In collaboration with Free Press, early last year, WBGO/Newark Public Radio launched the Community Storytelling Lab. As listed on their website, it is a news initiative that “seeks to elevate the untold and underreported stories of Newark, by listening to city residents, building deep relationships with them, and producing community-centered journalism.”

The Community Storytelling Lab is open to all Newark residents but prioritizes the LGBTQ and other diverse participants with a stipend. Also, participants have the opportunity to learn about journalism and storytelling–skills that founder and director Brit Harley says are invaluable and transferable to any field.

Harley said, “A large part of this Lab is like–how do we equip people who actually have the lived experience, who are going to treat these stories with care? [And] how do we not just allow people to learn these skills, [but] have them be confident around what’s possible for them and their work?”

The Lab doesn’t just provide Newark residents with an opportunity to gain essential media and storytelling experience. It also serves to unify the city and strengthen the community; by investing in stories that center the experiences of those living within these communities, lab fellows can identify and deliver the residents’ information.

“These are residents saying, especially in a pandemic, ‘I need to know where food is at, I need to know how I could get some rental assistance.’ My thinking with the Lab is: what conversations can we start with people who are writers in this community, or maybe organizers serving a specific community here in Newark. And how do we equip them with tools?”

These local stories also help to improve the image of the city of Newark. For example, often portrayed as a city in constant turmoil and scandal, local people’s positive and upbeat stories will show the city that is improving and fostering positive community-led growth and innovation.

Harley said legacy-driven and white-dominated media has long contributed to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes in minority communities. She says it is inauthentic and doesn’t align with the values of the communities within Newark. “We know that [these] are not the only things that are happening here in our community. Yes, the gun violence is real and there are things that we need to do about it, but there’s also a peace collective and people have peace agreements. “How do we have more people telling our own story?” she said. “How do we equip more people on the ground to be talking about these injustices?”

This dedication to uplifting local communities and honest reporting inspired the Story Lab to collaborate with local publications like the NJ Urban News. Fellows selected for the Story Lab may have the chance to get their work published and gain access to internship or employment opportunities.

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