Talking to Strangers: A Digital Humanities Student Coordinates a New York City Oral History Project

Elena Abou Mrad (Photo courtesy of Abou Mrad)

In recent weeks, Elena Abou Mrad, a student in the M.A. Program in Digital Humanities, has talked to people from all over New York, including a woman who lives in Fort Greene, another who’s from the Bronx, and a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Sunset Park — learning all about their lives in the city through the sort of free-ranging conversation that feels very pre-pandemic. Since February, she has served as the project coordinator for Neighborhood Stories, a city initiative that collects oral histories from New Yorkers. Though it’s outside of her job description, Abou Mrad chooses to do some of the interviews herself, simply because she enjoys it. “I’m a storyteller, and I really love listening to other people’s stories and getting inspired,” she says. “I’ve learned so much about the city this way.”

Abou Mrad came to archiving almost by accident — she grew up in Italy, and while earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Turin, she got a job at the university’s archive and wound up working there for several summers. After completing a master’s degree in comparative literature, she won a scholarship to work in the archives of AFS Intercultural Programs, a nonprofit network of international exchange programs that started out as an ambulance organization during World War I. Abou Mrad worked with their materials from both world wars as well as from their decades of student exchanges.

Abou Mrad started at the Graduate Center in the 2020 spring semester, just as the pandemic struck the city. Earlier this year, she was looking on the CUNY Academic Commons and saw a post by Professor Matthew K. Gold (English), director of the M.A. Program in Digital Humanities and the M.S. Program in Data Analysis and Visualization, about the Neighborhood Stories job opportunity. “This project sounded very in line with what I love doing, which is to help bring people into the archive and the archive out to the people,” Abou Mrad says.

The project was launched three years ago by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. The earliest interviews were conducted in person, primarily at community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The pandemic forced the project to shut down temporarily in 2020. It was restarted this year, with interviews conducted online. New Yorkers who want to contribute are matched up with trained volunteers, who, thanks to the project’s new flexibility, can speak to people throughout the five boroughs at any time that works for the subject and interviewer.

The skills Abou Mrad has developed in the master’s program are perfectly suited for a project aimed at community engagement. “In the M.A. in Digital Humanities program and especially in the Archival Encounters course, our goal is to prepare students with the training and experience they need to lead public-facing digital projects that serve a common good,” says Lisa Rhody, deputy director of GC Digital Initiatives, director of Digital Fellowship Programs, and a master’s program faculty member “Elena’s work with the Neighborhood Stories project is a wonderful example of how soon in the program students are able to put what they have learned into practice.”

The project, which was recently featured in the Daily News, is still looking for participants. Anyone interested in sharing their stories and photos of their life in the city, or in learning how to conduct an oral history interview, can get more information online. Abou Mrad is hoping the oral histories will be published on the site this fall. In the meantime, she’s finding that her work is a great way to get through the current stage of the pandemic. “It’s so nice to make these connections with people in this time of isolation,” she says. “I really needed that New York feeling of talking to strangers.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: JUN 29, 2021

Category: Digital Humanities | Diversity | GCstories | General GC News | Student News | Voices of the GC