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.

It was a challenging discussion as we struggled, on the one hand, with differing conceptions of “social change” and how it happens,1 and on the other, a shared humility: it’s difficult to demonstrate, prove or quantify the actual impact of our work. Groundswell participant Rachel Falcone summed this up:


Generally oral history is simply one of many elements or catalysts in a chain reaction leading to social transformation. And sometimes the gains or changes we might attribute to our interventions seem so insignificant as compared to the dimensions of the problems and injustices we seek to address, that claiming victory or success seems arrogant or naïve. Practitioners Margaret Fraser and Amy Starecheski, while hopeful about oral history’s transformative power, were careful to qualify their own work:


Nonetheless, the session hinted at the variety of ways, venues and platforms in which participants are engaging oral history in the process of social change.


What distinguishes “activist oral history”2 from most oral history work is its explicit aim of social transformation and its direct connection to or active, intentional use by social movement actors to further their organizing efforts and campaigns. Many oral history projects and archives contain or collect interviews that relate to controversial social issues and explore the dynamics of social movements. But unless and until these interviews are mobilized by and for the protagonists of social movements, they are unlikely to directly lead to social change in a meaningful and significant way.3 Of course, this doesn’t mean that oral history in and of itself doesn’t have value; as practitioners from the field of community cultural development have argued, “the powerful experience of bringing to consciousness and expressing one’s own cultural values is deemed worthwhile in and of itself, apart from the outcome”4 and “the acts of telling and listening are in themselves forms of resistance not unlike the use of songs, popular literature and folklore in social movements.”5

Indeed, oral history – whether encountered as a narrator, interviewer or listener – may have a profound impact on a person’s understanding of the world, contributing to a shift in consciousness or a realization of injustice where before there was ignorance. In this sense, the practice of oral history can contribute to an individual’s political awareness and perhaps even inspire action. But the probability and potential of oral history to actively contribute to social movements is expanded exponentially when the praxis of oral history is purposely and strategically mobilized towards a specific aim of social transformation and in the context of a collective struggle.6

This, as opposed to many oral history projects with, as Amy Starecheski has put it, “diffuse good intention” but a fundamental lack of strategy or organization. For example, a history professor at a local community college might assign her students the general task of interviewing recent immigrants from Central America who live and work in the community and producing a written transcript of their interview. Students conducting the interviews might develop a deeper understanding of the kinds of discrimination and barriers that immigrants face and perhaps feel some shame or anger about these injustices. One or two of the students might, of their own accord, even decide to volunteer at a local immigrant service agency after participating in the interview project. But imagine if the professor had instead partnered with the regional immigrant rights coalition engaged in a concerted campaign to stop the expansion of a nearby immigrant detention center. Coalition organizers could help the professor identify family members of detainees for students to interview about their life histories and the changes in their lives as a result of one of their relatives being detained. Instead of transcribing the interviews, students are asked to work with narrators to develop an audio slideshow or short video based on the narrative. These videos are then presented at a city council meeting in which the proposed expansion will be considered. Students are encouraged to attend the meeting together with the community members they interviewed. The strategic use of oral history in this latter scenario adds to the transformative impact of the oral history encounter and, arguably, will have a greater impact in the movement for immigrant rights than the former.

Thus, the Groundswell gathering invited a small group of oral historians, cultural workers and community organizers to explore how we can (indeed, already do) transform oral history’s “potential [as a] source of transformation and dialogue” into an actual reality in our ongoing praxis of social change.7 This next section presents several ways of conceptualizing the role of oral history in social change that emerged from our Groundswell conversations. It focuses first on the notion of “alignment” and then explores characteristics of oral history that make it particularly well suited (or not) to facilitating the work of movement building.


  1. A conversation that came up later in the day helps illustrate this range of opinions among Groundswell practitioners with regards to the path to social transformation: one participant insisted on the importance of getting “people like us” in positions of power inside institutions so that we can change them from the inside. Another participant suggested an alternative view: the problem isn’t that we don’t have good people at “the top” –the problem is that all the power is concentrated at the top. We need to fundamentally challenge these hierarchical structures, she insisted.
  2. In this report I employ the terms “activist oral history,” “radical oral history” and “movement oral history” more or less interchangeably. In each case, however, the intention is to convey the practice of oral history undertaken as activism or in support of or for social movements, not the practice of doing oral histories of activists or movements. Occasionally I will also use the terms “oral history for social change,” “oral history for social justice,” or “oral history for movement building.”
  3. This is not necessarily a new idea within the field of oral history; as early as 1986, oral historian Linda Shopes, in reflecting on the limitations of the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, recognized the critical importance of “links between community history projects and community organizations” – especially “activist community organizations” that “move people to take seriously their dissatisfaction with existing conditions and to bring them together in public action against the status quo.” See: Shopes, “Oral History and Community Involvement: The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project,” 260. It’s a theme that Shopes has returned to frequently in her work. From Women’s Words, published in 1991: “An additional problem, of course, is the value of these broadly educative activities in effecting any sort of meaningful change. They are all essentially ‘one-shot deals,’ with no effort at follow-up or sustained interaction.” And “only by being citizen-scholar-activists rooted in a community over an extended period of time do we have the opportunity to develop the networks, the political insights, and the credibility that may enable our research to be useful in a process of social change.”
  4. Adams and Goldbard, Community, Culture and Globalization, 9.
  5. Clark, “Oral History Art and Praxis,” 90–91.
  6. Depending on one’s understanding of how change happens and what kind of change one seeks, simply conducting or participating in an oral history interview—independent of any organized campaign or collective struggle—may be considered activism in and of itself. Narrative theorist Francesca Polletta explains that, “movements in which the goal is self-transformation as much as political reform may see personal storytelling as activism.” See: Polletta, “Plotting Protest: Mobilizing Stories in the 1960 Student Sit-Ins,” 48. There are many different views of how social transformation happens and opinions on the different efficacy of education or consciousness-raising, activism, and organizing. In this report, I don’t intend to take an explicit or categorical position on what is the “right” path to social change (indeed, I believe that different movement moments and contexts call for different types of actions and interventions and that one can’t always know or predict what the “best” path or action is), but I do intend to be clear in my understanding that the potential of oral history to contribute to social change can be activated and enhanced through an intentional and direct connection to social movements.
  7. Clark, “Oral History Art and Praxis,” 91.