The Crossing Fences
oral history project has ventured into new Pittsburgh neighborhoods, helping young African-American boys interview local black men about their inspirational roles as mentors and models worthy of emulation.
"It's interesting when a boy who is 11 years old can reflect on this experience and say that he has something in common with the 85-year-old man he interviewed," says Chanessa Schuler, multimedia specialist at SLB Radio Productions (slbradio.org
), which runs the program. "When the boys complete this experience they are confident and proud."
Going into the North Side, the Hilltop/Beltzhoover area and McKeesport, Crossing Fences in its second year has resulted in a booklet and accompanying audio CD that includes profiles and oral histories. Audio interviews from the project are available at NeighborhoodVoices.org
and in SLB's StoryBoxes in local libraries.
"We ask the boys to come up with characteristics of a role model, and then have them select one in their community," says Schuler. "There have been times where it has been difficult for a boy to think of a man with the characteristics they describe -- that is a problem. That gives us greater motivation to expose these boys to inspiring African American men."
SLB doesn't just turn kids loose with tape recorders. "We have to build up their interviewing skills," she says. "They develop questions and, as a group, we critique them. We teach them about mic technique, room noise, eye contact, listening skills, deadlines, teamwork and organization," as well as post-production editing.
"Most kids, even the most talkative, are very nervous to ask questions of someone who is older and wiser than they are," she adds. "We have to assure the boys that these men want to help by spending time with them, sharing stories and giving advice."
The program pushes these kids toward understanding "the bigger picture – that they can do anything they want to do in life. They see these men who grew up in the same neighborhood, who are now artists, entrepreneurs, teachers, actors, preachers, community activists."
Overall, Schuler explains, "In the areas we work in, people don't feel a sense of community like there once was. Projects like this give them that sense of community and they want these good things to continue."
Public celebrations of the program are planned for Hilltop's McKinley Park Recreation Center on Nov. 12, the North Side's
Cafe 'n' Creamery on Nov. 13 and the McKeesport Library on Nov. 14. Participating boys received a Kindle Fire HD with apps, free books and Internet access. The African American Men and Boys Initiative of The Heinz Endowments supported Crossing Fences.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Chanessa Schuler, SLB Radio Productions