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Collection Overview

Historical Note

Scope and Content Note


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Title:The Oral History Center records
Call Number:M73

Historical Note

In 1976, while working in a battered women's shelter in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Cindy Cohen realized the powerful affect that a person's stories could have on other people. Two years later Cohen began From Hearing My Mother Talk, a project about women's folk tales. Working with teenage girls, Cohen interviewed 11 women in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the theme of transitions in women's lives. Cohen received funding from the Cambridge Arts Council, which published her work in 1979. This oral history project inspired Cohen to initiate the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project in the fall of 1980, with funding from the Cambridge Arts Council.

The Cambridge Women's Oral History Project involved training Cambridge high-school-aged girls to interview older generations of Cambridge women, so that they could gain a better understanding of women's history. The success of the group spawned multiple related projects, for which Cambridge Women's Oral History Project acted as an umbrella. Projects included Let Life Be Yours, Transitions In Women's Lives, and the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project. This project brought younger and older women together to sew quilt patches documenting their stories. The projects Common Threads, A Patchwork of Our Lives, and Stories In Fabric followed upon the success of the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project.

With the scope of the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project growing, Cohen's work became more than an individual project. Beginning in 1981, an advisory committee was created to take steps to form the Cambridge Social Resource Center.

During 1982, the group accepted applications for the founding members of the Center. On March 4, 1983, the Cambridge Oral History Center was incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. On 13 June1984, the center received non-profit status from the federal government. The Cambridge Oral History Center's initial stated purpose was to "collect, preserve, and make accessible material related to the social history of Cambridge groups that have not usually had their experiences documented.

Lifelines was the first major project of the Cambridge Oral History Center. Unlike the previous projects, it was not related to Cohen's work with Cambridge women. Instead, "Lifelines" was a collaboration with the Cambridge Public Schools. The center trained teachers in the methods for collecting oral histories, and then helped teachers to implement oral history projects with their students.

By 1986, the Cambridge Oral History Center's growth necessitated organizational change. The Board of Directors was strengthened, a new committee structure was put in place, a new organizational statement of purpose was written, and the director was paid on a full-time basis. In 1987, the corporation's name was officially changed to The Oral History Center, citing the Cambridge Oral History Center's visible work outside of Cambridge.

Highlighting the Oral History Center's rapid and influential growth, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities honored them in 1987. It named the Oral History Center to a list of 34 organizations designated as "leaders in enriching cultural life of the Commonwealth.

In 1988, the center began another major project, A Passion For Life, focusing on the folk arts of Palestinian and Jewish women currently living in Boston. Concurrent projects included The King Connection and People Are Stories, along with the ongoing Lifelines project.

In November 1988, the Oral History Center move to 186 Hampshire St. from 57 Inman St. in Cambridge. Coincidentally, the Oral History Center suffered financial difficulties. Numerous federal and state budget cuts, due to the recession, limited the availability of funding for cultural and arts programs. In addition to financial difficulties, it underwent structural changes. By 1989, Cohen's title as founder/director was changed to co-director with Kristen Metz, while Jennifer McKenna became the executive director. Between January and June of 1990, Cohen further reduced her role to consultant for the Oral History Center, directing only the A Passion For Life project. McKenna left in June 1990, and Kristen Metz became executive director for the next three years.

Metz immediately oversaw two important projects of the Oral History Center, a collaboration with Head Start in Jamaica Plain and another with Youth Build Boston. From the Youth Build Boston project emerged the fourth major project, Griots of Roxbury, in 1991. Griots used oral histories to explain the problem of youth violence. Griots was also the Oral History Center's first major project to be focused entirely outside of Cambridge.

On 19 June 1992, the Oral History Center celebrated its tenth anniversary. Less than a year later, it moved to 25 West St. in the Downtown Crossing section of Boston. Metz stepped down in September 1993; the Oral History Center's education director, Carrie Pratt, and a board member, William Thompson, became the acting directors.

With the birth of the Learning From Our Lives project in 1994, the Oral History Center experienced a major shift in focus. This program was an extended series of workshops designed to train educators and cultural organizational leaders in the model of collecting oral histories. At this time, the center decided that "its mission of building and strengthening communities through telling of life stories" could be better fulfilled through training others to collect oral histories, rather than by conducting oral histories.

At the same time, the Oral History Center sought an affiliation with a more recognizable educational institution. In 1994, it became affiliated with the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Northeastern University. The institute's mission of providing new and creative ways to educate urban youths was a perfect compliment for the Oral History Center. On June 26, 1995, the Oral History Center moved onto Northeastern University's campus.

After 1998, the Oral History Center ceased its operations due to lack of funds.

Cambridge Women's Oral History Project: ca. 1978-1985

Although it began as an individual project, the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project eventually became the umbrella for nine interconnected projects between approximately 1978 and 1985. The projects continued to be exhibited after 1985.

From Hearing My Mother Talk: Stories of Cambridge Women, 1978-1980

From Hearing My Mother Talk was Cindy Cohen's original oral history project, sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council. Cohen interviewed 11 elderly women in Cambridge and then compiled their stories into a book. Published in 1979, the book featured a woodcutting on the cover by Bonnie Acker. The image of three women later became the logo of the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project and the Oral History Center.

Cambridge Women's Oral History Project: Sep. 1980-Aug. 1981

Cohen's second project funded through the Cambridge Arts Council, the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project was a more ambitious version of From Hearing My Mother Talk. In the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project Cohen taught and oversaw 30 Cambridge high-school-aged girls interviewing older Cambridge women. The purpose of the project was to allow the girls to "explore the theme of transitions in women's lives by interviewing older women." The girls compiled 50 hours of taped interviews in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese, representing four minority communities in Cambridge: African-American, Latino, Haitian, and Azorean.

Let Life Be Yours: Voices of Cambridge Working Women, 1981

Let Life Be Yours was a thirty minute slide-tape show of the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project. The show was based on the interviews of 26 Cambridge women and was available in English, Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Portuguese. The show was co- produced by Cohen and directed by Cindy Marshall. First shown in the King School cafeteria in July 1981, the show was eventually shown in over 500 community and educational settings, including as far away as Belize. These showings were often used as the basis for community discussions and forums.

Transitions in Women's Lives: Community Education Program, 1981-1982

Transitions in Women's Lives was the educational program coinciding with Let Life Be Yours. Initially it translated the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project for a slide-tape show into Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese. It then conducted community forums in connection with the viewings of Let Life Be Yours. Another part of Transitions in Women's Lives was the "Azorean Letters," a set of six fictional letters in Portuguese and English that explored change and choice in the lives of Azorean women in Cambridge. Also part of Transitions in Women's Lives was a poem written in Spanish and English by Marjorie Agosin, entitled "Deja que La Vida Sea Tuya," or "Let Life Be Yours."

The Way Things Were: Jest Us, 1982-1983

The Way Things Were represented the African American portion of Let Life Be Yours. It began as a part of Transitions in Women's Lives but soon became a separate project. The Way Things Were was a collaboration with Jest Us, a club for African American teens in Central Square Cambridge. Members of Jest Us interviewed four African American women for their project. The stories were compiled into a book, and an exhibit was created in 1982 for the Patchwork of Our Lives Exhibit, described below.

Cambridge Women's Quilt Project: 1982

Following the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project, the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project involved 60 Cambridge women from ages eight to 80. The project included interviews with the older women and the creation of quilt patches documenting their stories. In all, 52 blocks were created for the quilt. The quilt became the signature of the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project. It was shown at the International Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985 and was the inspiration for multiple projects, including ones in Belize, Central America, and Soweto, South Africa. From 1989 to 1990, the quilt toured the United States as the paradigm of contemporary urban folklore for the Museum of Our National Heritage's exhibit, "New Roots, New Folks." As with the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project, the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project was directly continued through other projects.

Common Threads: 1982-1985

A continuation of the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project, Common Threads was "created to highlight the skills and the stories of traditional fabric artists in diverse cultural communities." Its original goal was to document the quilt and identify traditional fabric artists. However, only the quilt catalogue and postcards were completed. These were presented in fall 1982 as part of the Patchwork of Our Lives exhibit. In November 1983, an exhibit including a slide-tape show, the quilt catalogue and postcards, and documentation of traditional fabric artists was shown at the Field Branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

A Patchwork of Our Lives: Women's Stories in Words and Fabric, 1982

The Patchwork of Our Lives project unfolded in three parts. First, Betsy Rose led a group of youths, who had participated in the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project, in creating a song about making the women's quilt and its stories, entitled "A Patchwork of Our Lives." In addition, the first section of the Common Threads project in fall 1982 was called A Patchwork of Our Lives. Lastly, the exhibit in which both the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project song and "Common Threads" catalogue were presented was entitled "A Patchwork of Our Lives." This exhibit was held from September 20, 1982 until October 31, 1982 at Gallery 57 in the Cambridge City Hall Annex. The exhibit presented the "tangible results of the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project and the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project." This included performances of the song "A Patchwork of Our Lives," the Cambridge Women's Quilt, excerpts from the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project, showings of Let Life Be Yours, translations from The Way Things Were, community forums, and an exhibition of the Azorean letters from The Way Things Were.

Stories in Fabric: 1984-1985

This project was a follow up to the Cambridge Women's Quilt Project, inspired by a visit from two Chilean women. The project was done in the Chilean style of "arpillera," small quilted tapestries. The two Chilean women had produced their own arpilleras documenting their struggles under the Chilean dictatorship. Project coordinator Lyndsay French interviewed Cambridge women and young girls for the project. French then helped them to make individual tapestries depicting their stories. An exhibit containing the tapestries, excerpts of the interviews, and photographs of the participants was first shown along with the Common Threads project at the Field Branch of the Cambridge Public Library in 1983. In 1985, it was brought with the Cambridge women's quilt to the International Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

Lifelines: ca. 1985-1991

Lifelines was the first major project undertaken by the Cambridge Oral History Center not directly related to the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project. The project was a collaboration with the Cambridge Public Schools that "involved the students and teachers in the magic of telling, eliciting, and shaping stories." The Cambridge Oral History Center trained teachers in Cambridge to collect oral histories. The student projects of Lifelines were "focused on the life experiences of people most often excluded from traditional texts; such as women, working people, ethnic 'minorities,' immigrants and older people." In addition to the student projects, Lifelines produced two main works. The first was the book The Mango Tree: Stories Told by Children in the Cambridge Public Schools, an anthology of student writings and oral histories collected during the first two years of the project. The project also generated a curriculum packet that became the Oral History Center's model for using oral history in the classroom. During the course of the Lifelines project, four curriculum packets were produced.

A Passion For Life: Stories and Folk Arts of Palestinian and Jewish Women, Jul. 1988-May 1990

A Passion For Life consisted of oral history interviews of eight Jewish and Palestinian women living in Boston, whose lives involved some type of folk art tradition. The purpose of Passion For Life was to help the women, from cultures of long-standing conflict, find a common bond without hiding the fact that they had important differences. A Passion For Life was exhibited extensively to the public, and a quilt was attempted but never finished.

Griots of Roxbury: ca. 1991-1996

In 1990, the Oral History Center collaborated with Youth Build Boston. This inspired the Griots project. Originally titled the Roxbury Oral History Project, a staff member renamed the project during the planning stages. "A 'griot' was the oral historian and educator in any given African society; the griot's role was to teach people to know themselves." Griots took a unique approach to the issue of violence among youth in order to form a better understanding of the issues and to create strategies to solve them. Hazel Bright, director of the project, met on a regular basis with 25 Roxbury youths, ages 17 to 20, to discuss the violence they faced and to teach them to conduct oral history interviews. In turn, they interviewed five generations of Roxbury residents about their youth in Roxbury and how violence played a role in it. The exhibit "You Got A Story To Tell" was based on the Griots interviews with youths, ages 14 to 24, and shown in January 1994. The Griots project was also displayed in the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury.
1979Cindy Cohen publishes "From Hearing My Mother Talk"
1980Cohen begins the Cambridge Women's Oral History Project.
1981An advisory group is established to create the Cambridge Social Resource Center.
1982The Cambridge Women's Quilt Project is initiated.
1983On March 4, the Cambridge Oral History Center is incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
1984On June 13, the Cambridge Oral History Center receives non-profit tax exempt status from the federal government.
1985The Lifelines project begins.
1986During organizational restructuring, the center is renamed the Oral History Center.
1987Recognized by the Massachusetts Cultural Council as a leader in cultural life in the state.
1988The A Passion for Life project is initiated; The Oral History Center moves from its home of 57 Inman St. to 186 Hampshire St., both in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1990Founder/Director Cindy Cohen leaves the Oral History Center.
1991The Griots of Roxbury project is started.
1992On June 19, the Oral History Center celebrates its tenth anniversary.
1993In March, the Oral History Center moves to a new location at 25 West St., Boston; Executive director Kristen Metz leaves in September.
1994The Oral History Center changes its focus from the implementation of oral history projects to training others in collection oral histories.
1995On June 26, the Oral History Center moves on to the campus of Northeastern University.
1998Operations suspended.