Students join StoryCorps to preserve history of Nashville's immigrants

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Fifteen students in Professor Richard Goode’s United States history course recently got the chance to help preserve America’s multicultural history by volunteering with Nashville New Faces, a StoryCorps@your library project carried out by the Nashville Public Library throughout fall 2013 and into 2014.

StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve their oral histories, and the American Library Association, chose the Nashville Public Library as one of ten public libraries to participate in the StoryCorps @your library project pilot program.

Photos: (above) History student Julie Traina interviews fellow Lipscomb student Oscar Rayo. (middle) The Nashville Public Library's Luke Herbst interviews Lipscomb student Jocelyn Lopez. (below) Lipscomb students with StoryCorps participants at the Edmonson Pike branch of the Nashville Public Library.

Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a CD for the participants and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to its weekly broadcasts on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and on the organization’s website.

The Nashville Public Library chose to specifically record and preserve the oral narratives of the city’s Latino, Somali, Laotian, Kurdish, Vietnamese, Sudanese, first-generation and other foreign-born, immigrant, diverse communities. Lipscomb students assisted as immigrants shared their stories of adjusting to a new culture, their experiences with America’s law enforcement and educational systems, daily life in a new country and more.

“It is our goal to empower the diverse Nashville community through limitless learning opportunities. By recording these conversations in partnership with StoryCorps we are preserving an important piece of our community’s heritage,” said Nashville library director Kent Oliver.

A previous partnership in which Lipscomb students assisted the library in collecting a portion of 220 interviews for the Flood 2010 Oral History Project, made Andrea Blackman, special collections division manager, excited about working with Lipscomb students again.

“We would not have been able to do the flood project without the Lipscomb students,” she said.

For the Nashville New Faces project, students were trained as facilitators to lead the 40-minute sessions where family members or friends shared accounts of their personal journeys. They also helped with registering people to participate, helped with marketing and social media to get the word out and helped photograph some participants, said Blackman.

In addition to the history students’ involvement in the project, Lipscomb’s Mullican Studio also served as a recording site where four Lipscomb students shared their unique stories of pursuing higher education in America. These were the first student stories recorded in the Nashville library project, Blackman said.

Three of the students recorded, Henry Baires, Jocelyn Lopez and Oscar Rayo, are all first-generation, bilingual, Hispanic students who have worked multiple jobs in order to afford attending Lipscomb for a Christian education. The fourth student, Nathania Kibiling, is a Filipino nursing major whose family came to America about 10 years ago.

“These stories invite each of us to envision a life that is in some ways far removed from our own, but in other ways, so very similar,” said Blackman.

Listening to the stories of Nashville’s diverse citizens, had a powerful effect on many of the students, causing them to rethink their definition of community or to ponder their own political beliefs regarding immigration.

“As a whole, our society has become narrow-minded to… any other types of races who have entered the United States because they may or may not have the same features as we do or the (same features as) people around us,” wrote Shelby Blake, a Franklin, Tenn., sophomore studying public relations. “I have gained a better understanding of what these immigrants deal with just by trying to attain a better life than would be possible in their home country.”

“Most of these people are absolutely terrified to ask for anything because there is a very good chance that they will be deported from the country right there on the spot,” Trey Newport, a junior history education major from Lynnville, Tenn., wrote in his reflection paper after hearing the story of a family whose patriarch was deported after they called the police to report a robbery in their home. “When I heard this story it made me really uneasy.”

“StoryCorps is doing a wonderful thing by preserving these stories,” wrote Julie Traina, a sophomore elementary education major from Greenwood, Ind. “Most of the stories that I heard were from people who were so grateful to be in this nation, and they want to give back and let people know how much better their life is here in America than it was where they came from.”

The StoryCorps project was a remarkable opportunity for students to experience the small, day-to-day stories that the history books may overlook in the coming years, said Goode, professor of history.

“Too often we presume that history is the chronicle of watershed events caused by marquee actors,” he said. “Occasionally that is true. More often, however, it is average folks—even individuals on the margins—who make history.

“It is their stories that teach us not only how community is formed and sustained, but also why justice matters and how it is achieved. Hearing, appreciating and preserving the voices of our new neighbors in Nashville was an opportunity not only to be consumers of history, but partners with today's history makers.” 

Blackman added, “Having engaged in previous community initiatives with Lipscomb, I appreciate the vital role they play in recognizing the rich fabric of our city.  Our collaboration with Lipscomb lends itself to meaningful campus-community partnerships.”

To date, the Nashville New Faces project has collected 31 interviews and the library is currently recording additional interviews through Casa Azafran, a center housing a collective of nonprofits offering services to immigrants, refugees and the community as a whole.