Growing up in the capital of Nigeria, surrounded by people of different ethnic groups and religions, was like living in a world in which everyone is your family — that’s according to a woman I had the opportunity to interview this summer. She said life there was community-oriented, and when she left for the United States, she was surprised to find the environment here was the opposite. People would not greet her in the streets, make eye contact with her or smile. She struggled to create long-lasting friendships at her local university. Life in the United States felt like she was stranded in a sea of strangers with no hope of reprieve. This is not an uncommon narrative for an immigrant. Although this particular woman eventually found her way, and now speaks of the United States as the greatest country in the world, she spent many years feeling alone.
Another woman told me about the fear and heart-wrenching sadness of watching the news and hearing about the Kent State University shooting in 1970. She told me she could not believe the government would kill innocent students for protesting the deaths of others. Tears gently slid down her face as she recounted that moment in vivid detail. The audio recording of the interview does not properly capture the way she slammed her fist on the table in anger at the injustice, or how she covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a sob. Her story left me breathless.
These are just two of the countless stories I have been fortunate enough to capture during my internship with the Cleveland Public Library. I have spent my summer finding ordinary Cleveland residents and preserving their extraordinary stories. The Cleveland Public Library’s mission is to be the “People’s University,” a center of learning for a diverse and inclusive community. The Branch Oral History project, the initiative I worked on this summer, is a way to do just that – to celebrate the diversity, joy, hardship and uniqueness of the individuals who collectively create Cleveland’s identity. I have been inspired and moved by the tenacity, perseverance and love exhibited by the people of Cleveland on a day-to-day basis, and I strongly encourage everyone to explore these human stories in the oral history collection in the Digital Public Library.
Bobbie Szabo, a senior at Kent State University majoring in Integrative Studies, is placed at Cleveland Public Library. Bobbie works on implementation of a pilot neighborhood oral history project in four CPL branches and seeks to complete an assessment for future expansion of the program.