Community Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight their work and hope to provide insight into the lived realities within our borough during the pandemic.
Meral Agish, Community Coordinator at Queens Memory Project
Meral, you joined the Queens Memory team just shortly before the pandemic took hold of NYC. It’s been incredible to see you respond so quickly to this scale of this crisis by building the participatory platform COVID-19 Project, in order to document and archive the voices and experiences of Queens residents at this moment in time. Could you give us a quick overview of how the project works?
With the Queens Memory COVID-19 Project, we’ve opened up our archival floodgates, so to speak. Queens Memory is a community archiving partnership between Queens Public Library and Queens College CUNY that was launched 10 years ago and up to this point, almost all of our work has been done in person. When both of these institutions shifted to remote work in mid-March, we needed to figure out a way to stay active and focused on our core mission: making a record of what life is like in Queens.
To do that, we’ve set up a series of new ways to send stories directly to our archive. We have a toll-free number (1-855-QNS-LOVE) that’s set up as a community answering machine. Anyone can call and leave a message, we just ask that they leave their name, age and a description of where they’re calling from. We’re accepting stories in essentially any digital format that can be submitted directly to us at this link. Most of these submissions are videos, photos, audio recordings and text but we’ve also received some drawings and scans of paintings that have been made during these last two months. We’re also inviting people to conduct interviews with the people around them or out in their communities and are providing technical support to anyone who’s interested in learning about remote oral history interviewing and recording. Our tech partner, Urban Archive, is helping us process and share submissions on a map that will continuously be updated with people’s stories, whatever form they’re in. As the map gets filled in, you’ll be able to see stories across the whole borough that offer views into the many ways we are living through this time.
We’ve also focused much more attention on social media and ask people to tag their stories with #QueensCOVID. Every week we introduce a new theme, like Adjustment or Living in a Changed World, and ask people to respond in any way they’d like. In the next few weeks, we’ll ask questions about a mix of topics. There’s a mix of the heavy and the light, which is what the days and weeks can feel like. Some themes and prompts are heavier, like asking people who have been sick to describe the slow arc of recovery as it’s felt both physically and emotionally, and how the act of caregiving has changed as so many of us have had to adapt to new childcare set-ups or ways of nursing relatives and friends who are sick. Others are lighter, like asking for photos of quarantine baking and sharing the types of indulgent purchases we’re allowing ourselves to buy when we do our grocery shopping.
What has been the community response to the project and your experience working on it?
When I say we’ve opened up the archival floodgates, I really mean it. We’ve adapted all of our practices, from outreach to interviewing to processing, to this new remote reality. So far, we’ve received several hundred submissions and will continue to collect stories for as long as people would like to share them with us. There are many people who can’t share their stories right now for so many different reasons. To keep the space open for the stories that will come to us later, and because no one knows when this pandemic will end, I expect we’ll be active for a very long time.
I go through the submissions every day, and every day there’s something that gets to me. There’s one photo in particular that stops me every time I review the list. It shows the backseat of a car with two young girls in car seats. The mother stands in the open door at the other side and kisses her older daughter, who looks away with such misery in her eyes. In the caption the contributor, Nicholas Liu, describes how he and his wife, Jessica Chan, had to send their daughters to live with their grandparents in Flushing while Jessica works in the COVID ICU. When Nicholas submitted this photo, he and his wife had already been separated from their children for a month. This photo shows the moment of good-bye, when their older daughter knows something is about to change. I have teared up every time I look at her face.
How do you think oral history archives can help celebrate, uplift, and strengthen our communities and everything that makes Queens so special?
It’s very clear that we’re living in a Historical Moment. I put that in capital letters to emphasize the point. We are absolutely living in history, in the way that our predecessors lived through World Wars, Revolutions, Pandemics. I always want to hear about what it was like to live through these times and often you just can’t find anything like that because that’s not the way so much of our history is recorded.
Oral history archives provide a powerful alternative. An oral history interview serves as a record of what a person has seen with their own eyes and experienced through their own life, and how they’ve made meaning of their life. We have the added heaviness of being in a collective experience that is affecting us in very uneven ways. We see that in who’s falling ill and, more broadly, in the neighborhoods and communities that are suffering the most. Many of these stories are not being told in news reports or in governmental press conferences. We are still so used to hearing about the effects in numbers, not with names and stories. Oral history provides one way to witness what is happening and to record the stories of people who may otherwise be excluded from the historical narrative that will emerge from this time.
One of the challenges we’ve had in the past is getting people to recognize the importance of their story. Sometimes people can clam up when you approach them. They’ll say that their life isn’t that interesting or noteworthy. But I can assure you, no life is boring and there is never a boring interview! And the interview experience itself is so valuable. Every time I talk to someone in this space and finish up the interview, I am so grateful for their time and focus and vulnerability.
We all want to make meaning of what we’re going through, especially during a crisis like this. I see this work as a record of the resilience we’re all showing by living and working right here in Queens in the middle of something we’ve never seen before. But on a more elemental level, when we’re all isolating and at a distance, it can be a simple yet deep comfort to talk and have someone listen to you.