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Poll pool: Baltimore County groups to collect oral histories gauging electoral engagement

In an election year that saw the largest voter turnout in over a century, civic engagement has become a more salient topic of conversation.

With voting in the national spotlight, three local organizations, in separate initiatives, are collecting oral histories from residents highlighting voting rights and civic participation.

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The Patapsco Heritage Greenway, the Historical Society of Baltimore County and the Community College of Baltimore County next year will begin seeking accounts from those who have lived in the region for decades as well as newly minted voters in two projects.

The Patapsco Heritage Greenway project, funded by a $1,975 grant from Maryland Humanities, is part of the state organization’s Voice and Votes Electoral Engagement Project and coincides with a traveling exhibition that will be coming to the Baltimore County Historical Society in Cockeysville and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Dundalk campus next December.

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Maryland Humanities gave more than $20,000 this month to a dozen organizations developing programming around electoral engagement and voting rights.

The goal is to not only explore what votership means to those who live within the Patapsco Valley, but “to emphasize the fundamental ways in which place connects us to stories to each other,” said Patapsco Heritage Greenway director Aaron Shapiro, who took the helm of the land management group in October.

Patapsco Heritage Greenway is the steward of Patapsco Valley Heritage Area, state-designated land that spans more than 36 miles across Howard and Baltimore counties and this year expanded its reach to encompass sites from the Carroll County line to the Baltimore City line.

Maryland’s 13 heritage areas have access to funding sources to preserve historic sites and provide educational programming and special events highlighting historic, cultural, archeological, natural and recreation resources in a given area.

Through partnerships with local groups, Shapiro said the personal accounts will start being collected in January at locations within the bounds of the Heritage Area, and will be collected virtually, too, although dates and locations are still being worked out.

The histories, which Shapiro said will be more like vignettes and anecdotes rather than deep dives into the subject’s life, will be collected and shown online and used in a March workshop on oral histories as part of Patapsco Heritage Greenway’s Patapsco Days series, typically a monthlong series of events and programs exploring the Patapsco Valley’s history through the lens of a particular theme.

“The hope would be encouraging folks to collect histories” themselves, he said. The former University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor also has served as a national historian for the U.S. Forest Service, where he was involved in developing public history projects that drew on oral histories.

“To say, ‘Hey, I saw this, participated in something — I told my story, you should tell yours, too,’” he said.

The Maryland Humanities grant will go in part toward purchasing video and audio recording equipment, Shapiro said.

The effort ties in with a collaboration between Maryland Humanities and The Peale Center in Baltimore to collect stories from voters 18- to 25-years-old in five areas of Maryland, including Baltimore County, to create up to 40 videos that will pair with a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution, called “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.”

The exhibit will travel to areas of Allegany, Queen Anne’s and Wicomico counties, as well as Baltimore County, working with local organizations to develop a local programming component to the traveling exhibit in order to create a springboard for discussions about voting rights, civic engagement, democracy and how those concepts are reflected in local stories.

The Community College of Baltimore County will help collect those oral histories in partnership with the county historical society.

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By collaborating with colleges and reaching out to local schools to find participants, “we hope to inspire them to fully engage in our democracy,” James Keffer, executive director of the Historical Society of Baltimore County, said in a statement.

“The topics covered in Voices and Votes are coming at a perfect time given the conversation in the country and our community,” Keffer said. “It is exciting to be forming partnerships with colleges and schools to reach students with these crucial stories.”

The testimonials also will be available for viewing at The Gallery at CCBC Dundalk from Dec. 1 next year through Jan. 22, 2022.

Personal accounts will be shared through The Peale’s “Be Here Stories” app, available for free in the Apple app store, where viewers can listen to personal accounts of Baltimore-area residents talking about their lives, neighborhoods, history and experiences.

“I think in 2020 more than in any year that I’ve been able to vote, people are more engaged in the process,” said Lindsey Baker, Maryland Humanities executive director.

Two-thirds of eligible voters cast ballots in the general presidential election in the U.S., a record-setting turnout that outnumbered voters in any election in the last 120 years, according to reports.

Nearly 3 million Marylanders voted in the general election, according to the Maryland Board of Elections’ unofficial voter turnout data.

That includes nearly 419,000 Baltimore County voters who cast ballots by mail and in-person during the general election out of 566,000 eligible county voters, according to the Baltimore County elections board.

“This is a timely and poignant topic to explore through both classroom and community learning,” Shannon Smith, community education coordinator at CCBC, wrote in an email.

Those who are interested in sharing their stories through the traveling exhibit may email Smith at ssmith18@ccbcmd.edu or Keffer, of the county historical society, at jkeffer@hsobc.org.

Those who live in the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area who are interested in participating may reach out to Shapiro at director@patapsco.org.

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