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Class on fieldtripUC San Diego students, with professor Yen Le Espiritu, Luis Alvarez and Simeon Man, visit Barrio Logan during spring 2018. (Photos courtesy UC San Diego Race and Oral History Project)

Building an Archive of San Diego History

UC San Diego students bring campus to community and back in new Race and Oral History Project

By Anthony King

The campus’s Race and Oral History Project is intended to collect the stories and experiences of people who work and live in the greater San Diego region day to day, but who have largely been left out of how this history is told.

As director of the Institute of Arts and Humanities, Department of History professor Luis Alvarez said UC San Diego undergraduates have the opportunity to help tell a regional story in a way that is inclusive and engaging.

And the students are loving it.


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The first Race and Oral History course was held in spring 2018, with about 40 students. And while it is an undergraduate course, Alvarez said that’s only one part of the collective that put this grassroots effort together: faculty members Simeon Man from the Department of History and Yen Le Espiritu from the Department of Ethnic Studies developed the course with Alvarez; graduate students led trainings in the classroom; and campus partners helped too, including the UC San Diego Library to train the students in archive theory and digital humanities.

Students on busFront row from left, professors Simeon Man and Luis Alvarez travel with UC San Diego students.

The purpose is to not just train students to conduct oral histories, but to teach them something about the history of race in San Diego, and then develop an archive that can be housed at the Library for future access.

They learn how to conduct and record an oral history, and then venture off campus to community partners established for the quarter. 

Last year there were three community partners: Casa Familiar, a grassroots advocacy organization near the U.S.-Mexico border; United Women of East Africa, a cultural center in City Heights run largely by East-African women and refugees; and Che’Lu, and organization committed to the preservation and promotion of Chamorro culture, language and health.

Alvarez was clear that in developing the course, they didn’t want the community partners to think the university nor the students were exploiting them, and they didn’t want their agenda as researchers to in any way determine or shape the trajectory of the community partner’s agenda.

“What I think we really wanted to be a part of was holding conversations with them about how we can serve them,” he said. “And I think they’ll benefit from having UC San Diego students come through their sites and work with them. What that does is helps them see UC San Diego as a resource.”

Held again this Spring Quarter, students can register for the four-unit, upper division History course, and most will simultaneously take a two-credit Academic Internship that is used as the vehicle to get off campus and into community groups. In addition to United Women of East Africa, Alvarez said for 2019 they will be working with Barrio Logan College Institute, the Filipino American National Historical Society and Detainee Allies, a community group that advocates for and corresponds with refugees in an Otay Mesa detention center.

Collecting oral histories, writing and recording archives, engaging with community partners — what’s really happening is that UC San Diego students are building relationships, and showing how the university and community can work together.

This story was originally published in ThisWeek @ UC San Diego.