Pittsburgh-area oral history project connects generations

Crossing Fences pairs black teens, men

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Crossing Fences is a fresh twist on the ancient tradition of passing along a society's memories, history and values from one generation to the next through storytelling and oral history.

It's a neighborhood-based oral history project that pairs teams of teenage and preteen African-American boys with successful men from their neighborhoods. The goal is to connect generations and guide youth by positive example and to help them visualize what they can become. The boys interviewed the older men and documented their stories with audio recordings.

The project is part of SLB Productions, the nonprofit behind the weekly "Saturday Light Brigade" program, which airs here on WRCT-FM (88.3) and on other public stations throughout the region.

This is the second year for Crossing Fences. Participants came from three communities -- North Side, McKeesport and Pittsburgh's Hilltop neighborhoods, including Beltzhoover and Allentown. Last year, boys from Hazelwood, the Hill District and Homewood took part. There will be a third edition of Crossing Fences in 2014.

The men came from all walks of life -- business owners, artists, poets and musicians, youth advocates and community leaders, ranging in age from early 20s to late 80s.

The kids came from three youth advocacy groups -- the Allegheny Youth Development program at Pittsburgh Schiller on the North Side, Voices Against Violence, whose programs include a summer day camp for youth at McKinley Recreation Center and the Youth CAST Leadership program in McKeesport.

"The men are there to share their stories and inspire them and give them advice," said Chanessa Schuler, a multimedia specialist with SLB Productions. "They definitely come away with some new insights. They come out with an understanding that you can relate to anyone, and that you can do and be anything you want to be.

"We teach them interviewing skills, listening skills, editing and post-production," Ms. Schuler said. They learn practical things that will serve them well later in life, like using eye contact in interview situations, having confidence in themselves and meeting strict project deadlines.

"They prepare the interview questions themselves," Ms. Schuler said. "We critique them, and we make sure they're prepared to go into the interview." After the interviews, they whittle their material down to five-minute segments.

Desmone Stanford, a sophomore at McKeesport Area High School, said taking part in the program gave him valuable computer skills and life skills. He found the interview subjects' life stories inspiring and motivating: "If you've got goals, you can achieve it. Don't give up." He encourages other kids to get involved in future Crossing Fences programs. "They can learn some life lessons and it keeps them off the streets."

Some of the men weren't overnight success stories. Some faced tough obstacles as youth. The kids see them as living proof that someone who grew up in the same neighborhood they did can make a mark on the world.

DeVon Madden is founder and president of Shadow Student Athletes and runs mentoring programs in several public schools. He grew up in Beltzhoover and worked with the Hilltop group this summer. The value of the program is "beyond words," he said. "It gives children an opportunity not just to express their voices, but also to learn how to listen to others."

He took something away from the experience as well. "I got an opportunity to share my stories that may go citywide. People get to know about my community. 'Crossing fences' means crossing neighborhoods and boundaries."

Sculptor Thaddeus Mosley was interviewed by teens in the North Side group. "My reason for doing these sorts of things is because children aren't exposed to enough different viewpoints. They don't know how many options there are." As an artist, he found value in encouraging youth to express themselves. "There's a great satisfaction in having a skill and being able to do something yourself."

The interviews are available in CD form, along with a companion book, and are archived at SLB's Community Voices website, neighborhoodvoices.org/crossingfences. Copies of the recordings will be placed in SLB StoryBoxes in each of the three communities. The StoryBox is a combination of audio recordings and artwork created by area youth.

Last week, CD release parties were in the McKeesport, Hilltop and North Side. This week, there will be a citywide celebration at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m. Participants in the project will be there and copies of the CD/book will be available. To attend, RSVP at: tinyurl.com/CrossingFences2013.

Crossing Fences was funded by the Heinz Endowments' African-American Men and Boys Initiative, which was established to create educational, social and leadership opportunities, along with support from local businesses and organizations.

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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