TABLE OF CONTENTS
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.
Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change brought together a group of 16 oral historians, community organizers, and cultural workers who are experimenting with precisely that: oral history as a method for building movements and effecting 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 transformative social change. As the gathering co-coordinators, Alisa Del Tufo and I worked with Groundswell participants to develop an agenda that would allow us to share our own stories, explore the practical and ethical questions we face in doing this work, workshop our projects to receive critical feedback and support, and map out plans for future outreach and collaboration.
In designing the day and a half-long gathering, we drew on the fundamental strengths and principles of community-based organizing, oral history, and popular education. At its heart, community organizing is about building from personal relationships towards collective power. Hoping that this initial gathering would spark participants’ interest in and commitment to the development of an ongoing network, we prioritized relationship building as a primary outcome. Personalized, one-to-one outreach to potential participants and a participatory approach to planning contributed to participants’ investment in and ownership over the process. The gathering’s small scale, its informal, retreat-like setting, and our use of playful activities to break down barriers between participants and encourage participation all worked to foster the substantive and collegial relationships that we hope will sustain us in our movement work and out of which creative collaboration and partnerships are born. A “Next Steps” session towards the end of our time together asked participants to identify and commit to concrete actions to continue the work of this initial Groundswell gathering.
Equally important to this process of community building was the sharing of our own stories. Oral history prioritizes deep, active listening and honors individuals’ stories and contributions in the making of history. True to form, we dedicated the entire first night of the Groundswell gathering to listening to each other’s stories. Just as skilled oral historians create a safe container within which narrators can craft their own narratives and move between the personal, communal and historic,1 our adaptation of the River of Life activity2 provided a flexible framework for Groundswell participants to share our individual narratives of politicization and engagement with oral history. With freedom to draw the contours of these journeys as we imagine and remember them, we each included and shared elements from our personal, professional and political lives as we deemed significant. The tone thus established, storytelling and informal “interviewing” continued naturally during meals and free time.
Popular education begins with people’s own experiences as the basis for critical reflection and learning with an explicit political and transformative end. Groundswell outreach focused on bringing together individuals with clear liberatory political commitments and practical experience in using oral history as a method for radical social change. Groundswell discussions were structured to bring these experiences to the fore. Discussion themes and guiding questions were generated by participants in advance of the gathering through a series of phone calls and online exchanges, and focused on the concrete challenges that practitioners face in our ongoing work.
We set forth an ambitious agenda, and at the end of our day and a half together, we all agreed that we need more time and opportunities to fully delve into the specifics of our projects, challenges, and methods. What follows is a summary report and synthesis of the key themes, ideas, and (many!) unresolved questions that emerged from our discussions.
First, however, it is necessary to clarify what we mean by “oral history.” For the purposes of outreach for the Groundswell gathering (and for this report more generally), we defined oral history as the process and/or product of a longer format, primarily autobiographical interview that is recorded and preserved in some medium, be it audio or video. Yet in the end, even among Groundswell participants there was significant variation in the degree to which practitioners’ interviews and projects fit within this definition. For example, one Groundswell participant who strongly identifies as an oral historian built an entire project around interviews that lasted less than 10 minutes each. Another participant conducts interviews focused on cultural stories and traditions with relatively little autobiographical content. And there are many journalists, documentarians, organizers and other practitioners (both among Groundswell participants and more generally) who are doing the work of oral history so defined, without ever naming it as such.
Clearly, Groundswell participants work at the margins of many established fields – perhaps, even, the very field of oral history itself. So while working definitions are useful to the extent that they provide a common language and framework for communicating what we do, more useful than trying to figuring out what “counts” as oral history and what doesn’t, is understanding the ways that our work overlaps, what we can learn from each others’ practice, and how we can modify and adapt our interventions to be most effective in achieving the changes we seek to create.