On Saturday, The Evergreen State College will present “Giving Voice to Experience,” the first of three public events planned to showcase its Voices From the Harbor project.
The overall endeavor is led by Evergreen faculty members Stephen Buxbaum and Elaine Vradenburgh. It’s part of the college’s 5-year-old Community Connections program, in which students working toward a bachelor’s degree investigate the history of their hometowns and learn about current events and issues facing the region as a whole.
“The energy from the students has been great,” Buxbaum says of this year’s class. “We’ve deepened our connection with community organizations. I’m looking for more of the same next year.”
Through individual interviews and public discussion, the organizers are looking to involve local residents in their study of how Grays Harbor communities have responded to social and economic changes through the years.
“Part of our mission is to expand the local record of history and how communities developed in the Harbor region. We’re building a repository, if you will, of information,” says Buxbaum. “All the info that we collect, our vision is to make that available to the community through our Community Connections website.”
A $7,500 Sparks Grant from Humanities Washington is covering the costs involved in planning and executing the three upcoming events, such as promotion, graphic design and printing. Buxbaum and Vradenburgh hope the events will help boost community interest — not to mention enrollment in the Evergreen program.
“We haven’t done a lot of outreach in the Harbor area,” Buxbaum says, “so this is something new for us in terms of telling our own story.”
In addition to the cash grant, the program has received numerous in-kind contributions from partner organizations including the Driftwood Players, the Polson Museum, the Aberdeen and Hoquiam libraries, Greater Grays Harbor, and local media and advertising service providers. Evergreen matches all donations.
Vradenburgh, a veteran of multimedia storytelling, joined the effort a little more than a year ago and was inspired to form Window Seat Media last winter. The Washington nonprofit, founded upon her interest in “ways that stories can serve as a catalyst for social change,” has become a vital partner to the Evergreen program.
Since the program launched in 2012, some 60 students have pieced together about 50 extensive oral histories from longtime residents of the area. All of those involved live in the Harbor region — which Buxbaum defines “loosely” as extending from the hub of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis north to Quinault, south to Willapa Bay and east to Elma.
Buxbaum says the next class will continue using the same methodology: focusing on primary source research in the fall quarter, oral history work in the winter and action advocacy projects in the spring. The only major difference will be the topic of focus, which changes each year to broaden the scope of the historical record. Past topics have included K-12 education and housing. Next year’s will be sustainable communities, with emphasis on natural resource-based industries and food systems.
When asked for a favorite anecdote gleaned from the project, Vradenburgh cites a “story within a story” told by the postmaster of Bay Center, who related at length how she wore many hats because her post office was the “heartbeat” of the village — a place where people would gather and talk about their lives. One day, a local man’s brand-new glass eye fell out, and he asked the postmaster if she would help him replace it. Of course, she obliged.
“She popped the eye back in his head, and he was good to go!” Vradenburgh laughs. “I just thought that was a very sweet example of the many ways she engages with her community at the post office.”
Several Evergreen students will present excerpts from about a dozen stories they’ve collected this Saturday at the Driftwood Playhouse, which is donating its space for the event.
After the presentation, some of the project’s contributors — both residents and students — will participate in a panel discussion to share their perspectives on what draws people here, what helps them persevere during difficult times and what cultivates a sense of community. They also will touch on the importance of documenting the area’s history in this fashion.
“There’s something very special about oral histories, because it’s the voices of real people from the community, and they’re all telling us something special that’s being passed forward to others,” says Buxbaum. “I think that’s quite magical. It’s like receiving a message in a bottle that’s washed up on the beach.”
Two prominent local historians will moderate the panel discussion: John Hughes, a former editor and publisher of The Daily World, who now serves as chief historian of Washington’s oral history program; and John Larson, director of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam for the past 20 years.
“I’m interested as much as anyone to see who might show up … and what questions they might have,” Larson says.
He hopes those who do choose to attend will be inspired to “become their own personal historians and capture the stories of those they know best” — friends, co-workers, family members — or even get to know new people who have interesting stories to tell. “Recruiting an army of people” to help document the history of the community would be the ideal outcome, he says.
The history presentation will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the panel discussion to follow. Admission is free.
For more information on the program and all three events, go to www.windowseatmedia.org.