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The Problem Seen Round the World: Emmy-Nominated Nat Geo Producer J.J. Kelley Weighs In

Today, we investigate the world and its challenges through the lens of one badass world-storyteller.

My friend J.J. Kelley will take us on a ride through some projects he has covered first-hand such as Joseph Kony, the Congo Civil War, the Murderous Drug-Crisis in the Philippines and even some treachery here at home in the United States. Most importantly, he highlights for us one critical root cause of suffering: lack of governmental accountability.

J.J. Kelley is a Director and Producer for the National Geographic Flagship Documentary Series, EXPLORER. However, believe it or not, J.J. hasn’t always been a world adventurer. Though, he was always a badass. J.J. began as a normal guy who entered college with not a single clue as to what he actually wanted to do.

However, similar to the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, J.J. Kelley dropped out of college after one year. Not to pursue software, but adventure. Coming from a small town in Minnesota, he liked the big world. While working a few small jobs, J.J. would save and travel. He began to ask, “how can I make this a career?”

The big break for J.J. came after he decided to bike the Alaskan Oil Pipeline and record it on a camera. This documentary helped him get into film school and additionally was the piece he used to hustle his way into National Geographic for his first internship.

The rest is history.

Since then, J.J. has filmed on and worked on all seven continents and up to 45 countries. Thanks to the particular planning and security measures with Nat Geo, J.J. hasn’t just been to these countries, he’s gone deep. Congo Gold Mine Warlord deep.

And this is why I reached out to him: What trends has J.J. seen that we haven’t?

When I asked J.J. what was the most urgent item in the world and what story needs more attention he shared:

“I think one common thread I see involved in a lot of the problems that we have is there’s a pretty huge inequality gap, it’s the classic haves and have-nots. The have-nots are either going to be tormented or they’re going to fight back. There are these people in the Congo that dig and they hope for just a couple of little flakes of gold so that they can cobble it together and get five dollars over the course of the month. They don’t even know what the flakes are for and they have no idea that the stuff is called gold. They just know people want it.”

The big point made by J.J. here and throughout the entire interview was highlighting how people who fit the bill of “have-nots” and lack a voice which is what makes it the most pressing issue.

He emphasized that time and time again around the world you see people with low income being exploited by governments that go unchecked and knowingly abuse people who have no way of speaking up.

While both J.J. and I agreed this concept wasn’t anything revolutionary, it is interesting to consider the implications here. J.J. supported his corrupt governance claim the following citation:

“Recently, I was down in Alabama/Louisiana with a lawmaker who was looking into this thing called environmental racism. It’s not your traditional racism but more like these communities of former slaves, freed slaves, where the land had been passed down for generations. We saw people with their front yards filled with human sewage, or people with landfills that were being dumped right in their yard, or that we put our petrochemical plants right near them. Like we put all these toxic things that kill people right in their front yard. I mean we’re legitimately hundreds of miles off from any small/medium cities and I thought, ‘how do these people get their voices out.’”

For anyone who lives in the United States, the lack of voice is a significant issue. Many analysts attribute Middle America’s strong reasoning to identify with President Donald Trump to their inability to be heard and what he gave them: a voice. J.J. even spoke to the polarization of the United States Government:

“A project I am working on is Senator Bernie Sanders. His whole fight is equality and getting both sides to work with each other. They’re like, ‘we’re fighting against each other, we’re never going to come together and solve the big problems in the world today if we can’t get along.’ We need to have people that are going to be more conservative, we need to have more people that are going to be more liberal. You need to find some kind of center.”

As J.J. and I trailed down the path of untapped Governance, we tackled one of his latest and truly most frightening assignments which was covering the War on Drugs in the Philippines.

Unlike the War on Drugs in the United States, the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has given citizens full permission to hunt, murder and kill drug users in the streets. As J.J. put it after being there first-hand:

“There’s a parallel in all those stories. Look at the drug users in the Philippines, these are very poor people that are really at the bottom of society. So, it’s easy for the people with wealth in the larger population to be okay with throwing those people under the rug and going out and killing them. Their voice is so small.”

In the seven months that he’s been in power, eight thousand people have been straight up murdered on the streets and almost a million people have surrendered to the government looking for rehab

There certainly is an interesting paradigm that has revealed itself over-time in our human history. Any student of history has seen this happen time and time again where power begins to abuse itself.

As we mentioned, the concept itself isn’t revolutionary, however, in 2017 where we live in an age of transparency and information, the mass populace have a much deeper voice than ever. J.J. weighed in:

“I think I got into this whole thing with the idea that I just wanted to be out there. I just wanted to have an adventure. But once you are here you can’t ignore the fact that there are stories. You’d be squandering the opportunity if you didn’t take those unheard stories back and try to make a ripple.”

I asked J.J. how to get involved in things like this. He shared:

“Obviously, we’d love it if anybody would tune into our show that hasn’t seen it before. In terms of getting involved yourself, you could go out there, you could put yourself on the front line. You could find these people. Or you could work with people that are going there and just share those messages, spread that word. Support that work financially. Or even just share it on social media. Just to try and amplify that voice even more.”

What I love about J.J. is the guy’s courage. If you have a moment to read our full interview transcript, it’s totally worth it. J.J. quit Nat Geo after scoring a full-time job because he knew he wanted to be in the field. Slowly but surely he proved he could be a field Director. J.J. travels to literally the most dangerous places on the planet for the sake story and voice.

If you want to get involved, as J.J. shared, take action. That’s the whole motto at Pocovo. Pocovo strives to give voice and push a world of discussion into action. Think less and act more.

To keep up with J.J. Kelley, I first highly recommend his Instagram, that’s where I first connected with him. But most importantly, here is his website where J.J. publishes snippets, images and some of his best videos.

You can download all of his episodes on iTunes by searching National Geographic or go to nationalgeographic.comand access a lot of his content there on the Explore page.

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**Originally posted on, a forum for voice, discussion, and action.**



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Andrew Frawley

Advocating for well-being and mental health through politics ~~~ Past: #2 hire/Director of MKTG Andrew Yang 2020 Presidential