An Update on Oral History Work in Searcy County from Kelsey Trotter

Students working on the garden. Image from the Delta Garden Study.

Students working on the garden. Image from the Delta Garden Study.

At the McElroy House one of our key goals is to serve as a resource organization, helping people engage in participatory research and work toward sustainable solutions. Here’s an update on our recent partnership with Prescott University and Kelsey Trotter, an Americorps member working with the Delta Garden Study in Marshall, Arkansas. Kelsey contacted us about this partnership/independent study, and set up the entire process. I’m certain we learned more from her than she learned from us, and we were so honored to get to work with her.  

Here’s some background and context. Earlier this year Kelsey Trotter began working in Marshall, Arkansas as part of the Delta Garden Study Program, a statewide program connected to Americorps and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. This $2 million research project is geared toward  preventing childhood obesity and social risk behaviors while also improving the academic achievement in middle school age children. Kelsey joined the program as a Garden Educator, working in community outreach and partnering with teachers to help them create garden-centered lessons that connect to the curriculum. To keep up to date with the Marshall/Search County work of the Delta Garden Study go here and here

Connecting her work with the Delta Garden Study with her ongoing classes at Prescott University, Kelsey designed at Independent Study in partnership with McElroy House to combine cultural studies with her current work, exploring how to work sustainably and with participatory research as a key focus. One of her main goals, she writes, is to explore “community knowledge and the existing resources and organizations that support it.” What’s most encouraging about Kelsey’s Independent study is the important questions she poses for next steps, including “how to facilitate the transformation of storytelling to community action.” 

We’re so excited to get to work with Kelsey, and wanted to share some of her experiences here as we know her work will be inspiring and useful to readers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with readers, Kelsey! 

Reflection on Introductory Oral History Work in Searcy County, AR

                  In late September, I moved to Searcy County, Arkansas to serve as an Americorps service member in a local school garden program in the Ozark Mountains.  As Garden Educator, I work with teachers to create garden based lessons that correlate to their curriculum.  I am also tasked with conducting community outreach to sustain the garden as a community supported and integrated program.  I was drawn to this position with a deep interest in exploring and working for positive, culturally appropriate community development in rural Arkansas.  With my own family roots in the Ozark foothills, Delta and River Valley regions of Arkansas, I have a deep sense of pride in my state and the varied communities and cultures that make it up.  I feel a responsibility and desire to give back to rural Arkansas where so many opportunities, as well as traditions are quickly being depleted.

I see a great value in education and programs that are regionally based.  When I began serving in Searcy County, I immediately noticed the enormous amount of sustainable agriculture and gardening knowledge that exists in the community.  I designed an independent study with the support of the McElroy House to research this community knowledge and the existing resources and organizations that support it.  For my study, I conducted the initial steps in oral history work, by doing background research on the county, meeting with community members and organizations and conducting informal interviews with agricultural producers and workers.  I also chose to do this study as my first steps in the community outreach component of my work, believing that identifying the strengths and assets of the community and listening to their voices, experience and knowledge was a sensible first step.

I had the opportunity to meet people of various cultures living, working and growing in the area.  I met with an Asian immigrant, a Searcy County native with many generations of roots here and a community member with a strong Native American influence in his heritage, culture and identity.  Speaking with these individuals was an enlightening exploration of the diversity that exists in a seemingly homogenous community.

I correlated my oral history work to the school, by designing and teaching a lesson to 7th grade Arkansas History students on gardening and food traditions in Arkansas and oral history techniques.  For their homework assignments, they interviewed a grandparent or other older community member on their experiences with gardening, food and history.  They shared the results of their interviews in a second lesson.  I could tell the students gained new insight on gardening, food and history as well as the lives of their grandparents.  They also indirectly involved many new people in the garden program.

I have greatly enjoyed making these community connections, but a pertinent question is where to go from here.  I have had the opportunity to meet a number of knowledgeable community members interested in sharing their expertise with the garden program, but  it is important to question how to develop a community involvement program that consistently, appropriately and effectively utilizes knowledge from the community.  Another question is how to facilitate the transformation of storytelling to community action.  This work also reinforced for me the immense value of multigenerational interaction: how younger generations gain access to the knowledge, experience and wisdom of the older generations and the older generations feel inspired by the spirit of youth to effectively and compassionately pass down their knowledge.

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