Vassar has a long history of fostering queer students and queer activism. The LGBTQ Oral History Project seeks to document that legacy and make it accessible for current students to learn from and engage with different generations of queer and ally community members.
On Friday, March 28, the LGBTQ Oral History Project offered two three-hour training sessions to students looking to join the project or to simply deepen their research skills.
Coordinated by Director for the Campus Life LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center Judy Jarvis ’07 and intern Priya Nair ’15, the workshop featured Director of the Sound and Story Project of the Hudson Valley Eileen McAdam.
According to Jarvis, she and the two student researchers interviewed 10 alumnae/i and current and former Vassar employees over the summer, thanks to funding provided by the Social Justice and Inclusion Fund.
A partnership of the Campus Life LGBTQ Center, Women’s Studies and the Vassar College Archives, the project developed in the aftermath of the College’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2011.
Queer students, allies and socially conscious professors on campus noticed that all the programming and retrospectives made scant mention of Vassar’s extensive queer history.
This omission gave rise to “Queering the Archives,” a women’s studies course with Assistant Professor of English Hiram Perez. The class aimed to teach students to think critically about archives and the act of “queering.”
Additionally, several campus organizations co-sponsored the 2011 conference called “Smashing History: 150 Years of LGBTQIA at Vassar,” which featured a panel on queerness in the college’s archives.
Eventually, the LGBTQ Oral History Project received a grant from the Social Justice and Inclusion Fund to complete a pilot project in the summer of 2013, directed by Jarvis and assisted by Naimah Petigny ’14 and Logan Keane ’15.
They conducted 10 interviews in two weeks, each that lasted between 90 minutes and four hours long.
The goal is to “capture the experiences, stories, and reflections of LGBTQ and ally alumni as well as current LGBTQ staff members,” in partnership between the Campus Life LGBTQ Center, Women’s Studies Program and the Vassar College Archives .
Thus far, the LGBTQ Oral History Project has interviewed 14 LGBTQ alums, a small percentage of those who have volunteered to be part of the project. In addition to the alumnae/i interviewed, the project included voices from current and former employees at Vassar. Those interviews will be available in the archives at the end of the Spring 2014 semester.
“The birth of Sound and Story happened right here on the Vassar campus,” remembers McAdam, whose first experience listening to an environment through a microphone occurred during an early morning trip to the Vassar farm with her “then-friend, now-husband.”
She said, “I felt like I was hearing for the first time… I was hooked on the experience of recording.”
Now, Sound and Story works to “[build] community memory and sense of place by recording and sharing our stories and regional sounds,” according to its mission statement. The project has an app for the iPhone, and is currently working on an initiative called “A Year of Sounds and Stories: 365 Everyday Tales from Unexpected Places.”
“We really feel that it’s those stories that connect us to each other…and connect us to the places where we live and hopefully make us better stewards,” commented McAdam.
Ten Vassar students attended the Friday sessions, most hoping to one day join the Oral History Project but also to use oral history techniques in their own work on and off campus.
“I just recently started writing online for a magazine for queer women,” explains Maddie Taterka ’14, “…this seemed like a great opportunity to build a skill that would be really applicable to that.”
First year student Matt Ford ‘17 also hoped that the training would enhance his journalism. “I have several years of journalism experience…in conjunction with my identity as an LGBTQ person, [This project] just really intrigued me. I love talking to people and interviewing them.”
The LGBTQ Oral History Project at Vassar has also demonstrated that oral history is a particularly meaningful and effective strategy for engaging queer histories. Ferrari commented that, “I like [oral history] as a form of archiving and documentation. People’s stories are important and they deserve to be listened to actively and with intention as we centralize their experiences.”
Naimah Petigny ’14, intern for the Women’s Center, is passionate about oral history. “I find that having someone be the author of their own narrative is empowering. Often times, queer people, queer people of color are only talked about and rarely does the archive highlight those narratives in their own voices, rather than how researchers talk about them.”
Petigny continued, “[Oral history] changes the perspective. You hear people talking about their own narrative of struggle, of survival. As the interviewer, you may ask a few questions, but you are oriented towards listening actively.”
The LGBTQ Oral History Project is excited about its success but is in need of more funding to continue interviewing, transcribing and archiving.
Jarvis wrote in an emailed statement, “We need additional grant or gift funding in order to create a significant archive.”
She also reported that Vassar’s Development Office is very supportive and is searching for alumnae/i designated gifts to expand the project and continue engaging Vassar’s LGBTQ legacy.
Jarvis continued, “The next big step for the project is to find a source of funding so that we can do an extensive amount of interviewing, transcribing and archiving during a month or two months of the summer.”