How Oral History Preserves San Diego’s Past, Present, and Future
By Sarah Beauchemin
History is a powerful tool. It enlightens us and inspires us to be better. History offers a profound look at the events that helped shape who we are as individuals, and as a society today.
But we can only fully appreciate the relevance and thrill of history when we find a personal connection – when the stories of the past spark recognition in our own lives.
Few organizations know this better than the San Diego History Center (SDHC), which is dedicated to telling the diverse story of our region – past, present and future. Specifically, SDHC’s unique Oral History Collection is pivotal in educating and enriching San Diego’s community, preserving its history, and fostering civic pride.
The Importance of Oral Tradition
Oral history makes big history personal. By actively collecting the many stories and memories of San Diegans who have lived certain experiences, SDHC’s Legacy Oral History Program captures an expanse of important voices that might have otherwise remained silent.
For example, first-hand accounts of people who helped construct the majority of San Diego’s development, or those who were present at the Chicano Park Takeover in April 1970, provide a more inclusive look at San Diego’s many diverse communities.
“Oral history is definitely the most egalitarian of public history,” said Amanda Tewes, SDHC’s resident Oral Historian. “We interview people who’ve never had their name in the newspaper, or may not be a household name – but their stories are so emblematic of the community itself. These are things you’re not going to see in written history the majority of the time.”
SDHC has been preserving these salient stories since 1956, when former County Supervisor Edgar Hastings received a grant to interview people who had memories of San Diego dating back to the 19th century.
These early recordings, along with over 1,800 others to date, are housed within the publicly accessible Document Archives at SDHC. The Oral History Collection is one of the most important in California and contains over 100 years of regional history; it provides an invaluable look at San Diego’s history through eyewitness accounts of people, events, and lifestyles.
Having A Good Story To Tell
When considering people to interview for part of SDHC’s collection, Tewes said they cast a wide net. Qualifying narrators aren’t restricted by age or by how long they’ve lived in San Diego. There’s just one primary criterion: Having a good story to tell.
In the context of the Legacy Oral History Program, this means individuals who have memories that are crucial to San Diego’s life and history. Such individuals can range from WWII veterans who are associated with local military culture, to people in the Latino community and those involved in early civil rights movements, to those associated with new immigration, such as San Diego’s growing East African community.
And capturing the most noteworthy aspects of present-day San Diego culture is critical to how future historians will view our city. “As San Diego becomes more diverse, we need to chronicle important events such as the immigrant experience,” said Matthew Schiff, Marketing Director at SDHC. “We’re also interested in the perspective of people who have lived in San Diego for decades and have witnessed firsthand the region’s incredible shift from a sleepy Navy town to a thriving metropolis that leads in the areas of biotech and other innovative technologies and industries.”
Tewes emphasizes the importance of community when gathering those perspectives. “We’re interested in the idea of community, and what that means to people. How they build it, how they feel they fit into it,” she continued. “It really does position San Diego as a major part of California history and in the 20th Century. So often we think of California as this new, ahistoric place, but that’s so far from the truth.”
Engaging San Diego’s Youth in Capturing History
One significant way SDHC hopes to carry on the oral history tradition is by tapping into San Diego’s youth population. Their San Diego Voices Program, established in 2013, is a series of distinctive oral history training workshops for grades 6-12, made possible through a generous grant by SDG&E’s Inspiring Future Leaders giving initiative.
In these workshops, students learn how to formulate interview questions, identify community members to interview, and stage and record an interview. They gain valuable insight into their own communities, learn the attributes of leadership, and develop skills in literacy, public speaking, and group collaboration.
Tina Zarpour, Education Director at SDHC who oversees the San Diego Voices Program, explained how the workshops help students discover their potential for becoming tomorrow’s leaders and develop a greater appreciation for the region’s – and their own – diversity.
“Many of them are part of underrepresented communities that may feel disenfranchised from their own history,” Zarpour said. “The Voices program helps them see themselves as part of the shared experience, which is so powerful.”
But you don’t have to be part of the San Diego Voices Program to participate in an oral history workshop. On Saturday, October 29, 2016 from 9:00am – 12:30pm, SDHC is offering an Oral History Workshop to the public. The fee is $40 for SDHC and San Diego Genealogical Society Members, and $50 for Non-Members. This introductory workshop discusses the importance of oral history and all aspects of how to do it. Join SDHC in learning how you can add to the diverse tapestry of our region’s narratives.
For more information, please visit SDHC online at http://www.sandiegohistory.org.