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Oral History: Preserving a More Diverse, Dynamic Legacy

Why oral history matters: Documenting personal stories can credit diverse people, achievements of marginalized communities that may go unrecorded in traditional archives Tweet This

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As the second oldest community foundation in America, the Trust is dedicated to documenting its rich history, intertwined with Chicago philanthropy and with the development of community foundations nationwide.

Individuals who have built and sustained the Trust are invaluable sources of information about how the Trust has developed in the century since its founding. Each has crucial insights on philanthropy, community development, Chicago and the Trust’s strengths and areas for growth. But how best to capture these stories?

In 2013, in preparation for its Centennial celebration, the Trust launched a formal oral history program with the goal to systematically build a richer chronicle of our work over the years. As part of this program, we interview key innovators and contributors to the Trust’s work, including CEOs, Executive Committee members, staff, donors, grant recipients and any people who have collaborated closely with the Trust in support of our mission.

 

Why oral history?

  • The history of a foundation like the Trust is complex and varied—it is remembered and understood uniquely by many different contributors. Oral history allows for multiple interpretations and perspectives, which makes for a much more dynamic and collaborative sense of history.
  • Oral history is also an ideal opportunity to document and credit the diverse people who shaped the Trust’s history. Some of our interviewees are members of marginalized communities whose insights and achievements may otherwise go unrecorded. We preserve their stories so that they might have them as a resource for chronicling their own histories, and so that their perspectives can reach a larger audience.

 

“The richest possibilities for oral history lie within the development of a more socially conscious and democratic history.” — Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past

 

  • More traditional archival materials only tell one side of the story of how foundations, philanthropists and communities work together. Unlike meeting minutes, reports and correspondence, oral histories reveal the perspectives, relationships, attitudes, opinions, ideals, personalities and beliefs that shape how the Trust developed. Capturing these aspects of how our work takes shape provides a richer sense of our identity as a foundation.
  • Audio-visual content helps bring history to life. People often find sound and video more engaging, which might spark their interest in other archival materials on the Trust’s history.
  • Professionally conducted and prepared oral history materials are invaluable resources for local historians. Our interviews are conducted by expert oral historians, who provided crucial insight on how to structure and prepare materials to be most useful to scholars. Their skill as interviewers also ensured that time spent with subjects was productive and collegial.

 

The History of our History

In 1989, the Trust had only five audio interviews in its collection, conducted by Bruce Boyer for a history of the Trust he had been commissioned to write in conjunction with its 75th anniversary.

These interviews provide fascinating insights into the Trust’s contributors and activities during the 1960s and 1970s. But as the Centennial anniversary approached, the Trust was committed to systematically building a more comprehensive oral history collection. We knew that time was of the essence: many individuals with crucial insight into the Trust’s work were aging, and memories change and fade with time.

 

Some of our interviewees are members of marginalized communities whose insights and achievements may otherwise go unrecorded. We preserve their stories so that they might have them as a resource for chronicling their own histories, and so that their perspectives can reach a larger audience.

 

As of March 2018, the Trust has produced fifty-eight complete oral histories. Almost all participants have responded to the invitation to be interviewed with great enthusiasm, and have openly shared detailed accounts and opinions about their experiences with the Trust and as civic and community leaders in metropolitan Chicago.

Among those generous enough to be a part of our oral history project are:

Marshall Field V
Marshall Field V, former Executive Committee member

Sterling Herr
Sterling Herr, former director of the Trust’s Children, Youth & Families Initiative

Adela Cepeda
Adela Cepeda, former Executive Committee member & co-chair of Nuestro Futuro

Mayor Richard M. Daley
Richard M. Daley, former mayor of the City of Chicago

Most of these interviews are in video format. Each is transcribed and available through the Trust’s archives catalog, Eloquent.

Transparency between the Trust and interview subjects is paramount, so accompanying each interview is deed of gift, informed consent and photograph release. We aim to complete six to eight complete oral histories in each coming year.

 

Oral History Resources

Interested in learning more about conducting oral histories?

Oral History Association: Principles and Best Practices

Oral History Association: Oral History Association Web Guides to Doing Oral History

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History