Asking Questions and Telling Stories in Morristown

More than 60 people joined Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project in Morristown Wednesday evening for our latest public forum on how journalism can help unite communities.

We gathered in the gymnasium of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit community center that provides a variety of services and programs for local residents. As we set up tables, chairs and audio equipment, dozens of kids from the after-school program walked by on their way to an outdoor playground. “What are you doing?” they asked.

“We’re having a meeting to talk about what it’s like to live in Morristown,” I said, “and how people find out about what’s going on here.”

Morristown is a community of 18,000 residents living in just three square miles, the county seat of one of the most affluent counties in the nation. It’s home to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which invests in communities across New Jersey and in our work with News Voices. Morristown is racially and ethnically diverse and has a vibrant arts scene and strong community spirit.

But there are challenges here. The cost of living is high, and many people are struggling to stay in town, especially as redevelopment drives up the already steep cost of housing. There are divisions, both cultural and geographic, between English- and Spanish-speaking residents.

The children, families and staff at Neighborhood House know a lot about these challenges: They’re living them.

The people at Wednesday’s event included parents, grandparents, teachers, representatives from local government and many others who are working to understand and face those challenges. There were also journalists from a variety of media outlets, including The Daily Record, NJ.com and TAPInto, who want to tell residents’ stories.

Kadie Dempsey of Morris Arts talked about the need to tell the stories of the important role immigrants have played throughout Morristown’s history. Her organization is working on a community-garden monument to commemorate that legacy, and she sees this as an opportunity to reach out to people who aren’t already part of the conversation about public art.

Kevin Coughlin talked about his hyperlocal news site, Morristown Green. He emphasized that he’s not just a journalist but also a longtime resident. He invites people to write about what they’re doing, and he wants to find a way to make his site financially sustainable.

Lina Monsalve of the Morris County Organization for Hispanic Affairs talked about her experience seeking refuge from domestic violence many years ago. She sees her work in the community as an opportunity to help people like herself who need support and connection.

A wide array of issues came up in our small-group discussions: drug addiction, New Jersey’s extraordinarily high property tax rates, affordable housing, school bullying, mental illness, access to healthy food, open spaces, public transportation, government transparency … the list was long.

Our team saw three major topics emerge: housing, education and racial discrimination.

The groups discussed their perspectives on these issues, the questions they have, and the stories that they think need to be told.

A high school English teacher said that many of her students have full-time jobs after school to help their families pay the rent. These teenagers, many of them immigrants or the children of recent immigrants, attend school from 7:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., then work until 11 p.m., day after day. She sees on a daily basis how much these students’ stress and fatigue interferes with their academic progress. Her story demonstrated how interconnected these issues are: the high cost of living, challenges in education and the difficulties Latino families in particular face.

People asked thoughtful questions, such as:

Why doesn’t Morristown’s police force reflect the diversity of the community?

Are Latino drivers being racially profiled in traffic stops?

How are new condo developments affecting housing affordability throughout the town?

Are there municipal obstacles to affordable development?

How do we get businesses to hire and train local young people?

The groups also proposed story ideas and suggested voices that should be included in those stories: local workers affected by wage theft, undocumented people who aren’t legally permitted to drive with out-of-state drivers’ licenses, neighborhood residents and local law enforcement working together on community policing efforts, and the parents of children at Neighborhood House.

We’ll be following up in Morristown, and in the other communities we’ve hosted News Voices forums in: New Brunswick, Atlantic City and Asbury Park.

So click here to learn more about News Voices — and let’s keep talking.

Scroll below to see some great event photos:

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good