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Where are you from?

on December 17, 2009

It took an oral history project for Bianca Charles to find out that the elderly man who came regularly to family gatherings was actually her great-grandfather. Luis Rodriguez never knew that his aunt’s first husband died after being struck by lightning – while on horseback.

The project “Where We’re From” was coordinated by Summer Brenner, author of Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle.

“You’d think that stories like that would have been talked about in the family,” she said. But, as Ruby Jean Fox told her great-granddaughter Bianca, “Nobody ever asks you to sit down and tell them about your life, and by the time they think of it, it’s too late.”

On display at the Hilltop Mall until February 15th, are the poems and pictures of this year’s “Where We’re From” project. Under Brenner’s tutelage, 19 students from Kappa Continuation High School conducted interviews with older family or community members in order to find out more about their family history, getting creative with it in the process.

Brenner says that at first, the students were standoffish. But “they were totally transformed” when visitors started coming into the class and sharing stories, such as community leader Fred Davis Jackson.

He told them what it was like for him, coming here from a small town in Missouri to pick cotton in California, and how he still could not escape racism.

“It was amazing,” he said, talking about his young interviewers. “They kind of sifted through me… little did I know they would so precise – and so poignant.”

The kids asked their elders about family traditions, recipes, and places they’ve lived. In class, Brenner taught them interview techniques and discussed genealogy and migration. The result is large, colorful panels with a black and white photograph (taken by Community Works director, Ruth Morgan) and poems written by the kids; both about themselves and the person they interviewed.

Many of the students, like Jose Navarro III, were surprised by what they found out about their family. He said that he never knew that his dad had been to Mexico City – nor that the police had robbed him there.

Navarro was the only student to come to the exhibition’s opening. Brenner said she was disappointed; she had tried to reunite her class for the occasion, but in the seven months that passed, her students – most of which come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds – had scattered. Navarro read his poem aloud to the 30-odd people who had gathered. In the crowd were the mayors of Richmond and San Pablo, who spoke warmly about the program.

This is the second year “Where we’re From” has taken place; the first, done with ninth-graders from Richmond High, came about in 2007 thanks to a grant from the Christensen Fund. This year, the Lesher Foundation contributed the funds.

Morgan coordinated the project with Brenner. She said she hopes they will get a grant to descend upon yet another Richmond school next spring, and help more students discover their rich, unmined family histories.


  1. Lydia on December 18, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Loved the story. What a great project. best, lc

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