by Prof. Christopher Ewing
Christopher Ewing: Where I want to start is by asking each of you to say a few words about your topic and also about how you arrived at your topic.
Grace Handakas: My project was on the Junior League of Richmond and its transition to the majority of its members being a part of the workforce of the 1980s. I arrived at this topic because I worked as an intern with the Junior League last year and this was something I found just exploring their history on their website that was very interesting to me, and so I wanted to study how and if the culture and the function of the League changed as its membership began to join the workforce in larger numbers.
Quinn Terry: So, my project started with a fascination with the intersection between queerness and grief. It was born out of a love for the macabre, so to speak, and wanting to be able to talk about topics like grief and death in a way that isn’t overly dramatized. The project is dedicated to normalizing “queer” approaches to grief, whether that be outside heteronormative spheres of who constitutes a romantic loss of the loss a friend, and also just how queer people navigate grief when it is so often made complex by their own queerness, whether that be in relation to society at large or something that they’ve placed on themselves.
Cece D’Arville: My project was on collective understandings of Richmond’s history. It initially focused on monuments, but I ended up expanding my topic throughout my process to talk about the ways in which people learn about and understand Richmond’s history. I came to this project through a deep interest in public history, specifically monument and commemoration studies, a love for Richmond, an interest in its history, and a desire to speak to more people who have lived here for a long period of time.
Davis Simmons: I was doing my project on the Pokémon franchise and how it affected a generation of Millennials and Gen Z socially and economically speaking. I came to this project idea being inspired mostly by work on a Nintendo paper that I did in my undergraduate studies and wanted to do this as a spiritual successor to that project, where I approach this with an oral history perspective specifically.
Tracy Herman: I originally started this project with the idea of exploring Jewish identity and protests and it ended up going a little further into discovering different intersections within Jewish identity spanning all different kinds of levels of observation and religious upbringing and anything like that, and this is where I’ve gone with it from there.
Adriana Brown: My project is about the historic Pleasant Grove in McLean, Virginia, which was founded by a predominantly African American/Native American community in 1893. It started out to be about how religion was an important binding agent for marginalized individuals during the post-Reconstruction era, but now it’s moved towards something about how some narratives are covered up for the sake of studying broader narratives.
CE: How did your research question change as you started to conduct interviews?
CD: As I was saying in the last question, just to expand on that, my research question changed to be broader in what I was looking at. Initially I was only looking at historical understandings of Richmond within the context of monuments, but it became really clear that was a restrictive way of conducting these interviews. From my first couple interviews it was obvious that I needed to expand those to different sites of memory and sites of collective remembrance, so that’s how mine changed.
TH: I stared out really wanting to focus on Charlottesville and how people felt about the events of August 12, 2017, and what ended up happening is just thinking about other protests that have been going on historically speaking in the US and otherwise now, where that Jewish identity came out and if it came out and if that’s actually something that pushed folks that I had interviewed. So that’s kind of where my paper started to, where this question started to go, and it’s been really fascinating to start to delve into that.
CE: Did your interviews go according to plan, and how did they differ from how you imagined they might go when you started to design this project?
DS: In my original project plan, I sought to interview pseudo-celebrity figures, like YouTubers and people in the public eye, but as I got less and less contact information with them, I actually switched my approach to being more locally focused, to focus on people from my age demographic and interviewing them personally.
QT: My interviews absolutely did not go according to plan. Not in a bad way! I am used to having no one around me want to talk about these topics because they’re “too depressing.” Of course, my narrators were self-selected, so they were in part already willing to talk about these things and have thought about them. But I still went into my first couple of interviews completely expecting to pull teeth, for lack of a better term, and just trying to think about the little things I could do, the easy soft ball questions I could start with, and it turned out that I didn’t have to. Of course, I still needed walk through the interviews with care for my narrators’ mental health and feelings, especially because some of them had some really tough topics that they brought to the project and that I’m really grateful they shared. But I ended up having a really good time in just about every interview, despite the subject matter. These people were full of joy and they were happy to talk about their experience and happy that someone was doing it. We joked and had a good time at various points in the interviews. It was really just nice to see other people who want to talk about these things and have thought about them. Grief isn’t always sad and depressing; it can be something that has different faces.
CE: How do you see yourself in relation to your project? Did that shape how you approached and also interviewed your narrators?
GH: I think that I in speaking to my narrators – obviously I am quite a bit significantly younger than they were, but otherwise, I think that demographically I ended up aligning very similarly with my narrators. I’m a young Caucasian woman who has lived most of my life in Richmond. A lot of the women I spoke to were well educated; most of them had been to college. I spoke with one or two of them about having been to UVA. We had both been to UVA, so we talked a bit about that, so I definitely had a rapport with my narrators to an extent. The only qualifications currently to join the Junior League are that you live in the Richmond area, are a woman, and are over 21, so I ostensibly could join the Junior League if I wanted to, so I think I had a rapport with them for that reason. Also, women who are in the League I think have a great esteem for it and especially women who were in the League a little bit ago, as the women who were in it in the ‘80s were. The public used to hold a bit more esteem for the League – not that the esteem has gone down, but the notability has gone down. Not as many people think it is as significant to be in the Junior League anymore. I do think they enjoyed someone taking the League very seriously and giving it a lot of weight and respect for its place in a historical narrative, and I think that maybe helped me discuss with them a little more things that were relevant to their League experience.
AB: So, like I said, my question changed just based on my interviews, and I think I came to realize that I relate to my project in that I’m a person who’s kind of in between ethnicities, and sometimes it’s kind of hard to identify with three different things and it’s kind of hard to express that there’s a weird grey area even to yourself and how you identify. So, I think it was really helpful to talk to my cousin, who also identifies the same way and was just like “don’t let anyone take your identity away from you.” I know it’s very cliché to say, but I think that doing this project has reinforced the idea that there’s not just a binary when it comes not only to race but a multitude of other things.
~Christopher Ewing teaches LGBTQ+, Modern European, & Oral History