Speak On It

Kristen LaFollette hangs a portrait of NAACP and community leader Ruthie Watts, whose excerpt reads: “I walked five miles to and from school. They were all segregated schools.”

StoryCorps is coming to town. The Peabody-awarded, New York Times-bestselling, MacArthur Award-winning nonprofit organization records and preserves stories from people who have lived different facets of American life, conducted in the spirit of the Works Progress Administration and oral historian Studs Terkel. In partnership with local public radio station KAZU, they are inviting the public to record interviews with military veterans at CSU Monterey Bay June 18-27, with a community listening session 6:30-8pm Thursday, June 20, at the Veterans Transition Center in Marina. (RSVP at eventbrite.com.)

There is a long precedent on the university campus for this type of thing, according to CSUMB’s Oral History & Community Memory Archives Co-Director Kristen LaFollette.

Dr. Rina Benmayor taught the first HCOMN 350S: Oral History & Community Memory class in the spring of 1996 – CSU Monterey Bay’s first academic year – and the subjects included Chicano veterans of Fort Ord, the university’s first-generation college students, Salinas’ Chinatown and more.

LaFollette, in fact, was a student of Benmayor. After earning a master’s degree in oral history at Columbia, LaFollette began teaching the class at CSUMB in 2015. Its aim has been to preserve local history through the spoken accounts of people who lived and saw it. The students learn oral history theory, research, evaluation, transcription, analysis, multimedia, psychology and memory studies. They learn how to listen.

“Oral history is exciting because it is so interdisciplinary,” LaFollette writes by email.

Between Benmayor and LaFollette’s classes, the program has accumulated an archive of about 500 audio and video interviews. They reside at CSUMB’s library, where they are being processed and digitized by Archives Specialist Robin Guthrie. They are accessible to researchers, students and the public by appointment. (To see or hear those archives, email rguthrie@csumb.edu.)

The subjects of interviews (referred to as “narrators”) are meant to represent different populations in the local area (especially those not heard from a lot), located by community partners like California Rural Legal Assistance and People’s Oral History Project. And the material has been used in a variety of creative ways.

“The Chinatown interviews served as material for the Chinatown Renewal Project,” LaFollette says. “A virtual walking tour was created, in cooperation with Salinas ACE (Asian Cultural Experience) including video from the interviews.”

She is collaborating on an online exhibit with Professor David Reichard, who teaches HCOM 359: Sexuality, Law & History, and whose students are building a website about the local LGBTQ community – from which LaFollette’s class has conducted interviews on coming out, self-acceptance, discrimination and alliance.

Those “LGBTQ Community” interviews, and another set dubbed “Seaside Voices” (about the city’s deep diversity and military connections), have been combined in an exhibit and reading event at the Monterey Peace and Justice Center that opened on June 14 and is residing there through August. It was conceived with MPJC’s Catherine Crockett.

There are nine individuals profiled, from interviews conducted between 2015-19, with photo portraits accompanied by a brief description and excerpts from their interviews selected and edited by students. They include Seaside High School head football coach and teacher Alfred Avila; Fort Ord-trained Vietnam War veteran Frank Silva; and Seaside Arts Commissioner and Avery Gallery curator Sandra Gray.

Epiphany Lutheran & Episcopal Church vicar and LGBTQ leader Fr. Jon Perez talks about his former husband, Michael, who was HIV-positive, dying at the hospital, being taken away in the hearse, and Perez going back to work that day.

“I did not have the legal rights to take bereavement, or a day off for my spouse dying or anything like that, and I couldn’t tell anybody,” his narrative reads. “You know it’s like a surreal experience… I just put my husband in the hearse and I’m back at work like it’s every other day, listening to everybody’s complaint about their broken knob on their stove. It was at that kind of time where… I just can’t keep quiet about this anymore.”

The portraits and excerpts are showing at the MPJC, but the class, which numbers 26 students, exists only in the spring and there are no further readings scheduled. The rest of the year, LaFollette is busy drumming up more subjects and venues; she’s currently talking with the Salinas Public Libraries, Seaside History and Art Commission and Rainbow Speakers, and is looking for community members who might like to be interviewed themselves.

She says sharing the stories from a person’s life has emotional resonance and deep value: “[Oral history] gives people perspective. Thinking about your own life in a different way, that it has some significance to somebody else.”


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