Chelsea Haddaway Williams is a communications manager in UMBC’s Office of Institutional Advancement.
Last Wednesday I got to be in the room as the students in “West Side Stories,” a BreakingGround-funded public history class, presented their final projects. I was familiar with the concept of the class – it was the follow-up to a class last semester that I wrote about for UMBC Magazine – but I was excited to see the students’ final projects, videos about buildings on the West Side of Baltimore, and see how the grant from BreakingGround had changed how the participants thought about their work.
Denise Meringolo, associate professor of history, introduced the videos by telling everyone that “public history is about engaging the community in the practice of history.” I thought this was a great way to describe the purpose of the class, and that this idea aligned really well with the values of BreakingGround. It was clear throughout the presentations that Professor Meringolo and her students didn’t see themselves as the gatekeepers of history, but rather as partners with the communities whose stories they were telling.
The videos were impressive and interesting, giving the story of everything from vaudeville at the Hippodrome, to body-snatching at the University of Maryland Medical School, to the controversy surrounding the construction of First Mariner Arena. They were created to be used by local preservation organization Baltimore Heritage as part of their walking tours app, and I could easily imagine them playing on iPhones as people stood before the buildings that inspired them.
After the videos were over, the students got into a really interesting discussion about “ownership” and how it can lead to social change. There was lots of joking about the fact that, now that these students had studied these buildings for a semester or two, they thought of them as “their” buildings. But that joking soon segued into a conversation how public history can inspire a sense of ownership, which can lead to increased engagement. After all, if people know more about a place’s past (whether it’s their own neighborhood or one they’re just visiting), they’ll be more likely to invest in its future. The students – some of whom had grown up in Baltimore, some of whom had moved here only recently – all said they felt more engaged with the community as a result of working on these videos, and hoped the people who watched them would feel more connected to the West Side.
A psychology professor said to me recently, “sometimes it’s necessary to look to the past in order to move forward.” Clearly, this is something that the public historians enrolled in “West Side Stories” understand, and something that is important for all agents of social change to remember.
Contact the author, Chelsea Haddaway Williams, at firstname.lastname@example.org.