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Story Catchers

Oral history course connects with communities to revitalize local roots

story catchers

Learning to Listen: ReStorying Community students Crysal Gilliam '14 and James McLelland '13 collected oral histories from CarePartners residents like World War II veteran John Maltry (center). Their class also worked with members of the Burton Street community.

On a Friday morning in late April, John Maltry Jr., a 91-year-old Army veteran, was holding court from his wheelchair on a screened-in patio at CarePartners, an adult-care facility in Asheville. He calmly but resolutely recalled his whereabouts on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor, where he witnessed and fired some of the United States' opening shots of World War II.

There to collect the Asheville native's bracing recollections was a small group of UNC Asheville undergrads enrolled in ReStorying Community, a class taught by Political Science Professor Ken Betsalel, 2011–12 Key Center Service Learning fellow. The class is bridging the distance between past and present—and between the university and its neighbors.

"The nature of the course is using storytelling as a way to build community and relationships, and a way for students to gain insight into various communities," Betsalel said.
The course, which is held each spring and drew 22 students last semester, was born four years ago at the YMI Cultural Center, a landmark of downtown Asheville's African-American community. There, students and longtime local residents explored and documented the aftermath of urban renewal programs in the 1960s and '70s that all but unraveled the neighborhood connections around the YMI.

Since then, students have recorded the memories of several other distinct local populations.
This semester, they also collected oral histories from the historically African-American Burton Street community in West Asheville, which was long buffeted by urban renewal programs and recently threatened by plans for a highway connector expansion that could eat up chunks of the neighborhood. It has a rich but overlooked history.

ReStorying Community takes an interdisciplinary approach, crossing anthropology, history and political science, Betsalel explains.

Sometimes, the stories pass both ways, between student and interviewee, finding a particular resonance. James McLelland, a rising senior Political Science major who just completed the class, is an Asheville native who recently retired from the Navy.

Through the interviews he's done at CarePartners, McLelland says, he's gained an appreciation for the continuum of experiences many veterans face. "To be able to hear all this from them, it made me realize: I'll be one of these guys in 40 years. And they were me, 40 years ago."
It is out of such insights, Betsalel says "communities are built."

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