Activists are capturing area history by giving locals a voice in a project that affects everyone in the region.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper recently completed the first phase of its oral history project, an ambition to record interviews with people who live along the lower part of the river. It includes Chatham, Bryan, Effingham, Screven and Bulloch counties.
The group hired c.a.s.e. Consulting Services for the project.
With a voice recorder, research partner and founder Dr. Simona Perry and her team try to keep the interviews “pretty simple,” so it is not intimidating.
Still waters run deep
“We sit and talk or we go out on boats with them or they take us on walks through their property,” Perry said of the estimated two- to eight-hour interviews. “The idea really is to understand the experiences that they have on the river and what it’s like to live there and what’s important to the place for them, through their eyes.”
About 20 interviews have been collected so far.
The project goes beyond just asking questions and getting people to answer. Instead, the group wants to build a relationship, according to Perry, where residents understand the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and what it does as an organization.
Of all the counties, Perry said Bryan County has the most people living along the river; And the focus is largely on the lower part of the county, below Fort Stewart.
The project includes a collaboration with Georgia Southern University, where the school houses donated artifacts, including a Racer Evans boat. The two organizations are also working together to maintain a digital, online archive that includes documents, photographs, and, of course, the interviews. Some are transcribed and indexed for the public.
Perry explained how some authenticity can be lost from a transcription because dialect in speech can’t be added. So, audio is preferred with future hopes to include video.
In addition “off-the-grid,” survivalists, the team has found mostly generational landowners living along the river.
“There’s a lot of really interesting characters along the river and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Perry said. “I mean, there’s just a lot of diversity of people and types of people and their relationship with the river.”
Initial reaction to the project has varied, Perry said, but the heart of the project is to be able to build rapport with the people. It helps that she and her team are local and have a genuine interest.
By and large, the Ogeechee is a “rural place,” Perry said, that can’t easily be accessed by road, for example. That has been a beauty mark and an obstacle.
“It’s a private place. And so, one of the issues has been getting access to people,” Perry said, mentioning trespassing. “It’s been a challenge sometimes. People don’t trust. People are always suspicious when you say, ‘I want to hear your story.’”
Skeptics think there’s a hidden agenda, a sales tactic, or an attempt to somehow take their property.
Tensions ease, Perry said, “once people trust and get the sense that what we’re doing is not for any nefarious purpose.” Those same residents become glad they have “a voice,” and that the project exists.
The group hopes the project will raise public awareness.
“We think it’s important that people understand the past of this area, particularly as development encroaches,” Perry said. “People along the river — the place means a lot to them, for various reasons. And they are protective of the river and their land.”
“It’s day in, day out part of them,” former riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn Kurilla aid. “It’s their home. It’s not just a place to go.”
Kurilla explained that while a 2011 fish kill was a disaster, it was also a reason for the project and provided funding through a $2.5 million settlement from the manufacturer found responsible.
“It’s all about putting the resources back into the river and back into the community to promote and protect the river,” Kurilla said.
She called the first phase “very successful,” and described an iceberg effect from the research.
“We also realized there’s so much more out there, knowledge and history,” Kurilla said. “We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Kurilla said it was imperative to capture that history. She said Ogeechee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations. But she wants more.
“Contribute financially. Contribute their time and their stories and just realize what a special place it is that we’re trying to protect,” Kurilla said.
The Ogeechee will likely be considered for future development, she said.
“I completely understand that development’s going to happen as we grow,” Kurilla said. “We just need to make sure that it’s in a smart way and that it’s most protective of the river and its people.”