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True Story

An innovative digital project collects and preserves the stories of our country's newest residents
February 18, 2016

It’s not easy for U of M sophomore Thiago Heil­man to tell his life story. As an undocumented immigrant for 16 years, he lived with the constant fear that he could be deported to his native Brazil—a country he’d left as a child—if his legal status were discovered. So when he produced a “digital story” (a three- to five-minute multimedia video that can include photos, music, and audio) as part of professor Erika Lee’s immigration history class, it felt “a little like being naked in front of a crowd,” says Heilman, who is now a legal US resident through marriage. “A lot of my story is not stuff I would normally share with anyone.”

Photo of Liang Xiong posing with a cassette player that her mother bought for her father.
Liang Xiong was born and raised in St. Paul. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, where she studied political science

Heilman’s story is part of the Immigrant Stories initiative at the U of M’s Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). The project was started, says Lee, the center’s director and a professor in the College of Liberal Arts, as part of the IHRC’s ongoing mission to work with recent immigrants and refugees to preserve their histories.

The IHRC’s partner in the University Libraries, the Immigration History Research Center Archives, is re­nowned for its collection of materials on what Lee calls the “Ellis Island generation” of immigrants — those who came from Europe and the Middle East in the early 20th century. That strength is largely thanks to the IHRC’s former director, Rudy Vecoli, who spent 40 years building what is now North America’s largest repository of material about immigrant and refugee life. “He was known for going to immigrant communities all over the country and packing up his station wagon with materials to bring back,” says Lee, who holds the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History.

But the experiences of post-1965 immigrants and refugees are not as well represented in immigration history, in part because today’s newcomers to the United States—such as those from the Hmong and Somali communities—are just now at the point where they’re starting to realize their stories are worth collecting and preserving, Lee says.

She knew the IHRC needed to better address these newer waves of immigration, but she wondered whether the old way of collecting and preserving history still worked today. “Is going out in a station wagon still the only model? Or can we use 21st century technology to document, collect, preserve, and share the experiences of the most recent immigrants and refugees?”

Telling their own stories

Colorful threads

Linda O’Malley was teaching an English class for
adult language learners at the Ronald M. Hubbs
Center for Lifelong Learning in St. Paul when she
first heard about the U of M’s Immigrant Stories
ini­tiative. One of her goals for the advanced-level
class was to create a close-knit community of
writers, and she liked the idea of combining music,
photos, and speech to create a “digital story.”

What she didn’t expect was that the impact of the
month-long project would go far beyond developing
valuable writing and software skills. Working with
Elizabeth Venditto, project manager for Immigrant
Stories, students began to realize that their stories
mattered, says O’Malley.

“I think sometimes our students feel there’s a
nar­rative they’re expected to tell: they left family,
saw terrible things, arrived at a refugee camp and
then came to America, and now everything is fine,”
she says. “But that’s not always their story. This
project helped them claim their own colorful thread
in this tapesty of immigration.”

Some students did tell stories of life in refugee
camps or the harrowing circumstances of war.
Others, however, focused on stories that had nothing
to do with immigration. One student, for example,
chose to write about her relationship with her father. 
“She came out of a war-torn country, so you’d think
that would be her story, but her story is one of a
daughter not telling her dad how much she loved
him before he died,” says O’Malley. “It’s a human story.”

The difference between this project and similar writing
assignments, she says, is that Venditto en­couraged
participants to use multimedia elements to bring their
scripts to life: documents, photos, and even songs. “It
was more than just producing a video to tell a story,” she 
says. “It became a story in itself of how this classroom
became a community of writers and sharers of information.”

Watch digital stories from the Immigrant Stories project.

Out of these questions, Immigrant Stories was born. It’s a digital collection of more than 150 personal stories from about 40 communities, ranging from factual to deeply emotional. In one story, for example, Sahra Hassan shares scanned images of her Somali high school diploma and national identity card while talking about her journey from Somalia to Uganda and then to the United States. In another, Xai Phia Yang speaks directly to the camera in Hmong, with subtitles in English, as he describes fleeing war-torn Laos and studying to become a nurse in a refugee camp in Thailand.

“In the current debates about immigration, there are a lot of people talking about immigrants but very few opportunities for immigrants and refugees to tell their own stories and make their own choices about what they want to share,” says Lee.

From the project’s beginning in 2013 until now, people have participated in Immigrant Stories in three main ways: by taking a class at a participating college (including the one Lee teaches at the U), attending public two-day workshops led by project manager Elizabeth Venditto, or being a student in a participating adult English class in the Twin Cities. (See sidebar.) Though Venditto says she keeps the technology as simple as possible, creating a digital story still involves computer skills like typing a script, scanning documents, and adding music and a voiceover.

When she works with participants on their scripts, Venditto encourages them to focus on one object that symbolizes their journey. “It’s not your life story because you can’t describe your whole life in three minutes,” she says. Some participants choose physical objects like musical instruments or recipes, while others choose more abstract concepts like education.

When they’re finished creating their stories, partic­ipants in the class or workshop can choose to donate them to the Immigrant Stories online collection or keep them private.

Bigger and better

Starting this year, Immigrant Stories is expanding out­side of Minnesota, thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant that will fund a pilot project at six sites ranging from museums to schools to community organizations. The goal is to create a simple online platform to help people make and submit their own digital stories, for free, with tutorials that are accessible and easy to use.

The IHRC’s Discovery Fund, supported by gifts of all sizes, allows the center to do even more with Immigrant Stories. For example, Venditto would eventually like to create a curriculum that helps teachers use the stories when planning lessons about current immigration.

As it is, the collection is a rich source of information for researchers across the world and is already being used at museums outside of the U. Because all participants write scripts as part of the creation process, the stories are fully searchable—a researcher could search for ones that men­tion a specific refugee camp in Thailand, for example.

“As a public research institution, the University of Minnesota leads in research, education, and community engagement, and this project has allowed us to do all three in innovative ways,” says Lee.

In addition to aiding researchers, Immigrant Stories helps the country’s newest residents understand that they’re part of the larger American story. “People sometimes say, ‘Well, my story isn’t important because I’m not rich and famous,’” says Venditto. “Telling their story validates their experiences.”

U of M student Heilman says that’s exactly how he felt when creating his story. “Now that I have my green card, I feel like I can tell my story, whereas before I didn’t know what would happen if I did,” he says. “My hope is that these stories can educate people and open minds.”

This story was originally published in Legacy magazine, winter 2016.