I received generous grant funding to spend July conducting oral history interviews for my dissertation. Oral history is the practice of interviewing (and, commonly, recording) an individual as they recollect their life or an important historical event. I am asking longtime members of the YM-YWHA and longtime residents of Washington Heights-Inwood to tell me about what it was like in the neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s. Although each interview is different, the common questions that I've posed to each interviewee ask them to describe how the Y managed to provide for the social welfare of northern Manhattan's Jewish community at the same time that they served the needs of the non-Jewish community, particularly the growing population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
These oral histories are valuable to me for a few reasons. Most basically, the more sources you have describing a historical event, the better. Whether they confirm each others' descriptions or contradict one another, a multiplicity of accounts yields insight. Moreover, with the addition of these testimonies my interpretation of historical events becomes less dependent on organizational records from the Y or the Jewish Welfare Board or the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. It gives me individual perspectives to consider, beyond the view provided in the Y's Board meeting minutes. Finally, it allows me to ask about issues or events that were left out of other records.
So far, I've spoken with two staff members at the Y and a community activist who participated in this history in the 1970s and '80s (and have continued to contribute up to the present day). In the coming week, I am scheduled to interview two Y Board members who've had similarly lengthy tenures. I hope to continue adding more individuals to my docket in the coming weeks!