Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change

September 15th-16th, 2011
Briarcliff Manor, NY

View the full report from the 2011 gathering: “Groundswell: A Synthesis”

Groundswell brought together a small group of oral historians, cultural workers, and community organizers that are experimenting with ways to use oral history for movement building and social change.  Our hope was to contribute in some small way to the development of a community of praxis engaged in an ongoing dialogue about effective and creative ways to use oral history for community & movement-building, advocacy and social change. Over the course of a day and a half, we:

  • shared our work and stories (of course!)
  • explored the practical and ethical questions we face in doing this work
  • workshopped our campaigns/projects and received critical feedback and support
  • mapped out plans for future outreach and collaboration


In our struggles for justice our stories and our histories are sources of power and strength.  They can inspire and motivate in moments of defeat or uncertainty and build empathy across lines of difference. They show a way forward, highlighting tactics and strategies that result in lasting change.   Sharing our stories can empower, awaken, and transform.

Since the 1970s, oral history has been recognized as an invaluable method for preserving the largely undocumented stories of social movements and their actors.  Today, hundreds of archives and interview projects document the history and voices of marginalized communities and of feminist, queer, environmental and civil rights activists.  Less explored, however, is the powerful role that oral history can play in not only documenting radical social change, but actively contributing to it.

There are real challenges to more fully incorporating the practice of oral history and storytelling into movement building and organizing.  Often oral history interviews take place one-on-one, and it can be challenging to mobilize the transformative encounter of an oral history exchange to build movements more broadly.  Oral history is an intentional, sometimes slow process—not always on the timeline of urgent campaigns or grant report deadlines.  There are concerns about “using” people for their stories, especially if they might not benefit immediately or directly from sharing them.  Condensing stories into the manageable sound bites that our campaigns, workshops and websites demand can simplify or flatten people’s complex, multi-layered identities and experiences – maybe even in ways that undermine fundamental goals of restoring dignity and highlighting our communities’ rich cultures and diversity.  Respecting community control and ownership can be surprisingly complex in preserving oral histories for future generations of movement leaders.  In all aspects of our practice, we try to be aware of how our own race, class and gender identities impact the work, and to embody anti-oppressive pedagogy and methodology.  Ultimately, how can we mobilize and collectivize the process, products, and preservation of oral history for justice-making?

Plenty of people and projects struggle with these questions; the most innovative seem to operate at the margins of many established and emerging fields, combining the practice of oral history with the techniques and principles of community organizing, digital storytelling, public and community-based history, participatory action research, and popular education.  It may be precisely because of this interdisciplinary nature of the work, which doesn’t fit squarely into any one method or practice, that the spaces for practitioners engaged in these projects to network, share ideas and engage in critical inquiry around our practice have been so limited.  This gathering is one step towards filling that gap.  It is one step towards the creation of a community of praxis engaged in an ongoing dialogue about effective and creative ways to use oral history and narrative as tools for community & movement-building, advocacy and social change.

View the full report from the 2011 gathering: “Groundswell: A Synthesis”

Thank you to the Brooklyn Community Foundation for helping support Groundswell 2011.