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Delving into the Depression

During his first quarter at the UW, junior Kyle Poss wrote a class paper about the Great Depression — for publication.

“What students like Kyle are contributing is really going to make a difference in public knowledge,” said James Gregory, a history professor at the UW.

Gregory obtained a grant last spring to research the local effects of the Great Depression and invited students to participate. Some of their best papers, together with research from faculty and graduate students, have been compiled into an online resource called the Great Depression in Washington State Project.

“That’s unique to this experience,” Poss said. “I haven’t had [the] opportunity in any of my other classes to have my work published, regardless of what the quality is.”

The content of the Web site is also unique.

“No book [has] ever been written about the experiences of Washington state during the Great Depression,” Gregory said. “This is it.”

As a specialist in Depression research, Gregory noted that local economic hardships were particularly severe.

“Unemployment reached probably about 35 percent in the state of Washington, and higher in Seattle,” he said.

Discontent with job availability and working conditions led to unusual levels of political activism about issues such as labor and minority rights.

Gregory said that members of labor organizations in the 1930s developed a “new idea of citizenship,” which was later realized in the Civil Rights Movement.

Poss chose to research student unemployment at the UW. He said that the topic was relevant to him because of his own difficulties with finding a part-time job in the current recession. One difference he noticed between the past and present situations was in the efforts made to stimulate the economy during the Depression.

“In the ’33-’34 school year, the UW employed 600 non-university employees to come to the university to work on trails and new construction … so they were actually providing jobs for people,” Poss said. “That’s not something that is going on right now.”

Economic stimulus programs also had major long-term impacts on other aspects of culture in the Northwest.

“All kinds of federal funding … went into the arts as part of the New Deal programs,” said Jessie Kindig, coordinator for the Great Depression in Washington State Project.

As a result, she said, “Seattle … became this small center of avant-garde culture which you wouldn’t think of outside of New York.”

Gregory said that federal spending during the Depression “was a great gift to the nation, and to this region … The federal government built dams in this region and in other regions and spread a new electrical grid around the country, which then made it possible to build new kinds of industries.”

Papers about economic and social issues during the Depression are available to read on the project Web site.

“It’s great to see undergraduates going into special collections, finding all these things and sometimes making arguments that surprise me, that change what I know about history,” said Kindig, a graduate student in the history department.

She added that Web sites from past collaborations with faculty and undergraduates now serve as teaching material in public schools.

Gregory said that the project is also an important learning experience for the students involved in the research.

“What these projects do,” Gregory said, “is turn students from consumers of history, who read the books written by other historians, into producers of history, who write valuable historical texts.”

Reach contributing writer Gracie Ingermanson at develoment@dailyuw.com.

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