Introduction

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.

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Oral History for Movement Building: Moments of Power and Possibility

As described above, Thursday evening focused on listening to each other describe our personal paths to a more liberatory politics and engagement of oral history in our movement work. Friday morning began with sharing insights or moments of success from our own work when we felt our oral history practice contributed in some way to social change, trying to get at the unique possibilities (and limits) of oral history’s contribution to social movements.

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Limits and Possibilities

Oral history is multidimensional in the ways it can support or effectuate social change. Different circumstances will call for different applications and adaptations. And there are real limitations to oral history’s use as a tool for social change, some of which are inherent to the form itself, and others more related to the specific sociopolitical and cultural environment of this historical moment.

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Historical Content

In defining the genre of oral history, Italian professor of American literature and leader in the field of oral history Alessandro Portelli argues that what distinguishes oral history from other forms of storytelling, fieldwork, and interviewing is “the combination of the prevalence of the narrative form on the one hand, and the search for a connection between biography and history, between individual experience and the transformations of society, on the other.”

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Interpersonal Format

Described as a “dialogical encounter,”1 a “conversational narrative”2 and a “multivocal art”3 oral history is clearly an exchange between individuals. The clear distinction in roles between the listener (or interviewer) and teller (narrator) makes for a particular kind of interpersonal experience that allows its participants to both hear and speak with a depth, care and intention largely absent from most daily interactions. I

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Narrator Participation

Generally (though not always) projects engaging oral history for social justice involve more than simply conducting and recording interviews. Pre-interview planning and research, logging and transcription, analysis and interpretation, editing and production, and active work via media and place-based communities to share and workshop project products may all be part of an activist oral history project.

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Sustaining for the Long Haul

In planning for the Groundswell gathering, participants asked for time to talk about how to sustain and support our work and ourselves. During an hour-long brainstorm session on Friday afternoon, the group generated a list of potential funding sources, strategies and other types of resources to support movement-based oral history work, which is now available on the resources page as a living document [or as an appendix].

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