So we had a rough year. Crises escalated; more people were forced from their homes. People in Michigan continued to live with contaminated water. People in North Dakota feared their water would be taken away. Others had no access to water at all. We elected someone who didn’t know the meaning of the word “unprecedented.” My favorite person in the world passed away.
2015 and 2016 were formative years.
At the end of 2014, I graduated university. I moved to another state for the first time. I worked with Spanish-speakers, teaching ESL and trying translation. I had a snowy winter, hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail and completed my first rock scramble up a mountain. I visited family I never get to see. I finished my lifelong dream of writing a novel. I wrote articles, won writing contests and helped with a social media campaign to raise money for a nonprofit.
After seven years of plans, LaV and I finally backpacked Europe together. Before leaving, we went to D.C., saw the monuments and visited the U.S. Holocaust museum we did a project on in 11th grade. We visited our old friends Marjorie, Stefanie, Simon, Lea and Max and made new ones including Claudia, the Magdalenas and Eva. We went to London. We saw Sophie Scholl’s memorial. We ate. A lot. We came home.
I got a “real job” in one of my favorite cities, Austin. I moved into an apartment by myself. I got a 401K. I took the GRE. I applied to grad school. I went to my first writing critique out of a school setting. I got torn apart in that critique. I kept writing. I fought my worst fear and jumped out of a plane. I began graduate school, started building a tiny home on wheels with my dad and became a Texas State Park Ambassador with McKinney Falls.
It’s been a wonderful two years for me. I’ve accomplished things I’ve always wanted to do, spent time with people who mean much to me and had my beliefs challenged and shaped.
But throughout the world, things have been hard. The worldwide refugee crisis has escalated to conditions not seen since after the Holocaust.
My friends’ families in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nepal and Myanmar have tried desperately to seek refuge. Conflicts in North Africa, East Africa and South East Asia have been grossly underreported.
Reported conflicts have become polarized, as politicians seek to use fear for reelection. Two years ago, my thesis was on using storytelling to empower displaced persons. In the paper, I analyzed how politicians and media outlets use conflict for evocative reporting, creating a climate of fear to get more votes or readership.
Everything I saw in my paper came true these past two years. I saw people I love make ignorant, cruel and misinformed statements about refugees, Muslims, immigrants and anyone who was different from themselves. I saw my elected officials act foolishly and irresponsibly in the face of this crisis. I saw the most vulnerable people used as scapegoats.
I saw massacres in my country: constant shootings by police, by people who were angry at the police, by terrorists, by fanatics, by “normal” people. I saw this issue become polarized as people stopped thinking and allowed their political party to do it for them.
I saw my friends in France and Nigeria cower in their homes because they were afraid of terrorists. I watched people abandon sense for fear or because they were tired of “political correctness.” The thing is, shunning correctness in politics these days seems to be echoing Nazi sentiments and building massive, impractical walls.
I look back at photos from these past two years, and I see people around the world trying to move, trying to find safety.
One of the top images of 2015 was a photograph of a toddler washed up on a beach. A toddler lies on the beach, and we still we argue about these issues. As if our common humanity hasn’t washed up as well.
It’s been a hard two years.
But they’ve been good years too.
Within a week, I learned my young friend’s brain surgery went well. The United Way started a new initiative to fight human trafficking in local communities. Gay marriage was legalized and I was able to attend the wedding of my cousin. Several family members had babies. I got to meet my tiny cousin Letty and connect with cousins I didn’t even know I had.
Young women created satellites in Africa to help solve climate crises. Child marriage was outlawed in several nations. More than 20 countries pledged $5.3 billion for ocean conservation and created 40 new marine sanctuaries. World hunger reached its lowest point in 25 years. And for the first time ever, the amount of money it would take to end poverty dropped below the amount of money spent on foreign aid.
To top it all off, my friend Lambert got married and had a kid named Peace.
Everywhere it has been horrible, but it has also been good.
In this coming year, I will take the lessons I learned from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to work toward conserving our shared resources and public lands. I will use what I learned at the United Nations in NYC to promote girls’ education and empower youth. I will remember the words of the smart and hilarious people I work with as we struggle with what it means to work in journalism and how best to serve a community no matter how small. I will learn what linguistics actually is and study how language can transform and inform shared spaces. I will work to uncover my own privileges, not just a buzzword used in social justice circles, but a reality that hinders my everyday interactions with the people I respect the most.
I am excited for 2017. I am ready to speak out against a political climate that says people of certain faiths should be registered or who think building walls will make everything OK.
I am ready to work. I am ready to write.
I am thankful for my friends, family, coworkers, fellow ambassadors and every person who encouraged and challenged me this year.
These terrible, horrible years were two of my best because of the exceptional people in them. I am very grateful.