Monday, September 22, 2014

Not Just Like Me

Sometimes—even when we are researching our genealogy—we have to take a step back and examine our assumptions to see whether they are standing in the way of our research progress.

While I have been obsessively focused on our upcoming research journey to Ireland, that is not, in fact, the only issue consuming my attention in my every waking hour. I have been rather busy, it turns out, with other activities.

Amend that comment about obsession: other, ahem, genealogy activities.

In the course of this past week, I coordinated the program for our local genealogical society, spoke as a representative of our society’s board at a gala public event, and taught a beginners’ genealogy class at a local mini-conference.

It’s what happened at that first event—the genealogical society meeting—that sparked the thoughts I want to discuss today. You see, as vice president of that organization, I have the responsibility of arranging speakers for each meeting and planning the educational choices for the programs. Last week, as our meeting was about to begin, I went to close the doors to the meeting room when a young man stepped in the doorway and asked me the kind of question we normally love to hear:
“Is this where you can tell me how to get started on my family tree?”

At any other time, the answer would be an almost overzealous “Yes.” Inviting the unsuspecting novice in, I would fight hard to maintain my composure so as not to appear too similar to the spider addressing the fly. But this time, I almost found myself taking a good look at the man, then turning around to take in a sweeping view of the audience assembled there, awaiting the beginning of the program. The thoughts flying through my mind at that point almost sucked the words right out of my mouth.

You see, that night, our featured speaker was a local author and researcher addressing the subject of a historic cemetery in our county, and the personal histories she had gleaned from the mere inscriptions found on the now-crumbling gravestones. The time frame began in the 1850s and stretched through the rest of the century. That century.

The eager young man speaking to me, however, couldn’t have been farther from the average demographics of that assembled group—nor could he have been ready yet to benefit from century-old cemetery research findings.

Nor was the format for the evening’s program the type that would assist him. This would not be a how-to full of beginners’ tips. The meeting was about to become a time-traveling yarn about the founding of a now-vanished pioneer California town and the people who shaped its history. While many of our long-standing members who focus on preservation of cemetery records would thrive on such a topic, the meeting would have done nothing for our novice visitor.

As the fly in him began shrinking away from the doorway, the spider in me was grasping for any way to entice him to follow that spark of passion for uncovering his roots. I didn’t want to snuff out that spark by inviting him in, but neither did I want to snuff it out by sending him away.

There was, however, more to this story. It was not only a tale of a sole young person in a sea of retirees. There was also another difference. For those of you aware of my enthusiastic advocacy for methods and organizations—like The NextGen Genealogy Network—seeking to encourage younger generations to explore their roots, you know the issue of age would not be what was beguiling my introspective side.

Let’s just put it this way: while I can safely say ninety nine percent of my ancestral roots would hail from European origins, that was not the case with my young interloper. Whether he claimed ancestry from African, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander or other background is fairly immaterial to my point, although in his case, his would be the first category. My point is, rather, this: when we take a long, hard look at the members peopling our genealogical societies, they often appear to be people who are “just like me.”

And “me,” for the most part, seems to be descendants of European immigrants.

Granted, just engaging a speaker who can address these other family origins is a start—but it isn’t enough to meet the continuing research needs of those others who aren’t, after all, “just like me.” We need ways to draw people in who have these research interests, to provide them with resources and support to continue their trek toward finding their own family history’s answers.

Actually, there are such resources, but we seldom find them in the aggregate, so they seem harder to grasp in that instant in which we struggle for our reply. That’s why, when I set up our society’s Twitter account, I began a list-building project to share the Twitter handles of groups which focus on a wide variety of genealogical research interests. That’s why, if you scour the genea-bloggers community, you find there are bloggers speaking to such subjects. Some of you are yourselves bloggers who specialize in such areas.

Because I teach research workshops for beginners, I know of some of these resources, but it occurred to me it is time to make a list and share it online, as well as with our local group. Of course, there is that small matter of a trans-Atlantic research journey standing between me and such a resolution, but once that is accomplished, it is time to share the wealth regarding genealogical resources for all ethnic backgrounds of potential members for our local genealogical societies.

There is nothing quite so disconcerting as deciding to do something new—like joining a genealogical society to help find one’s roots—and stepping through the meeting room door for the first time, only to size up the crowd and realize there is not one soul in there who is “just like me.” America may be a nation of joiners, but we are also a people sensitized to the need for belonging with others with whom we share something in common. If we, as a local organization, fail to provide the resources to help those pioneer first attendees feel their association with us is worth it, will they ever feel the need to come back for a second visit?


  1. I can understand your catch 22 -- and then you would consider what would be this gent's "best way" to get started? I would think... many of the folks that arrived in the USA "involuntarily" would have a struggle tracing their tree back - as this country was (and perhaps still) is "segregating" in so many ways - including the data that was recorded by governments that reflected a white man's bias. That said, I wish him luck - I've seen incredible results obtained on PBS ... the information is "out there" - it will not be simple to find.

    1. Iggy, that's why I'm thinking aggregating the resources would help--at least for our local society to be able to hand interested newcomers a single-sheet page listing resources. There are resources out there. And knowledgeable individuals successful in getting around the usual roadblocks. As an individual researcher, though I'm aware of these resources, I'm not familiar with them. As a representative of a group promoting genealogy, however, I need to be able to provide guidance to newer researchers seeking the help.

  2. I hope you got his phone number or he can be helped at some point:)

    1. In retrospect, I've decided upon two approaches, Far Side. If the person seems open to providing those details, yes, that would be the goal. Otherwise, to be able to hand the person a flier (with next event's information listed), or a brochure (about the organization and what we provide) or at the least a business card with contact information is what we need to be prepared to do.

      Sometimes, these unexpected, spur-of-the-moment happenings can take a person by surprise. That's when practicing ahead of time and contingency planning help.


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