Intergenerational Storytelling Project: Seniors and Students Build Relationships Through Narrative Art

Sequoia Living – Intergenerational Storytelling

Over the course of the 2019-2020 school year, Voice of Witness (VOW) engaged in a consultancy and collaboration with Sequoia Living, a local nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to impacted seniors in San Francisco, and Ida B. Wells High School. VOW supported an intergenerational storytelling project that focused on relationship building between seniors and high school students through the co-creation of story art that included oral history, photography, painting, and more.

Ida B. Wells social studies teacher and Germanacos Fellow Michael Gomez and librarian Ren Volpe worked with VOW staff and Sequoia Living’s Intergenerational Program Director, Taryn Patterson, to create the curriculum for the project.

During weekly student visits to the Willie B. Kennedy Senior Center, students and seniors built relationships through oral history interviews, storytelling, and by creating visual art based on their personal narratives. One Ida B. Wells student, Adolfo, describes his experience:

“It’s something new to me. I’ve never talked to elderly people before. Like with my grandma, it was always just, “Hi,” and give her a kiss and I would go play with my phone. Actually coming in and doing this for a couple weeks as we’ve done, it’s been kind of different. It’s cool too because I’ve never been able to talk to elders and stuff. I would do it again.”

Sequoia Living’s Taryn Patterson described the impact of the program on seniors, saying:

“The VOW project has been an ideal way not only to elicit stories from two populations whose voices aren’t often amplified, but it was also truly bidirectional — students and residents were equal partners in the process. They had equal voices.”

The theme of the project was “The Road of Life,” which created many entry points for exploring intergenerational relationships through story sharing. During the weekly visits, each senior and student group would respond to prompts related to themes such as: “crossroads,” “destinations,” and “speed bumps.” Related prompts included:

  • Can you describe a place or location that’s important to you?
  • Can you describe a challenge you’ve had to overcome?
  • Can you describe your childhood?
  • Can you describe a specific moment in your life that you cherish or brought you joy?

Student and senior groups would share stories and reflect, then express the details and emotions of their stories through visual art activities. These activities were led by Art With Elders instructor Darcie O’Brien. The visual art and personal narratives were combined to create large collages that told the story of each group’s relationships.

Unfortunately, just before the seniors and students were able to finish their projects, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the seniors began to shelter-in-place. The combined art pieces and oral history excerpts were finished by the students just before schools in San Francisco were closed for the year. The collages were scheduled to be displayed at the Western Addition branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Instead, we are working on a way to present the collages on the library’s website in the fall.

Plans are currently underway for the project to continue next year utilizing an online and distance learning format, which will also include mail-in interview activities, journal writing, drawing, and cameras for participants with unreliable internet access.

Senior Vicky Blake perhaps best summed up the promise of the project:

“It’s been inspiring to be with these young ladies. Finding out their wisdom, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears, their growths. To be here with the future is very powerful.”

Read a handful of excerpts from the seniors’ oral histories here, and learn more about the project here.

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