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. A frequent question for practitioners – and one that came up repeatedly in the Groundswell gathering – is if and how to engage narrators in these different phases of our work.

The “Why” of Collaboration
Oral history is inherently a participatory endeavor. In contrast with much traditional historical work, where historians mine paper archives in search of evidence to construct (or deconstruct, as the case may be) an historical argument, oral history engages the actors and witnesses of history as vocal participants in the process of historical documentation and interpretation. Michael Frisch has described this relationship between interviewers and narrators in the interview itself as “shared authority”:

“[a]uthority is shared in oral history by definition-in the dialogic nature of the interview, in the history-making offered by both interviewer and narrator, in the answer to the always appropriate question “who is the author of an oral history?”, in the faintly implicit hyphen that reminds us of the connection between the very words author and authority.”1

For many (perhaps most?) oral history projects, the extent of narrator involvement begins and ends with this “shared authority” that happens within the interview. In 2003, the Oral History Review published a special edition on “Sharing Authority: Oral History and the Collaborative Process,” that brought together a collection of articles (including one by Groundswell participant Daniel Kerr)2 exploring instances of more expansive interviewer-narrator collaborations in four very different projects. As Frisch pointed out in a commentary on the essays, the contributors pushed the concept of “shared authority” in their work beyond its original frame, exploring the challenges and possibilities of “sharing authority” and developing a more collaborative process with narrators through various stages of a project, not just in the interview itself. Frisch clarified, “sharing authority is an approach to doing oral history, while a shared authority is something we need to recognize in it.”

With the exception of Kerr, each of these authors approached and framed their projects in the articles as primarily research-oriented.3  None of the authors explicitly addressed the question in any depth, but all imply that their reasons for attempting collaboration were tied to this intellectual project of knowledge generation. Among these motives are an ethical commitment to sharing power in research and an understanding that collaboration makes for “better” (more truthful or more sophisticated) research.4

Many Groundswell participants have chosen to cultivate collaborative relationships with narrators for the same reasons. The previous section on accountability gives a sense of the deep ethical commitments that Groundswell practitioners bring to our work. And many of us would agree that involving narrators in the representation of their own stories can clarify and deepen our collective understanding of the issues those stories address. Narrators are the experts of their own lives, possessing unique knowledge and insight into their own experiences. (Indeed, this is why we choose to interview them in the first place!) We’ve experienced how engaging narrators’ perspective and experiential knowledge in the analysis, interpretation, and editing of their own stories can lead to more accurate and meaningful representations of their narratives.5 Groundswell participant Sady Sullivan shared an example of this from her work as Oral Historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS):


But this fundamentally intellectual argument for narrator participation and a sense of ethical obligation are just two among many reasons that Groundswell participants gave for deeper collaboration with project narrators. For many practitioners who use oral history for movement building, involving narrators as active participants in multiple phases of the oral history process is a practical and political imperative.6 Here are some of the additional reasons why we might involve narrators in our work:

  • We do it because we hope or believe that narrators’ engagement will bring them direct benefits, be those constructive changes in their outlook, consciousness or understanding, or concrete changes in policy or society that enhance their quality of life.
  • We do it as a hedge against appropriation, commodification, and exploitation. To the degree that narrators are meaningfully involved in the interpretation and representation of their own narratives, the possibility of objectification and misrepresentation is, arguably, attenuated.
  • We do it because (in some instances) narrators demand it. Narrators’ desire to be engaged in the process of editing and representation of their narratives may stem from self-consciousness or a fear of potential consequences resulting from a (mis)representation of their words. But sometimes, especially when oral history is fully integrated into the work of organizing and narrators bring political clarity and intent to the act of sharing their story, this demand to be involved is fundamentally a matter of narrators holding us (as interviewers or practitioners) accountable to them and to the political goals or ideals that led to them sharing their story in the first place. Sady Sullivan recalls another poignant example from her work on the Vietnam Veterans exhibit at BHS:
  • Finally, we do it because narrator involvement is fundamental to the goals and designs of our projects. For many organizing-based oral history projects, narrator involvement is not an afterthought or an added bonus that looks good on grant reports—it is essential to success of our work and a crucial element in actualizing oral history’s radical, organizing power. Dan Kerr’s commitment to participatory oral history work comes from his belief in the efficacy of grassroots organizing:

Many (probably most) projects using oral history as a method for social justice involve interviews with individuals who have lived under and struggled against the injustice, violence and oppressions that these projects seek to eliminate. For practitioners of activist oral history, the impulse to engage narrators stems from a notion germane to social transformation and embedded in much of today’s movement culture: that those most affected by injustice must be at the forefront of making change.

Just as activist oral historians differ in the kind of change we work towards and how we think we’ll get there, we also differ in our ideas of what it means for people affected by injustice to “be at the forefront.” Some ground their practice and ideal in an anti-oppression framework. Others root their work in an approach akin that of the Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire who argued that:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strengthen to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.7

The Complications of Collaboration
But involving narrators in our work is neither easy nor unproblematic. Nor is it always necessary or strategic. (And frankly, when using archived oral histories, it’s often impossible.) Sometimes our expectations (or hopes) of narrators’ critical and active engagement in a project are unrealistic. On the one hand, narrator involvement is often critical for genuine accountability; on the other, expecting or waiting for narrators to be engaged in every decision or step of a project can be ineffective. We must be respectful of people’s time, mindful of what and how narrators are best positioned to contribute, and thoughtful about what we ask of people. We must also be careful not to use narrator participation (or the appearance of such) in such a way as to obscure real power imbalances in project relationships or as a means to avoid taking responsibility for a project—especially any negative impacts, questionable interpretations, or less-than-hoped-for results.8 In this clip, Margaret Fraser and I discuss our desires for narrator and project partners’ ongoing involvement in shaping our projects:9

Perhaps it goes back to the question of alignment: when and how narrators are involved in the work of activist oral history should be determined or guided by the goals of the project and (in most circumstances) by narrators’ own interest and ability to participate. For some projects, involving the people we interview primarily or exclusively in the role of narrator may be both pragmatic and ethically entirely appropriate.

When, however, our projects, ethics, or narrators demand it, intentionality and care in facilitating narrator involvement is key. Many of the same limitations and contradictions encountered in actualizing relationships of accountability apply here as well; indeed, it is often in the back and forth between narrators, interviewers, organizers and artists in the processes of project conceptualization, narrative analysis, and production or dissemination that relationships of accountability are enacted and practiced.

One question raised by several Groundswell participants was to what degree we (as interviewers, documentarians, producers, etc.) choose to challenge narrators—whether during the interview, as part of the process of interpretation of a narrators’ interview, or regarding their ideas and preferences about what of their narratives to share publicly and how. Reflecting on her work in both photography and oral history, Kelly Creedon suggests that achieving our projects’ transformational goals might necessitate such pushback with narrators.

Accountability and respect doesn’t always mean following a narrator or partner’s lead uncritically or without question. Just as narrators bring specialized knowledge based on their lived experience, as trained oral historians, archivists, organizers, researchers, artists and cultural workers we bring unique expertise to the collaborations that form the basis of much movement-based oral history work. As in Kelly’s example, we might also bring critical distance and perspective. Successful partnerships (like successful oral history interviews) are based on a mutual appreciation of the skills and perspectives each partner brings to the relationship, together with trust, shared goals and constructive dialogue. With these ensured, the working through of disagreement can lead to new insights and innovations in our organizing.

Here’s Alessandro Portelli on the subject: “While we are bound to report as faithfully as we can what our interviewees actually said, our responsibility toward them does not extend to always agreeing with them.”10 In fact, he argues, offering narrators the “opportunity” through alternative interpretations and possible organizations to their knowledge, “to increase their awareness, to structure what they already know” can be part of an “ethics of restitution.”11 But “the real service I think we provide to communities, movements, or individuals,” he continues, “is to amplify their voices by taking them outside, to break their sense of isolation and powerlessness by allowing their discourse to reach other people and communities.”12

There is a paternalism in Portelli’s assumption that narrators experience a sense of isolation or powerlessness. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude closely related to the condescension underlying far too many oral history projects (even some with explicit social change goals) and exemplified in the problematic concept of “giving voice to the voiceless.”13 Obviously, no narrator is voiceless; the problem is that the voices of some individuals (especially those from marginalized communities) have been systematically silenced. And in this sense, Portelli may be right (although he could have phrased it more sensitively) that oral historians (be they allies or members of a marginalized community themselves) can play a useful role in helping to amplify these voices.14

The issue of narrator involvement (and accountability more generally) takes on an entirely different dimension when narrators are perpetrators of injustice, or otherwise implicated in the oppression and violence our movements work to end.15 The question arises whether we should even be interviewing these individuals at all. Presumably, interviewing someone provides that person a privileged platform. Does interviewing somehow legitimize a narrator’s prejudiced views or oppressive behaviors – or compromise our credibility within movement circles? Why might we want to interview these individuals?16  One group of Groundswell participants drew on examples from their own practice in exploring these questions.  Virginia Raymond starts:


Kelly Creedon, Sady Sullivan, and Amy Starecheski continue:


If we do choose to interview power holders and perpetrators, what approach and precautions might we take? What guidelines might we consider? And is there any reason to involve these narrators beyond the interview itself? As Portelli points out, “an interview with someone who holds power over us or over others may not necessarily be subjected to the same set of ethical considerations as other interviews—whatever we may think of the person.”17 How can we maintain our own integrity and stay true to our values within our oral history work? Amy Starecheski argued that the job of an oral historian is not necessarily just to listen uncritically, and suggested that interviewers might find subtle ways of challenging narrators on their oppressive or prejudicial beliefs and behaviors within the context of an interview through their questions (i.e. “Where do you think your wealth comes from?” or “Some people who are listening to this might wonder…”). Amy and Sady Sullivan explore potential strategies for dealing with a narrator’s use of racist language in this conversation:

Again the question of alignment here seems critical: it may very well be to a movement’s advantage to interview its opponents or adversaries but we must be clear about what it is we are trying to achieve with these interviews and adapt our interviewing strategy (or our treatment of an archived oral history) accordingly.