Sustaining for the Long Haul

In planning for the Groundswell gathering, participants asked for time to talk about how to sustain and support our work and ourselves. During an hour-long brainstorm session on Friday afternoon, the group generated a list of potential funding sources, strategies and other types of resources to support movement-based oral history work, which is now available on the resources page as a living document [or as an appendix]. What follows here is a summary of key themes from the discussion:

  1. So many of the outcomes of our work are intangible and difficult to measure. The development of compelling methods for demonstrating the impact and the value of our work would help not only with securing funding, but also in solidifying relationships with the partners and individuals with whom we collaborate.
  2. Oral history with an explicit social-change agenda often operates at the margins of art, participatory research, storytelling, popular education and organizing. This can be a challenge in securing funding for the work, especially for more process-based projects. Projects with a clear “product,” such as an exhibit or a documentary, might have more success in finding funding.1
  3. Funding oral history-based work requires creativity. We need to learn new ways to communicate what we do, adapting the message to the audience.
  4. Most “products” of oral history-based work are, in essence, people’s stories. Is it possible to “commodify” these products in order to financially support the work without exploiting the storyteller(s) or compromising our integrity as practitioners? What might be some guidelines for how to do this?
  5. Most practitioners at the Groundswell gathering have not, so far, been able to sustain themselves doing this work. There is also the challenge that one participant pointed out of “not knowing how much money is acceptable to have in this field without being perceived as greedy or wasteful.” If we wrote into our grant applications what it actually takes in terms of time and resources to do this work, it feels like funders would be appalled.
  6. Partnerships (with academia, with more mainstream arts, culture and neighborhood development organizations, or with commercial media/corporate entities) could be an effective strategy for finding funding for grassroots projects.
  7. As technology has become more accessible, expectations (ours and others!) around the quality of media production have increased. How can we develop our media-production skills without having to pay for another advanced degree? Could skill-sharing or bartering be alternative strategies for meeting our production needs without having to master all these skills ourselves?

A “Next Steps” brainstorm generated a list of ideas for how to build on and continue the dialogue and relationships developed in this initial Groundswell gathering. Ideas that garnered the most interest and support were:

  • Making Groundswell an annual gathering (and making next year’s bigger and more diverse)
  • Developing communication tools to support continued exchange and peer mentoring (website, wiki, listserve, facebook page, etc.)
  • Creating a tool-kit or curriculum to share methods, strategies and suggested practices/guidelines
  • Using existing venues to further the dialogue/make presentations, etc. (Oral History Association, Allied Media Conference, USSF, Columbia University’s Summer Institute on Oral History, etc.)
  • Collaborating on joint publications


  1. There is a risk here of focusing disproportional amounts of resources on production, to the detriment of the transformative processes that we hope to facilitate. In her essay, “Oral History and Community Involvement: The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project,” oral historian Linda Shopes comments on this dilemma: “We had been funded to develop an oral history collection, a photographic archive, a theatrical production, and traveling museum, not to work with people to develop new forms of historical consciousness.” in Presenting the Past, 262.