August 8, 2023

Resilience-Logues: Student-Led Storytelling in East Austin

In 1928, the all-white city council of Austin, Texas, adopted a “Master Plan” with an explicit goal: to segregate the city according to race. This plan established a “Negro District” on the east side of the city and ensured that Black Americans could not access public services like schools, parks, or even utilities in other parts of the city. In the decades that followed, white Austin residents used subtler tools like deeds and covenants to stop both Black and Latin American residents, particularly Mexican immigrants, from living outside of East Austin. Today, such restrictions might be illegal, but Austin continues to be one of the most segregated cities in the country.

As is the case in so many historically excluded communities in the United States, the stories embedded in the buildings, streets, and people of East Austin are rarely formally documented and preserved. In a moment when the community is once again facing threats of displacement—this time due to gentrification—Latinitas, a nonprofit organization focused on STEAM education, is using funds from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, which was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan, to build an innovative creative mapping project called Resilience-Logues. With the help of partner organization E4 Youth, they are working with the youngest generation of East Austin residents to preserve these stories and ensure that the community’s memories of joy, strife, and resilience are remembered for decades to come.

A child and adult standing in front of a green screen and a ring light as they are filmed for a video.

photo by: Latinitas

Working with E4 Youth, elementary and middle school students from Latinitas after-school program created virtual tours of their neighborhood using virtual reality and green screen technology.

Revitalizing Communities Through Technology

Founded in 2002, Latinitas seeks to empower girls to innovate through media technology. “We know there are disparities in digital equity in Austin,” said Gabriela Kane Guardia, interim executive director. “People have differing access to digital devices, to the Internet, and the skills to use them. We think it's really important that we empower the next generation to be savvy about utilizing these tools.” To do so, they host after-school clubs at local elementary schools and coding camps for high school students, and they take part in community programs that teach girls to use technology to express their creativity and explore their community.

Resilience-Logues is the first time Latinitas has embarked on a project that explicitly encourages their communities to explore and document history. Seri Worden, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “Latinitias’ Resilience-Logues is an innovative technology-driven project that demonstrates how young people in underrepresented communities are interpreting and activating historic places of importance to them.”

Kane Guardia and her team were approached by E4 Youth to work together to build on their "What Once Was" digital storytelling platform, which features virtual tours of important locations in Austin that are threatened by gentrification. Through their Creative Leadership Academy, E4 Youth teaches college students how to build these tours from start to finish by conducting research and oral histories, and integrating what they learn into virtual and augmented reality experiences that they build themselves. Both organizations wondered if they could bring the project to the elementary and middle school students that attend Latinitas’ after-school clubs.

While history may not have been a familiar focus for Latinitas, using technology to help young people gain pride in their cultura is—and they knew they could use E4 Youth’s unique program to do just that. “Many of the families we serve are still facing a lot of the inequities and displacement that's been going on for generations,” said Kane Guardia. “We wanted to make sure that our students were aware of the historical significance of things that may or may not still be standing in their community.”

Becoming Virtual Tour Guides to the Past

Thanks to the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, Latinitas and E4 Youth were able to launch workshops at nine schools that taught students involved in the Latinitas after-school programs how to research historic sites and turn them into virtual tours that could be experienced by anyone anywhere using a VR headset. Each school was given a different site around which to build their creation. Just like the college students from E4 Youth’s Creative Leadership Academy, these students built the tours from start to finish: they conducted research, wrote scripts for their tours, recorded themselves in front of a green screen, and selected images that users would see through a VR viewfinder. Finally, students were taught to code the VR experience using the web application-building program Glitch.

“Once you put the VR headset on, you’re basically teleported to this place. And at the same time, you’re seeing the students tell you its history.”

Aliyah Zavala, program coordinator, Latinitas

The end product is equal parts personal and educational, high-tech and full of feeling. Anyone who puts on a headset and accesses the program can experience the location—and get a personal tour guide who will tell them the history of the place and why it matters. “Once you put the VR headset on, you’re basically teleported to this place. And at the same time, you’re seeing the students tell you its history,” explained program coordinator Aliyah Zavala, who worked directly with many of the students on these projects. “Most of these students never get to use this type of technology. Just getting to see the VR headsets, edit the videos, and see the final products was just amazing. They felt so proud of themselves.”

Zavala noted that getting 9-14 year olds excited about history is no easy task, particularly when that history centers on complex patterns of segregation and gentrification. What made it work was connecting these historical places to the present. “It is a research project…but when you tie it to something that means something to them, and you take the time to explain it in detail, you see them understand that it is important. And in the end, we created something beautiful.”

Importantly, the locations chosen for the project are almost all living, thriving community centers, parks, churches, and other public spaces with a history that is still being written, a history the students can be part of. “All but one of the places that we covered are still open today. The history is still there, you can still go to those places and feel safe,” said Zavala.

A young child with a VR head set on her head  and her heads moving around as she uses the machine.

photo by: Latinitas

As part of Resilience-Logues, students test out their tours on virtual reality headsets.

Children sitting at desks practicing with VR.

photo by: Latinitas

Sharing East Austin with the World

Once completed, the students' projects were presented at remix parties held at area elementary schools, at community events, and even at South by Southwest in 2023. But they also live on as part of E4 Youth’s digital archive, allowing anyone to experience the stories from anywhere, either with a VR headset or through your browser. That inherent portability is part of what makes these experiences so special. “It allows you to travel to any location and learn new facts,” said Kane Guardia. “You can take it anywhere and show anybody, and they’ll learn this rich history.”

In the future, Latinitas is hoping to create more VR tours and introduce more students to both the technology and the stories embedded in their own neighborhoods. As the project continues to grow, they are excited to see how telling these stories empowers their communities and gives them pride in history that isn’t always celebrated by the outside world.

“It is a research project…but when you tie it to something that means something to them, and you take the time to explain it in detail, you see them understand that it is important. And in the end, we created something beautiful.”

Aliyah Zavala

“A lot of these historical sites that we cover may not have had recognition from the Texas Historical Commission, so giving weight to projects like this means you get to maintain and preserve that history,” said Kane Guardia. “As the east side of Austin continues to become a destination for newcomers and tourists alike, I think it's really important that we continue to bring awareness to the origins of the communities that have lived on the east side for generations.” 

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Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.

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