Public History PhD student Lisa Withers and Public History Masters student Hannah Scruggs recently spent 6 weeks in Crooked Tree, Belize collecting ethnographic and archival data with their Public History professor, Dr. Alicia McGill.
While “field school” is often required for anthropology majors, it is not a standard in public history. Dr. McGill wanted to test the applicability of the field experience for public history students. After a call for applications, she chose Lisa Withers and Hannah Scruggs to work with her. This past summer, they set off for Belize.
A Q&A with Lisa Withers & Hannah Scruggs
What is your area of research?
Withers: 20th century US, African-American History and Museum Studies.
Scruggs: I study African-American history. I’m really interested in the African diaspora, so going to Belize and working with the Kriol population sounded really interesting to me.
Why did you apply for Dr. McGill’s “field school” project?
Withers: I applied because I am highly interested in community engagement projects and I’d have an opportunity to fully immerse myself in a new community. You read about community engagement and how in theory you would do that as a public historian, but now I’d be able to put that into practice. I was also strongly passionate about giving back to a community.
Why do you think Dr. McGill chose you for the project?
Withers: I have museum experience. I helped with concept development and installation of exhibits. In my Masters program over the course of 3 semesters, I worked with a local institution curating an exhibit. I’ve also worked with institutions that were immersed in the community.
Scruggs: I had experience doing community-based engagement work – I was an AmeriCorps volunteer for two years before starting grad school. I also worked in a library outside Pittsburgh where as part of my terms of service I did a similar oral history project with people in the community. Additionally, I had worked with Dr. McGill not only in the classroom; I organized a service trip to go to Pittsburgh in Spring semester so she was familiar with me.
How did Dr. McGill prepare you for the trip?
Withers: We started in January with periodic meetings where we talked about what to expect and what we’d be doing; we had assigned readings on a variety of topics from the location in Belize and the community we’d be working with, to research methods, and research ethics. It was very helpful to already have a sense of where we were going even though it is nothing like actually being there – it helped to at least start thinking about it and not be totally thrown off guard.
What were some of your very first impressions of Crooked Tree, Belize?
Withers: Being someplace where everyone looks like me and having a shared history as far as the transatlantic slave trade is concerned. It never really dawned on me that the demographic would be the majority of the population. So that’s really like the first thing I had to get used to. Also, the change of pace – day-to-day activities. In the south, we joke about the slower pace as opposed to say, New York City, but everyone was like yeah, we’re going to get this meeting done and it will happen but not so on the go – just enjoying the day.
The first 2 or 3 days, we really had to adjust to a lot, but then afterwards I realized that in a lot of ways it was a lot like home – I grew up in a rural area in the south and there were several times in the village where I thought, this looks and feels like the way my parents described their home life growing up – dirt roads and people walking everywhere and visiting each other. The thought crossed my mind that I’m able to have this kind of mini experience where I can relate even more to the life my parents talked about – the “good ol’ days.” And I don’t think it took me a long time to adjust because there were some things that I could relate to from my own experiences growing up. Everyone knows everyone, everyone is probably related to someone somewhere especially if you grew up in an area where a lot of family members are still in the area – so I could relate to going to a grocery store and seeing your cousin or auntie.
Scruggs: It was very rural but I’m used to that. I don’t think that I had any huge expectations for it. I remember being surprised at the amount of SUVs that I saw because I had traveled a lot in Europe and they have small cars there. Its hard to get around without a truck because the roads aren’t paved and there are a lot of potholes. It also seemed like a very relaxing place to be it – reminded me of a small town in the South – a very small town feel.
Have you ever done field work before? Was this a brand new thing for you in terms of having to be living in close quarters with people and having to be on all the time?
Scruggs: Well, I’ve been to summer camp and it felt a lot like summer camp. We’re there two weeks early and we’re prepping, and then we have the students that come and then we have to finish the whole thing at the end. This is probably the first time that I’ve done something exactly like this but it didn’t feel brand new because I think I had a lot of other experiences to make sense of this one.
Withers: It’s new to have this for Public History students. When you do internships, it’s 8-5 or part time, but for field school it was fully immersive; so for any student who is interested in this model – it has advantages over the traditional internship. We’re shifting now pedagogically speaking to a lot of class-based projects and you have 3-4 classes, job, demands – with the field school model, it’s the only thing you’re doing so you’re able to dedicate more time and energy.
We made it work. We lived in a board house which facilitated air flow and we had fans which was much better than being in a cement house. By the end of the first week, your body really acclimates so it wasn’t terrible.
I know Dr. McGill wanted you guys to spend the first ten days really immersing yourself in the community so talk about some of the ways you did that.
Withers: We visited a lot of families. I think that was probably one of the best things that we did as far as community engagement and it’s something that is very different than what I’ve done in the States – really taking the time to go meet people where they are and talk to them. There were days when we would just spend the entire day with one family after another just getting to know them.
Scruggs: We took language and culture classes with a woman who worked with the Kriol Council in Belize. We spent a lot of time visiting people in the community – hanging out at their houses for a few hours at a time and people told us we were crazy because to meet as many people as we did you had to be out all day long and it was crazy hot. We went to the archives in the capital and met with the head archivist and got acclimated with their archives because we ended up doing some research there for our exhibit. It was a lot of just social interaction and making connections.
So when you went to people’s homes–were they expecting you? Did they already know there were some students that would be coming…
Withers: Word travels quickly and so people kind of already knew when we got there, but I think one of the things that really helped is that Dr. McGill has been working with this community for ten years now and she already had very solid relationships with so many of the families so Dr. McGill was like “hey, now I’m back and I’d like you to meet these two students of mine.” I cannot emphasize how much that accelerated the process and made a very smooth transition for Hannah and me to meet people because often, in such a close knit community, any outsiders might be looked at funny.
What were the kinds of questions you would ask people? What were you really looking for from them?
Withers: Really just getting a sense of how they see their home and what were the things that they would want visitors and the younger generation to learn about them. For example, what are the top three things visitors to Crooked Tree should leave knowing? With the older residents, we’d ask them what it was like growing up in Crooked Tree especially before the road was built and once you ask that one question – people talk! But it wasn’t like a formal, traditional interview – you can gather so much information from just a social visit – talking and engaging and being in tune to what people are sharing.
Scruggs: Lisa did more of the oral histories with adults and I hung out with the kids at school.
Tell me about your role with the schools.
Scruggs: I was collecting oral histories from the 11-13 year old kids. In the classroom we would break them up into groups so it would be me and two undergraduate students and we alternated students. I had two students who would go with me to Biscayne – a nearby community – and two other students who would go with me to Crooked Tree. The children drew pictures about things they like to do and we incorporated their art work into the exhibit and some of the art work was really incredible. We would ask them questions about what they did on the weekend, their likes and dislikes, stories their families had told them like ghost stories or folk tales and the way we’d broach the topic is by saying, “Well, in the US we have Big Foot. Do you have any Big Foot like characters in Crooked Tree?”
Did their parents pass down stories to them?
Scruggs: They did – yes – parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. The Anansi story – Anansi is a spider who is very mischievous and it’s a very popular folk tale in West Africa and it made its way over with the enslaved people –so that was really cool to see these preserved stories coming over and being passed down.
What other immersion type activities did you do?
Withers: It was important to Dr. McGill that we get exposed to a lot of culture. One of the biggest things they produce in Crooked Tree is cashews so we learned all about cashews – from seed to finished product. We learned how to roast it, bake it, pick it out and we attended a cashew harvest.
Scruggs: The students went on a horseback riding tour and we visited a man’s cashew wine vineyard. He showed us around his property and gave us wine and fresh pineapple. One night we went to a community meeting.
So you didn’t just watch – you participated?
Withers: Yes, in some things. We went to church services, a bird tour at the Wildlife Sanctuary which, by the way, is a separate entity from Crooked Tree Village, and we learned about the ecosystem and ecotourism. In the 10 years Dr. McGill has been going to Crooked Tree, all the focus is on the ecotourism, but there is so much more to the village itself that’s not advertised and not part of the current tourism.
At what point did you start working on the exhibit panels?
Withers: We spent the first 3-4 weeks in community immersion and collecting data then switched gears to the panels.
Everyone on the team made a contribution to the panels. I had to figure out how to make them and we didn’t have the Internet so I had to come up with a template for the panels and visualize how different panels could go together/be grouped together.
Scruggs: I designed the curricular guide. Lisa did most of the writing of the panels and I helped edit them. I put together some of the materials we got from the students and I went to the archives and did research.
Did you already know where you would have the exhibit or did you have to scout around for a place?
Withers: Dr. McGill had already identified the Visitor’s Center because it is the first building that people see when they come into the village. It’s run by the Audubon so early on we went to the space and spoke to staff about which walls we could use and how we could share space. The Audubon were a partner in the project and they were very excited and on board. They wanted to incorporate more village history into their space.
So after you installed the panels at the Visitor Center what happened?
Withers: We had an open house and really it was just inviting the community to come out and see how we incorporated all their suggestions into the exhibit.
How was the open house?
Withers: It was very successful. Dr. McGill helped prepare us by saying if no one comes it doesn’t mean that its not successful. You have to remember different culture, different place – not everyone comes out to things. We’re going to set the bar low. So I think it really blew Dr. McGill’s mind by how many people came out. It was amazing! And not only did community members come out, but also almost all of our community partners and their staff came out as well. It was highly successful.
Scruggs: Also, we had a student competition so a lot of kids came because their essay was chosen for the essay contest and if they won they got NC State gear.
I know Dr. McGill said that in the future she would like to have more activities but it sounds like overall it went well.
Scruggs: We had planned to do a lot of things but then there just wasn’t enough time. We wanted to do more pop up activities and have people presenting and telling stories and sharing. I think the way it went though, it was a really good start and it was very communal. A lot of people showed up and seemed to enjoy seeing their history represented but also just enjoying each other which was a really cool thing – to be able to facilitate a space for people to come together.
Withers: From what I heard, it was very well received. Our community partners were very pleased – the reps from Audubon Society in Belize were pleased with what was included in the exhibit. The community members definitely enjoyed it.
So would you say this type of field school is something that should continue?
Scruggs: Definitely. I think it was a really good experience for both Lisa and me.
Do you see yourself doing more field work?
Withers: Yes – and I’d definitely encourage any Public History student to do it.
Scruggs: I know Dr. McGill wants to do another similar field school and I would love to help facilitate that. I think that was one of her takeaways as well – that it would be great to have students that had already done it be able to do logistical things. I really enjoyed Crooked Tree and the community and the people but for my own research, I was really interested in being in an African diaspora place. I have a lot of questions about race and a lot of questions about identity that we didn’t delve into while we there; however, Lisa and I were often asked if we were Belizean and we were told we looked like people from Crooked Tree so being in a space where you look like members of the community when you’re not was a really powerful experience. So I’m interested in some of those questions and would like to incorporate them into my future research.
After the open house, you presented your research at the Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium. Tell me about that.
Withers: We co-wrote the paper we presented. We all spoke – probably the only group presentation. That was something that created some buzz because Dr. McGill allowed her grad students to co-present. It was a big deal because usually it’s the PI who presents. It was a very special treat.
Scruggs: I haven’t been to many conferences so that was a new experience. It was interesting how many people/presenters were from US and Canada – not a lot of Belizeans presenting. I enjoyed presenting – I thought our session went well. I appreciated that Dr. McGill wanted us to present with her because we had all worked really hard collaboratively – it was truly a collaborative project and we each had our own areas of expertise and things we had developed and done so I appreciate that Dr. McGill let us take ownership of that.
What is your biggest takeaway from this experience?
Withers: Being on this project really challenged me and what it truly means to do a community engagement project. Often, we talk about it and use a lot of rhetoric, but what does it really look like in action. Personally, the biggest takeaway is being in a society with shared common lineage and having a deeper emotional connection with that and being able to think more deeply and broadly about how people from other cultures interact. I’ve really been thinking about how easy it was to connect with Crooked Tree community members and why that might be since we’re from two different countries.