Purpose of community oral history projects

Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes (2008, p. viii), both very experienced oral historians and community workers, suggest oral history is more than an archival activity; that it is at the ‘heart of a deeply social practice connecting past and present, and at times, connecting narrative to action. They suggest oral history shifts the focus from a national to a local level and encourages community members to reflect on and shape their own collective or public memories. Community oral history projects provide a mechanism of public discourse whereby individual memories become collective which can contribute to social cohesion (Green, 2012). This occurs through stories that define identities and which give shape and meaning to memories; stories that can provide societies with a sense of continuity and community, particularly in the face of continual change (Dale-Hallett & Diffey, 2006).

In communities that have experienced significant trauma, both recent and in the past, oral history projects provide a mechanism for healing; of addressing and making sense of past injuries that can allow communities to move forward (Dubrow, 2008; Field, 2008; Till, 2012). It is this aspect of oral history projects that crosses over with another type of engaged research, Participatory Action Research (PAR), particularly as advocated by Orlando Fals-Borda who identified four defining characteristics of PAR: it involved collective research; it attempted a critical recovery of history; it enhanced the value and application of folk culture; and aimed to produce and diffuse such knowledge (Lundy & McGovern, 2006). Anne Marie Turnbull (2000) suggests the process of reflection inherent in oral history, particularly in regards to power relationships in traumatised communities, is similar to moving through cycles of action research. Indeed, a number of PAR studies have been undertaken that have used oral history projects as the focus for building collaboration, collective self-inquiry and reflection and critical consciousness in troubled communities in Northern Ireland (Lundy & McGovern, 2006), the Bronx (Guishard et al., 2005) and in refugee and immigrant communities (KimJin Traver, 2004).

While the two communities in the Wide Bay-Burnett involved in the projects outlined in this chapter have not experienced significant physical, cultural or social trauma in their pasts, the oral history projects did provide a space for connecting with the past resulting in increased understanding and appreciation of the past and how the past has shaped the present for their communities, respectively. In this regard, aspects of community resilience, as outlined in Chapter 1 (Madsen & Chesham, 2015), were emphasised. In particular, the projects provided a heightened sense of community connectedness across generations through the creation and articulation of a social narrative that strengthened a sense of belonging and identity connected to place. The projects provided space to reflect on achievements and challenges within each community. For the Burnett Heads community, the project showed how the community’s perseverance and determination in building and establishing a community service was achieved ‘against the odds’. Beth Mulhall, in recalling her involvement in the Burnett Heads Kindergarten commented, ‘We had so little money, therefore fundraising to keep the Kindy operating became a community affair’ (McNicol, 2011, p. 75). The focus on revealing the resilience of the Theodore community in the past has brought a new perspective to current challenges facing the rural community. As one informant commented:

I think it [the flood] was a great learning experience for a lot of people. I think it is important that local people take the leadership of their community. Getting back to resilience - we are practiced. The community has had to be determined for years and years over different things, whether it be the airport lighting, or rescuing our retirement village from a government takeover or saving the hospital from closure on at least three occasions! This town already knew how to work together before the flood. (Anne C in Anyone who drinks the Dawson water, 2014, p. 55)

Indeed, for both communities, stories of self-reliance, overcoming isolation and the community working together to build and establish services reflected high levels of community resilience. The oral history projects allowed us to capture some of that resilience and to mirror it back to the communities, but to do so in a way that was not entirely celebratory. Researchers are able to bring a critical consciousness to oral history projects that can help communities to consider how their past has influenced their present (Frisch, 1990). However, to do this successfully, there needs to be a strong and open relationship between researchers and communities, one that is built on trust.

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