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The community of New Brunswick holds a special place in my heart.

It’s where News Voices: New Jersey first launched, where some of our closest allies are based, and where I teach reporting to budding journalists at Rutgers University.

Working so closely with community organizations and at Rutgers has brought me face to face with a longtime tension in New Brunswick: the “town-gown” divide between city residents and members of the Rutgers community.

Bridging a perennial divide

When Free Press held our News Voices forum in New Brunswick in November 2015, this theme came up time and time again.

We heard residents talk about the desire to see Rutgers students out in the city more. We heard people from Rutgers talk about ways to build better relationships with residents who lived close to campus but often felt like the university was a world away.

With its power to convene and elevate the voices of people not often heard from, journalism can help build bridges to begin addressing these kinds of divides. So we partnered with NJ Spark, led by Rutgers professor and Media Mobilizing Project co-founder Todd Wolfson, to work with students on learning how to better engage the New Brunswick community.

A dedicated group of five NJ Spark student journalists worked hand in hand with Free Press over the course of the spring semester on an ambitious project: lifting up the stories of New Jersey’s working poor — and specifically New Brunswick’s.

A recent report from the United Way of Northern Jersey found that 37 percent of the state’s households — over 1.2 million households — can’t afford to pay for basic daily necessities like housing, food, health care, child care and transportation.

The students struck out to speak with 37 New Jerseyans who fall into this category, as well as individuals who work for organizations that provide services and support for people who don’t fall below the federal poverty line but still struggle to pay for the basic cost of living.

The “New Jersey 37” project, a collaboration between NJ Spark and Free Press, showcases the stories of people who are often overlooked in mainstream journalism.

Some stories are funny, some are sad; all are moving.

To further elevate the voices of New Jersey’s working poor, the students invited some of the people profiled in the series to speak at an event at Rutgers on April 26.

The emotional event capped off a semester-long project that taught students how to better engage their community, lift up important social-justice issues, and allow people to use journalism to tell their own stories.

Below are a few stories from the project. To read the entire 37-story series, and to see all the great work that NJ Spark does, head over to its website here.

‘When the plant closed it was the worse day of my life’

‘We came to America so our children could have better opportunities here’

‘I don’t remember a time I wasn’t in pain’

‘I got to be on my feet, working so I can live’

‘I just want to provide for my son and make sure he grows up healthy’

‘You learn to adjust and make the best out of a tough circumstance’

‘I do wish I was there for him more often’

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