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Project Director Q&A: Immigrant Stories

October 19, 2015 | By Perry Collins

In July 2015, the Office of Digital Humanities announced a Digital Humanities Implementation Grant award to the University of Minnesota, where researchers at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) are undertaking an ambitious effort that enables recent immigrants and refugees to the United States to share their stories. Launched in 2013, the Immigrant Stories initiative has already collected multimedia digital stories from about 150 participants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. With their new grant from the NEH, project directors Erika Lee and Elizabeth Venditto are teaming up with partner organizations nationwide to scale up the project to a diverse range of communities and to build a free, web-based platform where anyone can create and share a story. Learn more below, where you can find a short video and a Q&A between NEH and the project directors.

ODH: Where did the idea for this project come from, and what have you accomplished so far?

Elizabeth Venditto/Erika Lee: We began Immigrant Stories in 2013 to preserve and share the stories of recent immigrants and refugees. Since 1965, 59 million people have come to the United States, and immigrants and their children are transforming every aspect of American life. We wanted to work with communities to preserve these new immigrant experiences and we wanted to share them with the larger public through our partner, the IHRC Archives.

We use digital storytelling to allow immigrants to create their own stories in their own words and from their own perspectives. From start to finish, they get to decide what story gets told and shared. This differs from more traditional approaches that use interviews and researchers' questions. The digital stories are brief but rich: participants write a script for their story and think carefully about what they want to say, so every sentence is significant. Participants may also include images, videos, and sound files that enrich their stories with unique historical materials and also reflect the digital lives we lead today. These have included family photos and home videos, original music and spoken word poetry, and digital scans of immigration documents, diplomas, letters, and other documents.

During the past three years, we’ve worked across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area (an area that has experienced dramatic growth in new immigration) and helped college students, adult English Language Learners, community groups, and individuals make and share their own digital stories. What we’ve learned is that anyone can make a digital story! And we’ve created free training materials to help librarians, college instructors, and other educators teach others to make their own Immigrant Stories. To date, the Immigrant Stories archive includes more than 150 stories from more than 40 ethnic groups.

ODH: What feedback have you received from participants in the early phases of the Immigrant Stories project?

Venditto/Lee: The feedback has been so enthusiastic! Immigrant Stories is clearly filling a need. As one student told us: "Many people...are eager to share their story if you only care enough to ask." A Hmong refugee shared this in her story: “If I don’t share this story now, it will die with me.” We’ve found that many participants want to make a digital story so that their children and families will understand what they have experienced. Many younger participants are eager to explain their experiences in their own words because they feel like policymakers and the media talk about them but not with them. Immigrant Stories has helped us start conversations. Stories inspire families to discuss their own histories and to share them with friends and neighbors. And it continues to grow from there!

ODH: Your partners for this stage of the project include museums, schools, and social service organizations. What motivated these partners to help expand Immigrant Stories nationally?

Venditto/Lee: All of our partners are interested in helping people in their communities tell and share their stories. Our museum partners like the Arab American National Museum or the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation have missions similar to the IHRC’s: educating the public about the histories of immigrants and the communities they created in the U.S. Schools want to give their students a chance to tell their stories because many youth don’t see themselves and their communities represented in the curriculum. At the same time, students will improve their digital literacy, historical analysis, and writing skills by participating. Social service organizations like the Immigrant Welcome Center also want their clients to have an opportunity to share their stories in their local community to foster cross-cultural understanding and dialogue.

ODH: One of the major goals for the project is to create a web platform that communities can use widely to create and contribute new stories. How will the system work, and how might others use it in the future?

Venditto/Lee: The Immigrant Stories web platform will allow anyone to create an Immigrant Story and submit it to the project. During our start-up phase, we simplified the process for making a digital story and used free and inexpensive software whenever possible. But making a story still required at least two computer programs and assistance from either our staff or someone we had trained. Our web platform will use a series of simple prompts to guide participants through the entire process of creating a story: writing a script, uploading images, recording a voiceover, editing the video within the web platform, and submitting the completed video to the IHRC Archives. Our free platform will break everything down into smaller steps and use plain--not technical--language.

ODH: What opportunities will the public have to see some of the stories being created using the new platform?

Venditto/Lee: All digital stories accepted by the IHRC Archives will become part of our Immigrant Stories digital archive. We update the archive as new stories are submitted, so bookmark the website and check back for updates. We also highlight stories in our collection on our social media accounts, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter (@ImmigrantMN)

ODH: The 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act recently passed on October 3rd, and to mark the occasion IHRC has launched the #MyImmigrantStory social media campaign. Could you tell us more about this event?

Venditto/Lee: We launched the #MyImmigrantStory campaign to recognize how the 1965 Act has changed the U.S. and to create a place for immigrants and refugees to share their own experiences. During the month of October, we're inviting social media users to share their own personal or family immigration stories with the hashtag #MyImmigrantStory. Throughout October, we'll also highlight some of the stories shared with us on our Facebook page and Twitter account. You can read more about the campaign and other IHRC activities around this anniversary on our website.