Rutgers University–Newark’s Newest American (NA) project is known for its groundbreaking work documenting the lives of the city’s immigrant population, gaining widespread exposure in major media outlets and racking up journalism and documentary-film awards in the process.
Central to that effort has been giving this diverse constituency a series of platforms to tell their own stories, informed by the rich experience of people who have migrated to this country from all over the world in hopes of a better life for themselves and their children.
Recently NA built on that legacy by debuting the Newest Americans Story Bus, a mobile audio-recording and photography studio that will reach out to all areas of the city and beyond to gather oral histories of this remarkable community.
We sat down with NA Founder and co-Director Tim Raphael, a professor in RU-N's Department of Arts, Culture and Media, to discuss this dynamic new project.
Where did the Newest Americans Story Bus take its maiden voyage recently?
At the Four Corners Public Arts Murals/Market/Music event on July 10 in Downtown Newark, in partnership with ImVisible, a collective of Rutgers scholars and community-based artists that empowers the undocumented and immigrant community in Newark through multimedia storytelling and advocacy.
How did the debut go?
It was great. We conducted 26 interviews and took photographs of all interviewees, as well as of Mayor Ras Baraka and his son Jua.
What can folks expect when they hop aboard the bus?
Entering the audio lab, participants can sit down to be interviewed by Newest Americans staff and story-collection partners and then have their portrait taken in the photo studio. All participants leave with a professional quality photograph as a memento of their visit. We will be training Rutgers students and Newark residents to staff the bus.
What was the concept with this project, what inspired it, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The Newark Story Bus was inspired by the local mobile histories collected by the Philadelphia History Truck and story-gathering projects like StoryCorps' Airstream trailer, a mobile audio-recording studio that travels the country collecting audio stories. The Newark Story Bus will enable us to meet people where they live and gather local stories and history across every ward in the city. By documenting the wide range of places and cultures that have produced Newark's residents, we hope to foreground Newark as a global city constituted by multiple waves of migration and immigration.
Are you limiting the bus’ travel and story collection to Newark and its residents?
Our initial focus will be Newark. But because Newark and its residents are connected to wider regional communities, we will likely expand the geographic scope of the Story Bus over time.
By documenting the wide range of places and cultures that have produced Newark's residents, we hope to foreground Newark as a global city constituted by multiple waves of migration and immigration.
What will the stories focus on? And is there a broader educational component to the project?
We’re launching the Story Bus with a citywide arrivals projects documenting why Newark residents came to the city, the circumstances of their journey to and arrival in the city, and the lives they made in Newark once they arrived. We’ll also be using the story bus to work with high-school students across the city to develop their skills in conducting oral history and journalistic interviews, audio recording and photography.
So, local students will also benefit from this as well.
Exactly. These skills, in conjunction with curriculum Newest Americans has developed from the media we have produced, will enable Newark high-school students to conduct local multimedia storytelling projects that will contribute to a more representative and inclusive archive of local history and expand students' educational experience from media consumers to media producers.
Do you see this tying into other Newest Americans projects?
Yes. Longer-range plans include developing local live storytelling events and podcasts, similar to The Moth Radio Hour, in partnership with NJPAC and civic and cultural organizations throughout the city. We are also in conversation with Audible and other local anchor institution stakeholders in Newark about other Newark-based story projects. We envision the audio recordings and photo portraits to be used to create multimedia exhibits, podcasts, and an archive of Newark stories.
How was the project funded?
Initial funding to retrofit a Rutgers Econoline van into an audio recording lab and photo studio was provided by The National Foundation for the Humanities and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. NJPAC has committed to funding the staffing of the bus and story-gathering projects we will initiate overt the next year.
That sounds great. Many thanks for sitting down with us.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.