Collective Impact Project:
Building Oral Histories
Erica Britt, Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the CAS English Department, is studying the speech patterns of Flint. To do so, she and her students collect oral histories from residents of all ages, gender, race, and economic status. Students learn to interview their subjects and then to break down their stories into meaningful pieces that will help Britt track specific language variables. Britt is able to do double-duty with her research as the stories become part of the Civic Park Neighborhood's Heritage Museum.
Vehicle city voices: a history of flint
Britt's overall research project is known as Vehicle City Voices. Within VCV she organizes Flint stories by neighborhood, event, or landmark.
Says Britt, "We’re actually trying to get oral histories of the entire city. The oral histories are contributing to my linguistics research because they will help me map dialect changes across the city. I want to get data from everyone, every rung of society, whether it’s middle class, working class, upper class, black, white, Hispanic—just to get the lay of the land in the city. Oral histories are the best way for me to do that because as people tell their stories, they get relaxed and use their natural speech. We thought Civic Park would be great because it’s a targeted area where the stories will make sense as a collective narrative and it will give us that sense of community."
civic park and the heritage center museum
The Civic Park neighborhood was planned out by Flint corporations to house the flood of workers coming to the city in the early 1900s. Both layout and construction aimed to create an attractive and viable neighborhood in a short amount of time. Now, nearly a hundred years later, it is one of the most blighted neighborhoods on the north side of Flint. Many residents have witnessed violence and lost loved ones. But, thanks to community anchors like Pastor Robert McCathern at Joy Tabernacle, the Urban Renaissance Center, and the Central Park Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood is changing.
One of the Urban Renaissance Center's projects is the Civic Park Heritage Center: a focal-point of pride for the neighborhood and the space that will eventually house and display its oral histories. They will be just one component within the museum. The Urban Renaissance Center's work is already starting to be used as a model for revitalizing neighborhoods, reducing violence, and bringing people back to vacant properties.
When asked about the neighborhood, Britt says, "It’s visibly blighted, but it has a very different feel than you would expect. It has a certain magic to it that I hope we can be a part of."
research in civic park
Britt's students for the Fall 2015 semester are from LIN 335: Language Variation in Society. When asked about their methodologies for gathering the histories, Britt says, "We start with a walking tour, asking ourselves questions: What does the neighborhood look like? How did the neighborhood come about? What architecture is here? When you understand the make-up of a neighborhood, you have better context for understanding the language they use. In order to understand the language, you’ve got to know the community."
Britt admits that McCathern originally had some trepidation when the word “research” came up. Residents of such neighborhoods sometimes have had negative experiences with researchers using collected data in ways that don’t align with the neighborhood’s identity or priorities.
Other questions exist because of the vacancies in the neighborhood. Do the stories that remain truly represent a history of Civic Park?
There is also the issue of neighborhood lore becoming fact in recorded stories. But, Britt says, “The stories people tell about place are as important as the realities.”
For all of the questions brought up about working with such a challenging neighborhood, Britt has a simple answer: “We’re learning as we go.”
the impact of research
What are the lasting effects of recording oral histories in a blighted neighborhood of a legacy city?
For the residents, its a sense of pride and ownership. It's a reaffirmation of belonging in their neighborhood and being a part of a longer history and tradition. By housing the histories in a neighborhood museum, they are connecting with future generations and residents.
Britt says, "The oral histories are eventually going to be [part of] a counter-narrative against the national image of Flint as dangerous and violent and crime-ridden. Part of the problem this project is solving is changing the narrative of place.”
For UM-Flint students, the impact goes beyond the obvious methodology and field experience. Says Britt, "The pride that grows, the sense of place, is one lasting effect of such research. Students also learn more about the city by delving deeply into such a specific neighborhood and learning the stories of residents." Britt already has students asking to stay on after the end of fall semester as research assistants.
For scholars, the benefits are in the data. Britt plans to submit her research to a growing body of work at the Linguistics Data Consortium, housed by the University of Pennsylvania. And UM-Flint colleagues have been requesting sound bites to use in lectures.
And, finally, for Britt herself the impact can already be felt: “This creates a different kind of relationship for me as a researcher. It’s not just research, it’s connecting with my city where I live, where I work. I want it to be a part of who I am here in Flint. . .This is my community.”