Over the past five years, the rich history belonging to the communities of Southwestern Pennsylvania has been preserved one story at a time, one semester at a time.
Historically significant and culturally important stories of the region and its individuals are being captured and shared through a digital medium by honors students at California University of Pennsylvania.
“The idea behind it is that no matter who you are, you can take a powerful medium and have a story that you can share,” said Cal U English professor Dr. Christina Fisanick, in whose honors courses 30 students completed digital storytelling projects on various historical topics.
“It’s a way to empower people who might otherwise not have been heard or have a voice,” Fisanick said of digital storytelling, the practice of using digital tools to tell a compelling story. “That’s something that people in our region need.”
Last week, the students premiered to the campus community 13 short videos documenting historical pieces of the regional landscape using a mix of still photos, archived film, artwork and their own voices.
The initiative, which is is in its fifth year, is made possible through a collaboration with the Senator John Heinz History Center Affiliates Program, a network of more than 125 regional historical societies and organizations dedicated to preserving local history.
The students work with historical societies throughout the Mon Valley to produce digital histories that highlight the collections of those societies.
A sampling of topics from this semester’s batch of digital stories includes a one-room schoolhouse in McKeesport, America’s first cast iron bridge spanning Dunlap’s Creek in Brownsville, and the lives of a diverse population of workers in a Donora steel mill.
Fisanick, who holds a certificate in digital storytelling from the University of Colorado-Denver, introduced students to the concept of medium at the start of the school year and helped them to develop their writing, critical thinking, editing and digital literacy skills throughout the semester. They learned how to operate the software, how to narrate and how to sequence and pace images, said Fisanick.
Before selecting topics for their videos, the classes read and discussed books on local history, performed research on local communities and toured area historical sites.
“It requires a lot of thinking and planning and research before they ever get to the site,” Fisanick said. “Before they ever went to any of the towns, they had this rich background, and I really feel like it made a difference in terms of the stories that they told and the way in which they told them.”
Students this semester worked with historical societies in Brownsville, California, Charleroi, Donora, Dravosburg, McKeesport, Monessen and Monongahela, as well as Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. and the Cal U archives and special collections.
Since the inception of the program, over 200 Cal U students have worked with upwards of 50 historical societies and organizations in seven counties in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia to produce more than 70 digital stories on northern Appalachia communities and their residents.
At the premier, Heinz History Center Affiliates Program director Robert Stakeley noted the rich local history and took stock of the various ways the region has made a state, national and global impact through colonial events, the steel and coal industries, riverboat travel and construction, women’s history, innovation and sports.
“My key objective is really to get people — especially these students — excited about, engaged with and hooked on our local history,” Stakeley said.
“I urge everyone to be part of that story or the storytelling process (and) communicate the region’s unique history with others. In essence, that’s what this project does. This is what these digital stories will allow us to do.”