Kathleen Flynn: Liberia

Kathleen Flynn shares her experience of going to Liberia in 2017 as an Accountability Lab Fellow. It was her fourth trip to the country.

September 1, 2017

Last fall, I had the honor of coming to Newhouse as the Visual Communications Fellow at Syracuse University. As the VIS fellow, I have worked towards getting my master’s degree and served as an instructional assistant, teaching photography and multimedia at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Returning to school after having worked in the field for more than 15 years was an adjustment, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the experience. It has given me space to explore different ways of storytelling and I’ve been energized by the vision and enthusiasm of both professors and students. It has allowed me to discover and embrace new ways of expressing my vision and to delve into issues and stories I have long wanted to tackle. 

It has also given me the opportunity to return to Liberia, a place where, for more than a decade, I have felt a deep connection. This past summer I spent 10 weeks in Liberia working with the Accountability Lab, a nonprofit that aims to support active citizens and foster an environment of societal integrity. The fellowship I received was created through a partnership between the lab and the efforts of professor Ken Harper and his creation, the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement. During my time in Liberia, I documented the work of the Accountability Lab in order to build support for the organization’s mission as well as for the people who work under its umbrella. This was my fourth trip to the country, the last one being in 2009.

My return to Liberia is a testament to the importance of relationship building and holistic dedication to issues, countries and causes that need attention.

Students learn how to use a camera.
Flynn’s students in Liberia.

I first traveled to Liberia to cover post-conflict stories in 2007. In 2008 and 2009 I returned for media development missions through the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts. During these missions I helped Liberian photojournalists hone their craft and showed them how to use blogs to tell their stories from their own perspectives. On my second media development trip, I was given the option to bring along someone to help me with photojournalism trainings. My good friend Ken Harper had just started his job as a professor at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, so I thought he would be a perfect candidate. From that trip, Ken built mutually beneficial relationships between SU and various nonprofits and media makers in Liberia. He continued empowering Liberians in telling their own stories through a media development program called “Together Liberia” and he also created a website tracking the spread of Ebola during the height of the crisis. The Accountability Lab fellowship is just one of many incredible initiatives that Ken has created over the years which has students global issues, and stirred them to thinking about the world and their place in it.

The Accountability Lab fellowship gave me the opportunity to work with some incredible change-makers in Liberia, and to return to a place which I feel needs the attention of the global community. Liberia has deep ties to our country. It was settled by freed American slaves after the U.S. Civil War ended. For several hundred years descendants of those freed slaves ruled the country. In 1980, after a riot broke out over the price of rice, unrest led to a violent coup d’etat by indigenous fighters, and resulted in a horrific civil war that continued for another 23 years. When it was over, 200,000 people had been killed, half of the population had been displaced and the country’s infrastructure was ravaged. Rebuilding will take a generation, but comparing what I witnessed on my first trip there in 2007, I can now see a generation of young people that has grown into young adults who know peace and want to maintain peace.

The Accountability Lab is doing the much needed and effective work of uplifting those Liberians who see hope in their future and have the drive to make change by creating accountability in their country. During my time there this summer, I documented the work of Liberians who had been selected as part of the lab’s accountability incubator. Their Accountrapreneur program selects local change makers who have started their own grassroots accountability focused work in Liberia. The Lab provides training, management support, fosters networking, and seed funding and fundraising to help with the success of their endeavors.  One of their current Accountapreneurs, Miatta Mulbah, founded Leemah in response to the sexual exploitation and violence that have remained rampant since the end of the Liberian civil war. Leemah is a non-profit organization that uses music and street theater to advocate for and raise awareness among girls who face challenges of sexual violence, abuse and poverty. Logan Campbell is another Accountapreneur, who created LiberianTV. He not only trains youth in television production and is now using large scale cinema boards in public spaces to provide free, accessible, and entertaining information on key, accountability-related issues to the Liberian public.

The Newhouse Center for Global Engagement’s Accountability Lab fellowship is mutually beneficial. It is not only an incredible way for students to directly contribute to strengthening the stability of Liberia, it is also an enriching opportunity to be immersed in an African country whose history is deeply intertwined with our own.