Penn State

Chris Rosenblum: Collecting minority voices in the community

Wideline Seraphin is collecting the stories of the region’s minorities for the Community Narratives Project.
Wideline Seraphin is collecting the stories of the region’s minorities for the Community Narratives Project. Photo provided

Wideline Seraphin is building a collection.

It’s not an ordinary one, something she could add to by trolling eBay. You can’t hold any of the treasured items she and her friends at Penn State have gathered.

You can only listen and hopefully learn.

Seraphin, a doctoral candidate, is part of a grass-roots campaign to record people of color reflecting on their experiences living in State College. Since December, the effort has netted more than 30 hours of interviews and conversations, documenting perspectives from students, faculty and local residents.

Organizers are calling it the Community Narratives Project. They seek to capture views and emotions often suppressed while living day to day, to give people permission to speak openly and share accounts of being a minority in a rural college town.

“We don’t often have that kind of space where people can sit down and freely talk and exchange,” said Seraphin, who’s in the Language, Culture and Society Program within the College of Education’s curriculum and instruction department.

Inspiration came in December after the “die-in” silent protest staged by Penn State students and faculty on campus. Joining similar events at colleges nationwide, they were calling attention to police killings of black men, most notably in Ferguson, Mo.

“There was such a negative reaction to the protest, it surprised people,” Seraphin recalled.

She and other students of color, along with sympathetic white “allies,” discussed a response that would have a lasting local influence.

They sensed complacency around them, a belief that Happy Valley doesn’t have racial issues — never mind “The Village” protests of 2001 at the HUB to draw attention to the local racial climate. The larger community, they felt, wasn’t fully aware that some students of color feel uncomfortable and alienated coming to a rural college town from urban areas.

“We wanted to disrupt that,” Seraphin said.

Initially, they envisioned a report to university administrators about diversity in student enrollment and faculty representation. Then they dismissed the idea — too academic, too dry.

“We didn’t feel like that captured the human piece,” Seraphin said. “We pride ourselves as a community, and we wanted to have that human aspect.”

They settled on personal narratives, deciding also to reach out to local people of color for their recollections of life as State College grew.

“We wanted to make sure that kind of knowledge, that kind of lived experience, was made public,” Seraphin said.

The first session was an informal affair: a group around a classroom table, no agenda, two simple prompts. What bought them to State College? What were their first experiences?

From there, the stories flowed, a pattern repeated in other meetings.

“Some of them have been emotionally hard to sit through,” Seraphin said.

A biracial faculty couple from South Africa and Korea revealed feeling insecure and threatened at home because of verbal accosting and other unfriendly behavior from neighbors.

A woman of Laotian descent recalled walking into a bar and hearing a comment aimed at her that the place didn’t serve egg rolls.

Some talked about hearing the N-word, being shaken by it and unsure how to react. Others spoke of perceiving that professors questioned their intellects and abilities differently than those of white students.

Seraphin has contributed an encounter this spring with a white, middle-aged garage mechanic while her oil was being changed. He was friendly and chatty, but repeatedly said “colored” to describe African-Americans.

It upset her. For 10 minutes or so in the waiting room, she stewed about saying something, finally steeling herself. She told him how she appreciated their conversation but felt compelled to inform him that the term he used was outdated and insulting.

He apologized sincerely, and Seraphin believes he meant no offense. Still, the memory has stayed with her.

“That experience weighed on me,” she said.

On the flip side, though, some narratives painted glowing pictures.

A Rwandan woman displaced by her country’s genocide 20 years ago talked about State College as a safe space where she watched her family rebuild their lives.

A faculty member credited a support network of colleagues and friends for helping him acclimate to State College and feel at home.

Some urban students, Seraphin said, “have shared that State College is a place where they found themselves; they found their identities.”

That was the case for a biracial student who felt socially lost, not comfortable in either white or black crowds. Finally, he connected — with a predominately Asian and Asian-American hip-hop club.

Over the summer and through the fall, Seraphin hopes, the project will continue. The first batch of interviews will be transcribed, keeping them anonymous but noting age, race and gender, and the collection will resume.

Many voices wait to speak.

Seraphin often reminds people the project “isn’t just a black thing or a Hispanic thing.” She wants the scope to widen — to encompass gender issues or experiences related to disabilities, sexual orientation and foreign backgrounds; to connect more with older residents for their memories.

“We’re trying to bring in more voices, more perspectives, so that we’re having the most complex portrayal of State College possible,” Seraphin said.

Ultimately, she would like the project’s recordings and transcriptions to become a teaching resource, perhaps included in the Penn State Reads common reading program and in university and local libraries.

Only then will the voices keep being heard.

“We don’t want it to go away,” Seraphin said. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity to evaluate who we are as central Pennsylvanians. This is a great time to have that reflection in the community.”