Great Lakes History Conference focuses on human migrations

About 30 people gathered Friday at an event of the 39th annual Great Lakes History Conference at Grand Valley State University to hear about how urban renewal policies have affected people locally and globally.

Melanie Shell-Weiss, director of the Kutsche Office of Local History at GVSU, gave the opening keynote address, “Neighborhood History as Activism: A Call to Action.”

Shell-Weiss said the major theme of this year’s conference is to “reflect on collisions and encounters,” focusing on the human movement of migration.

In her speech, she addressed urban renewal policies and how it relates to forced migrations that have occurred across the U.S., especially in the 20th century. She said the lens of migration helps shape local history.

“We see clearly how the global becomes the local,” Shell-Weiss said.

Founded by Jose Jimenez, the Young Lords movement challenged urban renewal policies in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago during the 1960s, which paralleled the national movement against racism.

Shell-Weiss said the group was a “vehicle for social justice,” and out of this movement, the Young Lords Project was established at GVSU. The project has taken more than a decade to collect about 120 oral histories of Lincoln Park, along with pictures and other primary sources.

She also talked about her time in South Africa and Miami. In these areas, as in Chicago, thousands of people, mainly minorities, were forced from their homes. It is because of these resettlements that people need to “recover, preserve and remember” their cultural heritage, Shell-Weiss said.

“All people are living histories,” she said. “We come to better understand the human condition, and we come to better understand what makes us who we are. History is what makes us human.”

Fred Antczak, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the conference is “one of the high moments of every Grand Valley year” and recognized the importance of history today. He said math and science are emphasized in today’s world, which often makes history almost forgotten.

“It’s good that we learn about atoms and molecules and cells because we are made of them, but then…why isn’t the study of history taken to be essential on the very same ground?” Antczak said.

Shell-Weiss listed goals to create an archive to reclaim history, gain academic support for the projects, give a voice to the community, have open discussion about forms of inequality and improve retention and graduation rates in the area.

In outlining these goals, Shell-Weiss issued a call to action. First, she emphasized connecting theory to practice; she said there is a need to create archives, and this cannot be done individually. Second, she said mutual benefit is important because resources can be hard to obtain. Next, expertise and control helps give the project a direction. Finally, she said recognizing barriers, whether present or not, is essential to furthering the oral history project.

Shell-Weiss ended her speech addressing the need for young people to get involved in creating and archiving oral histories. She said if we lose our history, we would lose our humanity.

Shell-Weiss is a Great Migration scholar, studying how, why and where people move. She has worked as an oral historian both nationally and globally, documenting some of her experiences in two books and many articles. In addition to directing the Kutsche Office, Shell-Weiss currently works as an assistant professor of liberal studies at GVSU.

For more information on the Kutsche Office and its projects, visit