Yuliana Valdez admits she was a little nervous about spending her summer in Liberty City working on a documentary film project.
“Because of what I’d heard about the area, I just wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Valdez, who graduated this week with a degree in broadcast journalism. “But now that I’ve seen it and met the families who live there, I want to go back.’’
Getting students out of their comfort zones – and challenging preconceived notions of communities like Liberty City – is exactly what digital media Professor Moses Shumow was hoping to accomplish with Liberty Square Rising – the final project for his Broadcast & Digital Media Studies capstone course.
“It’s an important project in terms of capturing the history of this place, especially the stories that have never been told,’’ said Shumow, whose work with students in Liberty City earned him FIU’s Excellence in Engagement Award last year.
“This is the kind of journalism that gives the viewer and the journalist a level of empathy and understanding,” he said. “We can be balanced and truthful but we can also advocate for what’s right in society.’’
Students spent six weeks interviewing residents and capturing video footage in Liberty Square, a public housing project in Liberty City nicknamed “Pork & Beans.’’
Opened in 1937, Liberty Square was the first public housing project for African Americans in the southern United States. A concrete wall along 12th Avenue separated blacks from whites. The foundation of the wall remains today.
While many longtime residents of Liberty Square spoke of idyllic summer evenings spent with family and friends at cookouts and dances, the community has also been the scene of race riots and gun violence, including dozens of shootings this year.
“People talked about how beautiful it was back then,’’ said student Rochelle Guzman, who helped compile a documentary on the history of Liberty Square. “There was very little crime.’’
To tell the story of Liberty Square, students built a website, libertysquarerising.com, which features oral histories of residents and community leaders; a timeline of Liberty City history; and an interactive “story map” of important sites in the black community, including the historic Lyric Theater in nearby Overtown.
Students collaborated with FIU’s Education Effect partnership at Miami Northwestern Senior High School to interview students about their lives and participate in a tour known as the Trip Line, to glimpse of the lives of African-Americans in early Miami.
The project also documents the city of Miami’s somewhat controversial plans to raze Liberty Square and build new affordable housing nearby. Similar efforts in the area have ended in scandal, with hundreds of residents displaced and millions in taxpayer dollars squandered.
Archival footage on the students’ website shows the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “House of Lies,” which chronicled corruption in the city’s housing department.
“There is a lot of skepticism among the residents because of what has happened in the past,’’ said student Bryanna Morales, who helped compile the “What’s Next” portion of the project.
“Community engagement is so important to ensure that the city takes into consideration what residents want.’’
Liberty Square Rising also tackles the difficult topic of how the community and its residents have been portrayed by the media.
Words like “notorious,’’ “crime” and “guns” dominate a word cloud on the website showing the most frequently generated text from actual media reports.
Nadege Greene, a reporter for WLRN and the Miami Herald, has written extensively about Liberty City. She spoke to students about the importance of capturing the full narrative of the community.
“No one is saying don’t tell the horrific stories of the lives lost,’’ Green said. “But not every block is a war zone. And there aren’t gang members all throughout the community.’’
Shumow said he plans to continue work on the documentary, particularly as redevelopment plans for Liberty City move forward. He hopes to show a compilation of the students’ work at the American Black Film Festival when it returns to Miami in 2016. The project will also be shown to community residents during the Liberty Square reunion and picnic on Labor Day.
Christopher Santiago, who worked on a documentary about the lack of affordable housing in Miami-Dade County, said the project helped him see that there is often more to a story than what appears on television or in newspaper reports.
“Even though the media has portrayed Liberty City as this dangerous ghetto, it’s a wonderful area filled with the love of families for generations,’’ Santiago said. “I’ve learned that your experience will differ from all other journalists’ experiences. So, don’t be so quick to judge a story before taking the time to go for yourself.”
Carolina Barreto said her perception of Liberty City – and the people who live there – has changed greatly since completing the course.
“All I knew about Liberty City was the crime and violence that you see on TV,’’ she said. “But there are a lot of good people and a lot of good things happening there. We wanted to show that.’’
Karina Blanco said speaking with residents of Liberty Square made her want to do something to help the community.
“Then I realized that we did help,’’ she said. “We helped by telling their stories.’’