A Guest Editorial: Listen, Learn, Act
Three years ago my students and I launched the Hear, Here project. We did this by placing orange street-level signs all around downtown with toll-free numbers on them so that people could hear stories that happened in the exact location where they stood. When listeners stay on the line, they have the opportunity to leave their own story, and in this way the project becomes user-generated.
We started with 28 stories in 2015, and over the next two years added another 18 stories and 7 site-specific poems based on a poetry contest in 2017. This year I am working with new students to add a final 17 stories to the project for a total of 70. In 2016 we were honored to receive a national award, titled the Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History.
In this new collection of stories I decided that we should include more from historically underrepresented people, so that we have a full range of tales about our community. What would happen if Hear, Here became a platform for more people’s voices who are not ordinarily or regularly heard? This is the challenge I gave the current group of students.
We started out by having meetings with representatives from service organizations that do tremendous work on behalf of vulnerable people such as CouleeCAP, Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge (BLACK), The Hmoob Education Project, UWL Campus Climate, and The Office of Multicultural Student Services at UWL. These meetings were supplemented by readings from academic journals and books. In this way students got to know the individuals within the community who could help them find interviewees and come to a greater understanding of the systemic issues facing specific groups such as refugees and people experiencing homelessness.
Once students identified a narrator, they did supplementary research at the La Crosse Public Library Archives and Special Collections, Murphy Library about that person, the group they identify with, and pinpointed stories they might want to ask about. Students developed sensitive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking questions and then did interviews, some over an hour long.
They spoke with people who we don’t typically hear from — LGBTQ+, Black, Cuban, Hmoob, Ho Chunk, and Homeless. Students were then charged with editing their interviews down to only two minutes to get the essence of the story and represent their narrator to the rest of the La Crosse community.
The stories reveal a mix of feelings and experiences in La Crosse, some hopeful, some grateful, some funny, others frustrated, hurt, and disappointed. Students interacted with the people they interviewed in meetings, over meals, on the phone, and ultimately during the interviews. The students developed a deep sense of understanding and empathy for human beings who have experienced very different life circumstances.
While this public history work can be transformative for students, it also has the potential to transform our community. I think it is important for Anglo-Americans to hear all types of stories and to come to terms with the idea that people experience the same everyday, public spaces differently.
We need to ask ourselves why this difference happens and why this difference matters. In this third year of the project, I have come to see Hear, Here as a platform for all people in La Crosse to understand one another, for voices to be projected that are typically silenced, and for us to use the project as a way to create a more just, understanding and, hopefully, kind society for all.
Please join us on Saturday, April 28, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at 500 Main St. for “The Last Cheer of Hear, Here: A Celebration of New Stories.” Student-led tours will leave every 15 minutes. Snacks and beverages from Jules Coffee will be provided. The event is free and open to the public. See our facebook page.
If you miss the celebration, Hear, Here can be accessed 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year. Find a sign downtown and dial the toll-free number or pick up a brochure at Downtown Mainstreet Inc. or Explore La Crosse.
Listen, learn, act.
Ariel Beaujot, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History