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Woman reads in front of a fountain.

Subriena Persaud, who is pursuing a PhD in sociology, takes notes during the 2017 Field School for Cultural Documentation, which focused on Washington, D.C.’s 1968-1976 Summer in the Parks program. The Field School is a partnership between Mason’s Folklore Studies Program and the Library of Congress–American Folklife Center.

Field School Preserves Voices from 1968 Parks Program

Against a backdrop of racial tension and rioting in Washington, D.C., the National Park Service launched an innovative, community-based recreational and enrichment program called Summer in the Parks, which ran from 1968 to 1976.

For the program’s 50th anniversary, National Park Service­­­–National Capital Region enlisted the help of George Mason University’s Folklore Studies Program to locate, recruit, and document the voices of program participants.

The program was created by a coalition of park service officials, local black leaders, volunteer organizations, and public space experts. It sought to bring residents into local national parks and sites throughout the city through such free programs as concerts, children’s enrichment events, and recreational opportunities.

For six weeks this summer, the Mason research team conducted in-depth interviews with participants to gain a greater understanding of the summer program and this turbulent, transformative era. The project will also contribute to an oral history project of the African American experience.

Mason’s summer 2017 Field School for Cultural Documentation, a partnership between the Folklore Studies Program and the Library of Congress–American Folklife Center, offered the program as an option to graduate students. The program includes rigorous hands-on training in oral history collection and instruction on archiving in Library of Congress methods.

The Mason team was led by Mason English Department chair Debra Lattanzi Shutika, primary investigator, and Mason PhD candidate in sociology Felicia Garland-Jackson, research project manager. Three Mason graduate students — Violeta Palchik, a first-year master’s degree student in interdisciplinary studies with a folklore concentration, and Samantha Samuel-Nakka and Subriena Persaud, from Mason’s public sociology doctoral program — were also on the team.

“The field school is what you make of it,” says Garland-Jackson, who was a 2016 Field School student. “It gives you the opportunity to dig deeper and really apply what you’ve learned in the classroom — whether it’s understanding how institutional failure contributes to collective memory or how the failure to document individuals’ histories often centers on power distribution.”

Students saw firsthand how their efforts to capture missing voices can make real, tangible differences in communities.

“It pushed me beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone to recruit participants, discuss an emotionally charged subject matter, and conditioned my ability to be an active listener and engaged interviewer,” says Samuel-Nakka. “This course has equipped me with a tangible skill set that I can apply to my own research.”

Another benefit of the field school is its interdisciplinary application. “Our skill set came from cultural anthropology, history, journalism, sociology, folklore, and library science,” Palchik says. “We got to jump into the world and immerse ourselves in different points of view.”

By Felicia Garland-Jackson​