Manchester students record oral histories of Northside residents


It’s easy to forget about the Northside’s long, storied history with all the layers of change over the past century, but a group of eighthgrade students from the Manchester Academic Charter School have helped keep that history alive and in the present by giving it a voice.

Their project “Allegheny Voices,” a small magazine and accompanying CD filled with interviews the students conducted with 11 elders who grew up on the Northside and lived through many of its transformations.

The Saturday Light Brigade, a family-friendly radio station housed in the Children’s Museum, teamed up with the Andy Warhol Museum to direct 18 students from the charter school to record and edit the interviews, and then transcribe them and design a magazine to showcase the seniors’ stories.

Bridging the gap between generations emerged as a major theme in the interviews and the student’s reflections, and both Denis Henderson, the students’ social studies teacher, and Jeff Baron, director of production and development at SLB, said that was one of the main goals for the project.

Kenneth Harrison, an eighth-grader who interviewed Walt Watters, said that he was surprised by how times had changed, and how much more violence he had to deal with than Watters growing up.

“Wow,” Harrison said. “Like what happened?”

He added that he realized he shouldn’t be so hard on his mother for being over-protective anymore after seeing the difference between the amount of violence during Watters’s childhood and his.

Baron added that seeing the students learn about and understand history was “awesome.” He said many of the students and seniors spoke about important, pressing issues like violence and racism.

Larry Berger, SLB’s executive director, agreed. “To bring generations together is great,” Berger said. “To create something where there was nothing.”

Amirah Abdul-Raheem interviewed Rev and Gram Robinson, founders of the Manchester Academic Charter School. She and her partner spoke with the couple about their involvement in the civil rights movement and the election of the first black U.S. president.

She said she was amazed at how hard the couple worked to achieve their goals, and that she took the lesson to heart.

“Always try hard and do your best, no matter what,” she said.

Baron had an interest in oral history and proposed the idea after SLB received a $10,000 grant from the Charm Bracelet Project, which hopes to unify the Northside and make it accessible.

“Some of [the students and seniors] grew up around the corner from each other,” he said, his excitement for the project shining through in a wide grin.

The terms of the grant required SLB to partner with at least one other local organization. The radio station approached the Andy Warhol Museum, in part because of Warhol’s interest in recording everyday conversations and his “Interview” magazine.

Joan McGarry, school and studio programs director at the Warhol Museum, said the project was similar to the core idea of the “Interview” magazine, which featured people of the same professions interviewing each other.

“It’s Northsiders interviewing Northsiders,” McGarry said. “They might be from different times, but it’s the same neighborhood.”

Berger said that they had worked with the school before, and chose it for the project because its flexible curriculum allowed the students time to work on the project.

As seventh-graders, the class worked on a social studies project called “Growing Up in Manchester,” where they created a DVD of interviews of elders who grew up in the neighborhood before 1960.

Henderson said that “Allegheny Voices” tied well into “Growing Up in Manchester.”

While the DVD project was a class requirement, the “Allegheny Voices” project was not, he said. About 90 percent of the class decided to participate. Henderson allowed the students to pick their own partners.

Baron created dossiers of the seniors who agreed to work on the project and gave them to the students to help direct their questions.

The interviews took place between October and December 2008. Baron said he took several weeks to teach the students how to use professional recording equipment and how to edit the recorded interviews, while Henderson taught them how to interview.

Abdul-Raheem said she was nervous about interviewing the Robinsons at first, even though she knew them from school, and that using the large headphones in the radio studio was strange.

“We could hear ourselves and it sounded kind of weird,” she said.

Harrison, on the other hand, said he wasn’t nervous, and enjoyed the opportunity to meet someone new.

Baron knew most of the students — and seniors — were uncertain and nervous during the first parts of their interviews when they sat at opposite ends of the studio.

Once they started, though, he said, both parties relaxed and talked for an hour or longer. He left the microphones on after the “official” end of the interviews, and when everyone got up to leave, he said rather than ending they wound up talking even more, and that those parts of the interviews were often some of the best.

In order to fit all the interviews onto one CD, the students had to edit the interviews down to about seven minutes each.

The students did most of the editing, Baron said, including indexing the interviews by topic and pulling out the parts they wanted to use on the CD, which proved to be a challenge.

“We tried to take out as much as possible,” Abdul-Raheem said. “If there was something we didn’t want in there we would edit it out and put something that we wanted.”

Harrison and his partner edited out repetitive phrases to save time on their track and fit in as much as possible. Abdul-Raheem and her partner got rid of “ums” and “uhs” as well as laughter.

McGary then taught them how to use Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop to create and lay out the magazine at the Warhol. Many of the students designed the pages on which their transcribed interviews appeared.

Designing and printing the magazine took most of the rest of the school year. Berger said that the 1,000 copies of the magazine they printed were going quickly. The audio tracks are available on SLB’s website at

“If you can get an opportunity to do a big project,” Harrison said, “take it, no matter how hard,” because the learning experience is worth it.

Northside Chronicle Town Hall Subscription