After nearly four months of preparation, the youth were ready to present all that had collected, researched, and learned as part of the Ancestral Project. It was bittersweet. Sweet because of all that I saw around the room, in the form of photos, family trees, and scrapbooks. Sweet because I remember how scared some of the youth were to even ask questions and now they were fearless because they had claimed ownership over their family history. Bitter, only because I would go a long time without seeing them.
On June 4, 2011, our months of work culminated with an event called “Who Am I? Family Journeys Youth Ancestry Testimonials” at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley. The turnout was fantastic as more than 100 people, both young and old, related and not, battled through rain to support the youth. In addition to the posterboards and scrapbooks from the youth, AAGSNC, the Oakland Regional Family History Center, and Alternatives in Action had tables and literature available.
The formal program started with an address from Sup. Keith Carson. This was my first time actually seeing and meeting him in person because we’d missed each other at previous events where either of us had been in attendance. Keith spoke about how his own father wouldn’t talk about his roots in Texas, and how he asked relatives to fill in gaps after he had died. The discoveries that he made through tracing his own genealogy are what lead him to create this project.
One of the highlights of the event was the panel that was facilitated with five youth who participated in the program. There were set questions that were asked by the moderator as well as a question and answer session with the audience.
All of the youth shared something that they had learned during the project, such as why they have the accent that they do, or that the Family History Library is available for genealogy research purposes and for free, or that they had family that died in the Great Flood of 1927. Audience members asked the youth about how to engage the youth in their own families more in research activities and expressed how proud they were that the youth had taken on this project.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Wade Nobles. He gave a powerful testimony and challenge to accept that each of us has a history that pre-dates our lifetime. He noted his inception through his ancestor, his great great great grandfather, who was born in 1836 and was a slave in South Carolina. Dr. Nobles also referenced his ties back to Africa through his genealogical DNA test results from African Ancestry.Com and suggested that future programs include DNA tests for the youth involved.
Next, I had the task of speaking. I had pondered for days as to what I was going to say. How could I wrap together all that I had learned, all that the youth had learned, and all that we had experienced together in a short talk? I decided to just speak from my heart and to really admonish the audience that they had a part in learning their family history too. I was candid about how more than one of the youth thought they’d be cursed out if they went home and asked questions, because when they had done so before, it happened. I spoke about how many of them were scared, not interested, or couldn’t figure out how all of this related to them but now they were the first asking when we’d be back at the library searching. I talked about how we need to stop harboring secrets and to be open with our youth because they are longing for this information. I remarked about how this project was more than just genealogy and that the research skills that the youth learned would help them in college. In all, I too challenged the audience to get involved with learning their family history.
The end of the event featured an activity that called the audience to action. What would they do now that they had learned about the project and it’s positive influence? Some of the parents of youth in the project vowed to find out about an additional line of the family, while others in attendance vowed to keep working with youth and bringing genealogy to the forefront. A number of people stood up and shared their plans with everyone in attendance.
I was approached by several organizations who expressed interest in having a similar program with the youth that they service. Additionally, Sup. Carson expressed interest in expanding the program for the next go around. All of these things are great!
AAGSNC gained a new member after the project, Reginald James, who is part of Sup. Carson’s staff.
Again, a heartfelt thanks to Sup. Keith Carson and his staff, especially Aisha Brown, Hannah Greene, and Reginald James. A sincere thank you and kudos to AAGSNC for it’s support and to the following members for volunteering their time, talent, and treasure towards the program and the youth involved: Felicia Addison, Judith Collins, M. Howard Edwards, Donna Hurts, Upperton Hurts, Annette Madden, Bill Melson, Vernester Sheeler, Alvis Ward.
For news coverage of the event, please see “Alameda County Students Learn About Genealogy in Berkeley” by Thomas Peele (Oakland Tribune, June 4), and “Students Learn About Past, Themselves” by Robert Mills (Berkeleyside, June 6, 2011)