BLACKSBURG — A Virginia Tech oral history project will give unheard voices a platform.
Tech English professor Katrina Powell and a small army of students, faculty and staff are working together on a project to have refugees and migrants tell their stories in their own words. The project — “Resettled: Beginning (Again) in Appalachia” — received funding and help from the organization Voice of Witness.
“This state has a history of resettlement,” Powell said. “We’re trying to highlight how that [resettlement] speaks to the history of Virginia and Appalachia.”
Powell and the team hope to assemble several of their oral histories into a book that can be taught as part of a lesson plan. The book will be published in a couple years. The team will also make some kind of digital home for all the histories that don’t make it into the book.
Voice of Witness is a nonprofit group that publishes books and other educational materials in an effort to tell the story of people who otherwise go unheard.
The nonprofit was started by author Dave Eggers after he wrote “What is the What,” a novel that tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a so-called Lost Boy forced to leave his village in Sudan by militants as a child. The organization has helped publish books that feature oral histories of people with unheard stories from across the world.
Powell will lean heavily on the foundation of oral history collecting done by the project VT Stories. That project, funded by the university, collects oral histories from various people who have been part of the Tech community over the years. The Voice of Witness project will use VT Stories’ equipment as well as the people who were trained through the project — about 20 students, faculty, staff and community members. A team from the nonprofit trained two dozen of the students on how to ask effective questions for oral histories earlier this year.
Hannah Goode, a senior English major, was one of the students involved in the training. She said she learned a lot about people talking and that she looks forward to working on the project.
“It was interesting to learn a new style,” she said of working with the Voice of Witness team. Goode has helped out on VT Stories in the past and interviewing migrants or refugees will likely be different than talking to Virginia Tech community members whose experiences are more like hers, she said.
Ren Harman, VT Stories Project Manager, also took part in the training and will help with Voice of Witness. He said one of the keys to collecting good stories is to ease people into talking. People from vulnerable populations aren’t accustomed to having a microphone in their face, so making them comfortable with small talk or easy conversation is key, he said.
And once people are eased into the conversation, there will be opportunities for them to share with the Tech Voice of Witness team, Powell said.
“There are so many stories that we can tell,” she said.