In North Minneapolis, a small square room illuminated by floor-to-ceiling windows waits for people to listen to the stories it holds. As visitors take a seat in front of a monitor, settle in, and pick up a headphone set, the voices of community elders fill the silence and tell the stories of the neighborhood and Minnesota culture as a whole.
The Northside Oral History Project, an initiative stemming from the federally funded program Resilience in Communities After Stress & Trauma (ReCAST), explores the stories of 90 community elders in North Minneapolis.
Starting about a year ago, community youth and 4000 More Creative, an artistic services company, recorded video and audio of 90 community elders who volunteered to share their experiences of the neighborhood. Since mid-June, the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG) has featured nine of these interviews as an audio-visual exhibit that will run through October 1.
“There’s often a single story that is told about a place—usually a story that is very paternalistic, usually a story that is very stereotypical,” says Ebony Adedayo, the program manager of ReCAST Minneapolis. “We wanted to give residents who have lived in particularly the Penn and Plymouth area over the last 50 years an opportunity to frame and tell their story in a way that makes sense for them. So rather than someone from the outside coming in and saying, ‘This is what North Minneapolis is,’ having people from the community who have been there, who have seen the changes, be really the articulators of their history and their narrative.”
In the interviews, elders discussed trauma and stressors that have impacted the community like the riots in the ‘60s, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, foreclosure, and institutional harm and violence. Indeed, a recent trauma—the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark—brought the ReCAST program to Minneapolis in an effort to enact community-based strategies that promote resiliency and healing.
By facilitating the Northside Oral History Project, ReCAST has helped create a space for the community to tell the story of North Minneapolis. An oral history rather than a written history lets more people participate. And, Adedayo says, many cultures are oral in nature, which resonates with many communities in Minneapolis.
“There’s a lot of wonderful stories about the resiliency, the strength, and the beauty of North Minneapolis,” Adedayo says. “Our purpose is really sharing the stories.”
At the museum, the power of that narrative is at work, with foot traffic increasing and people spending serious time with the stories. MAAHMG co-founder and interim operations coordinator Coventry Royster Cowens says she sees healing in the smiles on people’s faces when they listen. Although there may be pain in these stories, there is also hope.
After the nine interviews leave MAAHMG, the oral history project isn’t done. This coming week, ReCAST is putting the call out for artists of any medium to make proposals for other ways to share the 90 stories. Whatever new incarnation these stories take, the most important step has already been taken: They are finally being told.
“Knowing your history is a healing process. Knowing your history makes you stronger,” Cowens says. “You’re more confident in who you are and how you proceed in life when you know.”