The Douglas Oral History Project: Revisiting the Past to Inform our Present

May 28th, 2021 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Spring 2021

Editor’s note: Ceci Lewis recently retired from her position as Bread Loaf’s Associate Director. The work she details here draws from her dissertation, Breaking Borders: Women of Mexican Heritage in Douglas, Arizona. See our Fall, 2016 account of Ceci’s doctoral work. Ceci’s academic biography follows this article.

For some, retirement is all about rocking chairs and knitting. Not for this BLTNer!  Retirement has brought me to a wonderful new project with colleagues Beth Henson and Ginny Jordan who share my passion for life stories.  Together, we have created the Douglas Oral History Project. What was previously a traveling exhibit, now has a permanent home in Douglas Oral History Project headquarters.

Hugging the international border between the United States and Mexico, Douglas, Arizona is rich in history. Douglas’s smelters, created in 1901 to service the copper industry,  were the lifeblood of the community for more than half a century. When the last smelter closed in 1987, Douglas experienced a significant economic shift. Professional opportunities decreased and people left to find work elsewhere. However, judging from the active social media accounts regarding Douglas and its history, the community remains close to their hearts. 

Douglas Oral History Project co-founders:  (L-R) Ceci Lewis, Beth Henson, and Ginny Jordan.

The Douglas Oral History Project was designed to connect the Douglas diaspora with its people’s hometown roots and to provide a space, both physical and virtual, where the public can come to learn about the community. Our goal as creators of the project is to collect and archive oral histories by interviewing as many of Douglas’s present and past citizens as possible. While our immediate focus is on the oldest members of our communities, whose stories are most endangered, we are also interviewing others in the community. Our primary focus is on people’s families: why they came to Douglas, where they came from, and why they left. We are attempting to construct a family tree of the pioneer families, and we also hope to recreate the various barrios and neighborhoods that existed through mapped pictures and stories. 

Once Covid restrictions have been lifted, there is so much we would like to do. We plan on holding events to include sessions on autobiographical/memoir writing and genealogical research, public presentations, and exhibits.  Please visit us at our Facebook page:  Douglas Oral History Project.

Cecelia “Ceci” Lewis is a Latina educator from Douglas, Arizona, who recognized early in life the value of personal stories. As an English educator, she has used qualitative research and ethnographic methodology to produce evidence-based narratives that inform personal, professional, and public understanding.  Her work has been supported by the Spencer Foundation twice: in 2000, for a qualitative research project on second language acquisition where students and instructors used personal narratives to help us understand what it means to acquire a second language, whether by choice, mandate, or necessity.  The participants include elementary students in Lawrence, MA; high school students in Tombstone, AZ, and university students in Johannesburg, South Africa, along with their instructors, and Michael Armstrong, a British primary school headmaster and expert on narrative. The second project, which is currently underway, involves Navajo youth leaders holding collaborative conversations with their elders on hardship narratives.  This project is a collaborative effort with Diné College, La Casa Roja, a non-profit on the Navajo Nation, and Aaron Shakow, a Research Associate in Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In 2016, she earned her Ph.D. in Mexican American Studies from the University of Arizona.  Her research centered on the lives and stories of women of Mexican heritage who lived in Douglas during the first half of the 20th century.  Lewis  has a thirty-year history of participating in, organizing, and leading inclusive, accessible, anti-racist networks for youth, community mentors, and teachers that successfully function across differences and distances.  These networks include the Andover Bread Loaf International Peace Literacy Network, the Navajo Nation, and the Santa Fe Indian School. She is a cofounder of La Casa Roja, a non-profit located on the Navajo Nation whose mission is to provide inquiry based and pragmatic action centered leadership and learning opportunities for Indigenous Peoples by reclaiming rhetorical sovereignty, utilizing traditional wisdom to solve contemporary problems, and employing critical and creative thinking to sustain stronger, healthier communities.  She is also a co-founder of the Douglas Oral History Project in Douglas, AZ whose mission is centered on collecting the stories of the people of Douglas, AZ to provide a more equitable and inclusive history of the town. 

-Dixie Goswami, 2021

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