What do we make of a year like 2020?
It’s all so close and raw and personal, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin. In Santa Cruz, oral historians are starting by documenting first-hand accounts of 22 students and staff at the University of California there.
Their project, “The Empty Year,”
reflects the individuality of experience in a college community weathering a year-long series of crises — the pandemic and renewed fights for racial justice as well as local labor strife and widespread wildfires that came, at one point, within a mile of UC Santa Cruz itself.
There are stories of a home destroyed by fire and the haunting image of embers suspended in the air. About missing dancing and losing a sense of choreography in life. About transferring across the country in the middle of a pandemic and reveling in the beach and fresh air at a new home.
But much of what the historians focus on is how all of these stories together begin to answer questions about an entire university community — how 2020 has changed it and how the year redefined the whole notion of what, and where, community even is.
“Twenty-two individual interviews may not be huge by oral history collections standards, but even our small composite spanned and connected disparate counties and communities, coasts and countries, illustrating, once again, the paradoxical interconnectedness of this time,” the project’s authors wrote.
“These stories travel from Santa Cruz to San Diego, the Chesapeake to Manhattan, and the U.S. to Mexico to Pakistan to Japan. Along the way, they collectively address a question that may seem strange at first: our project wasn’t just asking how is the UCSC community (e.g. what have our experiences been), but where is the UCSC community, and what is the UCSC community? Where are its boundaries? What does it stand for once it becomes a remote concept?”
, who works with us at our partner Lookout Santa Cruz, recently talked with the project’s authors
— Irene Reti, who directs UCSC’s Regional History Project, and Cameron Vanderscoff, an oral historian based in New York and a UCSC alum.
He asked them to explain the meaning of their project’s title:
“Empty can mean negative, it can mean hollow, it can mean you’re devoid of something, you’ve lost something,” Vanderscoff said. “But it can also be something that’s waiting to be filled with meaning. That seemed to fit 2020.
“It was a title that didn’t downplay the heaviness of the year, and the darkness of the year and the challenge of the year for many, but also didn’t leave it in that place and asked, what kind of meaning do we as a community now want to put there?”