Reportback: Oral History as Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Oral History as a Catalyst for Community Dialogue

May 16th, 2012

Featured Practitioner: William Walker of the Cooperstown Graduate Program Community Stories Project

Our discussion focused on the challenges of using oral histories to facilitate dialogue around controversial issues. CGP Community Stories has begun a pilot project in a rural community that is deeply divided over the issue of natural gas extraction. The group is hoping to use oral histories of the community gathered over several decades to prompt discussions about land use, resource extraction, and the environment. Convincing hesitant community members, however, to speak openly, honestly, and civilly about hydrofracking has proven challenging.

The practitioner network brought a wealth of experience dealing with tough issues to this question. One helpful suggestion put forward by the group was to have community members interview one another. By eliminating the filter of an outside interviewer, this approach could lead community members who may be reluctant to speak with one another in other contexts to engage in conversation. Another good idea from the group was to use archival oral histories to discuss the past and present of dairy farming and maple sugaring in the community. Through dialogue about these “safe” topics, tougher questions regarding the environment, sustainability, and resource extraction could be raised. All in all, the practitioner network discussion was extremely valuable for the CGP Community Stories team members, providing concrete suggestions for future steps to carry their pilot project forward.