The matter of accountability was at the heart of most groups’ discussions – quite possibly because it was the first on the list of suggested questions, but maybe also because accountability is fundamentally a relational concept—it is about forging right relationships, often through the negotiation of complicated power dynamics. And since relationships are the glue and building blocks of successful social movements (and social movements are ultimately about transforming power structures), it’s not surprising that accountability emerged as a central theme. A first question was to whom we are (should be, want to be) accountable in our work. A natural next question was what we can or might do in practice to realize these relationships of accountability.

Several participants were unequivocal in their belief that we are first and foremost accountable to the individuals that we interview.  Here’s Margaret Fraser, for example:


For many practitioners, this implies safeguarding narrators’ ownership of and control over their stories. In the context of social justice work especially, the significance of this ethical commitment cannot be understated; the historical context and present reality of exploitation, appropriation, commodification and objectification of people, their knowledge, and their stories is precisely what many Groundswell practitioners are working to end.1

One concrete expression of this commitment comes in the form of release forms and copyright agreements. Groundswell participants in the Community-Based Process group discussed the wording, spirit, and methods of handling consent and release forms with narrators. A noteworthy subtheme of this conversation was the specific dynamic of interviewing and securing release forms with one’s family members.  Here is Michael Preston:


And Amita Swadhin and Michael:


Overall, the group described a variety of strategies for keeping the process transparent and a spectrum in agreements ranging from no control to nearly absolute control over future uses of the interview.  In order, here are Alisa, Margaret, Virginia, and Amita:



Discussions in the “Production & Distribution” group underscored the complications of living out these commitments to narrators in our daily practice, instigated by factors both in and out of our control. Kelly Creedon reflected on the gap between the reality of engaging narrators in decisions about the representation of their narrators in her own practice and what she envisions as ideal:


The size and scope of a project, as well as the amount of resources available to it, may constrain practitioners’ ability to actively and consistently engage people in decisions about the use of their narratives. Sady Sullivan and Rachel Falcone considered the way that geographic and temporal distance can render narrators’ engagement in ongoing decisions about the use of their narratives impractical or simply impossible:2


Anticipating these factors, and addressing them openly with our narrators such that we don’t overpromise3 nor unduly limit the potential of narrators’ stories to contribute to current and future movement building work is an essential element then, of accountability.

As suggested by the chart above, the issue of ownership and control is closely related to the manner and extent to which narrators are involved in an oral history-based project, especially projects where the act of interviewing itself is just one step in a more involved process involving substantial editing or repurposing of the interviews in various formats and media. The “why” and “how” of narrator participation was a central theme of Groundswell discussions that is explored further in the following section. But relationships with other individuals, groups and institutions often factor into the ethics of accountability in movement oral history work.


The complications of honoring commitments to narrators can multiply when various institutions or partners are involved or invested in the work. At times, maintaining our accountability to narrators may even be fundamentally at odds with meeting requirements of the institutions that support the work, particularly when those institutions are functionally or inherently designed to reproduce existing (problematic) power structures. Such contradictions surfaced most clearly, though not unsurprisingly, in the “Oral History Activism from the Academy” small group. Yet practitioners working from non-academic settings clearly face similar dilemmas, especially those working within the non-profit industrial complex. The “Finding a Home” section of this report outlines limits and benefits of doing movement-related oral history work in a variety of institutional contexts, as identified by Groundswell participants.

While a practitioner’s ethical, personal and political responsibility to a narrator may be challenged or compromised by an instrumental or “formal” obligation to a university or foundation, the primacy of the relationship of accountability to the narrator is often clear (at least to the practitioner). But plunging in to the nuances of accountability, Groundswell participants raised the possibility of overlapping accountability to multiple individuals, groups, or institutions, where no single relationship or commitment takes clear precedence over another.

Many Groundswell practitioners acknowledged feeling simultaneously accountable to individual narrators and to broader communities or to the community-based organizations that house, instigate, or provide the medium or platform for our projects. Rachel Falcone asked, “Are we just challenged by everyone that’s perceiving our work? Or who do we feel the most strain about? Is it the narrators? Or the subjects that we’re working with? Is that one of the biggest challenges, is really being accountable to them and how they perceive us? Or is it larger institutions and the partners?” Especially when we seek to mobilize oral history towards a political end, balancing these multiple accountabilities can be challenging. Virginia Raymond suggested that finding this balance might be easier when working with membership-based groups (where the narrators are the members), as opposed to staff or board-run organizations that don’t answer directly to their members. But even in these situations, “you can’t assume the group is unanimous in anything” and in practice it is not always possible to seamlessly reconcile these contradictions. Virginia summed up her understanding of these ethical tensions with a reference to Martin Buber:


When our notion of accountability expands to include responsibilities not only to specific individuals or groups with defined decision-making processes, but also to a movement as a whole or a set of political ideals or values, this balancing act becomes even more complex.  And what should we do when our ethical obligations to an individual narrator are actively in conflict with our accountability to a socio-political ideal?  Renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli asserts with confidence that: “[s]ometimes our ethics as citizens, as individuals involved in the struggle for democracy, equality, freedom, and difference, may transcend the limited ethics of our profession in favor of a broader, human, and ultimately political ethics.”4

The issues of accountability discussed by Groundswell participants are not dissimilar to questions raised by earlier generations of activist/oral historians. For instance, in a reflexive essay about her work with Palestinian women involved in the struggle for national and social liberation in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Sherna Berger Gluck questioned her ability to simultaneously work as a scholar (accountable, presumably, to a set of disciplinary standards and professional expectations) and as an activist (with obligations and responsibilities towards both the “movement” as a whole and towards the various movement groups whose members she interviewed for her project – groups that aren’t always aligned with one another, despite their common cause of Palestinian women’s liberation).5 Gluck concluded that, “[t]he decision to give different emphasis or weight to the two roles in varying contexts is primarily a personal and instrumental solution… Ultimately, after peeling away the various layers of the problem down to an essential core, we may be faced with contradictions between the two roles that cannot be resolved, but only acknowledged.”6 In 1986, activist and cultural historian Lisa Duggan eloquently described essentially the same dilemma: “the requirements of political expediency—expressed as the need for the most “positive” and publicly acceptable images of lesbians and gay men—and the need for a theoretically sophisticated, inclusive, and critical history can clash. The best history does not always seem to make the best propaganda.”7

Clearly there are times when publicly exposing the vulnerabilities or internal divisions within a movement or a community can hurt its organizing efforts. But it’s less clear whether mobilizing support and convincing people of the justness of a cause necessarily requires a less critical history, or the omission of the inevitable conflicts within social movements and their organizations. What if simplifying a message (ostensibly) in service of immediate political objectives undermines our longer-term movement goals? And is it even true that such essentialization or “glossing over” even helps in the short term? Such questions are the subject of ongoing debates within social movements and often delineate activists’ allegiances to one organization or group over another.8 As suggested in a previous section of this report, one of oral history’s richest contributions to social movements is its ability to capture the complexity of human experience. In this sense, could Francesca Polletta’s research on humans’ tendency to respond more (and more actively) to ambiguity in stories be a possible response to this seeming contradiction?

When, as practitioners, we seek to balance multiple accountabilities, or prioritize our responsibility to an abstract (voiceless) political ideal, how do we determine the way forward? What criteria do we use to make these decisions? And what gives us the right (or is it a responsibility?) to decide what is “best” for the movement? Is it ever possible to really know? Or do we simply do the best we can with the resources, knowledge and relationships available to us, knowing that we will almost certainly make mistakes, but remaining open to constructive criticism and alternative perspectives, and with faith and hope in the possibility of continual growth and evolution of our practice?


  1. There is an assumption implicit in this formulation that the narrator of an oral history interview is its sole owner. This assumption might be challenged on two fronts: first, as a dialogical act, an interview is a co-creation between a narrator and an interviewer. Michael Frisch coined the term “shared authority” to describe the ways in which both an interviewer and a narrator contribute to the production of an oral history interview. Second, as Groundswell participant Virginia Raymond pointed out, it’s not always the case that people share their “own” stories in an oral history interview; when a narrator divulges in the course of an interview sensitive information about or the story of another individual, what claims, if any, might that third person have to the interview? There are legal responses (and ongoing debates) regarding these questions, but there is also an ethic embedded in much of today’s social movement culture about the importance of speaking from one’s own experience (i.e. using “I” statements, speaking “your truth” not “the truth”, etc.).
  2. Rachel’s quote also raises another critical point: the way that differences in social class and narrators’ access to resources can impact collaboration.
  3. The ongoing lawsuit over Boston College’s right to maintain commitments of confidentiality promised to the narrators of oral histories regarding the conflict in Northern Island is a stark reminder to activists, interviewers, archivists, and narrators alike of limitations to our control over the products of oral history. For more on the lawsuit, see: Cullen, “Lawsuit challenges subpoenas issued for BC Irish Troubles interviews.”
  4. Portelli, Battle of Valle Giulia, 66.
  5. Gluck, “Advocacy Oral History: Palestinian Women in Resistance.”
  6. Ibid., 214.
  7. Benson, Brier, and Rosenzweig, Presenting the Past, 289.
  8. A recent and relevant example concerns the mass popularity of a YouTube video featuring the testimony of a young man raised by two lesbians. The heteronormative nature of the video and frames to which the man appeals for support have raised concern among queer activists and allies who fear that, even as the video tries to drum up support for marriage equality, it reinforces the very cultural norms and values that have contributed to homophobia and discrimination against queer and gender non-conforming individuals. See, for example: Saleh, “Tricks and Heteronormative Lenses (or, please stop insulting my intelligence)”; Kim, “Why re-framing queer identity and queer narrative is necessary.”