Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Winter 2018 (January 2018)

Walking to Remember

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January 2018
By Erik Robinson and Brianna Wellen

On a recent brisk autumn morning, Bernadine Clay, Vickie Naylor, and Donna Maxey set out for a stroll around an area of north Portland, Oregon.

The trio laughed and playfully bickered like the old friends they are, remembering the people and places that historically shaped what was once the heart of Oregon’s African-American community. The area has changed substantially, but they still have an affinity for the place where they feel the pull of home.

“It was our neighborhood,” Clay says, “my kids’ neighborhood.”

Today, the neighborhood has changed, as have Clay, Naylor and Maxey. Now in their late 60s and 70s, the three women regularly walk the neighborhood to reminisce and exercise. They’re part of a group of 21 participants enrolled in a unique clinical trial through Oregon Health & Science University’s Layton Aging & Alzheimer’s Disease Center. The study, called Sharing History Through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery (SHARP), is led by Raina Croff’99, assistant professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine.

[W18] Reviewing their Walking Route
From left: Vickie Naylor, Bernadine Clay, and Donna Maxey review their walking route as they participate in the SHARP study in Portland, Ore. The goal of the study, led by Raina Croff’99, is to find out whether exercise combined with active reminiscence can curb memory loss in seniors. The project is also capturing memories about the black communities that historically thrived here.
Photo by: OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff.

The program’s purpose is to sustain or improve cognitive health for African-Americans aged 55 and older, a group that is about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older whites. From an academic research perspective, the program combines physical activity with social engagement and conversational reminiscence.

But Naylor sums it up her own way. “It’s just good to get out and walk,” she says.

The participants have each spent at least 10 years of their lives in north or northeast Portland. Divided into groups of three, they get out three times a week over six months, walking 72 pre-designed one-mile routes through the area. As they walk each route, a smart tablet prompts participants with questions relating to memory markers—news clippings, photographs, advertisements, or artifacts like political campaign buttons—tied to certain locations along the routes, such as the site of a school, a church, or a civil rights march.

“I was looking at culture as a primary driver of health,” says Croff, who double-majored in anthropology and classical civilization at Beloit. “I was interested in having people walk through physical spaces and talk about their memories with one another—as opposed to sitting in a room and being asked about it.”

The goal is to test whether physical exercise, combined with active reminiscence, can forestall memory loss. The study, which is supported by funding from the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institutes on Aging, includes cognitively healthy people and those experiencing memory loss or mild cognitive impairment, as measured through a baseline assessment. At the end of six months, researchers will follow up with a test to determine whether the program improved or maintained participants’ cognitive health. Croff developed the walking program in a pilot project supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016, and early indications show promise.

But to Croff, the program is about more than the science behind brain health. It’s about creating a digital and physical history to share with future generations. Croff grew up in Portland, spending some time in the historically black neighborhoods the program focuses on. When her parents divorced, she says it became like she was living in two different worlds. Her father, who is black, would take Croff and her brother to a predominately African-American church. In fact, it was at that church that one of the SHARP participants, Shirley Minor, first met Croff “when she was knee-high.” Croff’s mother, on the other hand, was white. When Croff and her brother would be with their mom in the white part of town, they were often the only African-Americans around.

“It was like there was always this mystery around what I was because I was mixed and my hair was a little different,” Croff says. “It was stuff that kids have to deal with anyway, and then it added this extra layer on top. Sometimes it made me feel special, and sometimes it made me feel different in a way that I didn’t like.”

[W18] Portrait of Raina Croff'99
Raina Croff’s work as an assistant professor of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University brings her interests in African-American history together with medical anthropology. She’s standing in front of a mural featuring a portrait of Coretta Scott King and other black women leaders at the Black United Fund of Oregon, located in one of the neighborhoods where the SHARP study takes place.
Photo by Steve Hambuchen. Mural by Eat Cho and Jeremy Nichols.

It was Croff’s mother who adamantly introduced African-American history into her children’s lives. When Croff and her brother would be learning about Greek history in school, their mother would ask teachers why they weren’t learning about African-American history. She even took classes on her own to become more educated on the subject to make sure she could teach her kids to be as historically conscious as possible.

Croff says that when she left Portland to enroll at Beloit College, she had the opportunity to experience what her mother had been teaching her about culture. “In rural Wisconsin, there may not be a whole lot of African Americans, but I got to go to Chicago for the first time,” Croff says. “Coming from Portland to Chicago, that was my first experience being in a place with a really deep and rich and strong African-American historical presence.”

Croff says her entire college experience was about opening new doors to the way she thought about the world.

While at Beloit, she was a McNair Scholar, played volleyball and softball, and was a member of the Black Student Union and the TRIO Program. What started as an interest in Biblical archaeology soon evolved into studying American-Indian archaeology, which turned into trips to Beloit, Alabama, and a semester in Senegal to learn more about African-American and West African history and culture. Croff has had a vested interest in Senegalese and West African culture both professionally and personally ever since—she met her husband, a native of the country, while studying there. But at each step of the way, it was learning about the world through different people’s eyes that fascinated her the most.

“What I was doing essentially was collecting history and stories, and I’m still doing that today,” Croff says. “There’s a thread that goes all the way through.”

After finishing her Ph.D. program in anthropology at Yale University, Croff returned to Portland. Today, her work at OHSU combines her passion for African-American history with medical anthropology, and those interests led to starting up SHARP.

The individuals participating in the program seem to enjoy the routine of getting together and recalling the past.

“They’re walking through what is, and talking about what was,” Croff says. “They’re talking about the changes with people who understand how it feels, because they also remember what it was like to know everyone on their block, sometimes over generations. It’s about community memory building while also preserving your health.”

However, some of the memories are actually painful.

“The reminiscing triggers me,” Maxey says. “It’s very upsetting, especially when this neighborhood is supposed to be gentrifying, to see overgrown brush in some of the yards and the sidewalks so broken up it’s hard to walk.”

[W18] Walking Together in the Neighborhood
From left: Shirley Minor, Raina Croff’99, Deloris Griggs, and Cecil Prescod on a recent walk in Portland. “We buy houses,” the sign on the telephone pole behind them, points to the neighborhood’s rampant gentrification. “They’re walking through what is, and talking about what was,” says Croff.
Photo by: Steve Hambuchen. 

Maxey remembers a neighborhood where generations of African-American families, along with their white neighbors, took pride in keeping up their homes, yards, and businesses. Today, northeast Portland abounds with signs of change. During a recent walk through the neighborhood surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. School, the three women passed remodeled houses, one electric car after another, and a sign posted on a fence labeled “pesticide free zone.” At one point, the women looked askance at a bearded runner jogging barefoot through the neighborhood.

Yet something is also missing.

Maxey speaks with painful recollection of the devastation her family suffered when they lost her childhood church. It once stood on the current site of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Her family’s home and her father’s barbershop were located where Interstate 5 now slashes through the area. Many of the longtime families have scattered. Clay laments that sometimes when she walks into the latest trendy restaurant, the voices become hushed—as if she’s the outsider.

“There are people who have lived in this neighborhood 10 or 15 years who have no idea that there was a thriving black community here,” Maxey says.

Croff reflects that if she wasn’t doing what she’s doing now, she would be a writer of some sort, and in many ways she already is. Not only is she working on a book of her own, she’s telling the stories of so many in Portland through SHARP. While the scientific data the study is collecting is valuable, Croff sees equal value in saving and sharing the memories of participants so that future generations, like her two young sons, will know about the thriving black community in the city where they grew up. It’s an effort that Croff hopes to adapt to other communities in the future.

“Even cities that aren’t going through gentrification will see the value in preserving history because generations are changing and ways are ever-changing,” she says. “It’s not just doing the science. Without the ability to connect to people in their cultural framework—I learned how to do that at Beloit—the science isn’t going to work.”

Erik Robinson is a senior media relations specialist for Oregon Health & Science University. Brianna Wellen is a freelance journalist based in northern Illinois.

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