A University of Minnesota multimedia project to capture the stories of local immigrants is going national — and turning into a do-it-yourself project.

For three years, the Immigration History Research Center at the U has produced a trove of videos featuring the stories of almost 150 Minnesotans from 45 ethnic groups. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the influential Immigration Act of 1965 next month, the center won a $324,000 grant to develop an app that would allow immigrants from across the country to submit multimedia stories.

“There’s so much talk about immigration these days, but not enough from the perspective of the immigrants themselves,” said Erika Lee, the center’s director. “We want to fill that gap.”

When Lee took over the center in 2012, she knew its renowned archives focused heavily on immigration to the United States before World War I. So she envisioned a project that would tap digital technology to share the stories of recent immigrants and refugees.

The first participants came from the classrooms of the U and other local campuses. Then, the project branched out to places such as English language classes in St. Paul or the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Minneapolis’ “little Mogadishu.”

Thiago Heilman, a native of Brazil, produced his story while taking Lee’s class at the U. He describes getting a driver’s license and becoming a college undergraduate at 30 after benefiting from a 2012 program granting deportation reprieves to young people who came to the United States illegally as children. The resulting video he shared through social media started conversations.

Now, a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will fund a new app allowing immigrants to produce, edit and submit their own stories. The U center will partner with organizations in several cities to test drive the app.

“I hope the library can grow and more people can learn from the videos,” Heilman said.




Note: A previous version of this story said the archive project had captured the stories of 600 Minnesotans from 40 countries, which incorrectly counted a total from several archived projects rather than just the Immigrant Stories. The story has been corrected.