Portobelo, Panama Intergenerational Oral History Project

Digital Portobelo is currently in its second phase of development, which focuses on community outreach and engagement. This phase seeks to create a series of workshops, presentations, user guides, and dialogical encounters with scholars focused on Afro-Latin identity and culture in the Americas, cultural practitioners and preservationists interested in the potential of Digital Portobelo for this and allied projects, and educators interested in how the project might serve as a pedagogical tool.

One of Digital Portobelo’s most recent community-engagement initiatives is the “Portobelo, Panama Intergenerational Oral History Project. With the support of a 2016-2017 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, my collaborators and I designed the project as a pilot seven-day initiative that taught the basic techniques of oral history interviewing to middle and high school students and paired them with community elders to conduct initial interviews.

My primary collaborators in this project included Dr. Laurel Cadwallader Stolte (Program Coordinator, Dual Language Immersion Program, Southwest Elementary School, Durham, NC), Ari Blandon “Mamá Ari” (Founder, “El Grupo Congo Mama Ari,” a youth initiative celebrating Congo dance and culture), and Margarita De Loney (Stanford University doctoral candidate whose Portobelo-based research is connected to Mamá Ari).

(L-R) Margarita De Loney, Laurel Cadwallader Stolte, Renée Alexander Craft and Ari Blandon “Mamá Ari”

The team’s project goals were to:

1) provide experiential training in the ethics and praxis of conducting, preserving, and sharing oral histories;
2) create opportunities for student/elder partners to discuss the relationship between the Congo tradition as represented in their lived experiences and as represented and analyzed in scholarly research;
3) provide a platform for community members to enter into dialogue with existing research located on Digital Portobelo/Portobelo Digital); and
4) guide participants in carrying out one inter-generational interview based on the tools and techniques of oral history.

We designed the workshop’s process to foster intergenerational listening, conversation, and knowledge-sharing with the belief that we are all witnesses and guardians of important pieces in the histories of our communities.

Our schedule was as follows:

Day 1: Introduction and Overview

Margarita, Ari, and I introduced the project to youth participants and gave them a demonstration of Digital Portobelo/Portobelo Digital, which includes interviews with relatives of many of the participants. Following our introduction, overview, and question/answer period, we paired six younger students with six older students to learn techniques of oral history and to put them into practice by interviewing six community leaders, cultural experts, and/or elders. At the conclusion of the session, “Mama Ari” led a workshop to help each pair rehearse talking with their elders about the project and inviting them to be interviewed. By the end of the session, we directed each pair to choose three potential community members to invite into the process. We suggested three potential interviewees understanding that some might not have the time, availability, or interest. Participants’ homework was to visit potential interviewees prior to our next meeting to make the invitation. Each participant received a dedicated notebook for the project.

Day 2: Open Questions, Closed Questions and Cultivating Curiosity

The session started with participants sharing their experiences of inviting elders into the process and their announcement of their chosen interviewee. Next, Laurel led a workshop focused on interview techniques that allowed participants to practice open and closed questions as well as how to actively listen and offer productive follow up questions. Each pair generated 15-20 questions, which they worked with Digital Portobelo workshop leaders to narrow to ten—four to be asked by the younger members of the pair and six to be asked by the older member.

Day 3: Interview Prep—Tools, Techniques, and Rehearsal

Each student pair received a digital recorder, which was donated for use in the project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program.

Margarita, Laurel, and I demonstrated how to use the recorders and discussed best practices in choosing appropriate recording locations. We dedicated the remainder of the session to: 1) reviewing and building upon productive techniques for interviewing, 2) “setting the stage” for an interview by settling in, testing equipment, and properly welcoming interviewees into the space, and 3) allowing each pair to rehearse introductions and practice recording two-three questions.

Days 4 and 5: Inter-Generational interviews

Pairs met with their interviewees during our regularly scheduled workshop time while workshop leaders made themselves available for questions/concerns. Having worked closely with “Mama Ari” and the students in the past, Margarita served as their main point of contact.

Day 6: Creativity as a Tool for Critical Reflection

With the help of internationally renowned local artists and Digital Portobelo/ Portobelo Digital collaborators Gustavo Esquina and Manuel “Tatu” Golden,

(L-R Gustavo Esquina and Manuel “Tatu” Golden)

Digital Portobelo Workshop leaders guided participants to reflect on a meaningful quote or theme from their interviews and create art pieces that uplifted portions of their interviews. With the support of Whiting Fellowship funds, we provided them with a variety of materials with which to create their art objects. We invited participants to offer their creations as gifts to their interviewees in appreciation for their time.

During our final session, we invited interviewees to join participates to reflect on the process, celebrate their shared accomplishments, and discuss a vision for how the project might proceed over the next year. With the support of Whiting Fellowship funds, we provided refreshments for the gathering.

Day 7: Final Reflection and Celebration

During our final session, we invited interviewees to join participates to reflect on the process, celebrate their shared accomplishments, and discuss a vision for how the project might proceed over the next year. With the support of Whiting Fellowship funds, we provided refreshments for the gathering.

This seven-day workshop sets the stage for a project that will culminate in 2018. At the end of our week together, the Portobelo, the Digital Portobelo team gave each youth pair a copy of their interview on a USB. We kept a copy to transcribe, translate and share back with participants. By Spring 2018, all materials related to each interview will be available through Digital Portobelo.  During summer 2018,  Digital Portobelo team members will return to Portobelo to reconvene participants for a second seven-day workshop aimed at scripting excepts of each interview into a private staged reading for intergenerational partners and a larger public staged reading for the community.

Based on her collaboration with Digital Portobelo, Dr. Stolte applied for and received an NEA Learning and Leadership grant that allowed her to travel to Portobelo in July of 2017 as a member of our team. With the assistance of the grant, she is working to establish relationships with K-12 educators in Panama; create dual language pilot curriculums and curriculum guides based on Digital Portobelo for kindergarten, third, and fifth-grade teachers; and introduce at least one of the curriculums into the classroom by the 2018-2019 academic year. She will present the work at the World View Human Rights and Social Justice conference in October 2017. The conference is targeted toward K-12 educators from across North Carolina. Our shared goal for this presentation is to gathering more local partners and expand the curriculum.

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