Why Community Stories Matter
Vermont has long been defined by its strong sense of community. But due to the stresses of everyday life, that special sense of community is eroding. For most people, time is a luxury, and when it is short, individuals/families come before community. As a consequence, both adults and children often feel disconnected from those around them their community. This "disconnect" affects today's youth who struggle with issues of "fitting in." The Community History Project addresses the supporting role that the preservation of local community stories can play in an individual's search for connection and community. Preservation and sharing our stories strengthens our communities. As they tell their stories, people become connected to and engaged in the communities in which they live.
In 1999/2000, the Vermont Historical Society, IBM and Verizon began to discuss how to involve kids in learning about the history of the places in which they live. With over 175 local historical societies in Vermont, many with collections not accessible to the general public because of space or time constraints, few opportunities remain that allow Vermonters to experience and learn about the past of their particular community. The "Community History Project" was created to address these issues.
In January 2001, the project director was hired to begin planning this initiative, and interviews were conducted throughout the state obtaining input on how local historical societies, schools, kids, and adults might come together to learn about a community's history. Everyone interviewed had an opinion and wonderful ideas. The concept that evolved focused on young people and adults using primary historic resources to learn about a community's story. Schools and local historical societies formed intergenerational teams that together decided on both the story to be told and the various ways in which to tell it, a combination that would emerge as the final piece, to be placed on a newly developed Community History web site.
In March 2001, the Community History Project sent letters to all 175 local historical societies surveying interest in attending an informational session about the project. Over 20 local historical societies attended the meeting, and 10 historical societies representing 12 communities made a full commitment to the project. Teams formed and became the initial pilot sites for the following:
Black River Academy Museum, Black River Middle
School, Black River High School
Over the course of two years, from January 2001 through December 2003, teams met at the community level and as a full group, 6 to 8 times per year. Throughout the project, teams received training in curriculum development, technology, storytelling and collections care management. In addition to learning from professionals in the field, the teams (which were comprised of both youth and adults) also learned about working together in their own communities, resulting in many changes of perspective. "Kids" were seen in a new light as teachers of technology. "Old" people became important sources of historic information. "Dead" people "came back to life" to affect the present and future. Finally, folks had to learn how to put together the sources in the manner needed to tell the story.
Learning how to tell their community's story presented several challenges for each group. The first was to decide upon which story they wanted to communicate. Once the subject had been agreed upon, kids and adults next needed to figure out how to get the requisite original sources. Finally, folks had to learn how to put together these sources in the manner needed to tell the story. Teams remained energized throughout the two-year project in a remarkable and exciting way, continually bringing new ideas and challenges to the table for discussion and assistance. Youngsters and adults representing 12 Vermont communities came together to create and/or strengthen a sense of place.
The pilot project was completed in December 2003. 14 new teams have been selected to begin work in January 2004 on the "Community History" Project for the following new communities:
IBM and the Verizon Foundation have again agreed to support this initiative. We gratefully appreciate our funders, acknowledging that we could not do this project without them!
The "Community History" Project matters because it addresses the need for stronger connections both between young people and adults and individuals to their communities through the study of local history. Youngsters and adults come together to create/strengthen a sense of place by identifying primary sources and developing a story around an aspect of their community. We all need these connections to fully appreciate where we live; this project is one way of providing them.