In this case, the process began with a call to our office from the Executive Director of the Hartford Consortium of Higher Education. The Consortium had been struggling with the thorny problem of attempting to address the complex issue of poverty in Hartford. Its leadership came to the conclusion that area colleges could make their most significant impact by concentrating on adult urban education. I was invited to speak to the Consortium Council. Largely through the initiatives of history Professor Michael Lestz from Trinity College, Eddie Perez, a former Hartford community organizer, also at Trinity as a student outreach coordinator (and future mayor of Hartford), and myself, a series of meetings were held that consisted of broad discussions between the college constituency and the city’s literacy and adult education agencies.
Several projects came out of these meetings, but the collection of oral history narratives between LVGH and Trinity College proved the most durable of them. The project had its immediate origins with a suggestion by Michael at one of the planning meetings between literacy providers and representatives of the Consortium, although at a more fundamental level flowed from the relationship he and I had established with each other. I was motivated by a powerful imagery of what the college community might represent in a potential crystallization of the Reading Center’s long range vision. Michael was propelled by the prospect of the colleges having a vital impact on such an “invisible” issue as adult literacy. That, in turn, was buttressed by a personal sense of awe as Michael encountered adult literacy students directly for the first time in which he was struck both with how limited their literacy skills were and the poetic expression of their speech in narrating their own stories.
I was aware of the many roadblocks that could impede a sustained relationship between adult literacy providers and the Consortium as neither adult literacy nor adult education were part of the established curriculum of the city’s private colleges, which made up the Consortium. In the stated Consortium interest in literacy I felt I had a tiger by the tail. I held on tight for the ride wherever it might lead, doing everything I could to extract a sizable good from the relationship for our program.
Cognizant of my precarious status, representing at best a marginal literacy program counting for little in the political culture of higher education among Hartford’s private colleges, I “settled” for something within the span of my control. The oral history project in collaboration with Michael and Sharon contained a compelling path-breaking potential, worthy, I thought, of considerable investment of time and energy to create. These finished texts have served as an inestimable resource for instruction, tutor training, and broader agency-wide consciousness-raising about the issue of adult literacy. They also provide the genesis for a penetrating cultural history of adult literacy in an urban context. While electrifying in its imaginative scope, the prospect of bringing the project to fruition was daunting. Nonetheless, the work began in 1992.
Mike began working on an oral history composition with Derrick Matthews, a student highly committed to his own educational development and the long-range vision of the Reading Center. Their evolving text served as a framework for other histories under construction. These initial taped interviews conducted by volunteers, required considerable time from inception to completion of a finished transcription. A danger at this early stage was that the process required so much time that it very well could have become aborted, considering the many other compelling issues agency stakeholders faced. Beyond its inherent substantial value, I envisioned the project as a critical link in the long-range vision that I had constructed and very much an embodiment of Center’s “consummatory” aesthetics. Consequently, the “moving force” of my own desire compelled me to keep the project flowing.
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