At the Elders’ Feet: Conversations Across the Generations
By Ilene Evans
At the Elders' Feet is a project funded by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Diversity for Equity Grant. The granting program is designed to support campus-led initiatives that make higher education more accessible to people of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds. Further financial and technical support for faculty, staff, and interns came from Voices From the Earth, Inc.
One of my goals, as director of this Diversity for Equity grant, was to bring our students a kind of diversity that is often overlooked in our college setting, the diversity of experience – experience that is rooted in personal victories and methods among the trailblazers and pioneers in both our civic and academic community. My second goal was to help student participants develop marketable skills in communication and storytelling, and in this case, retelling.
We chose six people who were known to us and the community at large for their outstanding reputations and integrity. I contacted them individually and invited them to participate in the elder project. Because the COVID 19 pandemic made it impossible to meet face-to-face, I arranged for our students to conference with the elders by Zoom.
The students who worked on the project were volunteers from the Communication Department, the Studio Art Program, and the Black Student Union on Fairmont State University’s campus. Fourteen students participated directly in the project, half of them were students of color; ten were females and five were males.
Prior to the Zoom meetings, each elder provided us with biographical information and with photos which reflected their homes and their life journeys. During our conversations, we asked each elder to identify and share three or four stories of the challenges they had faced in their lives and how they managed those challenges. We wanted to know how they became the resilient folks they are today. Where did their resilience lie? How did they come back when they were knocked down?
The elders shared some of the influences, strategies, and practices that carried them through difficulties, often to become more resilient and successful in other parts of their lives as well. We discovered a vast resource of experience and encouragement for the asking. The elders who participated were especially able to connect to young people and see their past in our present.
Over the course of the project, the students reflected on our conversations with the elders through their work. The students painted portraits, wrote poems, and created audio stories under the guidance faculty and staff contributing to the project. Because of the funding from the grant, we were able to connect students with storytelling professionals from National Public Radio and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Two of the writer/producers, Clara Haizlett and Molly Born, gave our students masterclasses in digital storytelling to help create and refine their podcasts and video stories. Plus, by recording our Zoom sessions, we were able to review and take our understanding to a more sophisticated level than we would have otherwise.
Over the next few pages of this guide, you can read about the elders who shared their inspiring stories with us and see some of the work that resulted from our conversations.
This project is presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Special Thanks to Zach Curry for working through the mire of paperwork and permissions required for the University and the grant.
Librarians and LibGuide specialists: Charley Hively and Jacquelyn Sherman
Our Very Special Thanks to Molly and Clara for their support and guidance.
Voices From the Earth, Inc. staff and donors.