“[O]ur heritage is complicated and nuanced. New forms of history include more voices, which means acknowledging more aspects of our past and present and taking into consideration the narratives of both the winners and the losers.” -Ariel Beaujot, Project Director for Hear, Here, an interactive oral history of La Crosse
Hear, Here is the first project of the new Public and Policy History Major in the UW-La Crosse Department of History. When the Project Director and Associate Professor of History, Ariel Beaujot, pitched her interactive oral history idea for a Major Grant to the WHC in 2014, she wrote, “This is street level history.”
Today, metal signs all over the streets of downtown La Crosse bear the Hear, Here logo and a toll-free phone number. By dialing the number on a mobile phone and punching in your location, you are connected with someone’s personal story set on the spot where you stand. Thanks to a strategic media campaign that included postcards, posters, Facebook, Twitter, and a website, more than 2,700 calls were made in the first year the signs were up. Stories continue to be recorded, and heard, as plans for the project are evolving.
Earlier this summer, while in La Crosse for a board meeting, WHC staff and board members had the chance to meet one of the Public and Policy History graduates who collected and edited stories. Jenny DeRocher welcomed us on a muggy Thursday afternoon in the lobby of a downtown hotel. It was her first time leading a ‘tour’ of Hear, Here. For our group, DeRocher chose to highlight stories in three locations.
Present-day La Crosse is home to just over 50,000 people and has a vibrant downtown. Efforts have been made to revitalize the downtown riverfront and business district, which was named to the Historic Register in 1994. Hear, Here was designed to dovetail with these efforts.
The weekend we visited, the city’s annual art festival, Artspire, was attracting even more people downtown. In fact, Beaujot notes that in the first year the signs were posted, about 1,000 of the calls placed were from non-local area codes.
The stories, however, are very local. They are the stories of people who have lived in, worked in, and called La Crosse home. Some of the initial storytellers were discovered at booths set up at public events, others came from a long-standing oral history program at UWL. The prompt, “What’s your story?” led to story recording and editing (stories are a few minutes long). A public launch event for Hear, Here drew 300 people, including these volunteer storytellers.
The goals for Hear, Here continue to be ambitious but simple: to help form a stronger community. Beaujot believes that stories that articulate individual experiences can encourage people to consider how the storyteller, and the listener, fit into the collective whole. “Our hope is that Hear, Here will reveal uncommon knowledge about common spaces and will bring people closer to the real histories that impact their everyday lives,” Beaujot explains.
Not everyone has been happy. DeRocher took our group to listen to a story by an African American La Crosse resident. In sharing his story about celebrating a significant birthday with his family downtown, he invites the listener to hear about local racism in the recent past. DeRocher noted that this particular story sign has been vandalized and stolen on multiple occasions. It has also caused discomfort for some current business owners on the street and some local politicians.
Two other stories we dialed in to hear were from Native American residents. Each was very personal and related to public art in downtown. While one narrator was really proud of the city’s efforts to be more inclusive, the other narrator told a complex story about a demeaning representation (the statue pictured at right). The story ends without resolution and the listener is left with more questions than answers.
The project is far from over for Beaujot and DeRocher, and they want to keep adding stories that push people to question the notion of a single version of history. A survey designed by Beaujot and her team asked Hear, Here users if the project was helping to encourage meaningful conversations. One respondent said of the stories, “They challenged my thoughts and perceptions. Even though this can be uncomfortable, it’s so important. That’s how we all grow and mature.”
As board and staff, we were really proud to see the on-the-ground results, and the thoughtful evolution, of a project we funded. Both a real-world application of academic coursework, as well as the collection and sharing of oral histories, this example of the public humanities in Wisconsin is one we imagine will inspire people for years to come.