Post-9/11 Arab Americans Tell Their Stories in AAJA Project

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DEARBORN, Mich-- This year’s seventh graders, 12 and 13 years old, are the first Americans to grow up with no memory of time before the searing events of Sept. 11, 2001.

While that day is a dividing line for older people, it is more like a starting line for seventh graders.

It has been fascinating for me to spend this school year with 29 seventh graders, 28 of whom are Arab American, doing journalism.

The Living Textbook is a demonstration project proposed by Dinah Eng, founding director of the Asian American Journalists Association’s Executive Leadership Program and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

The class is at McCollough-Unis School in Dearborn, Mich., and is funded by the McCormick Foundation and The Ford Foundation. The idea is to help students learn about journalism and to post their stories, photos and videos online. I am co-director of the project with Emilia Askari. We worked together at the Detroit Free Press for years.

We have been helped by Bill Kubota, a documentary filmmaker whose video is on the website, which was built by Steven Chin of MKMedia. Frank Witsil of the Free Press and Ankur Dholakia of The Detroit News are in the classroom so often the kids miss them when they are not there.

We believe the students have learned something this year. We know the adults have. These are some lessons:

• Kids have no fear of technology. Kodak donated 25 Zx1 high-definition pocket video cameras for the project. We passed them out and started a clumsy attempt to explain how they work. No need. Within 10 minutes, the kids had figured out every feature on those cameras and taught each other everything.

• Middle school teachers work harder than journalists. Without April Kincaid running that classroom – and news meetings, and making news budgets – this would have been a big flop. Principals don’t have it any easier. Askari and I were in the office of Rita Rauch one day and she had so many new students arriving from so many countries – and, in one case, departing – that I thought I was in an airport, not a middle school. She gave Kincaid room to make the program happen.

• Arab-American kids are just that: Arab. American. Kids. Stick the hyphen wherever you want or leave it out. They want to tell stories about bullying and the school track team and the Detroit Tigers. They wrote and took photos about sitting down to big, American-style Thanksgiving dinners – with sides of hummus and tabouleh. Most of the kids are Muslim. Some of the girls, but not all, wear headscarves. Some wore green headscarves for St. Patrick’s Day and clipped shamrock antennae onto them. For USA Day, they wore red, white and blue.

• The Middle East is a local story. Most of the students’ families come from Lebanon, but we also have students with ties to Kuwait and Syria. One boy labored over the story of the uprisings of Arab Spring and what that is doing to his parents’ families in the Middle East. His mother stays up late at night to talk on the phone, losing sleep and weight. They live that story in their home here in the United States.

• America is their home. Jamila Nasser wrote about her mother and her mother’s three sisters – all of whom moved to be close together in Dearborn with all their 18 children growing up together. “I have a cousin in every grade,” she said. Her family is here and knows here, not some other place.

So, we, the adults, are learning from the students. I look forward to learning more. The Ford Foundation said in May that it wants to give AAJA a second grant to keep the project going right through the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and see what these promising young journalists can do.

(Earlier this month, Grimm wrote about Our Chinatown, one of the other AAJA demonstration projects, for the Diversity Institute.)

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at since 1996.