and on local organizations that are rebuilding their world themselves," said Barnett, "Those local organizations understand the needs of the people they are serving, and the U.S. government should partner with them to help ensure their success rather than intervening militarily or doing other things that don't work," she said. 

Srivastava agreed, "I think our final project shows how resolute we were, which is why I'm really proud of it, and I'm really proud of my peers for sticking together despite the obstacles we encountered." She also expressed gratitude to CSIS for providing the resources that made the project possible and allowing the students the freedom to chart their own course. Srivastava said she also appreciated the networking opportunities CSIS has made possible, including with bootcamp alumni who are currently working as journalists, a career path she hopes to follow after graduation.

The completed report explores the topic from multiple perspectives in great depth, drawing on both the knowledge base CSIS provided for them and the resources the students sought out themselves. Its conclusion suggests a new path for U.S. policy in the region: "When supporting these initiatives, the United States must think from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Local non-governmental organizations, economic development groups, and other indigenous stakeholders understand the needs of Sahelian communities in the greatest detail. The United States and other global powers must highlight their voices in the path toward regional stability and prosperity."

Many of the group's students say they plan to pursue careers in journalism after they graduate from Brown. Whether they do or not, the lessons they learned together will serve them well regardless of their chosen vocation.