ECCA collects stories to help build community

Project records, preserves Camas-Washougal residents’ conversations

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Don O’Brien (left) talks to John Neumann (far right) at the Camas Public Library as audio technician Ransom Reed records the conversation, which launched the East County Citizens Alliance’s East County Voices project in March 2024. (Contributed photos courtesy of the East County Citizens Alliance)

The East County Citizens Alliance (ECCA) launched in 2021 as a grassroots effort to identify ways to make the cities of Camas and Washougal stronger, more supportive, more resilient and more joyful by bringing local residents of varying backgrounds together to solve problems and build relationships.

Since then, the nonprofit has followed through on its ambitions by launching several projects, including trash pickups and wildflower planting along Highway 14, a “community-school” tutoring program and a community created mural at Hamllik Park.

But ECCA Executive Director Melanie Wilson said she has kept her original goal at the forefront of her mind.

“When we started (ECCA) almost three years ago, we knew that we wanted to build community in a couple of different ways,” she said. “One was developing various volunteer projects that people could all agree were good things to do. The other way was helping people tell their stories.”

Earlier this year, ECCA launched its latest project, called East County Voices, to record and preserve conversations between pairs of local family members, friends or coworkers in an effort to strengthen bonds between community members and encourage mutual appreciation and respect.

“This project was always our heart’s desire, but we felt like we needed to put down some roots and do a lot of other things first and see how successful we could be as an organization,” Wilson said. “At a certain point, the timing just felt right (to launch the ‘Voices’ project). We thought this would be a fairly inexpensive, doable, attractive project for this community.”

At first, Wilson invited community members to write blogs for ECCA’s website. She received a few submissions, but eventually discovered that, in her words, “unfortunately, a lot of people don’t like writing that much.”

“It was like pulling teeth,” she said. “But I knew people had stories. Then, (ECCA Associate Executive Director) Barb (Seaman) had an idea that she brought to our steering committee to do a StoryCorps type of project.”

StoryCorps is a New York-based nonprofit organization that aims to record, preserve and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.

“StoryCorps started in 2003,” Seaman said. “Back then, there wasn’t the internet so much. There weren’t cell phones. You couldn’t record (audio as easily as you can now). They actually started with a sound booth in Grand Central Station in New York City and just caught people going by, and it became so popular that they got one of those Airstream trailers and outfitted it and drove it around the country. They would drive into, (for example), Boise, Idaho, and schedule a weekend where people could come (and record).”

ECCA hired a coordinator to oversee project logistics and an audio engineer to record the interviews, five of which have been completed so far at the Camas Public Library. Wilson and Seaman hope to complete 20 by the end of 2024.

“We assume that everyone is interesting and everyone has fascinating stories that will help us all understand each other better,” Wilson said. “If we want a better climate, then we need to make it, and this is a small part of that. How can we make a better climate where people appreciate each other and care about each other and sympathize with one another and want to pull together? I don’t think we can just leave it up to chance because so far, things aren’t looking that good (when we do that).”

Wilson and Seaman plan to post condensed versions of their recordings to the ECCA website later this year and send the full versions to StoryCorps, which will post them to its website and preserve them at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“In the last several years, with the advent of Zoom and (other communication platforms), they’ve expanded to enable smaller groups like ours to capture and upload (recordings) to their website, so (the conversations are) part of the StoryCorps collection in their archive even though they weren’t recorded by the StoryCorps group,” Seaman said. “Within the StoryCorps archive, there’s actually an ECCA page that will be our collection. We can direct people straight to that, and then they can listen to all of the entire interviews or pick and choose whichever ones from this area they’re interested in.”

StoryCorp provides organizations with resources to help them prepare residents for the conversations, according to Seaman.

“They have suggested topics and suggested questions that we can give to people,” she said. “When someone lets us know they’re interested, we’ll give them some of these resources and help guide them to pick maybe seven or eight questions to ask the other person. And we try to let them know, ‘You don’t have to just read the questions. You also want to just be genuinely curious.’ We try to encourage them to be very natural and curious about each other.”

The conversations have yielded a wide range of stories so far:

Camas resident Nan Henriksen talked to her daughter about the prejudice she faced while attempting to become Camas’ first female mayor in the 1980s.

A former Washougal School District educator talked with his friend about growing up in a small Eastern Washington town near Grand Coulee Dam on the northern end of the Columbia River and about his career.

A teenager talked to his mother about shared memories and the mental health struggles that members of their family have endured.

A woman talked to a friend about the challenge of leaving her husband and how the experience led her to starting a nonprofit that raises money to help women in domestic violence shelters take yoga classes.

“People love to talk about themselves, and it’s healthy for us to talk about our backgrounds and how we arrived where we arrived,” Seaman said. “It’s healthy to tell those stories, and it’s healthy to hear them from each other because it connects us better. It helps us work together better, it helps us understand how we all fit together better.

“It personalizes things when you hear somebody that you know (tell you their story), or even if you just hear somebody tell it in their own voice and their own style. It makes things that (previously) looked kind of abstract really personal and meaningful,” she continued. “The intimacy comes through when you have two people who are close to each other sitting alone in a room talking to each other.”

ECCA is inviting community members to participate in the project. To express interest, email To access the full versions of the East County Voices conversations, visit Fore more information, visit