Canon Kip Senior Center life story class wraps up

We just finished the life story class at the Canon Kip Senior Center as part of the Golden Voices Project.  It was such a treat to meet, listen to and record the stories of the seniors that participated.  What an energetic group!  There was so much to talk about that the 1.5 hour class each week never seemed like enough time.  The seniors shared stories about growing up in the Philippines, becoming a professor, childhood chores, striving for and achieving the dreams of becoming a world class gemologist, religion, family… see, it was always a lively discussion! 

We’re now deep in the midst of making personalized life story DVDs for the seniors.  We will have a community event at the Canon Kip Senior Center to share these stories, so stay posted for more info!  The event will likely be in mid July.

Here are some photo highlights from the class.

Many thanks to Canon Kip Senior Center for hosting us, and to Lolita and Josephine, in particular, for their help in scheduling and making sure things ran smoothly.

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If you’re among the many people who’ve always wanted to write your own memoir, record your life stories, or maybe interview your family members, here are some ideas for questions that can help you organize your thoughts.

Your Lineage
o Where does your family come from?
o When, why and how did you and/or your family come to the USA?
o What brought you to this city/town?
o What family traditions do you keep alive?
o What do you cherish most about your family?

Childhood and School Days
o Where were you born?
o Do you have any siblings?
o Describe a typical school day.
o Did you get into any mischief?
o How did world events affect your childhood?
o What were your favorite hobbies and activities?
o How did you and your family celebrate holidays?
o Describe the first time you fell in love.
o What lessons did you learn as a child growing up?
o What were your childhood dreams?

Early Adulthood
o Describe your dating years.
o Have you had a life partner?
o When and how did you meet your spouse or partner?
o When did you get engaged? How did he or she propose?
o What kind of career did you want? What career did you choose?
o Describe your college years or life after elementary or high school.
o Who did you look up to? Who was your role model?
o Who is your best friend? How did you meet?
o Describe your wedding, if you married or had a civil union – how it came about, who was there, how you felt, etc.
o If you have children, describe the joys and challenges of becoming a parent.

Middle Age
o Describe what it was like to raise your children or your relationship with your family.
o What did you achieve in your career?
o What friendships did you form?
o Did you do any traveling?
o What cultural movements or world events affected your life?
o What traditions did you create with your family?

Growing Older
o How is the world the same or different now than when you were a child?
o How is your neighborhood same or different?
o What are your favorite hobbies and activities now?
o If you have grandchildren, describe the joys and challenges of becoming a grandparent.

o What are the turning points in your life? What were the surprises and results?
o Which of your accomplishments gives you the greatest satisfaction?
o If you could pick three things for others to learn from your life, what would they be?
o What traditions or values do you want to see passed on to future generations?
o If you could change one thing in your life or the world, what would it be?

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Importance of Sharing Life Stories

An article in the New York Times today, “Family Stories as Secret Text for Immigrants” reminded me that we can’t say this enough to friends and family around us: 

Your life story is important.  Please take the time to record it.

It seems that everyone I’ve talked to who’s done interviews with relatives, parents or grandparents always learn something about that person or their family that they didn’t know before, valuable information that could easily have been hidden if we didn’t ask.  I’m glad there are educators who are integrating life stories into their assignments.

Here’s a video from our partner, Angela Zusman, about this very subject.

We gathered with a group of seniors today at the Castro Senior Center for a community event to celebrate with three seniors, whose stories were videotaped as part of the Golden Voices life story class.

The audience smiled as photo highlights of travels to Egypt, pictures of ballet performances, and baby pictures of the life story class participants were shown on screen. Short video clips told stories of the seniors meeting her husband for the first time after his return from the Pacific Theater, lessons learned from a distinguished career as a professional ballet dancer, and being inspired by world travels to become an actor. Here’s a shortened version of the video:

Watching the videos spurred the seniors to ask the students more questions. As one attendee said, “You might sit near one of them and never know that they have these fascinating stories. We sometimes don’t think to ask.” Betty Trooper-Naftaly, one of the students in the class, added: “I’m glad I’m doing this. It’s a great way to pass down our stories to future generations.”

We couldn’t have said it better.  We at Famento developed this project to celebrate the life stories of seniors in our community. It was really exciting to see the energy and smiling faces in the room.  It sounded like a conversation that just started.

We look forward to having some of the seniors join us in one of our future classes.

Special thanks to the Castro Senior Center for hosting the class and our event, our co-sponsor San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, Gold Partner Cypress Lawn, and Mi Zhou who graciously volunteered to take portrait photos of our life story class students.

Some photo highlights from the event:

life story class students castro senior center event

life story event

friends chatting at life stories event

life stories

chatting at life stories event

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Seniors Life Story Classes at OMI Senior Center

We’ve finalized the details for the next Golden Voices life story classes.  If you or your senior friends live in San Francicso and can join us, we’d love to see you:

Dates:          Wednesdays, March 4-25, 2009
Time:           9 am – 10:30 am
Location:   OMI Senior Center (1948 Ocean Ave.)

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Life story classes coming to a senior center near you

Over the last several months, we’ve been busy developing a new program.  I’m very excited to tell you about the Golden Voices project that we’ve launched in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Aging & Adult Services.  Our main goal is to encourage all seniors to share and record their life stories. We’ll be leading life story classes across different senior centers in San Francisco.  The life stories that will come out of these classes will be shared in community events, a citywide public exhibit, and also added to the San Francisco Public Library’s archive.

In fact, we just completed our first series of classes at the Castro Senior Center, and it was a success!

Photo sharing

Sharing life story

Written story

It was a fun and educational experience for me as I got to learn about the journey of being one of the first males as a professional classic ballet dancer, traveling through Europe and Egypt in the late 1940s, and going to college as a woman in the 50s.

I want to thank our participants for their encouraging feedback:

“[I enjoyed] …the relaxed method you used to make everyone comfortable about talking about their life experience.”

“It would be great to be able to extend the number of meetings so more periods of our lives could be covered.”

We’re busy editing the videos from the first series of classes, but we’ll definitely share some of the highlights when they’re ready.

For those of you who are in the San Francisco area on March 9, 2009, please join us for a free community sharing event where we will unveil the video highlights from the class.  You will also get a chance to hear some of the amazing life stories from the participants first hand!

We also have an extra treat for all the seniors who attend this event — get a free portrait picture taken by award winning photographer, Zhou Mi. (CORRECTION:  We will only be taking portrait photos of the students from the class.)

Community Event:  March 9, 2009, 10:30am – 11:30am, Castro Senior Center (110 Diamond Street)

Don’t miss the event!  We’re counting on your support.

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Life Stories Recorded in Different Ways

Angela Zusman, a personal historian, continues with another video to talk us through different ways to record your own life stories, the stories of someone you want to remember, or your family history.  Whatever you’re most comfortable with, you can tell your stories orally, write them down, record them in audio or video, or share them online.

More helpful video tips to come!



Shades of San Francisco

In preparing for an upcoming project by Famento, I recently learned about the “Shades of San Francisco” project at the San Francisco Public Library.  Susan Goldstein, the city archivist, told me about their ongoing efforts to collect photos and interview residents in different neighborhoods.  The photos really give you a glimpse of how San Francisco has changed over the years.  You can check them out for yourself here:  I especially liked the “Street Scenes” section.  They’ve also interviewed the residents for the stories behind these pictures.  Unfortunately these aren’t online, but you can probably find them in the main branch of the library.


Famento is about life stories, not just your own, but also those about your family.  You can learn so much by interviewing your family and hearing their life stories.  It may seem like a daunting thing to do. However, these conversations are very rewarding and easy, if you follow a few simple guidelines: 1) Prepare for the interview, 2) Be flexible during the interview, and 3) Follow up with your subject.

1) Prepare for the Interview

Identify your goal. First, you should decide what you want to learn from your interviews. Having a goal helps focus you and the person you are interviewing.

If you are interested in family history, I have a few specific recommendations. I suggest you start with interviewing the eldest extended family member. She or he has the longest memory of your family. For some families, interviewing the eldest relative first is also a sign of respect. If your family is hesitant about having these interviews, start with the most influential person in your family. Getting this person’s participation and support can pave the way with the rest of the family.

Do your research. Try to learn as much as you can about your relative before the interview. You can ask your parents or other family members for information about this relative. It is also important to know about the historical context of your relative’s life. The internet is a good place to start. This way, if your relative starts talking about life during the Great Depression, you won’t spend your time relearning basic history.

Create a list of questions. Try to create a list of the most important questions that you have. Also make sure you write down detailed background information such as names, date of birth, place of birth, and names of other relatives. This information is helpful in putting together a family tree and pedigree chart. Finally, note to yourself the most important questions you have, in case you start to run out of time during the interview.

Bring pictures or other objects. Bringing some photos of your relative or family is a very good way to generate more conversation. Many people are initially reluctant to talk about themselves, and having a few objects to help the conversation can make them feel more comfortable.

Bring all necessary equipment. Technology has made it possible to record your interviews a number of different ways. I recommend bringing a camera and a tape recorder. Some relatives are not comfortable with being recorded, but having a record of the interview will help you immeasurably afterwards. If you own a video recorder, this can be an extremely useful tool for your research. Being able to see and hear your relatives tell their own stories is also very powerful.

Let your relative get prepared. Make sure your relative is ready to talk with you. As always, it is important to be sincere and honest about your goal, and why you want to do it. Let your relative know what you plan to do with your findings and notes. Ask for explicit permission if you are planning to share these with anyone else.

Sometimes it is helpful to give a list of the general questions in advance. This can help to reduce unwelcome surprises or anxiety about an interview. I also recommend doing the interview at the relative’s home, when he or she is alone and away from distractions. Being at home also makes it easier to retrieve helpful photos or documents.

2) Conduct the interview

Make the interviewer comfortable. In my experience, I’ve found that interviews are best kept at one to two hours so that neither of you get tired. Interviews can be emotionally and physically demanding. Also, try to be considerate. A small gift to show that you took the time to learn something about your relative will show that you are sincere and genuinely interested in your relative’s life story. Whether it is his or her favorite food, a basket of fruits or a cup of coffee, do not overlook this small gesture of appreciation. Remember, you may need to set up multiple interviews to get all the information you need, and you want your relative’s experience to be a positive one.

Start with factual questions. It is best not to launch into the tough questions immediately. Let your relative get comfortable by first verifying his or her background information and other simple questions. When asking about dates of events, try to relate the timing to his or her life. This helps make the interview more personal, even if the subject is another family member.

Be an attentive listener. Be a patient and attentive listener. Don’t strictly adhere to your list of questions. Your relative’s stories and memories may lead to surprising findings. Sometimes tangents lead to the best stories. Of course, you will need to balance this with the goals of your interview.

Be ready with memory aides. Use other supporting photos or documents as a way to elicit more memories. Often we often remember more details when given the right context or input.

3) Follow Up After the Interview

Transcribe the interview. Do this on the day of the interview if possible, while your memory is fresh. If you were not able to record the interview on tape or video, you will need to fill in your notes with your own memory. Try to write your thoughts down before you forget.

Organize your notes. If your project will involve multiple interviews with different family members, it’s important to organize your notes. Try to keep your notes in a central location and remember to back them up. This way it will be easier to go back and check your findings. It also makes it easier later to share your research with other family members.

Think about your next research step. After a long interview, you may find that you have more questions than you started with! Note down new questions that you have. Also write down information that other family members might be able to answer.

Call or send a thank you note. Send a card to show your appreciation for your relative’s time. You may also want to include your interview notes so that she can review for any corrections or to provide additional information.

Get to know your family and their life stories. Help create these permanent records of your family’s most precious memories so that they will never be forgotten.

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