Engaging with the Past: Reflecting on Resilience from Community Oral History Projects

Wendy Madsen, Sarah McNicol and Cathy OMullan

Abstract: Community oral history projects provide an opportunity for engaged research that brings together academics and a broad range of community members. These projects are primarily built on trust and the quality of the relationships that are formed between those involved. This chapter reflects on learning from two separate community oral history projects and highlights how such approaches can be used to capture the voice of local communities and to build community capacity. The chapter highlights community learning on a number of levels and emphasises that learning and resilience are founded on building relationships which are ethical, respectful and based around community need.

Madsen, Wendy, Lynette Costigan, and Sarah McNicol, eds. Community Resilience, Universities and Engaged Research for Today’s World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137481054.0008.

In living we create history ... as people age there is a real danger that many of their stories and memories of events are either clouded or lost with their passing. In retelling stories and understanding our past, communities come alive (McNicol, 2011, p. v). _


In discovering community history through oral projects, we begin to unravel and understand the threads running through the small towns and communities that create the backbone and pattern of society. This knowledge can also help with future social challenges that may be experienced by a particular community. Oral history projects are a tool of community engagement which can open a window into the community’s heart and soul, depending on the quality of stakeholder relationships developed at the start of the project. Following progressive steps to build the community’s trust is vital to be able to deliver a quality product that both promotes and benefits the community and is of significant research value. This chapter reflects on the processes of two community engagement projects conducted in the Wide Bay Burnett region of South East Queensland. Although each project encompassed different stories, both had the same purpose of capturing the voice of the community through engagement and artistic and cultural skill development. Love, sweat & rewarding years (McNicol, 2011) is a story about the challenges overcome by the Burnett Heads community in order to establish a vital community service and Anyone who drinks the Dawson water (2014) focuses on the building of community resilience within the rural town of Theodore after two flooding events. The framework outlined in Chapter 1 (Madsen & Chesham, 2015) was used to guide our reflections. As will become evident, oral history as a form of engaged research has the potential to benefit both the community and the researchers by promoting collective problem solving, action, learning and capacity building as well as the sharing of resources.

Background to projects

The purpose of the Love, sweat & rewarding years project was to document and preserve a small yet important part of Australian community history: the Burnett Heads community’s desire, drive and perseverance in building and establishing a kindergarten against the odds. The goal of the project was for the community to regain ownership of their local history, to formally acknowledge and celebrate their invaluable contributions to building this vital community service, to boost connectedness, enhance skills and promote the area of the Coral Coast. Funding for this project was received from the Queensland Government’s Our Place, Our Future initiative through the Blue Print for the Bush program, which funded projects that focussed on revitalising rural image and relationships and enhancing community strengths. These aims were achieved through an informative series of participatory workshops, conducted by experienced arts and cultural experts. The workshops developed and enhanced the oral interviewing skills and the creative writing skills of the attendees, who were community members, many of whom used their new knowledge and skills to create and record their own oral, community and family histories and thus preserving these histories for future generations.

Following on from these sessions, informal information gathering workshops and interviews were conducted with members of the community who had a connection with the Kindergarten. These sessions were also an important way to build on the existing trust between the researcher, Sarah McNicol, and the community members, as many personal memories were relived, stories were told, emotions and feelings revealed and the voice of the community was captured and recorded. This voice was laid over a foundation of research from documentary records including the Kindergarten’s meeting minutes, directors’ and presidents’ reports, financial statements and relevant articles archived at the Bundaberg and District Historical Museum and the Bundaberg Library. Since memories are not necessarily true, but are a person’s point of view recalling an event days, months or years earlier, these documentary records were used to verify the recollection of events and provided a solid foundation to the story presented. Thus the resultant manuscript was written by one person but in consultation with community members. Funding from the Queensland Government’s Regional Arts Development Fund assisted with the implementation phase of the project which involved the editing, layout and design of the manuscript and transforming it into a publication for the community (Figure 3.1).

The Anyone who drinks the Dawson water project arose as the third phase of a Community-Based Participatory Research Project (CBPR)

The Love, Sweat & Rewarding Years hook

figure 3.1 The Love, Sweat & Rewarding Years hook

within the Theodore community. The first two phases of the project explored community resilience in the wake of two recent flooding events and how resilience could be maintained and fostered. The stories being told about the 2010/11 floods in Theodore were infused with the beliefs everyone would recover, that the townsfolk were strong. It is likely these stories and beliefs were derived over a long period of time and provided them with the strength and imagery to help see them through difficult times (Madsen & O’Mullan, 2013). The importance of the collective narrative was highlighted throughout the project and at the end of the first two phases, community members identified that they wished to undertake an oral history project in conjunction with the Dawson Folk Museum. The project aimed to collect, preserve and learn from the stories of Theodore’s older generation regarding how they have coped with adversity over the years. The community was successful in applying for a Restore, Repair, Renew grant from the Foundation for Regional Renewal to support two CQUniversity researchers to conduct two oral history workshops. The funds also supported the design and printing of a book (Figure 3.2). At the first workshop, attendees developed the aims of the project and a series of questions to guide the interviews as well as deciding who was going to undertake what roles within the project. Interviewing skills were developed and ethical issues discussed at this workshop. The second workshop focused on analysis and saw attendees deciding on the main themes of the book. Due to time constraints, one of the researchers wrote the first draft of the book, but this was amended significantly by the community members ensuring shared authorship. Decisions regarding photographs and design rested entirely with community members.

While both projects took a different approach to undertaking oral history research, both resulted in enhancing the artistic and cultural skills of members within the community, boosted community connectedness, documented an important part of our Australian stories, and developed a stronger relationship between the various communities and the university. Unique pictures of cultural and social history highlighting Queensland’s unique strengths and characteristics from early settlers to current times have been preserved as documented oral histories for future generations. However, oral history projects, particularly collaborative oral history projects, raise certain issues in regards to engaged research and community resilience. These relate to: negotiating the purpose of the community oral history projects; building trust and relationships between university researchers and community members; and negotiating whose story is told. This chapter explores each of these issues.

Anyone Who Drinks the Dawson Water book

figure 3.2 Anyone Who Drinks the Dawson Water book

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