OPINION: Can knowing family’s past help build your financial future?

Oral histories benefit families, communities
De'Andra Roberts created A Life to Share to help individuals document their oral histories. It does on a personal level what many programs in Atlanta have done for communities ranging from veterans to historic neighborhoods. Courtesy of De'Andra Roberts

De'Andra Roberts created A Life to Share to help individuals document their oral histories. It does on a personal level what many programs in Atlanta have done for communities ranging from veterans to historic neighborhoods. Courtesy of De'Andra Roberts

While home with her parents during the pandemic, De’Andra Roberts had the chance to do something she hadn’t done to a great extent earlier in her life. She asked her parents to share their life stories. “We are very close so it’s not like we don’t talk, but I had never asked the pointed questions,” said Roberts, 27.

Her parents told stories about her grandparents, who had all died before Roberts turned 18. One story in particular stuck with her. Her paternal grandmother, a teen mother of four children, had been homeless — living in the streets of downtown Atlanta under a cardboard box with two of her children — before moving into Grady Homes, a government housing project developed in 1942.

Don Roberts, De’Andra’s father, the famed music coordinator for DeKalb County and former band director of Southwest DeKalb High School, said his mother worked all night before coming home to make bacon and eggs for her kids for breakfast, take a quick nap then head out again to work as a domestic for a white family all day.

Roberts was so intrigued she began interviewing other family members. When she shared what she was doing with friends, they asked for the list of her questions so they could talk to members of their families. Roberts did some research on capturing oral histories only to find most services took too long or were too expensive, so she created a service, A Life to Share, that aims to improve generational wealth through storytelling beginning at a cost as low as $40, to use the online story prompter.

“I think it is really important for us to document our stories in a way that is more comfortable to us,” Roberts said. “This isn’t supposed to be some triggering activity. Doing it and doing it in an impactful way, and building generational wealth outside of that is my foundational goal.” What better way is there to build generational wealth than to learn from the lessons of generations past?

“Looking at my parents’ stories, they talk a lot about building a legacy for yourself and not relying on one thing but having multiple revenue streams,” Roberts said, noting that her father also created an entertainment group, Drumline Live LLC, and her mother built properties on land inherited from her family. She also learned the importance of patience in wealth building.

By treating oral histories as an avenue to building generational wealth, Roberts does on a personal level what many efforts have sought to do on a community level for decades, preserving legacies through storytelling and using that information to inform future growth.

I’ve lived in Atlanta for 15 years, and that’s enough time to have witnessed some pretty significant changes in neighborhoods. In some cases, I’ve been interested enough to dig into neighborhood histories, but rarely have I turned to oral histories as a source of information. All too often, it seems the results of these efforts end up stored away — in a database, on a bookshelf, in an academic paper — without fully realizing the practical impact they could have on communities and people.

Oral history developed as a field of study in the 1940s, according to historians. The goals were to gather, preserve and interpret the voices and memories of people, communities and event participants. There are large-scale national efforts from the WPA programs of the New Deal to StoryCorps, which launched in 2003.

In the metro area, Living Atlanta offered an oral history of the city from 1914-1948 and was broadcast on public radio in 1979. In 2015, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1925 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, created an Atlanta Branch with the mission to gather information about Black life in the city. There are oral history projects across the state designed to preserve the stories of veterans, the LGBTQ community, local universities and neighborhoods and as of spring 2021, the transgender community.

Marian Liou, who launched the Instagram account We Love BuHi in 2015, partly in response to the immigrant communities’ lack of voice on urban planning in cities along Buford Highway, had aspirations to bring the oral histories gathered by the nonprofit into a repository of some sort. A public installation, perhaps, that would allow anyone to listen to the stories collected from community members, she said. It was her one regret that she was not able to acquire funding for that type of project before she left the organization.

Marian Liou, who launched the Instagram account We Love BuHi in 2015, knows how hard it can be to get parents to open up about their lives. Her parents emigrated from Taiwan. (Bill Torpy / AJC 2016)

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Like Roberts, Liou, who is a Chinese American from California, has struggled to pull information out of her own parents, who emigrated from Taiwan. “It is the hardest conversation to have. It’s like ‘Why do you care?’ When you speak to someone who has gone through something unimaginably difficult, there is always that moment in the conversation when there is a pause and a hitch in their voice,” she said. “Oral history can be transformative.”

Any entity that plans to create growth or build wealth in a community should not only have an understanding of the community history but also a clear vision of what the community wants to be, said Liou.

With that understanding, Allen Hyde, assistant professor of sociology at Georgia Tech, began taking students into the field as oral history interviewers in partnership with the Grove Park Neighborhood Foundation. He wanted his students to get to know neighborhoods in Atlanta, but as the project got underway, Hyde recognized the need to also use the oral histories as a method to explore gentrification.

“When gentrification occurs, it not only displaces history and people, but it also displaces culture,” Hyde said. “One reason the Grove Park Foundation wanted to develop the project was so that the community has a record of what has happened but also for new residents to become aware of what the neighborhood history is. It has changed several times over the years.”

Residents told their stories but were also invited to answer questions about what they want to see in the neighborhood, how they wanted to partner with their neighborhood planning unit and what were their concerns. Those responses could then be used to fulfill community needs or acquire funding through the planning unit system.

Hyde was surprised that many residents in Grove Park were not opposed to gentrification. They were excited for change — restaurants, a pharmacy, a bank or a coffee shop — but wanted to be sure longtime residents would not be displaced. How might neighborhoods champion change without driving lower-income residents out and depriving them of the chance to acquire a greater level of wealth?

Oral histories can help neighborhoods, nonprofits and individuals develop a greater understanding of both how things have changed and how they need to change.

“I feel more empowered knowing that this is the legacy I come from,” Roberts said. “Long term, being able to understand people’s life stories in a way that is meaningful and impactful will change the way that people operate.”

And those same stories can change entire communities.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.