By Pete Angie
Some of us wonder what our streets used to look like, and who lived on them before cars, or before the subdivision and the gas station on the corner were built. Or what families used to live in our house or town 50 or more years ago; how they went about business day to day, where they shopped before Walmart, and what their attitudes and beliefs were about the world.
Some of the answers to questions like these can be found in the archived letters, maps and photographs at The History Center in Tompkins County, but answers and insights can also be found in the stories of the people who have lived through history. The History Center has crafted a series of events and workshops, dubbed Generation to Generation, designed to foster conversations between young, old and in the middle, to deepen our understanding of the past and present.
“Everyone seems to agree there are not enough conversations among the generations,” History Center Executive Director Rod Howe says. “Everyone is busy. Even within your own family, think about the conversations you’re having with your parents and grandparents,” he asks, pointing out that people often just catch up, but don’t inquire about what it was like to live through certain periods or events in the past.
In March 2015, when Howe assumed the role of director, he began planning for programs that would help close that gap. After a year of organizing, the History Center kicked off the Generation to Generation series with a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Kendall on April 6. Paula Younger spoke on the power of pancakes as an inter-generational food, and that everyone has a story about pancakes, using the food as an example of how commonplace things can weave threads that connect generations.
Other events this spring included a presentation exploring the power of play throughout one’s life, from infancy to old age, a workshop on collecting oral history, an event focused on local Asian American history, and opportunities on the second Saturdays of each month for people of all ages to play together with a variety of historic toys and games at the Eight Square School House. That event has spurred adults to talk with youth about what toys they played with as kids, and what they did to have fun 30, 40, or 50 years ago.
Kayla Sewell, who works at the History Center in visitor services, sees value in these events’ ability to help individuals gain a broader and richer understanding of history. Sewell views creating and understanding history as a “collective effort” by community members, and states that the sharing of personal narratives is instrumental in “closing gaps between misunderstanding and misinformation people have about one another.”
There are several events coming up at the History Center that are designed to help provide a venue or spark for sharing and collecting personal histories. On Saturday, June 25, there is a panel and small group discussion from 2 to 4:30 p.m., organized in conjunction with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, that focuses on individual experiences in working toward social justice and change.
On Tuesday, June 28, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., Lisa Holmes, director of the Tompkins County Office for the Aging, will give a workshop and presentation of the oral histories she has gathered from aging LGBT adults.
An ongoing initiative is the partnering of area youth and elders. Teens and seniors are paired and local archival maps and personal or archived photographs are used to initiate discussions on topics such as what a senior used to do in his neighborhood when he was a teen. The pairs are also being taught to record these discussions. They have been asked to draw maps of their neighborhoods as well—the teen a present day map, the elder a version from years ago—as a way to begin conversations about the world around them and their place in it. There will also be upcoming genealogy workshops, and additional events throughout the summer and into the fall.
Howe sees the importance of the Generation to Generation series as threefold: to foster connections between young and old; to gain a better understanding of the past; and to recognize the many strong linkages that exist between the past and what we are experiencing now.
He hopes that wisdom can be garnered through sharing personal histories, which can help people make decisions for their futures. Howe also sees a very personal value to the project. “We know people realize at a certain point that is too late,” he says of the questions we wished we’d asked our grandparents or parents before they died. Howe hopes the series will provide opportunities and inspire people to ask those questions.
More information on the Generation to Generation programs and events can be found at www.thehistorycenter.net. The History Center is located at 401 E. State St. Suite 100, Ithaca.
By Pete Angie