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Listening for change

In OHR 44.1 Susan McLeod reviewed Hear, Here a project of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse that utilizes innovative techniques to connect the public with oral history. We were excited to read about it and invited the project’s founder, Ariel Beaujot, to join us on the blog to discuss making oral history accessible, and the possibility for using the past to intervene in the present.

How might we, as oral historians, make the voices of those who have lived and live in our communities available to all? For the past 10 years oral history programs all over the country have been digitizing their collections and putting them online. This has allowed researchers easier access to their subjects, and family members and friends to hear the voices and stories of their loved ones. But what about making the work that we do as oral historians more accessible to the average person who lives in a town with strong oral history collections but may not have any immediate or obvious connection to the narrators?

This is the work that Hear, Here seeks to do. Hear, Here is a location-based project that allows anyone to access short oral histories on the street through a toll-free number. Throughout downtown La Crosse we put orange street signs with phone numbers so that people can call to hear a story about the exact location in which they stand! If visitors or townspeople want to leave their own stories they can stay on the line and leave a message. If their story fits our objectives, it is re-recorded and added to the larger project and to the Oral History Program. In this way the Hear, Here becomes user-generated.

We planned this project in conjunction with the longstanding Oral History Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Two researchers, Terry Holford-Talpe and Sue Hessel, went through the collection and choose those that tell a concise story about a specific location in the downtown area of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Some of our original stories are up to 6 minutes long, but we have found that people standing on the street listen to stories for an average of 2 minutes and 10 seconds, so as we add to the project we edit the stories to fit into the timeframe that people prefer. As well as stories from the Oral History Program, my team and I recorded stories specifically for this project. The combination of the two–original oral histories and new ones–has allowed for a long-term understanding of the downtown area in a new way. There are stories that help us understand issues such as homelessness, racial prejudice, built environment, gentrification, red-light districts, and experiences of foreign nationals and LGBTQ*. Hear, Here maps the city in a new way, allowing us to see the experiences of everyone, not just the privileged few. Beyond knowing and hearing these stories we have found that the project can help to create a more ideal city by generating social and policy changes.

In our modern times, oral history/public history projects like this one can not only generate knowledge but create real and lasting changes. Some of the stories in the project indicate that our city, like all cities in our complicated and nuanced world, has its racial prejudices and injustices. The pushback that the project had from some local politicians and business people led our team to research the longer history of racial prejudice in the town. Through this research we found that La Crosse qualifies as a sundown town, or a town that has purposely kept itself White. We can see this from the 1980 census that indicates that La Crosse was 99% White – the fifth Whitest city in the entire country. With this knowledge we worked with the Office of Multicultural Student Services at UW-La Crosse and the city’s Human Rights Commission to bring in James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, who spoke at an open meeting at city hall confirming La Crosse as a sundown town. This resulted in the Mayor writing a public apology for historical and current injustices, and has given the Human Rights Commission more power within city government.

The idea of helping to create a more ideal city through our work is a compelling one. I think it’s time for us in the oral history world to not only think about documenting the voices of the underprivileged but to think about how these stories can generate understanding in more privileged community members leading to real change. In these neoliberalist times we need to remember that the systems of oppression cannot be fixed by telling peoples’ stories, having speakers come in, or apologizing. We must recognize the long-term historical factors that create inequity and work to develop policy with teeth that actively works against racist tendencies that have made La Crosse, and many other cities in the Midwest, into sundown towns. One step towards this goal is sharing all stories, but it is only a step in what will be a marathon.

For more information about Hear, Here you can like us on Facebook or visit our website.

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Featured image credit: “Hear, Here street sign in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.” Photo courtesy of Ariel Beaujot.

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