by Stirling Kelso '01
Working far from home, journalist Jordan Jones '10 finds the stories closest to his heart.
Jordan Jones, Potomac Class of 2010, was making impressive strides in DC after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was thrilled to be back home among friends and family and excited to have landed a fellowship at The Atlantic, which quickly turned into a full-time job as a social media associate editor. Still, something was nagging at him. He wanted to be reporting stories of his own, not just prepping articles for social media platforms. And while he understood that there was a ladder to climb at an established publication like The Atlantic, he wondered if there was a more fulfilling path to meeting his professional goals and also to achieving something that he talks about with admirable candor: a higher spiritual purpose.
To illuminate, Jordan cites “The Sound of the Genuine,” an essay by the late philosopher and Christian mystic Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. Thurman writes, “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again – you are the only one.” This message, Jordan says, inspired him to find his own story and empower others to find theirs, as well. Little did he know his professional and spiritual journey would take him to South America.
Jordan applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in 2017 and was awarded a grant to teach in Medellín, Colombia – a city that he quickly fell in love with, thanks to its people, pace, and natural beauty. He worked with college students at the National University of Colombia, teaching English, studying Spanish, and learning how to navigate the city on crowded buses or using Picap (essentially an Uber for moto-taxis, or mopeds). A year later, Jordan headed home to DC, only to be quickly pulled back to Colombia after an auspicious conversation with Daniel Alarcón, the producer of NPR’s Radio Ambulante podcast. Over crepes at Union Station, Alarcón imparted a bit of wisdom that many of us learn too late: Now is the time to take risks, he told Jordan. Youth affords freedoms that are harder to justify later in life, when responsibilities like family and a mortgage weigh you down. “I bought my return ticket to Medellín that day,” Jordan says. A reporting job with ESPACIO – the parent company of the English-language Bogota Post – and a glass of fresh maracuyá (passion fruit) juice were waiting for him when he landed.
Today, at age 27, Jordan is the managing editor of ESPACIO and works with a variety of publications that fall under the umbrella brand. And he’s loving his adopted city and culture. “People enjoy life here,” Jordan says, “and they take time with each other.” He describes chance meetings that turn into long lunches over meat-filled arepas. He praises the city’s vibe, citing an entrepreneurial spirit that is “alive and addictive.” He talks about simple pleasures like drinking fresh fruit juice on his way to work in the morning or hearing the people on a crowded bus break into song.
To some, Jordan’s positive take on life in Medellin may seem surprising. Many people hear “Medellín” and reflexively flinch. It’s only been about 20 years since the city suffered from extreme violence at the hands of Pablo Escobar and his drug cartels. At the height of its activities, the Medellín Cartel handled up to $60 million in cocaine daily and is believed to have assassinated some 3,500 people. Today, Medellín is a different place, one that tops travel lists thanks to its wildlife, coffee plantations, and a growing arts scene. And while it sits squarely in a third world country, the city has been purposeful in its rebirth, rethinking education, public transportation, and infrastructure. There are now architect-designed libraries, an interactive science museum, and a stunning pavilion in an 1800s botanical garden that was once closed due to high crime rates.
At the same time, crime undeniably exists. “Make no mistake, Colombia is a developing country – and it shows, once you step outside your bubble,” says Jordan. It was hoped that a November 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group, would be a major turning point. It did signal progress; in fact, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Piece Prize for his efforts. But, with FARC’s impact diminished, the agreement left a power void that has inspired factionalized armed groups to make land and gang grabs around the country. This destabilization has affected all regions of Colombia, including Medellín.
The juxtaposition between real advances and new setbacks makes this an interesting time for Jordan to be in Colombia – as a journalist, a foreigner, and someone who believes in a bright future for his adopted homeland. He often finds himself navigating a tricky balance between writing the article he wishes he could and the one he knows he needs to. He explains, “As foreign journalists, we’re able to get access to people and places, often under the pretext of telling a positive story. The challenge is staying true to the reality and not getting pulled into propaganda, even if it’s good for the country’s image.” Jordan cites the story of the barrio Comuna 13 as an example. This neighborhood was once so cut off and crime ridden that the Colombian military resorted to breaking up cartel-led violence there by shooting from helicopters. Today, 1,300-foot escalators costing $7 million link Comuna 13 to Medellín’s urban center. It’s a showpiece for the city government, and in its best light it connects a once-forgotten community to the city’s hub, while also inviting economic opportunities like tourism back to the neighborhood. However, the areas around Comuna 13 continue to be the most dangerous in the city. While life there has improved in some regards, many see the changes as a Band-Aid on the problems, rather than a holistic solution to longstanding culture and infrastructure issues. To explore such a complex topic with accuracy and fairness is the journalist’s challenge.
Jordan executes this intellectual dance with skill and grace. He has written stories that take an unflinching look at the challenges of post-peace accord life in Medellín, and others that focus on the city’s thoughtful, positive strides in innovation, entrepreneurship, and eco-tourism.
Jordan also has a personal and professional interest in the AfroColombian community – its history, evolving culture, and current political role. The history of AfroColombians, he explains, is essentially the history of Black people in the Americas. “Enslaved Africans were dispersed throughout the country with little regard to their own ethnic customs,” says Jordan. After slavery was abolished in 1851, the population in larger cities mixed, creating a more racially plural society. But in many rural parts of the country, the AfroColombian population has maintained a greater degree of ethnic homogeneity, holding on to cultural practices that existed before their ancestors were brought to Colombia.
Medellín has a large and growing AfroColombian community, as people continue to move there to escape violence and displacement in other parts of the country. Some of this urban migration is met with resistance. “Many of these new communities are informal settlements, referred to as ‘invasions.’” Jordan says. “There is some resentment from people who feel like those who move here are sapping the city’s resources.”
Nevertheless, Jordan says, the city is poised to become “a cultural incubator of the diaspora” – one that, he hopes, may be more welcoming than in the past. There is evidence of this in his work: Jordan has covered protests – racially mixed and heavily attended by Medellin’s youth -- against violence that disproportionately affects AfroColombians. He has also covered local art and dance that tap into AfroColombian culture, something that adds a new level of depth to the Medellin arts scene.
Jordan is excited about emerging efforts to support and bolster AfroColombian youth. He volunteers with Carabantú, a cultural foundation based in Medellín that uses storytelling through photography and film as a means to teach, preserve, and affirm the AfroColombian identity. Carabantú participants, who range in age from 5 to 17, find their voices by creating art on personal topics. The organization also hosts forums and film screenings that speak to the Afro diasporic experience in Colombia, the star of which is the annual International Fica Kunta Kinte Film Festival. Here, film directors, musicians, scholars, and activists come together to discuss representation and access in Colombia’s Black community. Last year, Jordan recruited noted documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson – the founder of Firelight Media, described as “a premier destination for non-fiction content by, for, and about people of color” – to attend the event.
The festival culminates with a trip to a barrio, or neighborhood, which Jordan helped to organize last year. There, in the middle of the street, Carabantú screens all of the projects that the children have worked on. “Imagine,” Jordan says, “fifty kids sitting on plastic chairs watching themselves being projected on a white sheet in the middle of the street against the backdrop of Medellin as the sun goes down. We borrowed electricity from the local corner store and redirected traffic. A tsunami cloud threatened to pour on us the whole time, but it all worked out. It was tremendously exciting to be part of something like that, to see the reactions of the kids and others in their community.”
While Jordan dabbles in film himself, some of his most engaging articles on AfroColombians in Medellín and beyond center on language. In an opinion piece for the Bogota Post, for example, he untangled the term “nea.” In its earliest form, “nea” was shorthand for gonorrhea, its anthropological roots traced to the jail cell of a famous drug criminal in the early 1980s. Today the word is a complicated one, which, in its neatest translation into English, can mean “ghetto” on the one hand, and “compañero,” or “bro,” when used among friends. It also defines a certain haircut – “business in the front, reggaeton in the back”—makeup, and style of dress. But who is allowed to use the word, Jordan asks, and under what circumstances? “Because the origins of the word are unmistakably racial, the discussion around it pertains very closely to race,” he writes. “Does ‘nea’ refer to a socio-economic status, an education level, a region, a culture, a lifestyle, a hairstyle? And again, who ‘gets’ to use it?”
It’s a pleasure to listen to Jordan reflect on the joys of his adopted culture, to read his writing and follow along as he wrestles with words and their deeper implications. His work reflects an experience that is, at times, raw and uncomfortable; it is a guided thought process that could, perhaps, only be plainly written by an foreign journalist and a “Black gringo,” as Jordan describes himself with a smile. Above all, his writing responds to the universal desire to discover what one is uniquely called to do, to seek out and realize a higher purpose. For now, Jordan is helping to write Colombia’s story. And through that process, he’s also writing his own.