Newest Americans: Documenting America’s increasingly diverse future from Newark, New Jersey

It’s the intimate moments in the short film “Fighting Chance,” about the Ironbound Boxing Academy in Newark, New Jersey, that stick with you. The film is part of Newest Americans, a multimedia project out of Rutgers-Newark University that documents the local immigrant experience in one of the most multiethnic cities in the U.S. “Fighting Chance” follows founder Mike Steadman and his protégé, immigrant youth from the elite all-boys prep school St. Benedict’s, as they explore the world of boxing and their future.

Whether they’re jumping rope, waiting for a bus, or talking about the recent immigration ban in the backseat of a car, the youth working hard in “Fighting Chance” offer another narrative about Newark that isn’t about crime or violence. The Newark you don’t normally see.

“These are the kind of guys who usually shy away from the camera,” said Steadman, who’s getting his Master’s in American Studies at Rutgers-Newark. “I had to tell them, ‘Hey man, you got a story, too, and people want to know about it.’”

Since 2014, the Newest Americans has been creating high-quality stories about Newark that run the gamut from a photo essay about invisible pollution near freight rail lines to a podcast with high school students post-presidential election to an up-close, interactive experience with one of the longest murals on the East Coast, among others. It was co-founded by Timothy Raphael, founding director of Rutgers-Newark Center for Migration and the Global City, Ed Kashi of VII Photo, and Julie Winokur of the social documentary company Talking Eyes Media.

A “collaboratory,” the project utilizes the resources of the university to engage a wide range of collaborators from faculty and students to community organizations and media professionals. Newest Americans also drew from the Ironbound Oral History Collection, a database of over 300 interviews conducted by Rutgers-Newark professor Kimberly DaCosta Holton and students. Aside from producing five issues so far, they’ve also hosted public dialogues, curated art exhibits, developed curriculum for high school and university students, and more.

“It’s like an octopus,” said Raphael. “At its center is hopefully a long-term storytelling project  about what it means in this particular moment to live in a place that’s experiencing hyper diversity.”

Rutgers-Newark—the most diverse campus in America according to U.S. World News and Reports for the past two decades—mirrors the city it calls home. A major landing hub for people migrating to the States, Newark’s history of migration is long and storied, starting with Europeans in the 19th century and later, African-Americans who migrated from the South after WWII. White flight happened, and for a long time, Raphael says, Newark was on the receiving end of some of “the most racist stereotypes.”  The media often dubbed the city as the “carjacking capital” or “murder capital” of America.

Silvana Ortiz, 38, sits with her daughter Lucia Cedeno, 11, by the volleyball court on Avenue C in the Ironbound neighborhood. Photo by Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Newest Americans.

Like many places that are written off as dangerous, Newark is much more than its reputation. Nowadays, a thriving population of Caribbean, African, Hispanic, Mexican, Central American, Portuguese, and Brazilian immigrants call Newark home. The city is also in a major moment of development and transition, one that hasn’t been seen since before the 1967 uprising calling for racial and economic justice. People are starting to ask if Newark is the next Brooklyn—an obnoxious question as far as Raphael is concerned, but also an indicative one.

“We have a crystal ball into the future, and a unique vantage point from which to understand the issues and opportunities that our changing nation is going to be facing going forward,” Raphael said. “We’re going to be a majority minority country. We have an opportunity to understand what’s at stake.”

Raphael largely credits Rutgers-Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor for believing in the vision of Newest Americans and for giving them the go-ahead without hesitation when he first proposed the project three years ago. Part of what Newest Americans aims to do is fill in gaps of information by correcting the largely held assumption from students that immigration to the U.S. ended when Ellis Island closed. By creating materials to be used in the high school classroom, for example—and eschewing the textbook in favor of more dynamic new media curriculum—Newest Americans offers different ways of accessing the post-1965 immigrant experience.

Not only is it an opportunity to examine how immigration is impacting Newark, the project questions what it means to be a citizen in this country.

“We get to tell these stories that are aimed at shifting the narrative around immigration,” said Winokur, one of the filmmakers on Fighting Chance. “In a larger context, we’re shifting the narrative around about ‘What is American? Who is American?’”

Celebrating Portugal Day. Photo by Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Newest Americans.

The recent Ironbound Issue digs into this question by examining a neighborhood that has historically been the first stop for immigrants arriving in Newark. The Ironbound, named for the railroad tracks that surround the area, has been home to the Portuguese for decades. Stories about the Portuguese fado music community and Portugal Day celebration evoke nostalgia for homeland—as well as to what lengths identity is held onto after leaving one’s homeland for another.

The issue was created with the help of local mediamakers, and also drew from the Ironbound Oral History Collection, a database of over 300 interviews conducted by Rutgers-Newark students over the past 15 years. For Raphael, breathing life into archives is key.

“We’re firm believers that public archives have become repositories where only scholars dare to tread and that’s a huge mistake and loss,” Raphael said. “Part of the mission is to activate the archives and use contemporary media to demonstrate that these amazing resources can be used by all Newark teachers, students, and community members to tell local history.”

Although proudly rooted locally, the project has also gained national and international attention. A film about the American-Syrian composer Malek Jandali was picked up by National Geographic. “Hijabi World,” a film featuring Muslim students at Rutgers-Newark who observe hijab, went viral and garnered over two million views from over 24 countries. Both are part of The Atlantic’s ongoing State of Migration series, and have screened at numerous film festivals.

Sohyla and her sister Dina from the short film, “Hijabi World.” Photo by Julie Winokur/Newest Americans.

As Newest Americans gains traction, more people are reaching out to collaborate. Raphael and his team have increased opportunities to get involved, including internships, fellowships for graduate and undergraduate students, and coursework for professors to use.

Steadman found out about the project through one of his classes. Since “Fighting Chance,” he’s been stopped by people on the street who recognized him from the film—which Winokur has witnessed—and told him they’re sending more kids his way. Steadman will also be heading to Stanford this summer for an entrepreneurship boot camp. Winokur says that’s one of the benefits of doing locally-based stories: you get to see your subjects around town, and see how their story evolves.

The next chapter in the story of Newest Americans is a Newark immigrant history bus in three neighborhoods: Ironbound, University Heights, and the West Side. With the help of a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the team is currently in the process of acquiring a school bus and retrofitting it as a media lab to launch in the fall of 2018. The idea is to host community “unconferences” to strategize about what history they should be telling, work with high school and college students to dig further into historical archives, and more.

For Raphael, being part of this collective has not only solidified his deep love for Newark, but also reinforced something he’s believed all his life.

“Racism, fear, and anxiety of the other comes from a lack of familiarity and understanding,” he said. “What works in these matters is storytelling. What works is compellingly making the case that we need to care about and relate to people who aren’t like us. If you can tell stories in the right way, you have an opportunity to change hearts.”


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