Documenting a group’s social history – where to start

Documenting a group’s social history – where to start

Where do you start when you want to preserve the story of a group that has helped to shape and influence your life, and that of your community?

The group may have existed for a short time, or a long time. The length of time does not matter. What matters are the people’s stories of their experience with the group. Social history is very much about the nuts and bolts of how we live our lives, and the best way to record this is with first-hand stories of everyday people. In years to come, people will be able to read the stories and “live” the experience described. Social history brings to life the economic and political history of any period. It is about ordinary families– their feelings, struggles, daily challenges, their dreams and accomplishments.

To provide an example on how to get started, I will share my experience in recording the stories of women who participated in two art and community projects in the region of Gippsland, Victoria, between 1997 and 2007.

The committee that had organised the projects was closing its books and had a small amount of money in its kitty. The committee decided to use that money to create a written reflection on the life and achievements of its projects. I was invited to submit a proposal to the committee for a grant to document stories and create a non-fiction manuscript.

I contemplated the steps required to explore the personal, social, economic and political outcomes for women who took part in these projects.

More than 20 years had passed since some of the projects took place. In the late 1990s, many women in rural areas did not yet have Internet or mobile phone connection. Therefore, as the original data base had been lost, my first challenge would be to locate the women who had taken part in the projects.

In a modern version of the bush telegraph, one phone call or word of mouth led to one person, and this led to another person, and so on, over the large region of Gippsland. Eight rural districts had participated in the two art and community projects and soon a new database was created, this time with email and mobile numbers. Importantly, the new database included at least several women from each of the eight districts. All in all, a total of 55 women responded to the invitation to take part in the story-telling project.
I was now ready to start recording and documenting the struggles and achievements of the region’s rural women during this period in Gippsland’s history.

Stories would explore how the women’s art projects impacted on women’s lives at the time and in the years following the projects’ completion.

I envisaged that women would share stories of resilience and perseverance in overcoming difficulties encountered in their lives. I would not be disappointed. The stories would illustrate in unexpected and inspiring ways how women dealt with a multitude of issues that included mental health, low self-esteem and a lack of empowerment to make changes in their community and their personal lives. Their stories would demonstrate the use of art as a medium to drive social change by bringing people together, to inspire, to heal and to generate economic and environmental benefit to communities.

Importantly, the literary work would document how women, through learning new skills and coming together, were able to apply resourcefulness in creating strategies to accomplish a broad range of outcomes.

Process:

The goals were:

  • Define the main points in the history of the project
  • Gather names and contact details of project participants, and invite their involvement
  • Interview participants who consent to involvement and compile their stories into a cohesive draft
  • Publish online and consider creation of hard copy book

My next article will explore the steps in helping people to write their stories.

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