This September marked the 10th anniversary of the national observance of Welcoming Week, which is a celebration of those who are committed to welcoming newcomers into the country.
Zydalis Bauer spoke with organizers and participants of the project to learn more.
Read the full transcript:
Tony Dunne, Connecting Point: This September marked the 10th anniversary of the national observance of Welcoming Week, which is a celebration of those who are committed to welcoming newcomers into the country.
For this milestone event, the Center for New Americans and the Forbes Library, both based in Northampton, have launched an oral history project designed to record and archive immigrant stories.
Zydalis Bauer spoke with organizers and participants of the project to learn more.
Laurie Millman, Center for New Americans: Welcoming Week is a national initiative for cities and communities to showcase their commitment to welcoming immigrants into their communities by holding community-wide events where native born and newcomer residents can participate together.
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: And so, during this year’s Welcoming Week celebration…so Center for New Americans and Forbes Library, as I said, both located in Northampton, are launching a special project, an oral history project.
Where did the concept of this idea come from?
Dylan Gaffney, Forbes Library: So, in 2020, Forbes Library received a grant from the Mass Board of Library Commissioners to strengthen our local history collections through oral history work and collaborations with community organizations like Center for New Americans and Northampton Open Media and other great local organizations that we have a history of collaborating with.
One of the areas of focus that we wanted to concentrate on was the history and lived experiences of immigrants and refugees who have come to live in our area. We really feel strongly that it’s to the benefit of the public at large that we preserve a history that reflects the city as it is today for the people of future generations to understand Northampton and the larger area.
Zydalis Bauer: And so Kwot, you are one of the former students from Center for New Americans and you participated in this oral history project.
So, tell me about your experience and the story that you shared during this process.
Kwot Jay, Oral History Project Participant: So, I met with Laurie and she already introduced me to the library and I went there, I talk about my story because where I grew up — no school and no road, no hospital. Even today, people are still living like that.
So, when I come here, I feel like it’s good for me to go to school, and then get us something I can help people back or…I can do whatever I can. But what I just need to say here, is that Center for New America is so important for immigrants.
Zydalis Bauer: And how does it feel for you to be part of this project, knowing that your voice will forever be part of this area’s history?
Kwot Jay: For me, I feel it’s so important for me to join this project because…I have my, like, my voice is heard. Because I grew up where no school, so I need to tell people really, we need to help the school. Even with the school, having pencil or having book is not easy.
But coming to the United States, like, you sleep with a book and a pencil. You will surprise and thinking like, “What happened?” So that is, like, I’m so happy to be like, join this project and continue whatever I can.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, capturing stories is a process, just kind of narrowing down what story you want to tell and then the art of recording it. And also, I want to mention that some of these participants are recording it in their second language, and so that’s also a challenge as well.
What was the process like? What goes into recording these stories? How has it been?
Dylan Gaffney: So, through this grant, we were able to get audio recording equipment, camera equipment. So, we filmed these interviews as well as having an oral interview.
But it is…we’re very conscious of the challenge. I myself cannot speak any language other than English, so to put myself in the shoes of the person being interviewed, and I know in Kwot’s case he speaks, I believe, five languages —
Zydalis Bauer: Wow.
Dylan Gaffney: –and his lived experience is traveled a much broader area.
So, I think we have to find ways to be more accessible and include the ability for people to tell their story in their own language in this project.
Zydalis Bauer: And Kwot for…how was it for you recording it? Was it nerve wracking? I know recording is a lot different than just talking to somebody about your story.
So how did you feel to be in the seat doing that?
Kwot Jay: I feel comfortable because oral history is so important in writing a story, because it’s so easy for the people to understand you, what you have.
And that’s why I’m so happy when I meet with Center for New Americans and Laurie, because what is good history is so important. Like, let’s say, like, if you born in the United States and you never travel somewhere, like you feel like everywhere, like, people have the same life. But we are — we live in a different world.
That’s what I just likened to, like, sharing my story to the other people. And then they know we are just very far and we are just…we have different world. We need to see really like past it, what we need to do about it.
Zydalis Bauer: So, this project has been launched and it will be ongoing as you continue capturing stories of these immigrants.
What happens with the stories after they’re recorded? What’s the plan for them?
Dylan Gaffney: So, the plan is to share them all with the community at large. We are very conscious of the sensitive nature of a lot of these stories. So, any narrator who is interviewed has the decision to, if they said something that they don’t want to share, to ask for that to be taken out before it’s shared publicly.
But ultimately, these stories will be put online for the benefit of the community at large so they can learn about these people’s lives experiences. They will also live in the archives here on our physical drives to make sure that we can preserve them for generations.
Zydalis Bauer: And what value does having this archive add to the community?
Dylan Gaffney: I think it’s very important because I think it builds empathy, it builds understanding. We have to understand there’s — there’s a theme that…for the interviews that we’ve done so far, there’s a few common themes that stand out, and these are people who are trying to escape violence and make better lives for themselves, for their families. People who are seeking education. People have courage and had to work hard just to reach this point.
And I think it’s up to us to listen to their experiences so that we can grow and that we can understand the community that we have right now.
Zydalis Bauer: As the project continues and you look for more participants, how would you encourage people to record their stories and be part of this oral history project?
Dylan Gaffney: Yeah, so we’re hoping through our partnership with Northampton Open Media, to create a regular time where people could come in, we would have the equipment set up and they can share their experiences and stories with us and those of their families.
Zydalis Bauer: And Kwot, as a participant of this project, what would you share with others who are thinking about doing this or maybe they’re kind of hesitant about doing this? What would you want to tell them?
Kwot Jay: What I need to tell the people, like, especially when I need to talk, I talk about, like us, we can be an immigrant but the first thing that we need to do, we need to get, like…those projects, like, let’s say, like Center for New Americans, so you need to learn English.
After you learn English, and — because they will teach you like learning English, write English and culture for the America and everything — so if you learn those, you will be good for everything and you will just get your life easy.
But the bigger thing I need to, like, tell the people you need to go out and meet with the people. You need to help people. No one can come to you if you are at home. You need to go meet people. Like the way I go out and meet with Center for New Americans.