Within the backdrop and context of the racial tension and rioting that enveloped Washington, D.C., in 1968, the National Park Service (NPS) launched an innovative, community-based recreational and enrichment program called Summer in the Parks (SITP). Created by a coalition of NPS officials, local black leaders, volunteer organizations, and public space experts, SITP sought to bring residents into local national parks and sites throughout the city by offering a variety of free programs including concerts, children’s enrichment programs, and recreational opportunities. From NPS’s institutional perspective, SITP succeeded in correcting the organization’s history of segregation while providing a diversion to mitigate future violence. However, the perspectives of SITP participants were not adequately documented.
As the 50th anniversary of SITP (1968 to 1976) approaches, George Mason University’s Folklore Studies Program has been tasked, through a grant from the National Park Service-National Capital Region, to locate, recruit, and document the missing voices of SITP participants. rough a series of in-depth interviews, the Mason research team has gathered memories and perceptions of participant’s SITP experiences. The objective of this research was to provide a greater understanding of the SITP program and a clearer understanding of the context of this turbulent, transformative era while ultimately contributing to the oral history project of the African American experience.
Mason’s summer 2017 Field School for Cultural Documentation, a partnership between the Folklore Studies Program and the Library of Congress-American Folklife Center, offered a SITP option to graduate students seeking hands-on learning, rigorous training in oral history collection, and instruction on archiving in Library of Congress methods. Led by Debra Lattanzi Shutika, primary investigator, and me, a research project manager and Mason Ph.D. candidate in sociology, the research team also included three Mason graduate students: Violeta Palchik, a first-year MAIS in folklore student, and Samantha Samuel-Nakka and Subriena Persaud, public sociology doctoral students.
Previous field school students stress that the course is what you make of it, offering participants the opportunity to dig deeper and really apply what they have learned in the classroom—whether it’s under- standing how institutional failure contributes to collective memory or how the failure to document individuals’ histories often centers on power distribution.
One of the many advantages of the field school is its short six-week duration, which allows for both rapid immersion into research projects and quick turnaround with regard to feedback. Students developed both professional and personal skills and could clearly see how this training will be beneficial for their pursuit of future career opportunities. Additionally, the students have seen firsthand how their efforts to capture missing voices can make real, tangible differences in communities.
“It pushed me beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone to recruit participants, discuss emotionally charged subject matter, and condition my ability to be an active listener and engaged interviewer,” says Samuel-Nakka. “It has taught me how to effectively apply ethnographic methods to understanding spaces and how people use and relate to that space. Most importantly, this course has equipped me with a tangible skill set that I can apply to my own research.”
Persaud adds, “ The course has surpassed my expectations in respect to the scope of skills, methodologies, and techniques it has taught me. I have learned the foundations needed to go out into the field, including interviewing and participant-observation techniques, ethical considerations, and introduction to and practice with video and sound recording equipment.”
Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of the field school is its interdisciplinary application—central to Palchik’s experience.
“Our skill set came from cultural anthropology, history, journalism, sociology, folklore, and library science,” she says. “We got to jump into the world and immerse ourselves in different points of view. I have found it incredibly rewarding to experience a process in which every conversation slowly unravels a piece of history.
August 24, 2017