The University of Michigan Spectrum Center publicly launched its Oral History Project Friday afternoon at the Trotter Multicultural Center. The project is part of the celebration of the Spectrum’s Center 50th anniversary.
The project, initially undertaken in 2019, consists of a collection of historical archives intended to connect current students to LGBTQ+ history. This growing collection of interviews with LGBTQ+ alumni, former student lead Eryka Swank said at a Friday panel event, is meant to uplift and empower voices that have been silenced throughout the University’s history.
“To have this opportunity to hear people’s stories, literally from their own voices, has been a really beautiful part of this project,” Swank said.
Friday’s launch panel event featured excerpts of interviews, one of which came from Mari Longmire, a University Educational Theatre Company program specialist.
“Being invited is a powerful experience,” Longmire said. “To get invited, because you’re queer. Not to feel isolated because of it, but to feel included, to feel special and magical and brilliant.”
Mark Chung Kwan Fan, assistant director for engagement at the Spectrum Center, found interviewing older queer people to be rewarding due to the power of intergenerational conversations in social change and storytelling.
“I’ve been listening to more oral histories now from core perspectives,” Fan said. “Especially because I feel like, as somebody who was not born in the U.S., I don’t have much of what queer history looks like in the U.S. So it’s been really empowering to learn that there’s been a lot of things done prior to me coming here and existing in order for me to access.”
When asked about the significance of the project, University librarian Edras Rodriguez-Torres said he wanted to focus on the importance of community in Ann Arbor’s history, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think it’s important for us to celebrate these stories, and to uplift these voices that are often marginalized and on the fringe,” Rodriguez-Torres said. “And so I think that was a really core factor for us — not only to sort of create a project that can celebrate the history, but also to share these wonderful and amazing stories of community here in Ann Arbor.”
LSA senior Parker Kehrig has held multiple roles in the project since it began, including as an interviewer and editor. Kehrig saidthe project is important for the queer and non-queer communities at the University to reflect on and have an “ancestry to look back on.”
“I think the best part of this project for me has been the ability to connect with queer folks who are older than me,” Kehrig said. “Just the ability to be in a community with people who have made it through and have been through so much has been absolutely wild. And that’s been an influence that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise, because I think there’s very little intergenerational interaction or connection between queer people.”
Additionally, Rackham student Sergio Gael Barrera said the project sheds light on first hand accounts of LGBTQ+ history, rather than providing information from an outsider’s perspective.
“It provides an opportunity to paint a picture of the way in which LGBTQ+ folks not only experience life, but also see life,” Barrera said. “And because we have been pushed to the extreme margins as LGBTQ people historically, now it’s the community speaking about the community, rather than other people interpreting how we’re experiencing life.”
After lengthy debate about whether students or faculty should conduct the interviews, the interviews for the project were done by students with the goal of highlighting the work of student activists throughout history, according to Rodriguez-Torres.
“This fieldwork and engaging with these stories really made the students feel sort of a part of a larger community right outside of just the bounds of Ann Arbor and the Spectrum Center,” Rodriguez-Torres said. “And it was important for us to have the students understand that the Spectrum Center and the community that has been built here in Ann Arbor is really because of student work, because of student activism, and because of the sacrifices students have made.”
When asked about the relationship between social change and oral history, Barrera explained how oral history is a significant factor in preserving stories and creating policy change.
“It doesn’t stop with recording, and it doesn’t stop with interviewing,” Barrera said. “It also means, ‘How do I facilitate these narratives so that they’re not kept just in an archive and not just collecting dust?’ ‘How do we take them strategically somewhere else and then actually implement change?’”
LSA senior Lio Riley’s said his most memorable moments of working on the project include making queer friends, in addition to hearing the interviewees tell their personal experiences as queer individuals.
“I remember when I first started on the project, hearing the interviews and interviewing folks, and hearing all of these awesome stories about all of these queer parties that happened in the queer community,” Riley said. “And so I think that really inspired me to connect with my own community a little bit more, and that community happened to be the folks working on the project.”
Looking toward next semester, the project hopes to complete its fourth round of interviews and officially cease. The project is accessible through the Bentley Historical Library. Daily News Reporters Emily Blumberg and Martha Lewand can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.