Sponsored link
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Sponsored link
Arts + Culture Culture Preserving stories of California life during COVID—and you can...

Preserving stories of California life during COVID—and you can share yours

'Like a war effort': California Historical Society documents struggles, disparities, and perseverance during pandemic


Erin Garcia, director of exhibitions at the California Historical Society, and her colleagues were looking for ways to engage their audience digitally. What they came up with, the project Tell Your Story—California in the Time of COVID-19, does just that—as well as undertaking something unique for a historical society. 

“This is an opportunity to document history as it’s happening,” Garcia said. “It’s a rare opportunity to focus on the present moment which is so historic.”

Right before CHS closed due to the pandemic, it hosted a show of paintings and archival material, From the Gold Rush to the Earthquake: Selections from the Collection, which included personal letters between a husband and wife during the Gold Rush. Documents like this give nuance and texture to the broader history of the period, Garcia thinks, just as individual stories from around the state give a sense of how regular people—retired, frontline workers, students, parents, those who have lost their jobs—are coping. 

The stories on CHS’s website include one from a 23-year-old near Indio who lost her job and now lives with her partner’s parents, essential workers in a hard hit area of mostly farm workers. She says the food line stretches for a mile. There’s a 35-year-old new graduate nurse in Sacramento who says he feels privileged to start working in public health in the midst of a pandemic.

A 37-year-old mother of two in Tracy says her family has lost its income, and she hopes after the pandemic people will treasure their time with one another. And a 72-year-old San Francisco reverend writes about missing his grandchildren, going to the YMCA and singing with the choir. He walks five miles every morning and works on a history of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco in the afternoon—and says he knows he’s better off than many people. 

From contributor Nancy Marie in El Cerrito

Garcia says when they started collecting stories for the website, they didn’t realize how eager people would be to share. 

“People need to tell somebody what’s happening to them,” she said. “They needed an outlet to say what they’re going through. This pandemic is so isolating, and people are looking for a way to connect.”

To come up with the questions, which include, “How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically affected you, your family, or your community?” and “How do you think life will or will not be the same after we emerge from sheltering in place?,” Garcia says she and a team, including CHS’s research librarian Frances Kaplan, came up with a long list and then whittled it down to just a few.

“We wanted questions that would bring out stories and give people a lot of latitude to bring out what they want to say,” Garcia said. “One was about experiencing a personal milestone it has affected you.”

As time goes on, they’re starting to hear a lot of those stories, Garcia says, of people celebrating birthdays, graduations, weddings, and births in isolation – or dealing with a significant event like the deaths of family or friends. 

“Some stories are just so sad,” she said. “There are a lot of stories of people who put relatives in the ground without being able to properly say goodbye.”

From Andra in San Francisco

As the pandemic drags on, the tone of the stories has changed some, Garcia says, with some people addressing the protests in what they write. Now they are getting stories of people who have COVID or someone close to them has.  

The stories make clear the inequities in how the virus affects people, Garcia says. 

“We’ve definitely noticed a gendered division of labor and how that’s exacerbated,” she said. “With childcare and care giving, that really falls on women. It’s exposed our problems with childcare and healthcare.”

They excerpt about 250 words from the stories to put online along with a photo. With the photos – of palm trees, a suburban neighborhood and the woods – you see the geographical diversity of the state, Garcia said. 

“People are taking a lot of walks now, and there’s this intense localization,” she said. “It’s interesting to see through people’s eyes what life look like for them now.”

Garcia appreciates the wide ranges of the stories. 

“One woman talks about sewing masks for people working in the church kitchen, and this was early on and masks weren’t widely available,” Garcia said. “She felt for the first time like she was part of a war effort. I thought that was insightful—of course we’ve been at war, but not here. This has put Americans in an uncomfortable place.” 

Share your story and a photo with the California Historical Society here 

Sponsored link

More by this author

Sirron Norris’ cartooning classes take to internet for COVID summer

No reason for kids to lay down their pencils in the pandemic, says the iconic Bay Area artist.

Raising the wage for tipped workers

'Waging Change' by Berkeley filmmaker Abby Ginzberg tracks the fight for better service industry pay, from 9/11 to #MeToo.

Preserving stories of California life during COVID—and you can share yours

Erin Garcia, director of exhibitions at the California Historical Society, and her colleagues were looking for ways to engage their audience digitally. What they...

With colorful street art, 100 Days of Action represents essential workers

When artist Christo Oropeza was asked to create a painting for a storefront as part of Art for Essential Workers (a program by local artist collective 100...

A bright story behind the city’s new mural wave

Artist Vida Kuang grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The anti-Asian racism that ramped up at the beginning of the year followed by the...
Sponsored link

Most read

The latest nasty — and inaccurate — attack on Chesa Boudin

No, the DA's Office did not release a burglary suspect who went on to attempt a rape.

The Agenda: The eviction tsunami begins

Local courts will start to hear cases Monday; tenant groups plan protest.

Now it’s the mayor attacking the supes

Breed tells business group that the progressive majority is against housing -- but the evidence shows otherwise.

RIP, the Notorious RBG

How one woman, one petite woman with a mighty intellect and a grit true to her Brooklyn roots, became not just a role model, but a revered symbol of the struggle for women’s equality.

Michelle E. Fillmore paints to connect—and manage pandemic emotions

The Oakland photorealist's work depicts mystery, transformation, and the identity crisis imposed by our moment.

The rich aren’t leaving SF — they own it

Developers cry crocodile tears to win political points -- but in the end, planners may have to admit they bungled the future of Soma.

The most important political story of 2020 that nearly every campaign is ignoring

The very rich stole $50 trillion from the rest of us in the past 45 years. Why aren't we all outraged?

From Herbie Hancock to Angela Davis: Monterey Jazz Fest comes to you

Moving online and back to its roots, the 63rd installment of the legendary fest focuses on history and support of Black community.

Screen Grabs: Keeping it together—and falling apart

Spotlight on mental health with Blackbird, Last Call, the Swerve, Rialto, and Oliver Sacks. Plus: The Beatles, Chuck Berry, Space Dogs

PUFF: How I got my high back

After months of isolation, it may be time to adjust your habits—with flower by Lolo, prerolls from Jack Herer, and some Kwik Ease
Sponsored link

You might also likeRELATED