Historical Content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.”1 Just as the highly personal, individual character of oral history is of value for building movements, so too is the “history” of an oral history interview a potential asset in the process of social change.

Social movement actors can study the history of our communities to deepen our understanding of the historical and root causes of contemporary problems; we can look to the historical narratives of our own movements and organizations to understand the evolution of our current struggles and internal movement cultures. We can examine past movements to identify potential tactics to try and mistakes to avoid and to prevent the “reinvention of the wheel.” Knowing the history of our movements can break isolation through the realization that generations before have confronted and overcome similar challenges, and can offer hope in a recognition of progress towards justice. Historical memory, captured and communicated through oral history, is a potent tool in the reclamation and assertion of fundamental rights; we can invoke history and the words of past movement leaders to legitimize current struggles.

Past social movements’ approaches to history point to these prospective uses of oral history. For example, civil rights activists “defined history as a tool for community empowerment” and encouraged African-Americans “to record, to study and to exhibit” history from their own perspective as a means not only of challenging the predominant and racist historical narrative but also of mobilizing the community.2 In her study of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Wesley Hogan shows how organizers in the civil rights movement engaged historical analysis as a strategy for teaching non-violence to young activists. She describes the workshops that James Lawson facilitated with Nashville students, where participants studied the use of non-violence in different historical and cultural contexts as they prepared for their own actions. Furthermore, “through historical example… he taught them something that became centrally useful as the civil rights struggle in Nashville intensified: how to reflect on and analyze their past activity before action again.” Finally, Hogan documents how students’ participation in this process not only “allowed them to draw from a rich lode of previous experience” but also provided the historical context that helped break isolation, as students came to see their personal experiences of oppression and resistance as part of a historic struggle.3

Groundswell participants are following in this tradition, engaging the products and process of oral history to build organizing skills, challenge dominant historical narratives, and develop newer activists’ sense of legacy and power through a demystification of the process of organizing. Sady Sullivan describes one such case:

This is kind of turning in my head, it’s sort of a—it’s different because it’s somehow rectifying or reclamation– but I think it affects how things move forward. So, an experience that I had at BHS with an exhibit partnership with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (which was the first community development corporation in the country which became a model used elsewhere).  And the story of Bed-Stuy Restoration that you would read in the newspapers was very much about Robert Kennedy being this fantastic senator from New York who swooped in with these wonderful ideas of neighborhood revitalization and public-private partnerships – and thank you to Kennedy for riding in on this magical horse and, you know, saving the day.  That’s the way the story gets told.  And so in doing the oral histories, everybody starts the story with, “well there was Elsie Richardson and these other women organizers, and the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council…”  And that’s where it begins.  And long before, like way before, like 15-20 years before Kennedy ever came to Bed-Stuy, Elsie Richardson and her three friends were organizing, and there was such successful community organizing efforts in the neighborhood that that’s why Kennedy got interested.  And so in doing the interviews it was just clear that nobody’s story about Restoration started without talking about Elsie Richardson.  Yet even given these oral histories, in the creation of plans for the exhibit it started the story with a photo of Robert Kennedy.  And so it took pushback from curators who were listening to the oral histories to say, “But wait, did you hear to the evidence from these stories?  Because you know, the story is about Elsie Richardson.”  And it worked so in the exhibit it changed to  the story beginning with Elsie Richardson and the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Committee and then, you know, years later came Kennedy and that was a very strategic partnership and good things came of it.  And I don’t know how that affects Restoration going forward, but just being able to recognize that that’s actually where the action started, with Elsie Richardson.

Examples from myself and Amy Starecheski also help illustrate:



The use of oral history in this way is not unproblematic; memory is notoriously inaccurate and various socio-psychological processes – intentional and not – can result in distorted representations. For instance, Francesca Polletta has found that in the recounting of movement narratives activists tend to downplay the planning and preparation behind protest.4 Yet the dialogic format of an oral history interview may well counteract this tendency; a well-prepared interviewer, having done research in advance, might pose questions or present a narrator with archival evidence that helps break through a narrator’s usual schematic account and produce a deeper, more layered retelling.

Moreover, oral histories are no more problematic than any other primary source document. Understood as the intersubjective sources that they are, oral histories can provide rich historical information. Interviews offer insight into the nature of historical consciousness and a window into a narrator’s worldview and values system. Oral history reveals how people make meaning of their experiences, and the significance that narrators ascribe to historical and personal events.

With the centrality of consciousness-raising and cultural transformation to many social movements, this distinctive type of historical information available through oral history seems worthwhile for movement building, both in its ability to document impact and change in consciousness over time, as well as its potential to support the efforts of movements and organizers seeking to alter and transform consciousness in the present. Understanding how individuals make sense of their history and the world is essential to being an effective organizer—and the development of a critical analysis of one’s own historical consciousness is elemental to the process of concientizacion. Referencing Fals Borda (one of the founders of participatory action research), researchers Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart explain that when making decisions regarding collective action, we may need to, “take a problematic view of our own action in history and use our action in history as a ‘probe’ with which to investigate reflexively our own action and its place as cause and effect in the unfolding history of our world.”5

Finally, oral history is often the best or only format in which the histories of marginalized communities and social movements are documented and made accessible. And because of its oral/aural form, oral history is especially accessible—an effective means of sharing historical information with people and communities that can’t, don’t, or won’t interact with written texts. Thus, while it is important to take a critical approach to the production, interpretation, and use of oral histories as sources of historical knowledge, the narratives of our movement peers and elders can be valuable resources for movement actors seeking to ground and grow our practice.


  1. Portelli, Battle of Valle Giulia, 6.
  2. Stewart and Ruffins, “A Faithful Witness: Afro-American Public History in Historical Perspective, 1828-1984,” 328.
  3. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart, 20.
  4. Polletta, “Plotting Protest: Mobilizing Stories in the 1960 Student Sit-Ins.”
  5. Kemmis and McTaggart, “Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere,” 577.