A Florida International University journalism class spent six weeks telling stories that have largely gone untold in mainstream media coverage of the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. The students captured video footage, interviewed residents, and ultimately created a website, “Liberty Square Rising,” which features oral histories of community members; an interactive story map, a timeline of Liberty City history, and more.
The students’ project is, in many ways, an example of how the media can be a force for good — by telling more multi-dimensional stories about a community rather than confining coverage to a single narrative. We talked with Moses Shumow, the FIU professor who led the Broadcast & Digital Media Studies class that pursued the project, to find out more.
We also plan to talk about the project with students, professors, and Liberty City community members during a day-long event that FIU and ivoh are holding on October 28 in Miami.
Mallary Tenore: How would you describe the mainstream media’s coverage of Liberty City?
Moses Shumow: I would say the mainstream media (local TV stations, the major newspapers) generally cover Liberty City only when something negative happens, mostly gun violence, but also gang activity, fires, robberies, etc. As a result, that coverage tends to be fairly sensationalistic and built around the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ model of local news. This is not to say that all coverage fits in this category — there is some great reporting that takes place in Liberty City, focused on community, education, healthcare, schools, etc. — but if one were to look at the the majority of stories coming out of this part of Miami, the impression would be that this is a dangerous community with rampant crime and violence.
What prompted you to have your students report on untold stories about Liberty City?
I had been working at the public high school in Liberty City, Miami Northwestern Senior High, as part of FIU’s Education Effect. Among the teaching efforts I became involved with was a class built around writing for action and teaching digital and media literacy, so I was already helping to facilitate alternative and empowering narratives about this community.
Then I learned that Miami-Dade County was planning on ‘razing and redeveloping’ Liberty Square. Known colloquially as “Pork ’n Beans,” Liberty Square is the county’s largest public housing project and only a quarter of a mile from Miami Northwestern; in fact, over 100 of the school’s students live there. I saw this as an important moment and opportunity to try and capture the stories of this historic community, which was built under President Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression and was the first segregated public housing in the Southeastern United States. Many residents have lived in this community for decades and their stories are an important part of the history of race, segregation, and public housing in South Florida.
What kinds of stories did the students end up telling — and on what platforms?
The students were charged with reporting on a number of facets of this story — the history of the community, voices of residents, its portrayal in the media and what that coverage means for the people who live there, the future of the community, as well as a broader look at the issue of affordable housing in Miami. These stories were told through video, primarily, but also photographs and multimedia, interactive graphics (using Story Map and Timeline, both open-source Web apps created by Knight), and then they built a Web platform to hold all of the content.
Would you say that some of the students’ stories are in line with the Restorative Narrative genre?
Yes, I think in many ways this work does fit in to the Restorative Narrative genre. While this is not a community recovering from a single event or tragedy, they are suffering from something less well defined but equally as difficult to overcome — namely, the legacy of Jim Crow and decades of structural segregation, neglect and marginalization, failed policies and a system of White supremacy that limits residents’ opportunities on multiple fronts. I would argue that this situation, combined with a tendency among media outlets to cover this community only when something salacious or tragic happens, means that narratives focused on rebuilding, communal action, and hope are as needed in this community as any that has suffered more visible trauma, natural or otherwise. Additionally, all of this is now being exacerbated by the county’s plans to “redevelop” this community and an uncertain future.
What surprised you most about the students’ work and the project overall?
The overwhelming generosity and willingness of residents to work with us on this project. I was worried that we would be seen as outsiders just looking to exploit this community in search of a story, but that wasn’t the case at all. People were giving of their time, stories, and opinions and seemed to really appreciate that we were making this efforts. The students surprised me at how willing they were to embrace this project from day one and really give it their all.
Do you know what kind of impact the students’ work had on the community?
It’s of course hard to say. I know that people were appreciative to see more positive stories, and of course, if we can have a strong community/media dialogue on October 28th, then that will be incredibly gratifying.
The students who worked on this project have since graduated. Do you plan to have your current students work on a similar project?
Yes! In the spring, I will be working with another senior capstone class in Liberty Square, this time helping to implement a community Wi-Fi project. This will include teaching young people how the network works and how to maintain it, digital literacy classes with residents, and video production workshops so that we can document the project and also create a video that talks about what the project means and how it will benefit the community. This video and the other educational materials and resources will then live on the community Wi-Fi network to serve as a ‘landing page’ that people will see when they log on to the network.