Media: Article 4

Newspaper: Chronicle
Paper: The Chronicle of Higher Education,
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume: 54
Issue: 3, Page: A10
Date: September 14, 2007

Stories from the Storm



Folklorists train survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to harvest research – and even healing – from their experiences

Carl Lindahl was at Houston’s convention center, handing out fresh clothes to newly arrived evacuees from New Orleans, when he heard his first Katrina stories. The people he was helping talked to him. And talked, and talked.

“They couldn’t not tell their stories,” he says. “And the stories they told portrayed them in such a different light than I was seeing on the media.”

What he heard as a volunteer in early September 2005 helped Mr. Lindahl, a professor of English at the University of Houston and a specialist in folklore, create “Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston,” a story–collecting project that may be unique among the multitude of oral–history and folklore ventures that have sprung up in the storms’ wake.

The project combines scholarship with the desire to lend a helping hand. Like the Federal Writers’ Project from the New Deal era, it sends nonscholars out to collect stories from their peers. In the process, the effort casts ordinary people in a role usually occupied by academically trained professionals – and makes social workers out of scholars. And it&squo;s producing what may prove an unusually deep reservoir of cultural documentation for future researchers to plumb.

Roadblocks to Research

“Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston” has managed to forge ahead in a research environment that has proved rough sailing for many scholars. Researchers in the Gulf Coast region were stalled by the same disruptions that afflicted their neighbors: They lost office space, computers, files, even their jobs. Research funds were hard to come by, or went to scholars elsewhere who were better equipped to make grant proposals. “All these people from outside the state saw a wonderful research opportunity and were swarming into the state,” says Susan Roach, who heads a division of the Louisiana Regional Folklife Program. She is also a professor of English at Louisiana Tech University.

Another Louisiana folklorist, who did not want to be quoted by name, described the resentment triggered by outsiders who charged in. “We were just so objectified,” she recalls. “We felt even more like a third-world country.” She sums up the local feeling as “Y’all couldn’t even pick up the phone and see if we can collaborate?’

Still, some projects with local connections have blossomed into substantial undertakings, like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in partnership with the University of New Orleans.

In an effort to help researchers on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, a group that included Susan Roach formed “In the Wake of the Hurricanes: a Coalition Effort to Collect Our Stories and Rebuild Our Culture.” The idea was to provide online guidance and resources – basic interview questions, data–collecting guidelines, permission forms – that would be available to anyone who wanted to record testimony about life before, during, and after the hurricanes.

Putting Survivors to Work

Of all the projects associated with the coalition, Mr. Lindahl’s has “done more in the lines of what we wanted to do” than most have been able to, Ms. Roach says. Sponsored by the University of Houston, with assistance from the Library of Congress, “Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston” receives funds from the United Way, among other donors, in part because it contains elements not just of scholarship but of mental–health outreach.

The idea behind the Houston project is simple: Train survivors to gather narratives from their own communities. “We begin by telling the trainees that they, and not we, are the world’s leading experts in this disaster,” Mr. Lindahl says. “They are the people that we believe ought to be collecting these stories.”

To do that, however, they need certain fundamental research skills: how to conduct an interview, how to record and transcribe it, and how to navigate the ethical concerns – and the consent forms – involved in working with human subjects. Mr. Lindahl and his co–director, Pat Jasper, an independent folklorist based in Austin, Tex., designed an intensive, weeklong field school with the help of Margaret Bulger, director of the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, and her staff.

The program gives participants a crash course in the basics of ethnographic work. (The project itself had to pass muster with the University of Houston’s institutional review board.) The trainees practice interviewing one another and engage in peer critiques. They learn how to work the necessary recording equipment and what to do with interviews after they have gathered them. Then they head out into the community to put what they have learned to use.

Participants are paid for their time in the classroom and in the field. “We assume that one interview is one day's work, and that one day’s work is worth $150,” Mr. Lindahl says. The project is able to compensate each interviewer for 10 interviews plus training time, for a total of $2,250.

Ms. Bulger’s American Folklife Center has been running field schools for 15 years or so, most aimed at college or graduate students. The Houston project stirred up “extra concerns” for the center’s personnel, Ms. Bulger says, among them how to be sensitive to the emotional state of the trainees and how to accommodate very different levels of education and ability. Her staff emphasized ethics and hands–on practice over archival skills, leaving those to Mr. Lindahl and Ms. Jasper.

Over all, the trainees grasped the ethical questions involved more easily than many graduate students do, according to Ms. Bulger. “They did phenomenally well in terms of being able to get honest discussion going,” she says, “because they were survivors themselves and knew what these people were talking about and could direct the conversations in a really productive way.”

As of last month, the second anniversary of Katrina, the project has trained 53 survivor–interviewers and collected 424 interviews, which are now being archived at the University of Houston and at the Library of Congress.

The project also emphasizes what Mr. Lindahl calls “public outcomes” meant to ensure that the stories don’t just disappear into the archives. Project staff members have been recording a series of broadcasts for several local radio stations, and some of the survivors’ accounts appeared in a recent issue of the journal Callaloo.

Kitchen–Table Interviews

As a folklorist, Mr. Lindahl embraces fieldwork done in one–on–one, kitchen–table settings. When he listened to stories of the September 11 attacks, it struck him that the most powerful were those told to friends or self–recorded.

“Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston” works very much on the theory that people who have been through traumatic events are more likely to open up to those who have endured similar experiences.

“The stories we’re getting here are as close to natural narrative as you can get in an interview situation,” Mr. Lindahl says.

Nicole Eugene, who is now the project’s archivist, went through the training in March 2006. Like the other interviewers who have worked with Mr. Lindahl and Ms. Jasper, she found interviewees through social networks that have grown up among evacuees in the Houston area. Churches have been especially useful in helping spread the word about the project.

Ms. Eugene says the key element is establishing rapport. Then you “find the story,” she says. “I was really convinced of the power of saying ‘And then what happened?’”

Interviewees must sometimes overcome a belief that they have nothing valuable to share. “A lot of people who evacuated, they don’t have a sense that they have a Katrina story until you sit down and get it from them,” she says. “If they can tell me where they were at, how they found out about it, what they did, what they didn't do, then they have a story. And in talking about that they discover larger things and have a larger sense of their story.’

LaToya S. Allen, another interviewer, also left Louisiana right before Katrina barreled in; the majority of her family stayed behind. For the most part they came through unscathed, but she vividly recalls “the torment of waiting to see if they were okay. We wound up seeing them rescued on TV.”

While her family returned home to rebuild, Ms. Allen stayed on in Houston to pursue her education. An art–education major, she expects to graduate from Texas Southern University in the fall of 2008. The Katrina project’s paycheck helped draw her in, but in the process she discovered a different sort of reward. “You become passionate about what you do because you have to be able to effectively communicate with these people and make sure they don’t feel like you're just there to take their story and expose them,” she says. “You’re there to comfort them.”

Ms. Allen and Ms. Eugene embody another of the project’s goals: to equip trainees with skills that may serve them as they rebuild their lives.

“I have experience as an interviewer, with the computer, taking pictures,” Ms. Allen says. She expects all of that will help her in future job searches, but she plans to “work further with the program in any way they have available.” Another interviewer handles the project’s radio broadcasts and taught in the most recent field school.

Collaborators, Not Subjects

The interviews gathered by Ms. Allen, Ms. Eugene, and their colleagues bring out one of the less–well–understood aspects of the crisis: For many survivors, it isn’t over. “I would like people to realize what we had to endure through all of this and what it takes to be healed, what it takes to get back on your feet,” Ms. Allen explains. “People are thinking, Oh, it was a year or two ago, get over it. But people are still in despair.”

Folklorists have long known about the therapeutic benefits of sharing one’s story after a traumatic or significant event. “To be talking about it with somebody who had been through the same stuff – it may not be instant, but there’s a potential source of really strong rapport in that situation,” says Timothy Lloyd, executive director of the American Folklore Society. Mr. Lloyd’s group has pledged $10,000 to help with the archiving of Mr. Lindahl and Ms. Jasper’s project.

Researchers have only begun to tap into the archive that the project is creating. “In the short term and in the long term, this project is really doing a terrific service,” says Patricia A. Turner, a folklorist who is also vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of California at Davis. “There’s nothing I know of that’s so systematically collecting accounts of Katrina and Rita.’

A specialist in rumors and legends in the African–American community, Ms. Turner has drawn on the Federal Writers’ Project archives from the 1930s for narratives of ex–slaves. The material is invaluable, but “the quality is so uneven. The prejudice is often just steeped in the narrative itself.”

That problem does not exist with “Surviving Katrina and Rita” accounts, because “the authority is going to the survivors themselves,” she says.

Therapeutic Scholarship

But can scholars rely on the work of nonprofessionals with a week’s training? “They’re getting ethnographic foundation work through the Library of Congress,“ Ms. Turner points out, “so the results are much more consistent” than those achieved by the Federal Writers’ Project. Ms. Turner believes that scholars 70 years from now will reap the benefits when they go searching for stories not just of the hurricanes but of Gulf Coast life.

“Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston” has no set end date. Mr. Lindahl and Ms. Jasper plan to keep it going as long as they can find the money to do so.

“I don’t think that full documentation is something that ever happens, at least in the world of folklore,” Mr. Lindahl says, pointing out that New Orleans was almost 300 years old when Katrina swept through. “I don’t think we’ll come to the end of documenting this one, let alone the next one.”

In the meantime, Mr. Lindahl believes that disaster and trauma specialists could learn a great deal from “Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston,” and he and Ms. Jasper have been searching for ways to measure the therapeutic benefits of their project – but they must do so without intruding unduly into the interviewees’ lives.

Mr. Lindahl has high hopes for an approach pioneered by James W. Pennebaker’s language and health–psychology lab at the University of Texas at Austin that analyzes interview transcripts for certain keywords that indicate the speaker’s mental outlook.

So far, Mr. Lindahl’s belief in the healing value of community–based storytelling has been borne out by the reports of interviewers like Ms. Allen. Although some found it too stressful to talk to her about their experiences, many more welcomed the chance. “A lot of people didn’t have an opportunity to tell their stories, and they’re holding information in,” she says. “The person they’re able to talk to is me.”

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