Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Oral History in Walla Walla: Documentation as Empowerment

Walla Walla is alive with stories, which some local and campus-based projects are recording for public record. For some, storytelling might look like listening in rapt attention. For others, it’s collecting source after source for personal or academic research. Across the board, storytelling means giving a voice to people or places with stories to tell.

The Listener’s Project: Queremos Escucharte is one such organization working to record and remember forgotten or ignored stories in Walla Walla. Jara Moreno Arostegui, a Whitman student and intern for The Listener’s Project, explained how the project challenges peoples’ conceptions of oral history.

“I knew about oral history because I learned it in high school, but it’s always been seen as less important. Not because of the human part, but because every person has their own bias. Oral history is sometimes [considered] not so valid in terms of research or things like that unless you really want to [research] oral history,” said Arostegui.

Arostegui and The Listeners Project have opened their ears to the stories of Walla Walla residents by focusing on Hispanic communities within the area and their stories. Currently, the group is working to complete their Nuestras Huellas events, which their website describes as “an ongoing series of site-specific story walks led by community guides.”

Each event or exhibit organized by the project holds a strong connection to Walla Walla as a rich setting that holds powerful records. With this connection, the project hopes to amplify unheard voices in the area and strengthen ties between minority populations and the community as a whole. This aspect of the project presented new opportunities for Arostegui and others working alongside Queremos Escucharte.

“When I started doing this project it was really different because it wasn’t extracting information, I learned histories firsthand, and it was not about creating a narrative, it’s more about learning and connecting and realizing that — at least in Walla Walla — there’s not just white people, there’s more communities and more groups that are not quite seen,” Arostegui said.

For Arostegui and her colleagues at The Listeners Project, the act of recording tells unheard stories but must be done without forcing those stories into a predefined narrative.

Alexis Hickey is Archivist and Head of Special Collections at the Whitman College and Northwest Archive, and as a collaborator with Queremos Esucharte. She agrees with this priority.

Both Hickey and others working in the archives seek to supplement the general record of local history and events by filling gaps in data.

“With these narratives being collected and documented it’s really important that they are filling the gap that exists in the archives; that we’re ensuring their long-term preservation and continuing access to [oral histories recorded by the project],” Hickey said.

For Hickey, the unfiltered nature of oral history is critical to continuing ethical archival work.

“When we think about archival collections, so much of the material that has been collected previously, what we know about that material is not through the lens of the person who owned it and created it, but through the lens of the archivists and librarians who organized it,” Hickey said. “Oral histories allow us this really unique perspective to have a really sort of raw, unedited narrative.”

Senior Marleigh Anderson hopes to apply these ideas to her own project — The Centering Disabled Voices Oral History project, in which she hopes to record interviews of students with disabilities to document their voices and leave their interviews as a legacy for future students, staff and faculty at the college.

Anderson views both the process of recording and of listening as essential to how Whitman’s campus views student populations and how individuals view themselves.

“I believe that oral history is a form of community outreach and empowerment. The Whitman disability community deserves to have their opinions and stories preserved. This project is a way to give back to a community, such as DISCO (the Disability and Difference Community), which has empowered me as a student with disabilities,” Anderson said.

Similarly to The Listeners Project, Anderson uses oral history to document a variety of individual experiences without manipulating an overarching narrative.

“When I started this project, one of the main objectives was to collect stories of all kinds. I am interested in the large breadth of experiences within the disability community ranging from joy to hardship. The process of documentation starts with a student showing interest, whether through email or filling out my interest form. I meet them for a pre-interview, where we discuss anonymity concerns and the topic of the interview. Then we record the actual interview,” Anderson said.

Whether documenting or listening to various organizations documenting the lives of Walla Walla residents, projects based around oral history reflect a growing concern for continuity and historical inclusivity. Students and community members alike may empower themselves and others with each recording.

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