Sharing Our Stories, Intertwining Our Lives: Strengthening Community Ties Through Oral History

by Allison Cox.

A small ad on the back page of the local middle school newspaper read: “seniors wanted for oral history project. The Journalism students would like to interview you to learn what life was like in previous decades. Please call if you are interested.”

“This newspaper is distributed for free all over the east side of town,” one of the committee members explained. “Every middle school student takes a copy home.”

“This is just what we have been looking for!”  I insisted.

The Community Development Committee had been meeting once a month at the local library. In a recent health department assessment of this neighborhood, many neighbors had mentioned concern over the rising incidence of youth violence in the area and a lack of positive outlets for youth involvement. Some of our elder citizens had even voiced that they felt afraid to walk by the teens when they saw them gathering on the street corners.

This neighborhood encompassed families of multiple ethnic backgrounds living in close proximity to each other and included one of the largest housing projects in the nation. Many residents spoke different languages from their neighbors. Numerous families had emigrated from afar (Cambodia, Mexico, Laos, Russia, Vietnam, Samoa…) and now were living parallel but often separate lives from their American- born neighbors. Children often acted as the interpreters for their parents and grandparents. These youth were trying to become “more American” while acting as the link for their families to the world around them. This locale also included Americans of African, European and Native descent. Some of the youth in this area had coped with their disparate identities by forming or joining gangs and dropping out of school. It was our hope that our committee could help build more connections between the diverse members of this community. We wanted to increase the opportunities for people to come together and develop supportive relationships, which we felt could diminish the trends of youth violence that targeted the neighbors in the area.

“Think of all the stories that have not been told yet and need to be heard in this community,” said the librarian. “Our elders have so much to share.

I’ll contact this Journalism class and see if we can get them involved with our local elders as part of our violence prevention project,” I volunteered. I saw this as a made-to-order path towards accomplishing the work that the health department, my employer, had hoped for. We excitedly discussed the potential for seniors and youth of our community to meet, share personal stories and possibly develop friendships. Gathering our elder’s stories and sharing these memories within the community could help strengthen the ties within the neighborhood.

When I called the Journalism teachers, they were thrilled. “We haven’t been contacted by any seniors through our newspaper ad,” they told me. I explained that I could arrange for the students to interview the elders at the nearby senior meal sites. The teachers were willing to publish all the interviews in their literary journal (which is also distributed free throughout the community), as well as printing some of the interviews in the school newspaper, even translated into other languages if we could provide the translators! There was just one problem – the school principal had just told the Journalism teachers that there was no more money available for printing the newspaper or the literary journal, and that the current issue of the school newspaper would have to be the last.

This was the birth of a collaborative process that aided all parties involved, for the health department had community development funds that were available to aid in the evolution of violence-prevention projects and my district team agreed to fund this project. If we could encourage the local seniors to share their stories in a series of interviews with sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, then bridges could be built toward increased understanding and hopefully this would diminish the fear of the “unknown youths” identified as a threat by the elders. We could engage the students in a process that would give them a sense of history about their neighborhood and their neighbors who also call this place home.

I contacted two senior meal sites in the immediate area. One location hosted the Hispanic meal site and was also attended by a large number of veterans and immigrant elder war brides from the Second World War and the Korean War. These men and women had settled in the area, close to the multiple military bases on the outskirts of Tacoma, Washington. Vietnamese seniors attended the second nearby meal site.

The Journalism teachers and I agreed that to build familiarity, we wanted the students to join the seniors at the noon meal after each interview was concluded. The middle school principal granted permission for the two Journalism classes to leave the school grounds and travel with parent volunteers to the local senior meal sites. Students would pair up to interview each elder.

In order to interview at the Vietnamese meal site, we had to coordinate with interpreters that would assist the process and join the students and elders at lunch as well. We also took great care to plan the core questions for the interviews in advance so that the interpreters were prepared and the seniors at both sites could screen any questions that might have been uncomfortable for them to answer since they could possibly bring back painful memories. The seniors asked if they could have a chance to think about the questions ahead of time as well.

The students designed a list of questions:

  • What is your name?
  • Where were you born?
  • How many brothers and sisters did you have?
  • Were you the oldest, youngest, etc., in the family?
  • Do you have a favorite relative? If so, why?
  • What did you do for fun when you were young?
  • What were your favorite foods when you were young?
  • What are some of your favorite memories from when you were young?
  • How old were you when your family first owned a television?
  • How old were you when your family first owned a car?
  • Have you always lived in the same area most of your life?
  • If you moved here, what made you decide to come to this place?
  • What is the best part about living here?
  • If there was one thing you could change about your life, what would it be?
  • If there is one piece of advice you could give us, what would it be?

The interpreters suggested that we should not ask any questions about school on the list since they knew that some of the Asian elders had never attended school and we did not want them to feel embarrassed. We did not include any questions about the wars that we knew they had all survived. We wanted to leave the decision to discuss this topic up to each elder when they were asked about deciding to move to this area, since we knew that many of them had suffered terribly during these wars.

The class was reminded that these questions were just a starting point and that they could return to the list when the conversation becomes quiet. Their teachers told them that what was most important was to listen to the elders. With two students per elder, one could be taking notes while the other kept full attention on the senior or they could take turns if they each had something they wanted to ask. In the end, none of the students or elders talked only of these specific topics. The elders were pleased to share the details of their lives and the conversations built upon each other, just as one good story leads to another.

It was arranged that the students would meet with their assigned elders to share a meal on three occasions:

  • 1st meeting: Gather each senior’s story.
  • 2nd meeting: Make sure that the students had all the facts straight.
  • 3rd meeting: Thank the elders by presenting them with a signed copy of their story.

On the first day of interviews, the students sat at their various assigned tables, tape recorders ready, nervously clutching notepads and pencils. As the seniors entered the room, we invited the elders to choose a table and be seated for the interview. It was the elders who graciously set the tone and put the youth at ease. I was delighted to hear the seniors ask the students the same questions that the students were posing to them. Around the room, the enthusiasm started to grow.

“Hey, I’m the oldest too!”

“You roller-skated? Is that the same as roller blading?”

“Wow, I thought I had a lot of brothers and sisters!”

The conversations continued into the lunch hour, long after the tape recorders were turned off.

At the next Journalism class, everyone was eager to share with each other some of the stories they had uncovered. “Hey, my senior is in his nineties and still going strong!” The students were surprised at the similarities in their lives. “Their” elders told them stories of playing marbles, hopscotch and jump rope. They had all sorts of unusual pets, too. Many of the seniors had played baseball, basketball or volleyball as children 一 even in Southeast Asia. The class was amazed to hear that many of the seniors had not seen a television until they were adults and most of the elders from the Vietnamese meal site had never had a car until they came to the United States. The seniors told these youth stories of how their families provided their own entertainment by singing, playing musical instruments and telling stories. “Back then everyone walked places together” one astonished student told the class. “A lot of them didn’t even have bicycles!”

Even though we did not ask the seniors about school, almost every one of them talked about their education. A senior from South Carolina told her listeners that the highest level of education in her school district was 11th grade. The Asian elders told the students that education was a privilege and that when they were young, only those families with money could afford to send their children to school. As the students questioned each other about the details of the interviews, they began to take notes about what they had forgotten to ask the elders the first time around.

“My senior was alive during World War One!”  Daniel told his classmates. In spite of our care to allow the seniors a range of comfortable topics in the questions that were prepared, every elder that was interviewed discussed the many wars that touched their lives, ranging from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the French / Indo-China War and the war in Vietnam. One Vietnamese elder told a story of how her pet pig would always be the first to hear the French planes flying overhead and then run and scuttle under the house. “You can be sure that my family would pay attention when this pig would run and hide!” Another woman told the students of escaping when the Nazis invaded Hungary and how her family kept fish in the bathtub for food when they first moved to a new country.

Several of the elders at the Asian meal site described their imprisonment in the communist re-education camps for five to fifteen years. One senior explained to the youth, “Sometimes we would go for days without any food, other days we would only get one bowl of rice. I was forced to do hard labor and was beaten badly.” Two students asked their elder if she had ever been injured during the war. “Not physically,” she said, “but inside,” pointing to her heart, “yes.” Then this woman asked the students what their thoughts were regarding the shootings at Columbine High School. These youth later wrote: “It struck us that the Columbine students who survived there were like Soung Le – their bodies are intact, but their hearts have been greatly injured/7 We could hear, in the student’s voices, a respect for these seniors, many of who had lived lives of strength and courage in the face of great physical and emotional pain.

When the elders at both meal sites repeatedly informed the students that the most important piece of advice that they had to share was to stay in school, we (teachers, parents, translators and health workers) had to conceal some of our enthusiasm! The seniors also told the students:

  • Respect your parents.
  • Love your family and friends.
  • Obey your teachers.
  • Stay away from violence.
  • Value the freedom that is yours in America.
  • Work hard toward your goals and never give up.
  • Give back to your community.
  • Keep your sense of humor!

It was almost surreal to walk among the students as they took copious notes of these life instructions. If I had walked into one of their classrooms and announced this list to them, these students would have yawned. What was the difference? They had exchanged their personal stories. These people had learned that they are not so very different from each other in the ways that mattered. The students also discovered that tucked away in these elder’s memories are a multitude of stories, adventures, experiences -some of which these youth had never even imagined ever happening to their neighbors. And they had been there all along -available just for the asking.

By the last visit, some of the students asked if they could come back to the meal site in the future as volunteers. Two class members happily told me that they had waved to “their elder” when they had seen him walking down the street. I thought back to the health department assessment – when seniors had told us that they were afraid to walk down the street near the teens. I encouraged them, “That’s great! I bet he liked that.”

“It struck us that the Columbine students who survived there were like Soung Le – their bodies are intact, but their hearts have been greatly injured.”

The stories that these elders shared were printed in the class literary journals that were disbursed across the entire community and beyond for free. The students had chosen titles for their stories such as “Still Young at Eighty-Seven” or “Wonder Woman” or “A Path to the Past”. Vietnamese versions of some of the Asian elders’ stories were also printed alongside the English stories in the school newspaper, which was sent home with every middle school student and given away for free at the local libraries, community centers, businesses, and at the health department. Each paper and journal contained group photos of the students and elders, standing close on their last day together, smiling.

The oral history project surpassed everyone’s expectations. One senior tracked me down and called me at work, determined to get a message to the student who had interviewed him. “Please tell her to finish school first,” he insisted. “It is admirable that she wants to be a missionary – but God will be patient. Tell her to finish school, then be a missionary later!”  This man told me he had spent a sleepless night worrying about “my student” and would not get off the phone until I promised repeatedly to carry the message. The youth and elders had learned each other’s names, shared their personal stories, and listened intently to what was valued by each other. If they passed each other on the street, even without being able to speak the same language, they could smile, nod their heads and the senior could pass without fear of the unknown. Two of the student journalists ended their story with these words: “This is how we got to know Lois. By recording and writing her story, we became her friends as she shared part of her life with us.”

This article first appear in the Diving the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002.

Allison Cox’s training in Counseling Psychology and Public Health has led her to work as a therapist, social worker, and health educator – and for the past 20 years, storytelling has accompanied her along these many paths. She was chair for the Storytelling for Prevention Conference in Fife, WA,1998 and is on the HSA board. Allison performs across Canada and the US, offering concerts and workshops on storytelling as a healing art. She is the co- editor of The Healing Heart: Storytelling for Caring and Healthy Families and The Healing Heart: Storytelling for Strong and Healthy Communities -both will be available in January through New Society Publishers.

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