The Welcome Project at Valparaiso University will expand its storytelling endeavors through a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Projects for the Public program.

Titled “Flight Paths: Mapping Our Changing Neighborhoods,” the project is a multimedia initiative to help users engage and analyze factors contributing to de-urbanization and the fracturing of neighborhoods, communities and regions in post-industrial America.

“This grant is a testament to the importance of the Welcome Project’s work and the impact its storytelling has on campus, in our local community and even nationwide,” said Mark L. Biermann, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “At Valparaiso University, we intentionally foster opportunities for dialogue across difference, and the Welcome Project does a wonderful job of catalyzing these valuable conversations and building community around them.”

“Flight Paths” will center on an interactive website that documents the changing racial and economic demographics of Gary and Northwest Indiana, including the rise of black political power and opportunities in the 1960s and 1970s, the “flight” of white residents and businesses to the suburbs and the automation and consequent underemployment of the steel mills.

The grant will allow Welcome Project co-directors Allison Schuette ’93, MFA, associate professor of English, and Elizabeth Wuerffel ’00, MFA, associate professor of art, to create an interactive website along with a team of historians, geographers, documentarians, designers, IT specialists and programmers.

“A project of this scale requires a great deal of collaboration and coordination,” Schuette said. “The NEH grant gives us the opportunity and resources to dig in with our very talented team and to begin executing our design.”

Four key themes will undergird the website’s overarching narrative: Jim Crow had a northern reach; Black activism and struggle challenged that reach and prompted change; racial and socioeconomic inequality nevertheless continued to find strong footing in the post-Civil Rights era; and a significant gap exists between the national and regional policies and practices at work in the Civil Rights era and our personal stories and memories.

“Flight Paths” is part of the Welcome Project at Valparaiso University, which began in spring 2009 by collecting stories with the hopes of illuminating the complexity of living together amidst increasing diversity and difference. Since then, and through working with more than 180 Valpo students, they have accumulated more than 300 interviews and published more than 250 stories to the Welcome Project website. In particular, “Flight Paths” has involved 21 students since 2016. Their work ranges from interviewing and editing to transcribing to facilitating conversations to building community relationships to data visualization.

Schuette and Wuerffel were honored with the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 2013 for their work, which continues to spark conversation about how to live with difference. They have also developed relationships with numerous organizations across Northwest Indiana. Lakeshore Public Media features a Welcome Project story, many of which are “Flight Path” stories, each Tuesday on Lakeshore Public Radio.

“Our work with United Urban Network led by Cassandra Cannon has also been invaluable,” Schuette said. “As a community organizer in Gary, Cassandra helps us build relationships with potential storytellers and better understand contemporary experiences in Gary. In turn, we are contributing to their efforts at a Lakeshore People’s Museum.”

Through these partners and others, Schuette and Wuerffel estimate the project has the potential to reach more than a half a million users in a five-year period.

Earlier this year, Schuette received the Philip and Miriam Kapfer Endowed Faculty Research Award, which will allow her time to develop new content and edit existing content. The bi-annual award is funded by an endowment created by the Kapfer family and provides one semester of full-time leave with pay or two consecutive semesters with a half-time schedule, plus a $4,000 stipend. Philip and Miriam Kapfer are parents to alumni Paul Kapfer ’89, J.D., and Dr. Stephanie Kapfer ’91.

The NEH grant is specifically designed to create a prototype of the documentary website using the Tolleston neighborhood in Gary, Indiana. In the fall of 2019, Schuette and Wuerffel will seek volunteers from Valparaiso University and the Northwest Indiana community to participate in a focus group to help test the prototype.

Visit welcomeproject.valpo.edu to learn more about the Welcome Project and to explore stories from “Flight Paths” and other series, and subscribe to the Welcome Project’s podcast for a weekly story by searching for “Welcome Project Valparaiso University” in a podcast app.

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