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Featuring early interviewee Gus Katsoris

The Hardest Part

yellow daffodils

I knew this day would come, but still thought it was a long way off.  Today I was to interview my friend’s mom, an Ojibwa Elder from Michigan.  I’d scheduled a week ahead of time, so we were all set to go.  This morning, she was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure.  It’s serious enough for the family to be called in from around the state.

It saddens me to think that some of the people who have signed up to be interviewed may not get the chance.  It is a hard but true reality, harder for their families who may miss out on this recording of their history and certainly on their presence in their lives.  It is also a confirmation of the importance of this project.

The number one mission of Untold Stories is to preserve our history for the coming generations who will have next to no context for understanding what life was like before the ‘tech revolution’.  I know some of what it was like, as do many of the older generations, but we will never be able to explain with the context a member of the Silent Generation can.  For example, an overwhelming amount of my interviewees grew up without a family car, something inconceivable to most of today’s youth.

My thoughts are with my friend’s mother.  I hope yours will be, too.  She has acted as the anchor for the family, and has an amazing story to tell.  With luck, this will be but a scare, and we’ll be honored to share in her story soon.

Changes in Me

Fly on a notebook

This project has already had an incredible impact on me.  I might have predicted that it would, but I have been so consumed in building the project and reaching out to friends to connect with the Silent Generation that I wasn’t paying attention to myself.

Becoming a Better Anthropologist

An important change is my becoming a better Anthropologist.  Anthropology in relation to ethnography, to me, means removal of self for the greater good of a project or understanding of a group of people.  We learn this in school, in addition to critical thinking and best practices, but it’s easy to forget in day-to-day life.  Our gut reactions and upbringing play a role in all that we do.  Most of our interactions depend on our NOT dissolving our personality – our friends want to know what we think, colleagues want to know who we are.  Acting as a Faceless Man would draw suspicion.

But when conducting ethnography, it is best to fade oneself out.  This is hard to do, and it is obvious to a project when an Anthropologist is unable to do so.  At the beginning of the project, I found myself bumping against this wall like a piece of driftwood against the levee.  I knew that the wall needed to be dissolved, but I wasn’t sure how.  Most of the stories I was hearing weren’t in large conflict with myself, so the urgency wasn’t there.

The challenge came when I was in the South.  It is a cliché that the South is religious, but several of my interviews took that slant.  Some even went so far as to be anti-other-religion, which is hard for me to support.  This is where my levee finally broke.  You see, this project isn’t about me.  I am just a conduit.  I had felt as such at the beginning, that I was being given these stories in trust that I would direct their flow with care to their final destination.  Now I had stories I didn’t necessarily agree with.

I’ve always said I want to be able to represent a people or situation as accurately as possible, without sensationalizing as the news does.  For me to remove any part of a story because I didn’t agree with it would be falling into the very habits for which I frown upon the news.  It would also negate the trust I am building with the participants.  My walls are down, and it feels good.

Reconnecting

When I started the project, I thought I might do best if I crowdsourced the stories.  I don’t know all 300 Million Americans.  After circulating the project in my own city, and getting a little local PR, nothing happened.  Not one story came through.  So I started calling friends.

This is where the snowball effect began.  I currently have five stories yet to transcribe, and fifteen more scheduled in the coming month.  The national map is growing, too.  I’m confident that the project will reach a critical mass wherein strangers will begin referring interviews as well, but it’s not there, yet.

The best part of all this is reconnecting with people I haven’t spoken with in a long time.  I am calling friends all over the country, people I have loved.  Hearing their voices, catching up on lives, leaves me a bit stunned.  Why in the world did I ever stop talking to them?  I don’t mean Facebook talking.  I mean really talking on a personal level.  Sending full messages, and spending the time on a phone call.

This project is overwhelmingly about connections.  It is about adding flesh and blood to the cold fact bones of history.  I am so lucky that a side effect of this is enriching my own connections once more.

WGVU Morning Show

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of sitting down with Shelley Irwin, WGVU’s Morning Show hostess.  We discussed the Untold Stories project and its needs – namely, the need to find more West Michigan interviewees.