Diversity in Lincoln, Neb., through the lens of high school proms and teens

PromBy Bobby Caina Calvan | Heartland Project

LINCOLN, Neb. – The assignment was straightforward: Produce a story about the growing diversity in the Cornhusker State’s capital city.

Certainly, we could have gone straight to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website and downloaded the data. We could have strung together a bunch of numbers and surrounded them with quotes and analyses. We could have left things there.

But the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, Dave Bundy, wanted a different approach. He wanted a story that put a face on the numbers.

Bundy had a novel idea — tell the story of his city’s diversity through the lens of a quintessential American institution: the high school prom.

As is often the case, schools serve as microcosms of a community’s evolving demographics – and Lincoln is no different.

The high school prom as a microcosm of diversity. See complete coverage in the Lincoln Journal Star:

As our report points out, about a third of the roughly 38,000 students attending Lincoln Public Schools are now from communities of color. That’s a huge jump from about 15 years ago, when the majority of the school district’s students – nearly nine in 10 – were of European descent.

In recent years, Nebraska has experienced a surge in its population of immigrants, many of them of Hispanic origin. But Nebraska is also a safe haven for refugees escaping the turmoil of their homelands, including Sudan, Burma and Iraq.

The prom package Bundy proposed would be a perfect vehicle for launching the Heartland Project, a first-of-its-kind collaboration aimed at broadening news coverage of communities of color – as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues – by partnering with newsrooms across Nebraska to produce stories on folks and issues that often don’t get attention.

The Journal Star has been among the first of Nebraska’s newspapers to embrace the collaboration.

As the lead reporter for the Heartland Project, it was my responsibility to take the prom story and run with it. I set out to pursue the package in words, pictures and video.

As part of the assignment, I’d write an overarching story connecting prom and Lincoln’s evolving demographics. And I’d enlist journalism students to help produce vignettes, photographs and videos that would spotlight teens from different backgrounds.

Among the teens we profiled: a teenager who moved to Lincoln from Mexico City, a Burmese girl born in a refugee camp in Thailand, a student coming to terms with her sexual identity, and even a foreign exchange student from Sweden.

The prom project was about acceptance and belonging, regardless of background and life stories. It’s about inclusion and being a part of the broader community.

Indeed, “community” is at the core of the Heartland Project’s mission of collaborating with newsrooms across Nebraska to generate stories, like the prom package in the Lincoln Journal Star, that enhance coverage of the state’s increasingly diverse voices.

The Heartland Project is itself a collaboration. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the project brings together the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The ambitious project will undoubtedly have its challenges, as was clear during the reporting of the prom stories.

Some at Lincoln Public Schools had their guards up, and it took some cajoling to get cooperation. (Others, including teachers and family advocates who have long worked with refugees and the LGBT community, were more embracing.)

It’s only natural to distrust an outsider – in my particular case, an experienced reporter from Washington, D.C. – venturing into terrain seldom explored.

It took time  to produce the prom package, much longer than I hoped. In takes time to build relationships and trust. Other challenges caused delays.

Some of those challenges come from my own deficiencies. Over time, I’m certain that I’ll develop better skills in directing inexperienced journalism students. When I move on from Nebraska in December, I hope to become a better teacher, editor and leader.

The prom project has been a learning experience for me, for my colleagues at the university and – I can only hope – for my crew of student journalists.

There is so much more to learn. Indeed, I hope the Heartland Project becomes the learning experience for all of us that it is meant to be.