Harnessing Digital Media for Social Justice in the University: The case of NJ Spark

On a cold Saturday in November of 2014, journalism students, immigrant workers and HIV/AIDS activists converged on a classroom at Rutgers University to discuss how to use media to tell the stories of poor and working people across New Jersey. During the eight-hour media institute participants discussed the power of images and explored strategies for using media and journalism to lift up struggles and experiences often hidden from view. The goal of the institute was to begin to build connections between Rutgers students and community-based organizations in the region.

The institute and associated media projects fall under the rubric of a new social justice journalism lab at Rutgers, NJ Spark. The foundational understanding of NJ Spark is that while we are saturated with digital technologies (from the Internet to cell phones), poor communities, which have consistently been underserved by local journalism, have the least access to these technologies. Recognizing this, students at NJ Spark work to report on issues of poverty and inequality (often hidden from view), while building relationships with community based groups that are comprised of, or work in, disenfranchised communities. Using this perspective, we are trying to re-imagine undergraduate education by creating a hand-on approach to journalism instruction, while creating community-driven news and media that highlights issues of social justice across the region.

This outlook is exemplified by our project with immigrant workers. In the weeks and months after the initial media institute, one group of NJ Spark students began meeting with staff and members of New Labor, a community organization comprised of thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrant workers. Through a series of discussions, Rutgers students designed media projects with New Labor.

The starting point for these media projects is distinctly different from that of traditional media. We began our conversation with New Labor asking: What are you struggling with? How does the media represent you? What do you need in order to tell your stories? And what stories do you want to tell?  

Together we decided to make a forty-minute documentary, “American Made,” focused on a rapacious temp-work industry that preys on workers on the margins (here is an eight-minute teaser). The goal of the documentary is to shine a light on the inscrutable temp work industry, while rooting the narrative in the powerful organizing immigrant workers are doing to change their conditions.

Our decision to prioritize immigrant workers was purposeful. Rutgers University’s largest campus is located in downtown New Brunswick, where Spanish-speaking immigrants make up fifty percent of population. Moreover, because of language barriers and immigration status Spanish speaking immigrants are socially, economically and politically isolated and disenfranchised.

This vision also led us to partner with the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Projectas well as workers and faith communities in Atlantic City to produce a 13-minute documentary on the struggle of workers at Taj Mahal casino. The video, Building a Sandcastle: A Broken Promise to Atlantic City, was rooted in the experiences of working people, in an effort to bring their stories to the fore.

We have established some best practices that we think are important if scholars want to take on similar student/community projects poised at the intersection of media, power and social justice:

  • Perspective:We focus our media on issues of socio-economic justice and the life and experiences of those communities traditionally disenfranchised from the mass media.
  • Respect:At the foundation of this work is respect for the communities we work within and amongst. This means listening first, and collaborating from a place of unity and caring.
  • Accuracy:We do not claim to be objective, but we put a premium on creating media and news that is accurate and factual.
  • Visibility:A critical goal of our storytelling is to make visible the communities and stories often submerged from view.
  • Agency:We aim to show how people are agents, working to change the conditions in their own lives and the lives of those around them.
  • Community:We focus on telling stories that are rooted in local communities, and the stories we tell aim to build the power of those communities.

NJ Spark is an experimental undergraduate journalism project that asks how students can learn their craft while engaging with local communities. All of us—students and faculty alike—are animated by the quest to figure out new ways build meaningful practice that connects to the future of digital media in a moment when these very things are in a state of flux. 


NJ Spark is a great example of what public educators have understood as Project Based Learning. Essentially, students examine a problem within a particular context and identify and work through solutions. NJ Spark is allowing students to do impactful work that is also a part of their educational practices at the university. This allows students to learn by doing and truly ascertain whether or not a particular industry or field is of interest to them in the long term. Additionally, students are making an impact as opposed to theorizing about it in lecture halls. More schools could adopt this type of methodology and create unique opportunities for students to interact with their communities while learning about local governments, media outlets, public relations work, marketing, organizing, outreach, and so on. 

These documentaries and such are an amazing way for this institution to achieve their goals of, " beginning to build connections between Rutgers students and community-based organizations in the region." I think it shines a new light to these communities because this post is very accurate on how they have been consistently underserved by local journalism. By doing this the students are really making a difference rather than just doing typical school work that may not get anywhere. With this project they learn a hands on method and approach to, "report on issues of poverty and inequality (often hidden from view), while building relationships with community based groups that are comprised of, or work in, disenfranchised communities." This is very important in a community rather than being hidden away without a voice. The questions that are asked of the participants for the documentary is also very intriguing and I just love this project because I love seeing how these people finally have a voice. The only thing is that I wish these documentary were more popular and widespread so that these voices are heard rather than just being voices. The six best practices could really work for  a lot of other areas because traits such as perspective, respect, accuracy, visibility, agency, and community are all very important in sharing, writing, or recording a story or anything else. 

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