DREAMer Jessica Colotl Caught in ‘Eye Of The Storm’

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Ryan Schill DREAMs in color. Full-color pages, to be precise.

Schill, an award-winning journalist, recently chronicled DREAMer Jessica Colotl’s journey to and through Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. In doing so, he broke the typical journalist’s mold. With artist Greg Scott, he created “Jessica Colotl: Eye Of The Storm,” rendering one of many thousands of individual DREAMer struggles in the style of a graphic novel.

“Jessica Colotl: Eye Of The Storm” was published through a partnership of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), a daily publication covering juvenile justice and related issues in the Southeast and around the nation, and the Cartoon Movement, an online publisher of political cartoons and comics journalism.

Schill, the Assistant Editor for the Center for Sustainable Journalism (publisher of JJIE and Youth Today), recently won a Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Award for a story he penned about the consequences of misdiagnosed child abuse. He told us about the DREAMer project through an email interview. Here’s how it unfolded:

What spurred you to cover Jessica’s story in this format, and how does it fit into the big picture of what the JJIE aims to accomplish? 

Coincidentally, Jessica and I were both attending Kennesaw State University (KSU) at the same time, although I didn’t know her personally. We even graduated together. So I’ve been following her story in some capacity from the beginning. As an undergraduate I also wrote a lot about the DREAM Act and other immigration issues.

At JJIE, we have always taken an expansive view of juvenile justice and the plight of young, undocumented immigrants such as Jessica, so this seemed like a natural fit. Last December we produced a multimedia package featuring a video interview of Jessica by my friend and former JJIE multimedia reporter Clay Duda, alongside audio interviews I recorded with two other undocumented students.

So when we decided we wanted to do a comics journalism project we quickly thought that immigration and Jessica’s story in particular would be a great fit for the format and made sense for us to tackle. I’ve always believed that journalism is way of giving voice to the voiceless in society – not to necessarily advocate, but to say to the world, “Hey, this is an issue we should all be paying attention to.” Maybe only one side of the story has been heard. We can correct that. And comics allow us to really put a face to the immigration issue in a way that even broadcast can’t. Using direct quotes from Jessica and others and incorporating them with art drawn directly from interviews and research gives the story a lot of power.

What was your most important take-away about America’s treatment of immigrants, after working on this project?

Immigration is a very complicated issue and it’s easy to understand the arguments on both sides. Yes, these are people who are in the country illegally.  But many such as Jessica were brought here by their parents at a very young age. So they are here illegally, but through no fault of their own. They were not given a choice. They were raised as American kids. I think, ultimately, everyone needs to remember these are real people like you and I, not just some abstract political construct to be debated on cable news and in Congress. We need a solution, absolutely, but we need to come to that solution with the undocumented immigrants’ humanity firmly intact. In my view, this is a human rights issue tangled up in a question of civil law.

It really hit home for me after the comic was published when I met Jessica for a Telemundo interview. The interviewer spoke to her in rapid-fire Spanish and Jessica’s response surprised me. Her Spanish was slower, more hesitant, and she stopped more than once to ask the interviewer how to say a particular word in Spanish. Afterward, she told me her Spanish was rusty because she so rarely used it. And yet those in favor of deporting undocumented immigrants would have her sent to a country she hasn’t seen since she was a small child – a country that speaks a language she struggles with more than English. It really comes down to how we define who is American.

Did you find a lot of overlap between the immigration detention movement and people active on U.S. juvenile justice in general?

I haven’t actually found a lot of overlap, which may be more of a result of how I’ve reported the story than anything else.

You’ve published Jessica’s story in both English and Spanish. What kind of responses have you had for the two versions, when you compare the community and media reactions?

We’ve had a great response to both versions. The media response has been split between those interested in immigration and those interested in comics journalism. But the community has definitely responded well to the immigration issue in the comic, especially immigration- and Latino-rights groups.

Are you seeing Jessica’s story used as an educational tool in some diverse contexts?

It’s almost too early to say right now. I haven’t heard of anyone picking it up as an educational resource, but we’d love to see that happen. We’d be happy to work with organizations that want to use it for educational purposes.

Where else would you like to see it used in order to have maximum effect?

We’re exploring publishing a print version of the comic, but we’d love to see the comic in as many different venues as possible. It tells an important, powerful story, but it is also a great lesson in how the immigration system in the United States works.

What’s next for you and JJIE/Youth Today?

We’re talking about possibly creating another comics journalism piece and brainstorming potential topics. But we are really focused on expanding our reach generally. We want to be the go-to place for news on juvenile justice and youth work issues and all the various places those touch.

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