Monday, June 23, 2014

Using oral histories to bring a city alive

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

This is the second post in a three-part series on the power of oral storytelling. Read the first post.

HANDS, a NeighborWorks member in Orange, NJ, was an early believer in the power and versatility of the human voice, and has put the medium to a unique use – an oral history “tour” of the community that is helping the old and young alike re-discover why they should love their home town.

“Orange is only 2.2 square miles, but sort of embodies the historical arc of American cities,” says Molly Rose Kaufman, who discussed the project called [murmur] at the May NeighborWorks Training Institute on Purposeful and Powerful Storytelling. “De-industrialization left it with a declining population and employer base, and a lot of vacant properties. It’s a contagious process. A lot of young people just want to escape; they don’t know or connect with the rich history of the town, and the progress that’s happening that should make them proud.”

Murmur, however, has helped change that dynamic. The concept, first piloted in Toronto and now in cities ranging from Sao Paulo to Edinburgh, is simple: Record stories of residents explaining the history behind a particular spot – whether a park, a building or just an intersection – and set up “listening posts” around town. A green ear-shaped sign marks the location of each story, inviting passers-by to call a special phone number and listen to a narrative about what happened at that spot in the past.

Two [murmur] volunteers interview a resident about
a local story.
Orange now has 15 sites, all within four to five blocks, with 30 stories. The stories run the gamut from memories of boxing legend and Orange native Tony Galento, to recollections of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit shortly before his death, to the accomplishments of local hero Monte Irvin, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his performance with the Orange Triangles, a professional baseball team in the Negro National League. (Click on the links to hear for yourself.)

While HANDS loved the idea of being part of an international movement, however, it gave the concept its own twist.

“We recruited high school students in our youth arts program to find and record the stories,” explains Kaufman, who launched the program while a community organizer with HANDS. “Some of them ended up telling their own, personal stories. It was the first time for many of them to discover and appreciate that they have roots in a pretty fascinating town.”

Khemani Gibson (left) in the process of installing the
ear-shaped [murmur] signs.
One of the eight youth who recorded those first stories was Khemani Gibson. And he is quick to agree that the [murmur] project changed his life – by awakening a love of history, and his town.Gibson was born in Jamaica, but moved with his family to Orange when he was just a few months old.

“But I really didn’t feel any connection to Orange until [murmur],” he says. “Actually, I wanted my family to move. I just saw it as a broken-down town. Now, though, after learning so much about the city’s history and the people, my perception has changed to ‘why would I want to leave this place?’”

Gibson is particularly interested in black history, and has gone on to major in pan-African studies and Spanish at New Jersey’s Drew University. He returns to Orange regularly, however, to help the next generation of youth follow in his footsteps. Since September, he has been working with sixth through eighth graders to help them gather a new round of stories that will be used not only to update the listening stations but to develop a booklet about their city’s history for the third-grade curriculum.

“I was a little apprehensive at first, thinking that maybe the kids would be too young to really engage on this topic,” laughs Gibson. “But they ask questions like you’d hear at a town hall meeting; I’m learning a lot from them.”

And what’s next for Gibson? He already is planning to pursue his Ph.D., focusing on the African diaspora, but ultimately, “I feel so connected to Orange now that I wouldn’t mind coming back when I’m done.”

Next post: Tips for recording your own “naked voice” interviews.