Keepsakes and Dreams: An Introduction

by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Ph.D.

The stories included in this Web site were created by a group of dedicated learners, but how and why we created this project is an interesting story in itself. Many people and organizations worked together in collaboration to make Keepsakes and Dreams possible. To understand the scope and philosophy behind our project, you also need to know a little bit about the history of the partnerships associated with this venture.

Project History

My affiliation with The Urban Alternative began in 1995, when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor with the Institute for Educational Transformation (IET) at George Mason University. IET had received a grant from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through their University/Community Outreach Program. IET used this money to create a program called The Urban Alternative.

The Urban Alternative is located in the Columbia Heights West neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. Columbia Heights West is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Northern Virginia. Many residents are recent immigrants from all over the world. Through The Urban Alternative, George Mason University hopes to collaborate with residents, businesses, public service organizations, schools, and other non-profit organizations to build a "learning community" in which all participants see themselves as teachers and as learners. When I began my work in Arlington I discovered that Todd Endo, Director of The Urban Alternative, had already established a rich network of contacts and resources in anticipation of the program's initiation, but we knew that we still had a lot to learn about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of community residents. For the learning community to be rooted in local concerns, we needed to find ways to talk with people in depth about what they wanted for themselves, their families, their culture groups, and the community.

As I got to know people in the Arlington area personally, I discovered a wealth of talent, experience, and creativity. I met a dedicated group of teachers and coordinators at REEP, the Arlington Education and Employment Program, who offered both formal and informal English as a Second Language courses throughout the Arlington area. I met Todd's wife Paula Endo, an accomplished photographer and teacher who had recently put together an exhibit of her work entitled Newcomers. The Newcomers exhibit displayed photo portraits of recent immigrants with stories about their most cherished keepsakes. Paula told me that she had gotten to know these people and their stories through Pat Thurston, a REEP ESL teacher who began the practice of regularly asking her students to write stories about their keepsakes. Pat takes Polaroid snapshots of her students and displays the photos with their accompanying stories on billboards at Arlington's Clarendon Education Center.

I met other kindred spirits through the Columbia Heights West Task Force, a group that meets once a month and is interested in fostering neighborhood community involvement. At one of the Task Force meetings I met Melanie Rios, a neighborhood resident and graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University who was eager to make meaningful connections with and between people of diverse heritages. I also met Linda Anderson, also a resident of Columbia Heights West, who regularly taught drop-in English as a Second Language classes, sponsored by Arlington County Adult Basic Education and held at Greenbrier Baptist Church.

I asked Linda if I could visit one of her ESL sessions and I was very impressed. Linda and her husband Ken have years of experience teaching in a range of settings, including extensive work in southeast Asian refugee camps. Linda's kindness, patience, and genuine interest in the lives of her students encouraged all participants to invest in each other's learning.

It was about this time that the concept of a documentation project sponsored by The Urban Alternative was born. We decided to build on the past success of Pat Thurston's and Paula Endo's work with keepsakes. In addition to documenting cherished "keepsake" objects, we decided to ask residents about their figurative keepsakes, the often intangible aspects of culture that people want to perpetuate regardless of their place of residence. We also extended our work to include dialogue about dreams for the future so that we could learn more about the range of community concerns and needs. We liked the fact that both Thurston and Endo had designed activities in which participants took an active role in the documentary process, writing their own stories. We decided to design Keepsakes and Dreams in such a way that it would be a collaborative process of community self-documentation in which the contributors benefited as much as we did, retaining primary control over their stories and over the final product.

In reflecting on my experiences with Keepsakes and Dreams, I realize that this has been a genuine learning community for me. I have learned more about the experiences, values, and perspectives of this diverse group of people who are newcomers to the United States. In working with Linda and Melanie, I have also learned more about integrating my interest in cultural documentation and oral narrative with the educational plans of other educators, exploring the potential of adult education classrooms as sites for community self-documentation. In turn, I have shared some of the things that I know about writing, the English language, interviewing, media documentation, and technology.

Keepsakes and Dreams:

An Experiment in Collaborative Community Self-Documentation

We began our project planning process with three questions in mind:

  • What do newcomers want to retain from their cultures of origin, what are their cherished family memories, and what cultural changes do they want to embrace in their new home?
  • What are their dreams for the future, and what might help them realize these visions?
  • How might we blend cultural documentation and community education so that the university and community collaborate to encourage intercultural dialogue and community literacy?

We arranged for Melanie Rios and myself to work every Monday and Wednesday morning for four months with one of Linda Anderson's intermediate level adult English as a Second Language class. This drop-in class met at the Greenbrier Baptist Church, located in the heart of Columbia Heights West, and was offered free of charge. Not all of the students were from Columbia Heights West, but we felt that it was important to work with the entire group so that we would not diminish the class's sense of community.

Although we had many of our own questions in mind, we wanted this project to begin with the voices and concerns of the community members. For this reason, we gave the participants broad writing prompts, such as:

  • What are your most meaningful memories of your parents?
  • What is your most important keepsake and why do you care about it so much?
  • What do you hope and dream for the future?

Because we were working with an ongoing drop-in class, participants changed from week to week. For this reason, some people wrote extensively about keepsakes, but were absent for the sessions during which we wrote about dreams. Others "graduated" from the beginner level class nextdoor and joined our class only in time to write about their dreams.

Once the class had written a few pieces, we asked them if they wanted to work together to create a formal project with their stories. They all agreed. I then brought in a range of possible product examples: panels from a museum-style photo exhibit, a calendar that included photos and stories, and a photo essay booklet. The class discussed the merits and limitations of each possibility. For example, they liked the idea that people would see their work every day on a calendar, but didn't like the fact that their work might be thrown out after the year was over if it was only represented in this format. After some debate, the class decided to put their work into a booklet. They also decided that they wanted to share this work publicly with others outside the class.

Photo of Meliane Rios, interviewing one of the authorsOnce these decisions were made, Melanie and I began to work with the participants individually. We took each of the authors into a separate quiet room upstairs in the church and asked the person to read his or her stories aloud. We would then form our interview questions in response to the essay, asking questions to clarify information about the story's context, to add more detail, and to explore the writer's worldview. Finally, we would read the person's stories aloud to them, working with them to make grammatical corrections and to suggest revisions. These interview sessions were audiotaped. At times, we also played back the tape so the author could hear it, pausing to practice his or her pronunciation of problem words. Later, we used the tapes to transcribe a written synopsis that we could give back to the interviewee. When we gave these written summaries back to the authors, we also made suggestions about how they might want to illustrate their work visually, asking them to bring in family photos if possible.

Some of the participants expressed anxiety about this process at first, saying that they were afraid they didn't speak English well enough to do this project. One participant said she was concerned that she didn't have "enough words" because her first drafts were so brief. The authors were often surprised and delighted to discover that their spoken words added up to extensive and rich transcriptions. Many said that this process helped them feel more confident about their ability to communicate in English and about the importance of their words.

After the interview phase of this project was completed, Greenbrier Baptist Church generously allowed our class to use their computers so the authors could learn word processing. The computers we used were older models with 386 processors, so it was not possible for the authors to do their own booklet layout in class. I brought copies of their files home to my computer, scanned photos, did the layout, and then brought a mock-up to class for feedback and critique.

Photo of Azra, typing her stories into a computerWe taught the project participants how to turn on the computer, open WordPerfect, type, and save their files onto the hard disk. Many of the authors had never touched a typewriter before. None of the participants had ever used a computer. All were excited about the possibilities that their emergent computer literacy might hold for future employment.

The realities of computer use were daunting at times. For some, their language of origin was based in a different alphabet, which made finding the proper characters on a computer keypad particularly challenging. All were patient and dedicated, taking turns for three weeks with the four lab computers. The Urban Alternative recently set up a computer lab, offering free computer classes to interested residents. Some of the people who first learned to type during Keepsakes and Dreams show up at The Urban Alternative lab on a regular basis.

Plans for the Future

Photo of the group learning how to use a computer, while Azra's little son Mohammed looks onWe look forward to a time in the future when we have state-of-the-art computers at The Urban Alternative so community members can learn how to transform their own spoken and written stories into desktop publications, participating in all phases of the process. We also plan to work with community residents to create a resource center, an "archive" of documentary materials and human resource information that can be tapped for a range of projects that benefit the community.

One of the course participants, Sokha Mob, is working with another resident to make a calendar of community stories and images. This calendar may use some of the photos and information gathered by residents for Keepsakes and Dreams.

Others at The Urban Alternative are also writing external grants to fund future story publications. We look forward to forming partnerships with other like-minded groups in the D.C. area, sharing our work and extending our network of resources.

Most important, we would like these stories to serve as a catalyst for community-building: providing residents with a vehicle for increased knowledge about the values and perspectives of their neighbors, creating a framework of respect for the life experiences and worldviews of others, and nurturing a community of inquiry that begins with intercultural dialogue.

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Last Updated By Gail Matthews-DeNatale: 10/08/96