Good evening, everyone.
In 2017, Dr. Summer Cherland was teaching a History seminar at South Mountain Community College. Dr. Cherland challenged this intimate group of twelve students by assigning a class research project: the students could choose any topic to study, so long as the whole class agreed and it related to Arizona history. Since they all grew up in the area, the students chose to explore their own community by studying the history of south Phoenix. For the next two weeks, the class combed every information warehouse they could find, from the local library to the state archives, and they found NOTHING in the way of scholarly work on south Phoenix’s history. With disappointment, Dr. Cherland suggested the class pick a new topic. To her surprise, the students rejected her suggestion. They argued that if nobody else had researched their community – their roots – then it was their job to do it. The students asked Dr. Cherland, “if not us, then who?”
“If not us, then who?” That question took Dr. Cherland and her students on a journey that ended up launching the South Phoenix Oral History Project: a student-led initiative to capture and preserve the history of south Phoenix. Since then, over 200 students have contributed to the Project in one way or another. They created an archive storing over 50 years of historical materials which they are working to index. They collected over 300 hours of recorded interviews about south Phoenix and its history. They produced a video documentary detailing the efforts of the south Phoenix community that ultimately led to the creation of SMCC. They designed a historic walking tour of the campus and a historic driving tour of the area. They even wrote the first-ever academic article about south Phoenix, forthcoming in the March edition of the Journal of Arizona History.
From the very beginning, the students decided that the Project would be student-driven and community-oriented, since most of South Mountain’s students have a deep connection to the area and typically remain local long after graduation. That sense of connectivity led them to establish the Project as a “shared authority,” with the community itself holding the responsibility for its authorship and also reaping the benefits as its audience. In that spirit, they chose to house their archives at the SMCC community library – itself a cooperative endeavor co-owned by SMCC and the City of Phoenix. In return, the community has embraced the Project, with enthusiastic support from the City of Phoenix Library, the Arizona State Archives, the Arizona Historical Society, and grants from local and regional organizations.
While the fellowships and stipends that the students can receive for participating do help to compensate for the significant time commitment that the Project requires of them, ultimately their efforts are a labor of love. Most of the student participants joined the Project from the SMCC History program after learning about it in classes like Arizona History, Mexican-American History and Culture, American History since 1865, or African-American History since 1877. However, when the students decided they wanted to take the Project into the digital realm, the STEM Scholar Program joined the cause, providing a handful of students with no connection to the History program but with experience in web and graphic design.
In the end, the Project itself celebrates every student contribution. They get complete credit for their work: all of the websites have student citations acknowledging their efforts, and the student researchers are cited as the authors of the academic paper. Knowing that they are creating something valuable to their community, and knowing that their names will forever be attached to the product of their labor, the students rise to the occasion…as they must, because when it comes to this Project, slackers need not apply. Despite being freshman- or sophomore-level academically, the student participants are doing graduate-level research. The students crave feedback and produce multiple drafts, never settling for anything less than professional-level output. It’s no wonder that the Project has won multiple awards for Innovation and Excellence.
Now, even setting aside the external support and accolades, the participating students recognize the value of the Project for themselves and for the community that they love. As our society scrambles to find ways to overcome the separations imposed on us by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to make meaningful connections with each other. The South Phoenix Oral History Project achieves that ambitious goal, connecting the students to each other, to the college, to the community…and to their past. Every semester, the participants in the Project write their own reflections, and these burst with enthusiasm and positivity for the program and its supporting faculty: Liz Warren and Dr. Travis May from the Storytelling Institute and Dr. Summer Cherland from the History Department. One faculty participant summarized the Project’s impact by saying that “the South Phoenix Oral History Project has given South Mountain Community College a sense of place.” A bit closer to home, one student put it plainly: “until now, I had no idea that south Phoenix even mattered.”
Thank you for your time.