The Rapidian

Interview with Jeff Smith, founder of "The Grand Rapids People's History Project"

Jeff Smith discusses the inspiration behind the project, memorable reactions and future plans
The Grand Rapids People's History Project

The Grand Rapids People's History Project /Jeff Smith

More About The Grand Rapids People's History Project

Check out the Project at Reach Jeff Smith at [email protected].

NT: How would you describe the project to someone unfamiliar?

JS: We all are taught history from the perspective of those who have power, those whose voices are the most dominant. The Grand Rapids People’s History Project attempts to counteract the dominant historical narrative, by centering history on the voices that are the most marginalized and by providing an account of the rich history of social movements that have fought injustice and created a different narrative about the history of this area.

NT: What inspired you to create the project?

JS: I had been teaching a class for years on the history of U.S. Social Movements, using Howard Zinn’s, "A People’s History of the United States." When he died in 2010, someone suggested to me that a way to honor his work would be to start a Grand Rapids People’s History. Not only did this make sense to me, it did provide the best way to honor the legacy of Howard Zinn.

NT: What pieces of the project (if any) would you personally highlight as important or impressive to someone who has never visited?

JS: It is hard to narrow it down to specific aspects, since I think all of it is critically important. However, if I had to highlight the most important aspects I would say they are: 1) the history of Settler Colonialism and the Indigenous Resistance to Settler Colonialism; 2) the history of the labor movement, particularly the late 19th and early 20th Century; 3) the Black Liberation Struggle and; 4) the various International Solidarity movements like the South African Anti-Apartheid movement.

NT: Have you had any memorable reactions to the project? Or connections made in the community?

JS: I have heard lots of great responses to the growing content of the project. One memorable reaction was when we screened the feature-length film about the LGBTQ People’s History of Grand Rapids, we had roughly 700 people show up and afterwards, they gave the film a standing ovation. The connections the project has made has been amazing as well. There have been many relationships developed because of the project and strong connections to people and organizations that have been, and continue to be involved in the struggle for justice.

NT: What have you learned through your work with the project?

JS: The amount of things I have learned in working on this project is endless. First, there is just all the rich history of what people have done throughout the last 200 years in this area. Second, I have learned that Grand Rapids is not as backward and conservative as people are generally led to believe. It is just that the conservative and powerful voices have been more dominant, which is why for me the work is crucial so that people will understand that there has been resistance to injustice for roughly 200 years. Lastly, I have learned that it is the efforts of organized people that have made change. Change doesn’t come from above and it is never a gift given to us by those in power or elected officials. Change comes from below and is won by all the amazing, creative and committed people working at the grassroots.

NT: What do you envision for the future of the project?

JS: This is a difficult question. I would say that there is a great deal of research still to do and lots of writing and interviews to conduct. However, we would love to see the project evolved to include some curriculum, some walking tours, virtual tours, the creation of a series of GR People’s History posters and eventually a book. Of course, more of these things could happen if more people wanted to be involved in the project, which we would enthusiastically welcome.

Check out the Project at Reach out to Jeff Smith at [email protected].

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