Working with Local Seniors: The Family Story Project

Tom Mould, Professor of Anthropology and Folklore, History, and Anthropology, Butler University, Ann Homrighous, Director of Programs and Services at Heritage Place of Indianapolis, Josie Buendia, Butler student and project participant, Jack Dicen, Butler student and project participant, Kayla Erpenbeck, Butler student and project participant, Hillary Kulavic, Butler student and project participant, Danny Schmiegel, Butler student and project participant.

This session will explore issues of community engagement, community-based research, mutually beneficial outcomes, ethical fieldwork, and the common good through the case study of the Family Stories Project. The Project brought community partners, senior citizens, and university students together to meet the goals of participants, the community organization, and the course in which the students were enrolled. Students paired up with local senior citizens to record their family stories and produce a print and electronic Family Story Collection for each of them. Our session explores this project both as an easily replicable and adaptable model, as well as a case study to consider key questions in working directly with community members towards a common good that may seem individualistic, even invisible at times. Presenters include community partners and students. Participants will leave with ideas and resources for creating their own low-risk, high-impact collaborative project or adapting the Family Stories Project to their own university community. They will also leave with strategies for mitigating the risks of student fieldwork and maximizing the beneficial impacts of interpersonal, inter-generational fieldwork.

Our session and the Family Story Project at its center, does not address traditional topics and themes of the common good in terms of shared resources, facilities, and institutions, but rather to consider both shared and foundational aspects of the “common good.” Most explicitly, we approach the common good as a good shared equally and equitably among all participants. In this way, our session will focus on ensuring that collaborative projects are mutually beneficial, with all members sharing in the good of the project. Benefits will vary, meaning there may be no single, shared “common good,” but the good will be distributed and common to all.

However, we also consider the building blocks of the common good and how projects that appear focused at the individual level can nonetheless contribute to the common good as focused at the societal level of goods shared by the majority of the group. Specifically, we explore how the development of interpersonal relationships can serve are the building blocks of the common good. In the case of the Family Story Project, students and senior citizens build relationships that bridge age differences, but often also bridge regional, ethnic, racial, gender, and socio-economic boundaries as well. These benefits appear confined to individuals. Similarly, the focus on family stories has the potential to strengthen familial bonds, but those benefits, too, appear confined to small groups.

One might be tempted to confuse personal good with John Locke’s concept of “private good.” However, borrowing from game theory, what is beneficial to the individual may also be beneficial to the group (the Prisoner’s dilemma is a classic example). Further, “good” is not inherently restrictive, competitive, or exclusionary. Rather, we should expect that what is good for one could be good for many. But we go one step further by considering that what is good for community members individually can impact broader goods shared by many. For example, strengthening intergenerational and interracial bonds within a community can contribute to a stronger society, and therefore the common good writ large. The same is possible for stronger familial relationships that can serve as the foundational for a stronger civic society.

Our target audience includes teachers, community leaders, and students who may not have explored project-based community engagement before and are looking for a low-risk, high impact project to begin with, or who have some experience with service-learning and community projects but are interested in exploring projects where students work directly with community members, not just community organizations.

Our goal is to offer audiences the following:

  • Ideas and resources for creating their own low-risk, high-impact collaborative project
  • Adapting the Family Stories Project to their own university community.
  • Strategies for mitigating the risks of student fieldwork and maximizing the beneficial impacts of interpersonal, inter-generational fieldwork.
  • Space for exploring practical, theoretical, ethical, and methodological questions about applying this model to their own work.
  • Opportunities to discuss how these issues related to their own projects and share their own tips. and strategies