Oral historians gathered in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend not just for the famous cheese and beer, but because Madison has deep roots in social activism and grassroots movements. As the host city, Madison held the 48th Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA). This years meeting, Oral History in Motion: Movements, Transformations, and the Power of Story, explored the role of story and oral testimony in supporting activism and social change. The panels, roundtables, film screenings, workshops, and performances showcased the interdisciplinary projects that allow the practice of oral history to extend beyond the in depth interview.
Three women are determined to change the definition of homelessness not only in national legislation, but also in the eyes of civil society. Conference presenters Louise Edwards-Simpson, Lucille Russell, and Helen Garcia in Meta Perspectives on the Intersection between Homelessness and Higher Education: A Faculty-Student Collaborative Oral History Project, interviewed about fourteen women at St. Catherine University in Minnesota. The narrators were struggling or had previously struggled with homelessness. This oral history project documents the links between homelessness and higher education and exemplifies the realities of “housing insecurity,” a term the women believe to be more in line with experiences of inconsistent, unreliable, and unsafe housing. The project calls attention to underestimated instances of homelessness like college students crashing on family and friend’s couches, vulnerable to being kicked out at anytime, or working college students migrating through motels. The narratives bring light to muted stories of violence, hunger, child neglect, street living, and other conditions faced by many members of our own community.
A key component of this oral history project is the online archive. While almost ready for public consumption, this archive will serve as a research tool within the larger social movement for economic equality. Not only does the archive document and preserve these narratives, but also it represents evidence of systemic injustices against women in poverty like domestic abuse, sexual abuse, low wage work, or discrimination based on immigration status.
Another key component of this oral history project and archive are animated maps that document the narrator’s journey of finding stable housing. These maps serve as visual aids representing broader patterns of housing insecurity and have the potential to inspire public discourse about the myths surrounding homelessness. The three women leaders of this project also proposed the idea of a future radio presentation for spreading information and awareness about housing insecurity.
Edwards-Simpson, Russell and Garcia take a firm stance on the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, legislation that narrowly defines homelessness and exclusively allocates social services for those who are ‘truly’ homeless. In this oral history project, narratives serve as an indicator of the need to discuss and re-examine this national policy. How can we use oral history to inspire civil society but also advocate for changes within legislation? What power does an archive have in the movement for secure housing? I encourage you to help me grapple with these questions by responding in the comment section!
Thank you to the Oral History Association for creating an academic space for practitioners to share ideas and experiences. There are few other environments that can harbor such expertise!