The University celebrated the 10th Annual John Dewey Lecture yesterday with a discussion led by Anne Valk, associate director of the John Nichols Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University.
Valk spoke to a crowd of about 50 people in the Michigan League’s Henderson Room about her work in community oral history projects. She explained how learning about local origins of a community can be beneficial to its current inhabitants, including members of university communities.
Valk said she began her work in oral history as a Ph.D. student at Duke University, where she directed a multi-year project focused on elderly African Americans who lived in the segregated South during the Jim Crow era. Valk said she was inspired to continue studying oral histories after completing the project.
Valk’s current work documents the history of the inhabitants of Fox Point, Rhode Island, a community bordering Brown University.
Valk’s research group — including a team of students — has set out to interview citizens, and collect stories and artifacts like old photographs in an effort to learn more about the neighborhood. Valk emphasized that focusing on memories and learning about the past plays an important role in unifying a community and learning about how to improve future living standards.
“Memory provides an important tool in the construction of community identity and in the maintenance of community connections,” Valk said. “I think by collecting and listening to the stories that communities tell about their past, we can learn important lessons about power and justice that might offer paths to offer new possibilities for the future.”
The goal of the project is to expand the current community efforts of Fox Point citizens while connecting Brown University to the neighborhood in a beneficial and progressive way, Valk said.
“Oral history interviews are at the foundation of this project, but we’re really trying to go beyond the interview and think about ways to use memories and history as the basis for building new and possibly positive connections between the people of Providence,” she said.
Valk outlined the history of Fox Point in her lecture, and described how the neighborhood originated as a working-class, immigrant town that went through many changes after the center of the city’s shipping industry was moved to a different location.
The shift altered the character of Fox Point from an industrial city to a more historical center, which lead to increased property values, displacing many immigrants who were unable to pay the increasing realty prices, she said.
Valk said she found that as the town continued to change and develop, many of its early inhabitants developed a strong sentimental attachment to the old Fox Point, and were eager to remember its past.
“The fear of invisibility among the fellow Fox Pointers has created a sense of wanting to rally around memory,” she said.
One of the biggest changes in the area that affected the community of Fox Point was the establishment and development of Brown University, Valk said.
Valk said the Fox Point residents’ sentiments toward Brown University was a mix of resentment and admiration. They felt inadequate living next to a prestigious university that the majority of Fox Point citizens couldn’t afford to attend, though many were grateful for the job opportunities it provided them throughout the years, she said.
Assistant History Prof. Michelle McClellan, also spoke about her current work on oral history projects. She said that work like Valk’s can be applied to communities near the University, and even within the town of Ann Arbor.
“Ann Arbor, dominated in many ways by the University of Michigan, is often celebrated as a hip, college town that just happens to be located in Michigan, boasting more in common with University communities all around the country than with it’s immediate surroundings and becoming remote from both the city of Detroit and the rural parts of the state,” McClellan said.
McClellan added that by integrating the University into the greater Ann Arbor community, students will be able to forge a better understanding of the University’s historical context.
“Collaboration can lead to better scholarship,” McClellan said. “It can be messy, it can be difficult, it can require challenging acts of translation. But the results are richer, more meaningful, and I think, well worth it.”
McClellan said she hopes that eventually the University will make it a priority for incoming students to learn about the history of Ann Arbor in order gain a better understanding of the University’s ties to the community.
“I don’t know how realistic this is or not, but maybe just as successive generations of students everywhere embrace the mascot and the traditions of their University, maybe they too could absorb local and regional history as part of the college experience if it is presented to them as part of the integrated package that I believe that it is,” McClellan said.
Larissa Larsen, an assistant professor of urban planning, closed the program by speaking about how learning from the past helps the University grow forward as both a community and an institution of higher education.
“I really think it helps us sort of understand why these things were important and how we got to where we are so we can understand where we are going,” Larsen said.