UI doctoral students gather stories from southeast-Iowa City residents

BY LUKE VOELZ | JUNE 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Robert Gutsche wants people to look beyond breaking news.

The 30-year-old is one of three University of Iowa doctoral students who founded CrossingBorders.us, an interactive website that shares stories and culture from Iowa City’s Southeast Side. Gutsche said the project will bring positive stories from the area — which, he said, mainstream media outlets have not done enough of.

“We wanted to highlight the great things in that part of the city,” he said.

Gutsche joined English student Raquel Baker and art-education student Daniel Kinney at the UI Obermann Center Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy in January. They began discussing local views of Iowa City’s Southeast Side, an area largely populated by residents who moved from larger metro areas.

That population grew by 8,000 between 1990 and 2009 alongside a 7 percent increase in the poverty rate, according to data compiled by students in the UI School for Urban and Regional Planning. Baker said she saw an increasingly negative perception over the last several years of the rapid growth.

“I had grad students take campus tours and tell me, ‘Well, the dean said not to live on [the Southeast] Side,’ ” Baker said. “It can seem like some kind of contentious relationship between black immigrants from Chicago and native Iowa Citians.”

The three students combined their fields of study to brainstorm a series of projects they claim will help break down perceived social barriers and misinformation. Kinney is working on a series of community murals reflecting the lives of its Southeast Side painters, while Gutsche led UI journalism students in a documentary on social tensions at Iowa City bus stops. Each project was chronicled on the crossingborders.us website.

But Gutsche said the project lacked one key voice — actual narratives from Southeast Side residents, leading him and Baker to create a blog post asking, “What’s Iowa City to you?”

That question’s goal, Baker said, is allowing the individual voices and experiences of Southeast Side residents, which she claims the media play down in favor of generalizations and larger stories.

She emphasized that while she thinks the mainstream media present a negative image, the project’s goal is not to frame the stories as positive or negative — rather, to provide context for what appears in the media.

“I don’t think it’s about policing or framing [the stories,]” Baker said. “It’s giving a space for people to report them, and I’m adamant about not knowing [the stories] beforehand — because they’re not our experience.”

The project’s storytelling medium resonates with a Southeast Side culture of oral traditions, said Sue Freeman, the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County program director. She and Gutsche first asked residents for childhood photos and mementos, only to find many didn’t have family pictures.

“When you’re working with families and youth in poverty, sometimes they don’t have a single baby picture — the things that middle-class America documents,” she said. “What they do have is stories — stories from their mama, grandma, auntie, and uncle. They can retell things that I would never be able to remember.”

Gutsche said the key to finding these stories is approaching them as a member of the community, not as a reporter or researcher.

“It’s being a part of the community when there’s nothing going on,” he said. “Saying, ‘Tell me about your family’; not the fight that happened last Tuesday.”

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