New Immigrant Storytelling Tools for Challenging Times

May 30, 2017
By: Elizabeth Venditto

Since January 20, I have repeatedly had the same conversation. When I tell someone that I manage a storytelling and archiving project called Immigrant Stories, they ask if it is now difficult to find people willing to share their immigration experiences. I tell them that it is. But, as public and immigration historians already know, our work has always been hard. Telling one’s immigration story publicly has often carried risks. But in challenging times, Immigrant Stories provides participants with complete control over their story’s content and visibility. While political and personal stakes may be a barrier to participation, our new tools and resources make sure that access to training and technology are not.

As we shared in an IEHS blog post last year, Immigrant Stories teaches anyone, including students, to make a digital story about a personal or family immigration experience. Participants have the option of sharing their videos with the project, which is run by the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). If they do so, we make the videos publicly available for teaching and research and ensure their professional preservation through the IHRC Archives, the Minnesota Digital Library, and the Digital Public Library of America.

Since the U.S. presidential election last November, we have noticed an intensification of two tendencies that have existed since we began the project in 2013. Some immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented and some refugees, are reluctant to share their stories, at least outside the classroom. At the same time, other participants who previously felt secure in their status, such as U.S. citizens or second-generation activists telling their own stories, now feel an increased urgency to share their stories publicly and push back against anti-immigrant narratives and executive orders.

From the beginning, Immigrant Stories has enabled wide participation by giving individuals complete control over their stories and defining “immigrant” broadly. While Immigrant Stories offers writing prompts, participants may create a video about any topic, rather than responding to a researcher’s questions. Each person may focus on a story they are comfortable telling publicly or believe is most important for others to understand. Sharing a story with the collection is completely optional, and many participants choose not to do so. At the same time, anyone may participate, and the Immigrant Stories collection includes stories from immigrants’ children and grandchildren, international students, and transnational adoptees. This breadth allows the project to encompass migration’s multi-generational effects as well as enable participation from people who feel more secure about their immigration status.

After more than two years of planning and testing, we recently released powerful tools that enable anyone with access to a computer and the Internet to create a digital story. This winter we launched our story-making website, The website provides writing prompts, tutorial videos, access to video editing tools, and an optional, click-through donation form. We are currently translating the website into several languages, including Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. We have also released four free story-making curricula to complement the website. They are for high schools, colleges, English language programs, and public workshops. Each curriculum contains lesson plans, worksheets, a grading rubric, and technical instructions that correspond with the website’s tutorial videos.

The videos already in the Immigrant Stories collection are also powerful teaching tools, and sharing them is another means of participation for those who cannot make their own videos. The collection includes personal narratives about transnational love, education, and family; dealing with immigration bureaucracy, and navigating cultures, languages, and identities. The IHRC has also partnered with The Advocates for Human Rights to create Teaching Immigration with the Immigrant Stories Project, a free, three-unit curriculum for eighth grade through adult learners. The units address the many, complex reasons people immigrate to the U.S. and the experiences of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrant youth, and second-generation immigrants.

While threats of increased deportations and rising xenophobia are serious concerns for immigrant communities, as well as challenges to historians’ work, they did not suddenly emerge with the Trump administration. Historians should always have been working thoughtfully with immigrant communities. Immigrant Stories is rooted in the IHRC’s 50+ years of collaboration with immigrant communities. This commitment decisively shapes the project and its digital tools, enabling work that, while always important and challenging, is more urgent than any time in recent memory.

The Immigration History Research Center is collaborating with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society to share relevant digital humanities resources, including the Immigrant Stories project. Scholars affiliated with both organizations collaborated earlier this year to develop the #Immigration Syllabus.

Elizabeth Venditto

Elizabeth Venditto has managed the Immigrant Stories project at the Immigration History Research Center since 2013. She holds a PhD in migration history from the University of Minnesota.

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