Oral history project underway for Vashon World AIDS Day festival

Longtime islander Peter Serko has arranged for a series of events to tell the stories of those from Vashon who have been lost to AIDS.

Vashon World AIDS Day (VWAD) will be held from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 in affiliation with several island organizations, students and members of the community. It will include a forum centered around social justice, a variety show, performance of the play “The Normal Heart” by Drama Dock at Open Space, and an art installation curated by AP art students, which will debut at Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA).

“Young people have no idea what happened, what it was like, or what AIDS activists did to help turn the tide of the epidemic, so I wanted to find ways to engage young people in this,” said Serko, a self-described transmedia artist who has several concentrations, including photography, playwriting and film. Serko said that he had been interested for some time in ways to encapsulate the meaning and purpose of World AIDS Day on Vashon — recognized internationally on Dec. 1. There is tremendous relevance, he said, for the island, with its history as a haven for the LGBTQ community. But he also believes that there is seemingly little awareness of the connection.

Serko said he first approached David Godsey, co-founder of Open Space, for an initial discussion about his ideas. After they met, said Serko, Godsey was on board and offered generous use of their facility, as did Kevin Hoffberg, executive director of VCA.

Serko noted that the involvement of Vashon High School AP Studio Art teacher Kristen Dallum and her students was critical to his objective for the four day-long festival, recalling the tireless efforts of activists to effect radical change as the AIDS crisis wore on.

“The only way you could get your story out, or the message, was pasting it on walls, and that’s how the message of the movement got out. It just lent itself so well to working with art students because they got that,” he said.

Serko said he is inspired by his brother David, an artist and activist, who succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1992.

“I really see my brother in my art. I see the impact his death had on me in what I do,” he said.

In 2012, Serko embarked on a pursuit to learn more about David from people across the nation and beyond who knew him, soon discovering that his memory triumphantly lives on. Years after commencing a passionate examination of his brother’s extraordinary life through works on stage, in film and writing, Serko is now in the midst of collaborating with Voice of Vashon (VOV) so that the stories of islanders affected by AIDS or lost to the disease are not forgotten as well.

“What I tell people is that your story is important, and your story is important to share. It’s like the Holocaust. People wouldn’t understand and know about it unless people were willing to share it about themselves. AIDS is not gone, it’s still a reality in young people’s lives,” said Serko.

Testimony for the Oral History Project will be recorded in VOV’s studio throughout the month of November. Islanders who are interested in contributing with personal accounts or memories are encouraged to participate, helping to archive a difficult but important chapter of Vashon — and national — history.

“There’s just lots of layers to all of this. It has a lot to do with grief,” said Serko, adding that for survivors, the trauma of loss reverberates to this day.

“It took me 20 years to tell my brother’s story. I only know three people who died, one being my brother. It takes a long time for people, if ever, to talk about it.”

To Serko, his brother’s life was too important not to share with others, and in doing so he said the experience was cathartic.

“It is like a weight being lifted off your soul, in a way,” he said.

Susan McCabe, VOV station manager, said she believes the Oral History Project has tremendous value for the community.

“We can have ways to celebrate those who have been lost to AIDS and celebrate the progress that has been made [until] the stigma [is] largely removed.”

To book an interview session, contact Peter Serko at peter.serko@gmail.com. More information about VWAD is available online at vashonworldaidsday.org.

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