History professors launch community conversations

WSU Vancouver history professor Sue Peabody and adjunct professor Donna Sinclair were looking at the demographic records of Clark County, Washington, and noticed some surprising facts. The local population has more than doubled in the past three decades, from 221,654 to nearly 500,000 in 2017. And while more than half (54 percent) of the current residents were born in another state, another 10 percent of the county’s residents were born in another country altogether.

The data started them thinking: “How did all these people come to Clark County?” and “How is Clark County changing in response to this growth?”

Recognizing a growing gulf of understanding between recent arrivals and Clark County residents with deeper historical roots, Peabody and Sinclair began collaborating with Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries and the Clark County Historical Museum (CCHM), where Peabody is a trustee, to offer “How We Came to This Place,” a series of community conversations and workshops to identify bearers of local stories and to foster community dialogue and mutual understanding.

“Each of us has a story about how we came here. Each of us can see the rapid development and changes in our communities,” Peabody said.

“The theme—how we came to this place—is both literal and metaphorical,” Sinclair said. “We are looking at stories of migration: how residents and their ancestors arrived here. But we are also interested in exploring together the historical question: how is `this place’ the result of historical forces, both local and global?” she said.

The workshops and facilitated conversations are designed to help residents explore their connections to Clark County and shared recent history, Peabody said. “It’s a great way to meet your neighbors and share what’s on your mind.”

The project aims to inspire and train community members to conduct interviews and collect the oral histories of residents who have witnessed the changes of the last 30 to 50 years.

The 2018 events are funded by a Humanities Washington “Washington Stories” grant and Peabody’s College of Arts and Sciences Meyer Distinguished Professor Fellowship.

The older history of Clark County has been well documented, said Brad Richardson, CCHM executive director. For centuries, Native American peoples—including the ancestors of the Chinook and Cowlitz peoples—managed the lands and waters of the region. Since the mid-19th century, the Clark County area was transformed by European and American immigration associated with its early industries: fur-trade, timber and farming.

The WWII shipyards attracted many new families—notably African American residents—and these stories have been well told, displayed and archived in previous histories, exhibits, and the Clark County Historical Society Journal, Richardson said.

Clark County’s recent decades are less well told and understood. The top three non-English languages in the Vancouver Public Schools are Russian, Spanish, and Chuukese (from Micronesia). The county has large, visible LGBTQ presence, from elected officials and CEOs to its annual Saturday in the Park Festival with thousands of participants. The county is also the home of the Washington School for the Deaf and the Washington State School for the Blind, both founded in 1886.

These histories are under-documented and passing quickly, Richardson said. “Clark County Stories: How We Came to this Place” seeks to identify some of these key stories to incorporate into the museum’s archival collections and a future exhibit.

Following the initial Community Oral History Workshop on Jan. 27, three Community Conversations are scheduled for March 3 (“How We Came to North Clark County”), May 26 (“Migration Stories”), and Oct. 11 (“Sharing our Stories”), and three additional writing workshops will be held June 30, July 26, and Sept. 15.

Find out more at http://www.cchmuseum.org/category/upcoming-events/.

Adapted from The Columbian

Top image: Community members discuss local history at the Clark County Historical Museum.