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When Free Press held our first News Voices: New Jersey event in New Brunswick one year ago, I felt anxious, sweaty and had a slightly foggy head.

It wasn’t just pre-event jitters, or a reaction to the high dosage of medicine I was ingesting to fight back a cold. The nerves came from something with bigger stakes. We were launching an experiment to organize for better journalism, to help local reporters and residents find ways they could support one another to strengthen our communities.

Would it work? Would community members partner with journalists as we hoped, even in places where there was much distrust of local media? Would skeptical and time-strapped journalists be open to inviting more voices into their work?

One year and four partner communities later, I’m happy to say that the response has been overwhelming.

People, even those who never before thought about the “future of journalism,” have told us they need reporters, connected with the community, to tell stories that matter, create positive change and address local problems like racial injustice, economic distress and struggling schools.

And reporters, even the most skeptical ones, have said that working more closely with the community leads to new story ideas, stronger relationships and better journalism.

While our events have been the most visible part of the News Voices: New Jersey project, it’s what we’ve been doing before and after these public forums that I want to focus on here. We’ve been working behind the scenes, listening to allies, community leaders and journalists, to see how we can create lasting change in how reporters and residents tell stories together in New Jersey.

We’ve got lots of big plans for 2017, including partnering with media outlets and community organizations in Newark and Camden.

Here are some of the projects we’ll be focusing on in the next year in the four New Jersey communities we’re already working in: New Brunswick, Atlantic City, Asbury Park and Morristown.

New Brunswick

There were two big takeaways from our News Voices event in New Brunswick.

One was the need for more localized stories about community organizations in the city, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The second was finding ways to bridge the town-and-gown divide that separates Rutgers University from the rest of the New Brunswick community.

We’re going to partner with Rutgers to address these two challenges. Students will go into the greater New Brunswick community, connect with residents and document underreported stories.

News Voices will work with NJ Spark, a student-journalism project focusing on social justice that brings students together with media makers and journalists to create media for and with underserved communities. Students will learn about strategies and skills to better connect with community members, drawing on resources including our newsroom-engagement toolkit.

One group of students will specifically focus on developing a strategy for publicly engaged journalism, and the entire class will work with Free Press to host a community event during the spring 2017 semester.

Atlantic City

In Atlantic City, we learned that there are significant pockets of the community that the media tend to overlook. Our forum there attempted to reach out to these parts of the community to allow people to tell their own stories about life there.

That’s why we’re partnering with longtime Free Press ally the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP). Through its NJ Platform project, MMP has been reporting on various social movements in Atlantic City.

The group has been working on a documentary about a community play, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City. The play is based on Turiya S.A. Raheem’s book of the same name. The book focuses on the author’s experience growing up outside of the glitz and glam of the city’s boardwalk area and also explores the rich culture and history of the local African American community.

MMP and Free Press will team up to showcase the documentary in various locations throughout Atlantic City and neighboring communities. Each screening will be followed by a community conversation about the play and how it applies to modern-day issues and challenges facing the city.

These conversations will focus on unearthing stories from the community that MMP or local media can follow up on. We’re hoping these showcases will give a greater voice to the community by allowing residents to share their own stories about life in Atlantic City.

Asbury Park

During our work in Asbury Park, we’ve heard countless times from residents that much of what happens in the community has nothing to do with failing schools or crime. We heard from our partners, in both the community and at local media outlets, that they wanted to focus on one of Asbury Park’s most underreported stories: the lives of local teenagers.

Together with the Asbury Park Sun, Asbury Park Television and the nonprofit youth advocacy group K.Y.D.S., the project seeks to empower local youth to tell their own stories about what it’s like to grow up in Asbury Park. A handful of teens will gain experience in newsgathering, writing, photojournalism and videography and experience the role journalism can play in building community.

They’ll also get a chance to interview community leaders and learn more about local businesses and organizations, and challenges facing Asbury Park. While learning about their community, they’ll also create personal testimonials about their experiences during the project.

This project is about discovery and exploration. Telling real stories that matter to a community requires being able to make sense of the world around you while also practicing deep self-reflection about how one’s environment shapes identity.

Morristown

While topics ranging from affordable housing to quality-of-life issues came up during our event in Morristown, one of the most telling was how Spanish-speaking residents believe their stories aren’t being covered.

That’s why we’re partnering with local organizations to hold a community forum on the immigrant experience of Morristown residents as part of the In the Shadow of Liberty project, a partnership between NJ Spotlight and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

The bilingual forum will be a conversation about the types of systemic problems the project’s reporting has uncovered. Attendees will be able to share their own experiences.

We’re excited about everything that lies ahead for News Voices: New Jersey. Stay tuned!

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