Philadelphia is notorious as a city of firsts. This was the original capital of the United States and the signing place of original Declaration of Independence. The grit, passion and pride that its citizens emanate are unparalleled. The history of some of these firsts are better known than others, and the history of Philly’s LGBT movement is one that is rarely covered with the depth that its significance would otherwise warrant.
One Drexel community-based learning class is hoping to change that. Professor Jennifer Ayres, a visiting fellow here at the University, is teaching a class this winter named “Oral History and Memory.” She and her students visit the residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments in Center City and, through semi-structured interviews, parse out a fascinating part of local history that explores a snapshot of a nationwide social movement.
In alignment with President Fry’s goal for Drexel to become the most civically engaged university in the country, community-based learning courses were established alongside other initiatives that sought to integrate students and faculty more deeply within West Philadelphia neighborhoods. The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and Kline School Legal Clinic are a few of the facilities and endeavors the university has taken, but none are quite as immersive for students as community-based learning wherein students and local residents participate in the learning process together. Through shared experiences, they come closer to breaking socially constructed barriers and forming a cohesive community.
Although the course is still in its early stages, students have already met with the residents. They were also given a tour of the William Way LGBT Community Center and its archives, which are home to installations from local artists, publications from various zines and other shared underground circulars and photos and archival media that document the rich history of an often overlooked demographic of Philadelphia’s population.
Surrounding the building are various murals whose origin stories were told in depth and provided the foundation for students to recognize how often in our everyday routines we encounter such rich histories that have literally encompassed entire lives and pass them by without much thought.
This course in particular splits its time between the Dornsife Center and the John C. Anderson Apartments, paying special attention to the exploration of public memory of the HIV/AIDS crisis that devastated an already marginalized population throughout the country. With assignments such as blog posts, interviews with family members and poignant readings that emphasis the relevant themes of gentrification, social justice, activism and various forms of media involved with community-building, students will synthesize interview questions to be asked when meeting with residents.
Through thoughtful reflection of the responses they are given, students can take the narratives they are exposed to and use them to not only provide greater insight into how much progress has been made historically for the equal rights of LGBT citizens, but also chart their own course moving forward. The work will encourage students to prioritize diversity, inclusivity and activism as they continue their education and careers in a city with as unique an ecosystem as Philadelphia. You can follow the journey of this project at https://oralhistoryandmemorydrexel.com/.