Choosing the Stories that We Listen to: What I gained from the New College Water Oral History Project

Our culture develops from the stories we hear and tell. This is how we derive meaning, make sense of the world, and understand ourselves and others. In philanthropy, politics, activism, and virtually every other part of life, a powerful story is what often drives us to action. The late media scholar, George Gerbner said, “We experience the world through stories. Whoever tells the stories of a culture defines the terms, the agenda, and the common issues we face.” Unfortunately, throughout history, those in power have had control over which stories will be told and which ones will be silenced, and the majority of the stories we hear today are told by a handful of global conglomerates.

Due to the current state of the storytelling, in which 90% of news and popular media is controlled by six different corporations, we should not underestimate the subversive power of actively choosing the stories we expose ourselves to, and the stories we tell. We should empower storytellers that are often unheard, and we should question the dominant stories of that define our culture. By doing this, we can help catalyze a cultural shift. On January 28th, four New College students, in collaboration with faculty and Sarasota community members, had an opportunity to help do just that.

An audience of over 40 people gathered in New College of Florida’s Sainer pavillion to hear the stories of four long-time Sarasota residents: Dr. Ed James, Laurel Kaiser, Shelia Cassundra Hammond Atkins, and Wade Harvin, Jr. The event was the culmination of the New College Water Oral History Project which pairs New College students with individuals who spent their lives in Sarasota, for an in-depth interview about what their life was like. The students used audio and video editing software to turn a two-hour interview into a nine minute final product. The project is part of a class that has been taught by Professor of Anthropology, Erin Dean, since 2009.

Three of the interviewees: James, Atkins, and Harvin, are residents of Newtown, the historic African-American community in Sarasota County. They told stories of how their lives were touched by the racial segregation and discrimination of the mid to late 1900s. Despite having grown up in roughly the same time and community, each account was vastly different. Dr. James tells a story of resistance and of the role he played in integrating the Sarasota library system. Mrs. Atkins recalls being oblivious to segregation as a young girl in a loving family, and facing the hardships of integrating into a white high school in her teenage years. Mr. Harvin, Jr. tells a story of gratitude and forgiveness in the face of racial violence.

The audience was fascinated by these accounts, asking question after question, trying to understand what it was like to be a part of marginalized community at that time. The speakers offered an opportunity to understand racial segregation and discrimination as something beyond just a concept briefly reviewed in an American history book. Through hearing the lived experiences of Dr. Ed James, Shelia Cassundra Hammond Atkins, and Wade Harvin, Jr., I realized more deeply that the lives of billions were shaped by struggle, resistance, and unity in the face of racial violence.

Opportunities like the New College Water Oral History Project allow us to choose which stories we hear, instead of only listening to the loudest ones. Creating and supporting more spaces for untold stories is the only way that we will counteract the influence of those who strategically manufacture our culture, and create a counter-culture of peace, unity, and understanding.