While Asbury Park often feels like a city divided, there was an incredible spirit of unity at the high school Wednesday night as residents and journalists came together to find ways to forge a strong future for the community.
Over 70 residents from the city’s East and West Sides packed the gym for Free Press’ third News Voices: New Jersey event. There they discussed pressing local issues and how the community and the media can collaborate to tell important stories.
— Kala Kachmar (@NewsQuip) March 23, 2016
The city has been changing over the last decade and is at a crucial juncture. While the East Side experiences rapid development and growing economic opportunity, many West Side residents say they’re being left behind.
Local journalists play a valuable role during times like these and can challenge perceptions, press for transparency and ensure that all voices are heard.
This framing shaped the News Voices event. Reporters and community members brainstormed about coverage of issues including education, development, gentrification, crime and safety, environmental changes, access to healthy foods and representation in local government.
— Molly de Aguiar (@MollydeAguiar) March 24, 2016
Of the many issues that surfaced, two rose to the top: jobs and housing. We asked people to consider these from their own perspectives and the perspectives of other attendees.
The idea of perspectives is important in a place like Asbury Park, where residents may experience two different realities while living only blocks apart. The diverse crowd ranged from lifelong residents to recent transplants, so it was important for participants to not only speak but to listen to others.
We heard from Asbury Park Sun reporter and local resident Michelle Gladden, who explained her role in the community. “I am here as your voice,” she said, inviting people to approach her and share their stories.
We heard from Meghan Armbrecht of the local coworking group CoWerks, who spoke about training local students to code and efforts to make the local farmers’ market more inclusive by accepting SNAP payments and reaching out with mobile delivery.
We heard from activist Randy Thompson, who works on drug-policy reform with the organization Help Not Handcuffs. He talked about how criminalizing drug use hurts communities, and how important it is for the media to reflect those realities.
We then asked attendees to consider the many different perspectives they have — as parents, small-business owners, recent college grads, youth mentors, homeowners, renters, public servants and so on. We challenged them to speak from those perspectives about our two leading topics — housing and jobs — and to stick to asking questions. Questions are the tools journalists use to make sense of the world, and they can help solve problems more effectively than statements.
Naturally, many participants presented their ideas as questions:
As Asbury Park gets gentrified, who gets priced out?
Will development on the East Side translate into jobs for people on the West Side?
Can we have more honest conversations about who the town wants to move here? About what we mean by “affordable” housing? About who carries the tax burden?
There were compelling personal stories, too.
Duane Small, president of the Asbury Park chapter of the National Action Network, spoke about his history as a former drug addict and dealer, and his efforts to start a new life without getting sucked back into his criminal past. He talked about overcoming structural obstacles to become a local contractor and activist. He noted the divide in Asbury Park between the East and West Sides, and how many on the West are struggling because of a lack of opportunities.
He said these struggles need to be reported more, and asked, “How do we dismantle something while we’re also trying to build?”
School Board President Nicolle Harris and Asbury Park Press reporter Kala Kachmar spoke together about empowering local youth, questioning why some people move away from the city and others stay. They also noted differing priorities in the community: At city council meetings East Side residents talk about parking while West Side residents talk about wanting solutions to persistent crime.
Harris, who grew up in Asbury Park, said she moved back to be part of the change she wanted to see. She said she wants more positive stories about students, like how the high school debate team went to an event at Harvard and has travelled both nationally and internationally. We heard the desire to see more positive stories about Asbury Park several times throughout the evening, in an echo of what we heard at past events inNew Brunswick and Atlantic City.
Nicole Tillman of the Jersey Shore Dream Center, a local ministry and outreach center, said she grew up in nearby Belmar but never knew the extent of people’s struggles in Asbury Park until she started working there. But she sounded an optimistic tone after seeing all participants begin to work together:
Change can’t happen until people are aware of the problem. Just from being here tonight, I feel like there are people on both sides of the line, people from all different perspectives, who want to help solve the problem.
The night ended with community members and journalists talking about ways they can collaborate, like helping new reporters learn about the city’s rich history and finding ways to elevate the voices of overlooked residents.
An exciting new project in the area is the Listening Post from Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN). The Listening Post is designed to engage the community by facilitating two-way conversations through text messaging. JSHN staff will post questions and participants will text their responses, which will be published online. JSHN will use what people say to do follow-up reporting.
If you’re interested in participating in the project, start by texting Hello to 732-479-4033, and the folks over at JSHN will text you back with questions.
Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project is invested in strengthening relationships in Asbury Park between residents and local journalists. We will follow up to ensure that all community voices are heard, and to identify ways in which local media can serve as a hub for information as the city determines its future.
— Lucia Martinez (@Luciaroars) March 23, 2016
The best part of the night came when people moved from questions to stories. We asked them to brainstorm a list of the untold and under-told stories of Asbury Park.
Mike Rispoli is the Press Freedom Campaign Director at Free Press. Working with Fiona Morgan, he oversees News Voices: New Jersey, a Dodge-funded Free Press initiative designed to create conversation and respond to the needs of both journalists and residents. Learn more and get involved at freepress.net/new-jersey.