[00:00:00] Hello, everybody.
[00:00:01] Welcome to Research Live Wednesday. I'm Richard Watts, the director of the Center for Research on Vermont.
[00:00:08] And today, we have a special guest from the Vermont Folklife Center, Mary Wesley, who's going to talk to us a bit about some of what the Vermont Folklife Center has been doing at this special moment in time and the ongoing work that they have on telling stories of Vermonters and documenting. It's very interesting place we live.
[00:00:33] So I'm hoping that everybody is well out there. I'm broadcasting live from my house in Hinesburg and behind me is a photo by Richard Brown, the fabulous Vermont photographer who's documented many parts of the Vermont story, including the last his book on the Hill Farms of Vermont, which is really quite exceptional.
[00:00:55] "The Last of Hill Farms". I think it's called.
[00:00:58] So again I am Richard Watts this research live Wednesday by the Center for Research on Vermont and today we have with us Mary Wesely from vermont Folklife Center I'd like to welcome Mary to our webinar today and find out you know, what is happening from the Vermont Folklife Center at this extraordinary time in our history.
[00:01:24] Mary, welcome.
[00:01:26] Hi, Richard. Nice to see you.
[00:01:29] You know, from what I remeber you are broadcasting from Burlington correct?
[00:01:35] I am in Burlington.
[00:01:37] Yes and our whole staff has been working from home since March 13th, I am becoming very familiar with video conference technology and increasingly showing up for our weekly staff meeting and sitting outside on porches and front steps, sometimes sacrificing bandwidth for sunshine.
[00:02:06] So your OK and your family's doing OK?
[00:02:10] Thank you. Yes, I think everyone is doing as well as can be in this strange time.
[00:02:21] But before we talk more about you all the last few months, maybe talk a little bit about the Vermont Folklife Center.
[00:02:35] Yes. So the Vermont Folklife Center has been around since 1984, officially as a nonprofit. Although our founder Jane Beck was doing amazing research in Vermont before that time when she was the folklorist embedded at the Vermont Arts Council. And she did a extensive interviewing across the state, talking to Vermonters about their everyday lives and making recordings. And eventually she felt like we were ready to be our own entity. And so she founded founded the center. And her recordings formed the beginnings of our archive, which is kind of at the center, kind of I think of it as the heart of our work and what we do. We now have over 6000 recordings in that archive and counting. We are still making recordings and documenting everyday life and culture in Vermont. And then we have other programs that build out from that. So we have a a gallery program that shares ethnographic and oral history work being done either in-house at the Folklife Center or by their like-minded researchers or practitioners. We've had photography of Richard Brown in our in our galleries. So it's nice. Oh you have one right there! We have an education program which is called Discovering Community, and that teaches the methodology of doing fieldwork and interviewing K-through-12 students and educators, but also the general public, because we think it's a valuable way to learn about the place we live by by talking to the people who live here. So passing on and supporting people and doing that same kind of work is also a big part of what we do. And then we have a traditional arts apprenticeship program which supports master artists in passing on their traditional skills and knowledge. So, yeah, that's that's an overview. We stay busy.
[00:04:53] And I think recently you started a podcast. Vermont uncapped.
[00:04:58] Absolutely. Yes. So one of the things about archives is, you know, they're such a rich resource and they are they often end up being untapped. There's always much more material that's gathered and recorded than can be shared out. And so we're all always looking for new ways to draw on that resource. And so one of those ways is our podcast called Vermont Untapped, which has been in existence for over a year now, and share stories from our archives and also our current and ongoing ongoing research.
[00:05:36] And I know you also do workshops because I have attended a couple of those and that's really another great resource that you have to help people understand how to do this work.
[00:05:45] Absolutely. That's one of our our favorite things to do is just see who else is out there wanting to to better understand life in their community and and talk to people and use the tools of recording and documentation to build connections in their communities. So we are always excited to do those kinds of workshops. They might be anything from, you know, the more technical side of making audio recordings for oral history. So how to use digital technology, making sure you're recording in the best format for preservation? Or we might talk more theoretically about kind of ethnographic the ethnographic lens. And we have a big emphasis on working collaboratively as documentarians and sort of talking about what that means to work with people whose stories you're sharing to make sure you're making an accurate representation of their lives and stories.
[00:06:55] By the way, if anybody wants to post a question or comment from Mary. You're welcome to do so.
[00:07:00] Just on your Facebook page where we are broadcasting this live. I do know that sometimes people have in their heads your histories are of things that happened a long time ago, but so much of your work is super contemporary and we're going to talk about that. But some of the pieces that you do on your Website of past stories are just amazing. There's one here in my town of Hinesburg where a young woman see's electricity for the first time. They knew it was coming. They knew it was coming. And then there's the story of her coming over the hill and seeing the barn lit up. And it's just I don't know you just can't be there without listening to that, right?
[00:07:38] Absolutely. One of my favorite clips, Gussie Laverne, being interviewed by Jane Beck, who I mentioned earlier. Yeah. And that's really one of the values of having an archive is being able to revisit these moments and, you know, sometimes hear them with new ears. So as much as we are interested in preserving things so that people can returned to them, as you said, we're also really excited about what value it can bring to to do this work in the present and see what life is like in Vermont right now.
[00:08:20] OK. And so speaking of right now, you said you've been remote since March, I think at UVM.
[00:08:26] It was March 13th, Tuesday.
[00:08:29] Then we got the notice late in the day that everything was going to go remote going on. So and one of your responses was to develop this program, you called the listening in place. So maybe we'll turn it over to you right now. Mary and you can just talk about that or whatever else you'd like to, and then we'll come back and ask you a few more questions, if we can.
[00:08:50] That sounds great. Thank you. Yeah. So I do have some of a few slides to kind of help me in in what I'm wanting to share today. But yes. Ah, our current response and the way that we're kind of continuing our work under the circumstances of the pandemic is called listening in place and listening in place is really, you know, drawing on a lot of the the resources and skill sets that we already have to continue our work. But as you can imagine, it required a lot of adapting to these new circumstances. So, yes, if you go to the next slide. This I already talked about. This is just to kind of introduce you to the Folk Life Center. Again, we have an archive gallery education program, an apprenticeship program and all of this work is rooted in kind of a body of thinking and an approach that we refer to as ethnography or collaborative ethnography. And all of our work is rooted in the practice of ethnographic fieldwork. And you know that those sound like big words. But one of the ways that we talk about that is we are working to understand experience from the perspective of those to whom those to whom that experience belongs. So we're trying to put ourselves in other people's shoes and use the tools of research and documentation to do that. So obviously, this is an extraordinary moment in time that Vermonters and people across the world are experiencing something extraordinary. And we felt like it was an important time to engage with people. Yeah, you can go ahead to the next slide. This just says a little bit more about our approach to documentation.
[00:11:02] So I think we're always kind of going back and forth between again, kind of the core of our organization is that we have an archive and we have the, you know, the resources and the mission to document and preserve recordings and stories.
[00:11:22] And, you know, there's been a lot of interest in that. When we talk about doing a a media making project at this time, which is what listening in place is, and we'll talk about more of the components of listening in place in a minute. But the general idea is to document the experiences of Vermonters as they go through this pandemic. But we often need to kind of help people maybe flip their expectations of what what we're hoping for as an outcome of this project.
[00:11:59] And for us the documentation, you know, capturing or recording voices or photos and videos of what people are going through. It's really important. It's important to save those things. But ahead of that, we find that that using those tools also really provides an opportunity for connection and empathy and understanding. So when you when you do an interview, you're making space to sit down and listen to somebody else's perspective. Right. Try to understand their experience. And at this time, when there is so much isolation, when, you know, many of us are at home, some of us are are still meeting to go to work, but are even isolated in so many different ways.
[00:12:51] It seemed like a really important time to kind of see how we can help people stay connected. You can go to the next slide and talk a little bit about the background of how we came up with the listening in place program. You know, it was a it was a pretty quick pivot.
[00:13:14] Like UVM. We closed our offices to the public and switched to working from home on March 13th. And by the end of the month, we had
[00:13:29] put up some resources related to listening in place. One of the things that helped us do that was to draw on some of our past work documenting Hurricane Irene. So what you're seeing on the slide here are some some shots from our Website and an audio documentary that is sharing recordings that were made after Hurricane Irene. And what we did was start to go out into communities and hold public gatherings called story circles. And that was very much in response to two communities reaching out to the Folklife Center and saying, you know, this huge thing just happened to, you know, towns across Vermont. We're trying to understand what happened to us. You know, in a lot of individual stories. But it was also such a group, such a shared experience, something that happened to many people at the same time. People also told us that there were just a lot of they felt there were important things that had happened to them that they had witnessed over the course of living through the storm and recovering from it. And it was important to people to to capture those stories in some way. And that's another component that's really important to how we approach our work. You know, the Folklife Center, as researchers and documentarians, we are you know, we have certain things that capture our interest or that we feel it might be important to to document. But we're always looking for for opportunities to align with what people what communities are recognizing for themselves to be important to document. So that this is a really nice example of people saying this is important. Can you help us capture some of these experiences and very much in partnership with, you know, town clerks and some some organizations that were that were coordinating responses to this storm. There is an organization called Starting Over Strong that had some good ties to communities that have been affected by the storm and helped us organize these events. So a story circle is is not a format that the Folklife Center invented at all. It's been around for quite a while. It's been used in in social justice settings. You know, even beyond that, it's just a very simple kind of human connection that I think happens naturally when we're in groups and we're going around and and listening to each other and then responding to what we hear. So Story Circles is just a slightly more formalized version of, you know, sitting around a campfire or in your living room and having a chat. So for that, for the Hurricane Irene circles, people gathered in town halls and gathering spaces. Folklife Center staff showed up with a recorder and a microphone. The microphone was passed around and only the person holding the mic would speak. And people were invited to share whatever was feeling the most relevant for them in that moment. And so we made. I'm not going to remember specifically how many recordings and I should say that I wasn't with the Folklife Center at this time, but some of my some of my colleagues were there. And I'm familiar with the work. And I'm most familiar familiar with it through this documentary. This audio documentary that you see on the slide there called Weathering the Storm. And that is a compilation of voices and stories that were recorded during story circles. So we found this to be a really impactful way to, you know, accomplish a lot of different goals that we have in our work.
[00:17:52] And it was one of the first things that came to mind when we started thinking about our response to the pandemic. How can we accomplish this kind of open format story sharing? And how can we bring people together when we're not allowed to physically gather? So if you go to the next slide, I think there's another image from an Irene story circle again we are in person there if you go to the next slide. Here is listening in place. So, again, we're looking to stay connected, but also create a living document of what we're going through. You can go to the next slide. And here are the project components. So one one approach was just to invite people to interview each other. And. Again, everything that we're documenting is going to be entered into the Vermont Folklife Center archive. With the permission of the people who were in the recording, of course. So our sound archive is going to be a collection of audio gathered from a bunch of different sources, including the story circles. So we've started doing story circles virtually, which is very much, very similar to the format that we're in right now. You know, it's people at their computers with webcams and gathering in a video conference setting. But again, it's the same basic format. It's a little trickier to understand kind of who's going next in the circle because because obviously we're not physically together. So we've been facilitating that. But the result is the same, that people are invited to share what's happening for them either in the moment or just what is feeling the most important for them to speak about when they join the circle. And then we go around. We've been limiting them to about six to eight people, which feels manageable given the technology. And we tried to make sure there's time to go around twice. And what I see happen is that people speak really from their individual experience and stories on the first round. But then after listening to two different people, you know, other ideas and connections are sparked.
[00:20:48] And and most of these have been we've been promoting them through our Website and social media channels and in our newsletter. And most people who are joining the circles don't know each other, you know, from before and maybe speaking from different corners of the state geographically. But, you know, we all find something in common or we hear a different way that somebody has responded to a challenge that we're all facing like working from home or the challenges of continuing to parent and be at home with small children. Any number of commonalities emerge. So that's been a really wonderful thing to be a part of. Other things, other ways that we're documenting at this time as part of listening in place are again, kind of crowdsourcing audio. So inviting people to record their own audio. And that could be, you know, just using your smartphone to record someone that you're sheltering with in your household or there are any number of technologies right now to record remotely. So, you know, we've been seeing people using the phone a lot more or being on zoom a lot more. And all of those technologies now have ways to to make recordings. So some people had been sending or submitting those recordings to the Folklife Center, which you can do through our Website. And those will be added to the sound archive. You'll also see on the list there, virtual vox pops. So a vox pop it's a storytelling format. It stands for VOX Populi, which is Latin for voice of the People. And the basic idea is that you you hear from many different individuals who respond to a similar question. So we have started just reaching out and doing short interviews over the phone or over video conferencing apps with people in Vermont to have kind of a one on one conversation rather than than the story circle. And what's really making that work is to partner with other organizations who can see on the list on the right there. We've been working with Project Independence, which is an elderly care service in Middlebury. And we've been talking to a few seniors in their community every week and doing these short interviews to hear what it's like for them, where we just partnered with NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, to see if we can be in touch with some of their constituency. So, again, you know, in each of these groups are kind of dealing with their own set of adaptations and realities in the face of this pandemic. So our approach will look a little bit different with each one. But what's really valuable, I think, is to to lean into that collaboration and say, you know, what are the important questions to you, to your communities? You know, so what are people who are really invested in local farming and local agriculture thinking about, you know, how how are people's relationships, food changing and the food supply changing right now? So those are the questions that come up when when we talk with the folks at NOF And that's then what will be the focus of these phone interviews. And we may do some story circles with them as well. And similarly, some folks down in Brattleboro all started a mutual aid society.
[00:24:56] And they are doing kind of starting a phone tree kind of project to set people up to just check in, especially with elders who might be sheltering alone or or might just appreciate a phone call. So then they're applying this listening in place model to record those phone calls. We've also partnered with some school classes and groups. And students have done some of these short interviews as a class assignment.
[00:25:29] So, you know, this is an emerging project and we're still. Learning and exploring different ways to do this, do this work. But we're excited to be sharing it on this platform today with the Center for Research on Vermont. And, you know, the basic message I would say is if you feel that there is something that it's important to document getting in touch with us and we'll be excited to to work with you on that.
Richard [00:26:04] Thank you Mary so much going on
Mary [00:26:09] it's a lot.
[00:26:11] So this is research LIVE Wednesday I am talking to Mary Wesley from the Vermont Folklife Center.
[00:26:20] You know, I was listening to you talk about these responses to these disasters like Irene, and one of the things that happens during those to me anyway is that radio stations, to the extent we have local radio, really jump in. And during Irene, the WBV in Waterbury was just so active and such an important part of the community.
[00:26:42] And here we're seeing B.P.R.. some ways do that a couple of hours of programing every day. Makes me wonder though, something about audio like voice is particularly powerful in telling your stories or helping or helping people connect in the way that you're trying to do it.
[00:27:01] I mean you're you know our, I don't know what to call it.our
[00:27:08] Soft spot for for audio here at the Vermont Folklife Center. And I do think that there is something about the, you know, the human voice and being able to hear and not only read the words of someone talking about their experience, but actually hear their voice. It does just convey so much, so much more to hear the voice. You know, obviously right now with the popularity, you know, and the importance of this video technology. We are doing a lot of interviews that include video. And that's you know, that's a whole new world. It's it's really a different experience to do an interview where you're also seeing a video of yourself as the interviewer. But and we will see both formats in the archives. You know, if an interview was done in Zoom, it's important to kind of save that as the primary source document. But mostly when we're sharing stories out through our Website or other formats, we put the audio out. And I just think, you know, also reducing it down to just one sense to just just hearing someone's voice allows people to make a more kind of personal connection to what they're hearing. And, you know, I don't know the specifics, but I've even heard kind of neurological research around what it is. You know, something happens physiologically when we hear another person's voice, we're able to to make a connection. And so, again, that's that's the hope of this project. And we're excited to have submissions to the sound archive and get a lot of recordings. But most of all, we just hope this is inspiring people to talk to each other and to listen to each other.
[00:29:12] Ya I think that's that's right, though. What you're saying about voice sometimes produce video, therefore, maybe what you're doing, where you're interviewing people sort of at heart or how you call. This is not the kind of performance about it. There's no script to produce this video. You know, it tends to distract from the audio because it's got all of this movement and
[00:29:37] That's right. Yeah. And also just in the process of doing an interview, you know, under more normal circumstances, I find, you know, sitting when it is possible to sit down in the same room as somebody, you know, just having an audio recorder and a microphone can be less intrusive than, you know, than also having the camera there. And again, that has been a lot to adapt to.
[00:30:05] Now that we're using all these video technologies, I wonder if people are coming back understanding the importance of just audio. The popularity of podcasts. Now, you know students and young people are listening to podcasts and not necessarily going on to YouTube all the time.
[00:30:24] Yeah, I think that that's really true. You know, I don't know if it's the portability of our technologies now.
[00:30:33] Again, since you don't need to be watching something, I think people often are are consuming or connecting with, you know, listening to audio while they're doing something else, which is really interesting, you know, gives you a way to kind of be out in the world and maybe be a little bit more embodied while you're while you're listening to something.
[00:30:54] So, yeah, I think it really is having a heyday right now. And we also noticed, you know, I think everybody was expecting a surge in video chatting and face timing and things. But I also read an article that the the FCC, I think, saw a surge in phone calls. You know, I think there's also a certain fatigue happening with all of this video, video work. And people are sort of now finding phone conversations to be so charming. You know, I think maybe that is also playing into our our love of just being able to hear someone's voice.
[00:31:40] Well, thank you. Looking forward, anything you want to say about what's next in this project or what else is on the Folklife Center.
[00:31:51] You know, looking ahead for listening in place specifically, as I said, it's kind of still in a state of becoming. It was conceived, you know, as kind of a direct response to the shelter in place order. And now as as kind of the longevity of this situation settles in, you know, I think we'll be thinking in new ways about how the project can and should continue. Like I said, we're always really interested in partnerships and collaborations. So we're definitely actively exploring some avenues for that. And then, you know, bigger picture for the Vermont Folklife Center. In general, you know, I think like many organizations, yourselves included, we're thinking about how we can stay in touch with people and continue our work while still social distancing and being safe. And some of that looks like exploring new, you know, technologies and online resources, way to way to stay in touch and also share content through our Website and through our Facebook channel.
[00:33:10] And, you know, iit's an opportunity to to explore those new platforms that I think non-profits are always wanting to do better in that way. So this is certainly an opportunity for us to keep doing that.
[00:33:29] Well, I highly recommend people to just go to your Webpage, and it's pretty easy to find some of these audio recordings.
[00:33:37] It's just that's amazing collection of people's voices. And I really love the way it's not for you, as we said earlier. It's not just about the past. It's about what's happening right now.
[00:33:49] Yeah. Yeah. And you know, the invitation. You know, I think that's that's the other thing. You know, when I sort of talk about this, this tension between, you know, is it important to make a recording now so that we can get it in the archive and save it? Or is it important to make a recording now because we all need to share what we're going through. And yeah, I hope that that is something that inspires people to, you know, pick up their phone and and talk to someone. It's just something different happens. When you are in the space of the interview and when you're making a recording that I think can be really, really valuable. And I should say. I mentioned that on on our Website. In addition to all this information about those sitting in place project and where you can submit audio that you've recorded.
[00:34:49] We've created a lot of guides to help people produce their own audio or do their own interviews. So this is some technical advice. You know what apps we have found to get to work well for recording phone calls and and then also just some general tips and thinking around how to do an interview and kind of what we think is a good way to do it. So I encourage people to explore those. You can also sign up for Virtual to participate in a virtual story circle or a virtual voxpop where we'll call you in an interview on the phone. So, yeah, lots to check out there.
[00:35:30] All right. Fabulous. Great. Thank. Of course. Thank you, Mary, for joining us here on research live and work on, I'm sure.
[00:35:40] Yes. Thanks, Richard. Have a great day.
[00:35:43] OK, so just take a minute and talk about next week. And by the way, behind the scenes here is Brianna, Brianna will pop up for a minute. And I just want to recognize the work that Brianna has been doing to make all these happen next week.
[00:36:04] This may be a surprise to you. Do you have anybody in mind? I have an idea, though.
[00:36:11] Huh? Yes, I. Yes. So that's quite possible. Hold that thought for a minute.
[00:36:20] So possibly we may talk to the new research director at UVM, who's manages all the hundreds of millions of dollars of research that UVM has underway. But I have not quite confirmed that. So that's what might happen next week or might be a conversation with Rick Molton, who is a historian. And he has done a really fascinating study of the Burlington waterfront, which at one time was the third busiest port in the country. So stay tuned. We'll let you know for sure soon. And thanks again for joining us on the Center for Research on Vermont Wednesday.
[00:37:00] Research livee until then. Be well, be safe. Stay in touch.