Mosaic: Lincoln’s New Voices
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., has witnessed 24 percent growth in ethnic minorities and immigrants in recent years. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Journalism College will explore the information needs of these new ethnic communities and work with mobile technology and web design teams to develop a news initiative to reach them. Content will come from students, community members and high school students from immigrant families. Future support is expected from the university and foundation grants.
Check back for future news and updates.
By Tim Anderson
Nebraska Mosaic has become an important part of the advanced journalism curriculum at U-Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. More to the point, it’s a voice that represents Lincoln’s growing refugee communities.
We started out as a small project, and, though we continue to grow, we remain a small project. But we believe we are beginning to make a difference in the community conversation in Lincoln, and that we are increasingly seen as a conduit of information and news to and for the refugees who have resettled here.
In our original application we described our project as a website to be created “by our students to provide information for and about rapidly growing immigrant communities” in Lincoln, Neb.
We began by developing a course split evenly between students in our advertising/public relations program and our journalism program, an unusual step for the college at that time but one that we have chosen to replicate in other projects since then.
Initially, we focused on three refugee groups: Iraqis, Sudanese, and a little-known Christian sect from Burma, the Karen. This allowed us to easily manage our start-up, giving the project – and the students – a deeper reach into these communities. We have since expanded to embrace all refugees in Lincoln, though our deepest connections continue to be with these three groups.
The audience research we compiled in the fall 2010 semester provided us with valuable information regarding the news and information needs of these refugee communities. We learned, for example, refugees most desired additional information and help with language, employment, education, and transportation. We put these categories in the forefront as we began to produce content.
The research also suggested we should target high school-aged children in the refugee families. They tended to have the greatest facility with the English language, and we believed that, through them, we would have the best chance of reaching their parents. We discovered, however, that teenagers in refugee families, perhaps like all teenagers, have a long list of interests, and we were not one of them. So, they have not been the focus we thought they would be.
The first semesterʼs class contained eight advertising/public relations students and eight journalism students, the maximum size of most of our “skills” courses at the college. We believed that in subsequent semesters, once the class focused on creating content by journalism students only, we would conduct a class of roughly eight students. We have been somewhat disappointed, however, in the response from students. Those who have taken the class – seven students in the fall 2011 semester, six in the spring 2012 semester – found the class to be among their favorites, according to semester-end evaluations.
We believe the tepid response may be due to a simultaneous expansion in our elective-course offerings, giving the students many courses to choose from. We plan to use information gleaned from the student evaluations to create a more deliberate promotional campaign for the class.
Our initial ideas for support didn’t pan out, but we found an enthusiastic partner in the Lincoln Community Foundation, which worked with us in applying for a $50,000 Knight Community Information Challenge grant.
Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
As with the teenagers and the class size, things have not always gone as we expected or hoped. Our position has been: When we hit a wall, we change direction – always keeping our focus on our goal of being the primary source of news and information for the refugee communities. Some examples:
Refugees arenʼt interested in their own tales of woe. Being refugees, meaning they have been persecuted, assaulted or otherwise put upon in their home countries, they all have powerful personal stories. Because they all have them, however, they donʼt find them very interesting. What they desire is stories that tell them what to do to have better lives now that they are in the U.S. So, when we have told anyoneʼs personal tale, we have tried to do so from the perspective of the lessons learned that may have eased the transition to the United States, to Nebraska, and to Lincoln.
Refugees are, for the most part, very poor. These people have three strikes against them: They are unwanted in their home countries, they have come to a country where many of them donʼt know the culture or the language, and, once here, they immediately join our poverty underclass. Their level of poverty leaves them focused on employment for themselves and education for their children, leaving them little time and interest in participating in our web project.
The Lincoln Community Foundation partnership is focused on expanding the project beyond the college classroom, specifically into the refugee communities, inviting the refugees themselves to help create content. This has been difficult. But we kept trying different approaches, until discovering that a $50 freelance fee made all the difference. (Our discovery came when an Iraqi man, whom we had asked to write his story for the website, asked, “Will you pay me?”) We have now published articles from two refugees, one from Iraq and another from Congo, and we have two more currently being edited, these from refugees from Sudan and Vietnam.
Refugees are mostly low-tech for now. Our initial research suggested refugees were big cellphone users, and this led us to believe we would quickly find a way to utilize mobile technology as part of the project. Further research, however, indicated that they have low-priced phones used only for phone calls back home. Ownership of smart phones is exceedingly low, though growing. Many refugees have computers in their homes or access to computers through community centers and libraries, though this varies from group to group. Iraqis, for example, are much more likely to have computers in their homes than Karen refugees. When we discovered that almost all refugees have televisions and DVD players, we issued a set of DVDs containing some of our video stories, translated into five languages.
We do believe that we have accomplished a great deal. We launched a preliminary website at the end of the first semester, then completely revamped it in October 2011. Since then:
We have posted nearly 100 articles and video stories, almost all of them written by undergraduate and graduate students in our college.
The 21 videos, the first of which was posted to Nebraska Mosaicʼs YouTube page on Jan. 3, 2012, have been viewed by more than 1,500 people.
The Nebraska Mosaic website – nemosaic.org – regularly has roughly 2,800 page views per month, with more than three pages viewed per visit; 45 to 50 percent of them represent new visits.
This spring U-Nebraska-Lincolnʼs College of Fine and Performing Arts presented a 10-week symposium focused on “Immigration, Migration & Transplantation.” Their budget allowed for free tickets for immigrants, but as the symposium neared, organizers realized they had no plan for finding and reaching any such immigrants. Someone in Fine and Performing Arts had heard about our website, they contacted us, and we wrote about the symposium, attaching a sidebar explaining how to get free tickets. They reported they were pleased with the turnout.
Lincoln Public Schools, which incorporate students speaking more than 60 languages, obtained an AmeriCorps employee to assess its work with refugees and immigrants. As part of her evaluation, she planned to highlight the individual stories of some of the people who had been impacted by LPSʼ work. But, as she told me later, she kept being told, “You know, someone at the university is already doing this.” She checked our website, read some of the articles the students had written and called to arrange to reprint some of them on LPSʼ own website.
In April, we put up posters at Lincolnʼs Center for People in Need, one of the primary social service agencies working with refugees, announcing a video project in which we wanted refugees to answer the questions, “What does it mean to be a refugee?” Twenty-one refugees – from Iraq, Iran, South Sudan, Kosovo, Vietnam, and Burma – showed up, and we spent two-and-a-half hours videotaping their responses. (You can watch the result, one of our most powerful pieces of content, at What does it mean to be a refugee?)
With the additional funding we have in hand, we believe we can continue to sustain this project. Our plans include:
Adding refugee correspondents. We expect to add to our four current refugee correspondents. We plan to design and print postcards highlighting the refugees who write for the website as a way of promoting their participation and encouraging others to do the same.
Sponsoring a refugee arts fair. In our reporting, we have come across a number of refugees who paint, sculpt or pursue other artistic endeavors. The incoming graduate assistant this fall has a background in museum curation, and we plan to exploit her talents in developing a Nebraska Mosaic-sponsored arts festival in the spring.
Translating some Mosaic content. Refugees tell us that language is the largest barrier keeping the website from being more widely embraced in the refugee communities. Using the Lincoln Community Foundation and KCIC grants, we plan to pay to have some of the work translated into Arabic and Karen and, possibly, additional languages.
Offering college scholarships. We tried to get this started this spring, but we started too late. We will announce this fall a $2,000 scholarship for a refugee graduating from a Lincoln high school and planning to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Applicants will need to write or otherwise create an essay that explores their refugee experience. Nebraska Mosaic will reserve the right to publish any or all of the applicantsʼ work.
Adding an interactive map of refugee interests in Lincoln. We will very soon add to our website an interactive map, currently under development, that will locate a variety of institutions and agencies useful to people new to Lincoln. This will include houses of worship, parks, soccer fields, museums, schools, police and fire stations and libraries. The map will not only locate such places but also provide background information on each.
By the end of its first year, The Mosaic project had brought in an additional $50,000 in grants to train Lincoln’s immigrant community to produce content for the website and to increase the flow of information to and from the city’s large refugee community.
Despite a heart attack that waylaid project leader Tim Anderson mid-way through the year, the project, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, scored “substantial progress” in designing the website and making connections in the community, Anderson said.
“Though we were thrown off-track this spring by my health problems, we have not stood still. We have worked hard to expand our infrastructure and our reach into the community,” he said.
Dean Gary Kebbel successfully applied for a $24,000 grant from the Lincoln Community Foundation. The funding will allow the project to teach its New Voices class in one of Lincoln’s 25 Community Learning Centers, as well as fund extra graduate student assistance, video cameras, and editing equipment. That grant helped to leverage a $26,000 grant from the Knight Community Information Challenge.
The city’s Community Learning Centers serve the immigrant communities by “providing support to immigrants, refugees and in-need people.” They also contain multimedia rooms that will be used to teach the public, Anderson said.
Anderson is now working to determine which center has the highest concentration of one of Mosaic’s targeted immigrant groups: Iraqi, Sudanese or Karen refugees from Burma.
“Our goal is to teach [the refugees] to participate in our New Voices project…to increase the information flow to and from the refugees as a means of aiding their assimilation into Lincoln,” he said.
Following Anderson’s heart attack, the spring semester class created to further the project was cancelled, and an agreement with a local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, to publish newspaper reports on New Voices’ website was postponed.
However, graduate student Charlie Litton and Anderson joined the health and housekeeping committee of the local New Americans Task Force. As a result, Litton is currently working on two videos for the prevention and eradication of bed bug infestation, which will be released both on the Mosaic website and distributed via DVD to the refugee communities.
That project grew out of Mosaic’s close working relationship, begun last fall, with Lincoln’s Center for People in Need.
Anderson said cooperation throughout the community and among resettlement agencies has been enthusiastic.
Additionally, the functionality and looks of the website are being improved. The new design will better display news and information, as well as “a running calendar of events and links to our growing list of partners,” Anderson said.
In just one semester, students and faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications have researched, built, populated and marketed a website designed for the Midwest city’s booming refugee populations.
Advertising students took the lead in researching the three target communities: Karen refugees from Burma and refugees from Iraq and Sudan.
“Through surveys, focus group interviews and one-on-one interviews, the students determined that each group had slightly different news and information needs and more substantially different media habits,” said Tim Anderson, the project’s coordinator.
All three groups listed their difficulties with English as their most difficult challenge. Karen refugees also identified transportation and cultural differences as problems, while both the Iraqi and Sudanese listed employment as a difficulty. The Sudanese also added the rather specific difficulty of obtaining a Nebraska driver’s license.
“We were confident we could supply useful information no matter what the problems were, but we were very interested in learning which medium would be best to reach these three rather different communities,” he said.
To that end, their research uncovered the fact that the best way to reach the Karen, many who can not read or write their own language, may be through a regularly distributed series of DVDs. Few households have computers.
“We had hoped that mobile phones would be a prominent part of this project from the start, but at this point that does not seem to be the case,” Anderson said.
The common denominator among all three groups is that their teenagers have greater access to computers and are the most accomplished English speakers in their households.
With research complete, Anderson turned to plotting out content around four main areas, which he described as:
Informational videos. The Karen refugees, especially, are new to electricity, refrigeration and housekeeping, having spent as much as two decades in camps on the Thai border. All groups also need help navigating job searches. The project plans to prepare a series of video projects, to be made available on its website, which can address these issues. The project may occasionally collect these into a DVD collection for community distribution.
U.S., Nebraska and Lincoln culture. Early on, project leaders thought they would be telling many dramatic stories of these refugees’ lives before they arrived in Lincoln. They learned, however, that such stories are not interesting to other refugees. The refugees want to know who the Nebraskans are. One example: The disciplining of children is a recurring issue in the refugee communities. Many parents came from cultures where it is still permissible to strike a child, and several have gotten into trouble for acting in a way perfectly acceptable in their homelands. The project used this information to plan to create stories explaining U.S. culture and the differences the refugees might run into.
Success stories. Refugees are interested in knowing how some people in their communities have been able to succeed, and the project will highlight some of their stories with short profiles.
Other refugees. The refugees are also interested in their counterparts from other countries, so stories are planned on what the refugees themselves are up to by involving the refugees in telling their stories.
In addition, Anderson has arranged a partnership with the editor of the local daily, the Lincoln Journal Star, which will allow Mosaic to create weekly local briefs from material in the newspaper. “The refugees consistently told us they don’t read the local newspaper but they wish they had a better idea of what was going on locally,” he said. Mosaic plans to publish the column in English, Arabic and Karen, side by side, offering a simple English lesson at the same time.
Local agencies, including the Lancaster County and Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, have expressed enthusiasm for the site.
When launching a news site that covered the refugee community of Lincoln, Neb., professor Tim Anderson at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications expected his team of students to be seen as unwelcome outsiders. Instead, Lincoln’s New Voices has been met with nothing but enthusiasm, he reports.
“Perhaps I am too cynical, but I really thought that at some point we would run into someone among the people who work with refugees in Lincoln who would ask us what we thought we were doing in trying to create media for the refugee community,” Anderson wrote. “I even had a response ready that touched on our state’s history with immigrants and such regional literary notables as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz and John Neihardt.”
“Perhaps I am too cynical, but I really thought that at some point we would run into someone among the people who work with refugees in Lincoln who would ask us what we thought we were doing in trying to create media for the refugee community.” - Tim Anderson
But he didn’t need to use those facts. His team has been met with nothing but enthusiasm from officials, public schools and the refugees themselves, he noted. In fact, their conversations have led them to shift their major focus from stories “about” the immigrant community, to stories “for” thee.
Lincoln’s population of ethnic minorities and immigrants has grown 24 percent in recent years, a change that demands new forms of connecting and reporting. Students, community members and high school students from immigrant families are working with the university to provide mobile and web news to the growing minority audience.
Anderson and Phil Willet, an advertising instructor, decided to address the challenge by forming a college course entitled “Special Topics: New Voices.” The students are almost evenly divided between journalism and advertising majors and are combining their skills to conduct audience research in the refugee communities.
Since launching the course in August, Anderson has seen significant progress in gathering information from and about the three primary groups: Karen refugees from Burma, Iraqi refugees and Sudanese refugees.
First, Anderson and Willet earned the cooperation of Lincoln Public Schools representatives. The New Voices students were able to meet with three refugees in the English Language Learner classes - offered by LPS, these courses serve over 2,000 students from 51 countries, speaking 49 languages.
The three refugee liaisons came from the project’s target groups: Daniel Wal, from the Sudanese community; Wah Wah Moo, from the Karen community; and Mohammed Ainajen, from the Iraqi community.
“These three people, who have continued to be sources of information for our students, told fascinating stories of their own journeys to Lincoln,” Anderson says. “Ainajen, for example, responded when the first President Bush asked Iraqis to stand up and tell Saddam Hussein they wanted a new government. When the U.S. troops went home, Ainajen left Iraq and resettled in Nashville, Tenn., making his way to Lincoln three years later because he said he had heard there marriageable Iraqi women in Lincoln. He found this to be true and is now married and the father of three children.”
Students are learning not only from refugees themselves, but from Nebraskan professionals who work within the communities as well.
Karen Parde, refugee coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, talked to the New Voices class, providing the students with background on what her program does for refugees in Lincoln and throughout the state.
Kit Boesch, administrator for the Lancaster County Human Services Department and the New Americans Task Force in Lincoln, provided much useful assistance in locating community members who will become part of a focus group in preparation for audience research.
According to Anderson, all the officials the class has contacted regarding the project, including representatives from the governor’s office, have expressed great interest in the course and the news and information website they intend to create.
With cooperation comes collaboration: LPS and the New Americans Task Force are interested in becoming partners with the course’s website. Both see ways in which they can provide ongoing content for the site.
“It appears now that we may be of more assistance to [the refugees] by telling them about us rather than the other way around.” - Tim Anderson
Within the Lincoln Public Schools, students in ELL classes produce video podcasts that are streamed only on the LPS website, providing them with a very limited audience. In partnership with Lincoln’s New Voices, the podcasts would be streamed on the course’s website as well.
The New Americans Task Force, which encompasses more than 40 participating agencies and another ten human services agencies, is a network of public and private organizations and community members that serves to support new immigrants in the Lincoln area. According to Anderson, the Task Force has been trying, with limited success, to create and maintain a website, and members are excited about developing links between the course site and their own as a way of improving both.
Beginning in October, the New Voices students will be conducting focus group interviews in each of the three communities, starting with high school students.
Right now, the journalism students are creating text, video and audio content for the website and to use during the focus groups. According to Anderson, their current stories include:
* Department of Motor Vehicles: Because research indicates that transportation issues, particularly with cars, cause refugees high levels of discontent, one student is preparing a how-to video of the DMV experience.
* ELL Courses: A student is analyzing what the English Language Learner classes offer to the nearly 2,200 non-English speakers in the Lincoln Public Schools.
* Soccer: One student is looking at the universal sport of soccer and what it means to the Karen, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees in their new home.
* Nebraskan Culture: Students have found that refugees are interested more in the cultures of Lincoln, Nebraska and the Great Plains than in telling their own stories.
Anderson says this last story accounts for “the biggest surprise” they’ve encountered.
“We thought a side benefit of our project might be bringing the stories of the refugee communities to a wider audience among the dominant community,” he says. “It appears now that we may be of more assistance to [the refugees] by telling them about us rather than the other way around.”
However, their new discovery may provide more opportunities for partnership with outside sources. The NATF website is designed to bring the refugee story to the general Lincoln population and Boesch believes the two sites can work well together to provide both perspectives for the entire community. The Task Force site will bring news and information to the dominant population, while the Lincoln’s New Voices site will bring news and information to the refugees.
- Rachel Karas
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