Sparking Change in New Jersey

Social Engagement from Classroom to Community

Faculty and students work on an NJ Spark project. Photo credit: Kenneth Kurtulick
Faculty and students work on an NJ Spark project. Photo credit: Kenneth Kurtulick

New Brunswick activists are getting the messages out, with the help of JMS students.

Together, they’re creating awareness campaigns about all kinds of causes, including wage theft for undocumented workers, sexual assault, and mental health.

Todd Wolfson, an associate professor at Rutgers and long-time social justice reporter, helps to create the connections between students and activists as a part of his courses, Media and Community, and Media, Movements and Community Engagement. Wolfson’s website NJ Spark showcases their work.

“[Each project] offers students the opportunity to learn to be journalists and media makers in the service of local communities,” Wolfson said. “It gives students hands on experience in making media that is embedded in communities in the region, while offering stories and other media about communities struggling to survive and make change in New Jersey.”

As a part of one project, students documented an event called “It’s on Us”, during which former Vice President Joe Biden spoke to students regarding sexual assault on college campuses. This was one of the first times that students in his course experimented with “live-tweeting” and Facebook’s new live feature as well. Three students from his class attended the event as part of the press, documenting Biden’s speech through video which they shared in real-time over Facebook, and through a collection of tweets that captured the feeling of the event and kept followers tuned in throughout the duration of the speech. This allowed audiences to gain a first-hand view of the event as it played out.

Students also worked with New Labor, an organization aimed at improving working conditions for immigrants throughout New Jersey. Through their involvement with social media practices and internal work, NJ Spark gives New Labor a bigger voice through online exposure.

A third project — this one done in collaboration with the Free Press — looked at the effects of poverty on individuals. Thirty-seven people were profiled to represent the 37 percent of New Jersey households living in poverty. The project won the Montclair State Excellence in Local Journalism award last year. Mike Rispoli, an author for the Free Press wrote, “we heard residents talk about the desire to see Rutgers students out in the city more. We heard people from Rutgers talk about ways to build better relationships with residents who lived close to campus but often felt like the university was a world away.” This project helped strengthen that relationship between Rutgers students and community members by showcasing the success that can be achieved when working together towards the same causes.  

Wolfson hopes to expand NJ Spark beyond the journalism department, and get various student groups across the Rutgers campus involved. He wants to see NJ Spark become a “robust student learning opportunity as well as a powerful outlet telling the story of New Jersey.” He stated that the first step to this would be to give the program a “365 orientation” rather than limiting the work to the Fall and Spring semesters exclusively. Eventually, Wolfson believes that NJ Spark can begin working with communities surrounding Rutgers’ two other campuses located in Newark and Camden.