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Telling Their Own Stories

In a time when many are talking about immigrants, the IHRC is helping immigrants speak for themselves
September 28, 2015

A young woman wearing a hijab sits in front of an iPad while her image is shown on the screen

A young woman wearing a hijab sits in front of an iPad while her image is shown on the screen
Immigration Stories provides recent immigrants and refugees with digital storytelling tools to document, preserve, and share their personal experiences. (Photo by Lisa Miller)

What is it like to grow up in a refugee camp? To speak six languages but still feel misunderstood? To have had your name changed at Ellis Island?

These stories, and many like them, are stories of immigrants captured by CLA’s Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). Founded 50 years ago, the same year as the 1965 Immigration Act, the IHRC and its partner, the IHRC Archives, has grown into the largest repository of immigrant and refugee life in North America. It is a unique place where scholars, historians, and archivists mingle with recent and not-so-recent immigrants in an effort to probe the history, questions, and consequences surrounding immigration.

Past and Present

“This is the perfect time to be researching and discussing immigration,” says Erika Lee, IHRC director and Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History. “Immigration remains one of the most debated topics in American society and politics today. Currently, it has become the most important issue in the GOP presidential field.”

Lee, whose recent book, The Making of Asian America, has garnered nationwide praise, sees the role of the IHRC as one of both collection and preservation as well as dissemination and innovation. “We are celebrating 50 years of work in highlighting immigrant life while also planning for the next 50 years to come.”

In its 50 years, the IHRC has documented the tremendous shifts in population created by the 1965 Immigration Act. Initially designed to eliminate immigration quotas based on national origin that had been American immigration policy for decades, the act greatly opened up immigration from Asia and Africa, but also imposed restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time in American history. This was at a time, according to Lee, “when our economy was becoming more global and we needed more low-skilled labor, and as a result, undocumented immigration grew. The 1965 Act thus both opened doors and closed others. In both ways, it has really transformed America.”

As the landscape changed, the IHRC recorded the tensions, challenges, and triumphs of immigrant communities. It has also created a space for scholarly investigation that is also committed to community agency. “That is our challenge,” notes Lee, “to continue doing what we have been doing, but also discover new ways of understanding immigration past and present by creating new digital platforms, collaborating with communities, and engaging with scholars and students around the country and around the world.”

Immigrant Stories

One of the IHRC’s most recent and innovative projects is Immigrant Stories, which provides recent immigrants and refugees with digital storytelling tools to document, preserve, and share their personal experiences.

The format is unique; unlike oral histories which can be hours long and consist of tens of thousands of words, Immigrant Stories focuses on personal, three to five minute multimedia videos. “There are advantages to digital storytelling” says Elizabeth Venditto, Immigrant Stories project manager, “It allows people to shape the story themselves. It isn’t them responding to a researcher’s questions.”

But it is not just about crafting the story. Immigrant Stories takes the concept of ownership one step further by asking participants themselves to create the videos. Venditto emphasizes that they provide training and have attempted to simplify the process and use free software whenever possible so that even computer novices can make their own videos.

“There is a lot of creativity in the form. We are thinking of digital storytelling as a research methodology; when you give people a blank slate, when you let them craft a multimedia narrative, what do you get? Especially because this is a public project, people know they’re in dialogue with the present and the future.”

Of course a person’s entire life cannot be summed up in a five minute video, so Venditto asks them, “What’s the one story you want preserved and passed on?”

Telling Their Own Stories

The short video format allows for the sharing of photos, documents, fabrics, family videos, maps, music, and poetry in a way not possible in a traditional oral history. It also allows the collected stories to be more accessible to the general public as well as researchers, artists, students, teachers, and community members. Venditto notes that the stories have already been used in college curricula and hopes to be able to create primary and secondary school curricula in the future. The stories are preserved and made publicly available through the IHRC Archives, the Minnesota Digital Library, and the Digital Public Library of America.

The project, which began in 2013, has now grown to over 150 separate accounts of immigrant life, with plans for a nationwide expansion in the next two years. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) of over $320,000, IHRC will partner with five institutions, representing a wide variety of geographic locations, city size and organization types, to expand digital storytelling training, collection and preservation, and public education.

The organizations include the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation in San Francisco; the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis, Indiana; the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona; the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; and Collegiate Academies in New Orleans.

The grant will allow the IHRC and its partners to design, implement, and refine an online system that will guide immigrants through the technical and creative steps required to create their own digital stories.

In essence, Venditto says that anyone should be able to log on the website and use its tools to write, film and edit their own immigrant story. “The idea is that it will be accessible across the board, because that’s how the digital humanities should be.”

She hopes that by empowering recent immigrants and refugees to document, preserve, and share their personal experiences their stories will reach the wider American public. “Right now, a lot of high profile people are speaking about immigrants,” says Venditto, “Our project helps immigrants speak for themselves.” 

Want to tell your Immigrant Story? Contact the Immigration History Research Center or learn more.