NJ Spark: Reporting on Issues of Poverty and Economic Inequality to Build Community

March 28, 2016


“We’re so erased. If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you come from a poor background, if you come from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety percent of your stories ain’t told. And yet we still have to be taught to look and to tell our stories.”

— Junot Diaz, author and Rutgers University graduate

On a cold Saturday in November of 2014, journalism students, immigrant workers and HIV/AIDS activists converged on a classroom at Rutgers University to discuss how to use media to tell the stories of poor and working people across New Jersey.

During the eight-hour media institute participants discussed the power of images and explored strategies for using media and journalism to lift up struggles and experiences often hidden from view. Toward the end of the session, participants broke into teams and made video shorts that exemplified the power of community-driven media. The goal of the institute was to begin to build connections between Rutgers journalism students and community-based organizations in the region.

The media institute and associated media projects fall under the rubric of a new social justice journalism lab at Rutgers, New Jersey Spark. The foundational understanding of NJ Spark is that while we are saturated with new communications technologies (from the Internet and cell phones to wireless networks), poor communities, which have consistently been underserved by local journalism, have the least access to these new technologies.

Recognizing this, students at NJ Spark work to report on issues of poverty and economic inequality (often hidden from view), while building relationships with community based groups that are comprised of, or work in, disenfranchised communities. Using this perspective, we believe we can help re-imagine undergraduate education by creating a hands-on approach to journalism instruction, while creating community-driven news and media that highlights issues of poverty, unemployment and socio-economic struggles across the region.

Shining a light on immigrant workers’ needs

This outlook is exemplified by our project with immigrant workers. In the weeks and months after the initial media institute, one group of NJ Spark students began meeting with staff and members of New Labor, a community organization comprised of hundreds of Spanish-speaking immigrant workers across New Jersey. Through a series of discussions, Rutgers students designed media projects grounded in the everyday needs and struggles of these workers.

The starting point for these media projects is distinctly different from the starting point of traditional media. We began our conversation with New Labor as organizers. We asked: What are you struggling with? How does the media represent you? What do you need in order to tell your stories? And what stories do you want to tell? How can different media—from community journalism to social media and documentary—lift up the struggle of immigrant workers across the state?

The projects the students and workers decided to undertake, many of which are in production at the moment, include a 40-minute documentary on a rapacious temp-work industry that preys on workers on the margins (here is a 13-minute teaser).

Watch: Immigrant Workers Come together to Build Power and Fight Against Wage Theft from Silent Sea Productions on Vimeo.

The goal of the documentary is to shine a light on the inscrutable temp work industry, while rooting the narrative in the powerful organizing immigrant workers are doing to change their conditions. Alongside the documentary, we are collaborating on a mural project where immigrant workers have the opportunity to publicly tell the story of the diaspora and their current conditions (coming in the summer of 2016) as well as a short video PSA and a social media campaign to support New Labor’s annual Worker Memorial Day.

Our decision to prioritize immigrant workers was purposeful. Rutgers University’s largest campus is located in downtown New Brunswick, where Spanish-speaking immigrants make up fifty percent of population. Moreover, because of language barriers and immigration status Spanish speaking immigrants are socially, economically and politically isolated and disenfranchised.

’90 percent of your stories ain’t told’

Our focus on immigrant workers dovetails with our belief that NJ Spark should prioritize communities that have been blacked out by traditional media. As Rutgers alum and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz so poignantly explains in the quote that began this essay, “If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you come from a poor background, if you come from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety percent of your stories ain’t told.”

This vision also led us to partner with the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project as well as workers and faith communities in Atlantic City to produce a 13-minute documentary on the struggle of workers at Taj Mahal casino. The video, Building a Sandcastle: A Broken Promise to Atlantic City, was rooted in the experiences of working people, in an effort to bring their stories to the fore. We prioritized creating portraits of working people at the casinos, because in the voluminous reporting on the struggles in Atlantic City, little attention was paid to the workers, at the same time as they were being stripped of their rights.

Building a Sandcastle: A Broken Promise to Atlantic City from Media Mobilizing Project TV on Vimeo.

Learning through experiments

We recognize that in these projects we start from a different premise than that of traditional media. We start by asking who are the people that are least reflected in the newsrooms of traditional media? How do we serve these communities first?

Through this work, we have established six best practices that are at the heart of our work:

  1. Perspective: We focus our media and journalism on issues of socio-economic justice in the wake of both Hurricane Sandy the 2008 economic crisis. Accordingly, we choose to focus on the life and experiences of those communities traditionally disenfranchised from the mass media.
  2. Respect: At the foundation of this work is respect for the communities we work within and amongst. This means listening first, and collaborating from a place of unity and caring.
  3. Accuracy: We do not claim to be objective in this project. At the same time, as journalists and media makers we put a premium on creating media and news that is accurate and factual.
  4. Visibility: A critical goal of our storytelling is to make visible the communities and stories often submerged from view.
  5. Agency: While we aim to tell stories of communities in struggle we will not show people and communities as passive victims. Instead, we show how people are agents, working to change the conditions in their own lives and the lives of those around them.
  6. Community: We focus on telling stories that are rooted in local communities, and the stories we tell aim to build the power of those communities.

Over the last year, students have brought this vision to life, and in so doing they have had the pleasure of building meaningful relationships with community groups throughout the region.

Beyond the projects with New Labor and in Atlantic City, students have completed dozens of projects to build NJ Spark. They have collaborated to produce multiple community-based documentary shorts, established a community media platform, a social media presence, as well as creating social media plans for community-based organizations, while writing multiple editorials, community profiles, and investigative reports on social justice issues that effect people in New Jersey.

NJ Spark is an experimental undergraduate journalism project that asks how students can learn their craft while engaging with local communities. All of us — students and faculty alike—are animated by the quest to figure out new ways for students to build meaningful practice that connects to the future of journalism and media production in a moment when these very things are in a state of flux.


Todd Wolfson is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and a research fellow at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. He is also a co-founder of Media Mobilizing Project, which uses media and communications as a core strategy for building a movement of poor and working people in Philadelphia and across the region.