UCSD students build archive of untold stories and impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities

UC San Diego students participate in a Zoom meeting to discuss their projects for the Race and Oral History Project.
UC San Diego students participate in a Zoom meeting to discuss their projects for the Race and Oral History Project.
(Andrea Lopez-Villafana / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some students at UC San Diego who set out to document the oral histories of San Diego’s ethnic communities also are witnessing firsthand the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on marginalized communities.

The UCSD course Race and Oral History Project requires undergraduates to record interviews with people in San Diego’s neighborhoods. The 32 students are paired with a nonprofit organization and collect stories of immigrants, refugees and Latino and black residents.

The class was introduced in spring 2018. This year it’s taking place as nonprofit organizations scramble to provide resources during the pandemic.

Students are collecting stories that don’t exist in textbooks, said professor of ethnic studies Yen Lê Espiritu.

“Even though San Diego is one of the largest cities in the country, there really isn’t a prominent monograph or book on the history of racialization [of] communities in San Diego,” Lê Espiritu said.

“It is exciting in that we will have this cohort of 32 oral histories about how individuals are dealing with COVID-19.”

Students say refugee communities are struggling to get access to technology, and immigrants in custody at detention centers are concerned for their safety because of the pandemic.

Lina Mohammed, a human-biology senior, said she was struck that some people in detention were denied access to translators or other resources.

The class requires students to intern with an organization and conduct in-person interviews, but because of coronavirus restrictions they are conducting all interviews virtually.

The organizations students partnered with include Allies to End Detention, United Women of East Africa, the Refugee Health Unit, the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Oakland, the American Friends Service Committee and the Refugee Teaching Institute.

The class is a collaboration between the university’s history and ethnic studies departments. Professors Luis Alvarez, Lê Espiritu and Simeon Man created the course.

Man, with the history department, said the students’ work is highlighting disparities.

“It’s showing very clearly how this devastating pandemic is not affecting everybody equally,” Man said, “and that some people are more vulnerable to the pandemic based on their socioeconomic background, their race, their status as documented or undocumented immigrants.”

The class met April 28 through video conference. The students started by sharing general concerns about the pandemic and then presented updates on their work with the organizations.

Gaia Grippa, a second-year student, is working with the Refugee Health Unit. She said she has learned that many refugees don’t have access to laptops and other technology, but she observed how the organization was still able to provide information on resources.

“It was just very interesting to see how they are trying to respond very quickly to those new circumstances,” Grippa said.

The oral histories collected in the course and two past courses will be archived at the university’s library next year. For the time being, they are accessible through a class website.

Lê Espiritu, Man and Alvarez take turns teaching the course each semester.

Man said some students choose after the course to continue advocating or working with the organizations they are paired with.

“It’s been really wonderful to see the class become a vehicle for some of these students to continue to work with the community organizations,” Man said. ◆