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National Public Housing Museum Taps the Power of Storytelling with New Hire

Oral historian Li˙ Chen will bring vanguard storytelling strategies to NPHM and expand its pioneering oral history corps and landmark audio archive

CHICAGO, April 6, 2022 /PRNewswire/ --áStorytelling, one of the most powerful ways to educate and inspire others, is essential to the National Public Housing Museum's mission as the nation's first cultural institution dedicated to interpreting and contextualizing the public housing experience in our nation. To better document and amplify the narratives it records of past and current public housing residents, the Chicago-based museum recently added Li˙ Chen as its oral history archive manager.

Li˙ Chen brings vanguard storytelling strategies to the National Public Housing Museum

Research shows "stories stick," sparking knowledge, insights and empathy that linger far beyond the actual stories themselves. They also help listeners see situations from different perspectives and can help change attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. Yet, "as Maya Angelou has powerfully said, 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you' and not everyone has a platform or audience, or is given space in the pages of history books or in documentary footage," NPMH Executive Director Lisa Yun Lee, Ph.D., said.

"The story of public housing in this country is often riddled with stereotypes and misconceptions. Our goal at NPHM is to change the narrative while also drawing attention to housing insecurity and promoting the right of all people to have a place to call home. I couldn't imagine a better partner in this crucial mission than Li˙," Lee explained. "At NPHM, we're trying to create space for public housing residents, past and present, to tell their stories and be heard, and Li˙ has a deep understanding of oral histories' mechanics, potency and significance."

"The more I learned about NPHM, the more excited I became about being a part of this significant endeavor," Chen said. "It's a huge and potentially daunting project, but I know I can help keep the museum grounded, rooted and accountable to the people we want to serve."

Chen is deeply committed to using storytelling to drive understanding, build connection and spark change. As a graduate of Columbia University's Oral History Master of Arts Program, the first program of its kind in the U.S., Chen's knowledge is at the cutting edge of this field.

Turning Everyday Public Housing Experiences into Teaching Opportunities

NPMH enables an exploration of the public housing experience through exhibits, art and oral histories. Visitors are granted access to an element of 20th and 21st century history that is largely missing from standard textbooks, although more than 10 million people across the United States have lived in public housing over the past century. For that reason, oral history is part of the museum's fundamental mission and can hopefully help change housing policy, as the museum's aim is to underscore the need for more safe and affordable housing - as housing is a fundamental human right of all people.

NPHM's Oral History Archive and Corps consists of a body of interviews with people from across the country who have lived in public housing, a vanguard effort recorded by a diverse group of individuals trained to be oral historians by the museum. Many of the interviews were conducted with residents of Chicago and New York public housing developments; part of Chen's mission is broadening the scope and augmenting the archives to include oral histories from public housing residents nationwide. Chen will also manage the organization and dissemination of the audio narratives and work with the museum's programming team to incorporate oral histories into exhibits and other curations for the public.

Changing the Affordable Housing Narrative by Making Recording Process More Inclusive

NPHM is committed to ensuring that the power of telling and gathering stories isn't limited to a select few. To that end, the museum aims to make oral history training as accessible as possible for public housing community members. Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that will fund the project for two years, the museum plans to revive its Oral History Corps training program which serves public housing residents and community organizers, after aátwo-year pandemic-imposed hiatus. NPHM wants to train people who have experienced barriers to access for more formal education in oral history and storytelling.

Chen's experience and training as an oral historian will inform their work at NPHM to expand its oral history archives with stories that are ethical, compelling, nuanced and add context to the public housing experience. Besides their prestigious master's degree from Columbia University, Chen served as a manager of the Voices Lifted oral history project at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.

"We are all storytellers, and story listeners. That's part of the human experience," Chen said. "But most marginalized voices are not well documented in formalized written archives. That includes the voices of public housing residents. Collecting and sharing oral histories offers an opportunity to change the narrative."

In 2007, NPHM began recording stories for the archive, which now holds over 150 recordings of public housing experiences that date as far as the 1930s, telling resident's stories in their own words. NPHM's digital archives will be made widely available to the public, beginning as early as this summer with approximately 10 to 20 recordings linked on its website. In addition, a permanent oral history exhibit is planned as part of the interactive design of the museum's new home, once completed, at 1306 W Taylor St. Some audio narratives may only be available onsite?not online?based on contributors' requests.

The museum also broadcasts a regular "Out of the Archives" podcast every month, a "greatest hits" from NPHM's oral history collection made widely available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and various other podcast outlets.

About the National Public Housing Museum:áNPHM is the first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to interpreting the American experience in public housing. Its mission is to preserve, promote and propel the right of all people to a place where they can live and prosper?a place to call home. Using art, oral histories and material culture, the museum will archive and share public housing stories of hope and personal achievement, as well as stories of struggle, resistance and resilience. These stories create opportunities for visitors to understand and engage in innovative public policy reform to reimagine the future of our communities, our society and the places we call home. Its physical structure is currently in development and will be an adaptive reuse of the last remaining building of the former Jane Addams

Homes on Chicago's Near West Side. When completed, visitors will interface with compelling, historically significant exhibits and engage with the provocative ideas of internationally renowned contemporary artists.

Beshanda Owusu


SOURCE National Public Housing Museum

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