Thursday, September 18th, 2014
Laura Lo Forti
In this first chat of the Groundswell PSN Anti-Oppression series, we will use the major themes of anti-oppression organizing to explore the phase of an oral history project that comes after the interviews have been collected and organized. In asking questions about where the interviews should be archived, what should be made public, and what kinds of events and programming are most effective for revolutionary change, we will pay close attention to anti-oppression principles. This PSN is open to practitioners in all stages of a project, but we will focus our conversation on how anti-oppression principles can inform the decisions we make and products we create after interviews have already been completed.
On Agency and Co-Creation
Basic premise: narrators who come from and share stories of communities who have been historically oppressed and marginalized have the right to decide how, with whom, and towards what ends their stories are shared and retold.
Shane asks: as we incorporate different types of media into our process to try to impact policy and connect stories for organizing, who decides which forms of media we use? How can we make sure that these forms are used by and relevant to the community being interviewed and that community’s unique culture?
Laura suggests the need to consider our target audience (in addition to narrator communities) in creating and determining the media that we use for sharing stories. In the Vanport Multimedia Project, narrators have expressed a desire for their stories to be known to a broader public beyond their own community. So this community storytelling project is bringing together a growing group of artists and media makers in a collaborative, participatory process to explore the issues emerging through the interviews, to figure out what more we need to know, and decide, together, how to tell these stories. The choice to transform the oral narratives into digital media with a strong storytelling component may or may not be the most relevant media to narrators themselves, but it does seem like the most effective (and versatile) way to ensure these stories reach the broader, target audience identified by narrators. At the same time, project collaborators are also creating other outcomes - poems, plays, etc. - based on the narratives.
Shane: all of the work we do happens within the context of larger systems of oppression. The Aboriginal activists group (Queensland, 1970s) quote: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together...” can be interpreted, in the oral history context, as a call for a blurring of the traditional roles of narrators and interviewers, a charge to extend that “shared authority” to a full solidarity relationship, which opens up the space for and is characterized by reciprocity, shared agency, and co-creation.
Sarah D: It seems there is always going to be someone or someone(s) who serve as the “organizers” or “engines” of an oral history project. It is the role of these folks, then, to reach out to narrators (who are also invested in the project) and keep offering opportunities for narrators to engage in the process. We want to respect people’s right to change the shape of the project as it develops, and allow for people to change their minds re: media, outcomes, etc. as the project unfolds. This makes for a very organic process (both generative and challenging!).
Suzy adds: I do see the value of organizing spaces for narrators to really have input into the project., though I’ve tended to shy away from asking people to go to too many meetings (the people I’m working with already have to go to so many meetings!). Hard to balance.
Laura: Building ownership into the project is important - but can also be challenging. When there are lots of people participating in different ways/roles (e.g. as interviewers, as narrators, as videographers, as video/documentary editors), especially in projects that operate at the intersections of oral history and journalism where you have artists or documentarians creating products out of other peoples’ stories, there can be conflicts. I’m trying to figure out ways to honor everyone’s participation, but especially the narrators and their wishes.
Arya: What might a collective process of project development look like? Maybe doing 5-10 initial interviews and then bringing participants together to listen to them and see what resonates most strongly? How might you facilitate that kind of environment with narrators? Sharing stories between narrators might help evoke for narrators all the potential uses of their stories. How do we involve narrators in decisions what about how and with what technologies to share stories when they might not have access to or familiarity with many of these technologies?
Some archives can be exploitative, exclusive, elitist. If donating a project to an archive, it is important to talk to them as soon as possible in the process. Some archives have restrictions as to whether collectors, narrators, etc. can retain rights to the materials.
In making archiving decisions it can be challenging to balance different interests. Sometimes our charge to keep anti-oppression principles in the forefront can seem at odds with our desire for permanence and long-term preservation.
From Interviews to Action
Cynthia described a new project she is working on to document affordable housing projects and gentrification in Bushwick, Brooklyn, interviewing long-term and short-term residents, artists, whites & hispanic immigrants. One hope is that the project will serve to bring out similarities or common interests among the diverse residents and build power and unity to organize against developers. (Sarah D. suggested there may be potential value in interviewing the developers, too, in part to understand and expose the developers’ logic in which notions of guilt and evil have no place.) Cynthia plans to create a website portal for the project that can serve as a catapult for community dialogue, with opportunities for website visitors to learn about the area’s history, share their own stories, and get involved in current organizing efforts. Outstanding question: what would it look like to co-create this archive, and what would it take and mean to eventually “hand it over” to the people’s whose stories it holds?
Laura’s Vanport Multimedia Project starts with the story of Vanport, but in a future phase will move to a deeper exploration of community displacement and gentrification of historically African American neighborhoods in Portland’s more recent history. A digital archive will serve as a platform to share digital stories created through the project, and may include a visual mapping component that illustrates the trajectory of displacement and movement. Community screenings and community dialogues will provide space to explore issues of equity and race relations. A question in organizing these events: how do we remain inclusive? How do we let the community frame the conversation (as opposed to mandating the parameters of the dialogue)?
Manissa’s work also focuses on gentrification. They, too, are trying to make a live map of people’s stories. Key questions: how can we use that map to aid in tenant activism? How can these stories actually further organizing? And, relatedly, how do we balance the privacy and publicness in sharing stories? Some of the tenants who are interviewed are nervous about retaliation by their landlords if their stories are lifted up as examples in organizing efforts.
Angela asks: How do we move from oral history to advocacy? How can we partner with other groups to move from story to action?
On Listening, Retelling, Trauma & Violence
Manissa reminds us that there can exist a violence in retelling stories, when narrators are asked to retell their stories again and again - or are subjected to hearing their own stories retold by others multiple times.
Shane points out the importance of entering communities respectfully, and changing the ways we listen accordingly. What are the ways that communities already share stories and their history? Where do people congregate and share stories? How can we reclaim (and respect) the practices of “oral history” that already exist in communities? And how are we using stories and storytelling to address trauma?
On Race and Racism in Oral History Work
Angela wonders -- as a white woman working on a project (The Shine) that aims to uplift the voices of young men of color -- how issues of racism might affect the project and how project organizers and participants relate to each other at each stage of the project. How are we (or can we be more) respectful of lines of difference in this work? What do we need to learn about how to include people? And how can we build on this storytelling work to lead to advocacy to address the issues that surface in these narratives?
Shane: I work with the Detroit Asian Youth Project, organizing with Hmong, Bengali, Southeast Asian youth. We see a tendency towards homogenization - to throw all Asian communities into one pot. We also need to be aware of our positions as people of color with different kinds of privileges than other people of color in Detroit, such as the African American community. Navigating our identity in our social context can be challenging, an imperfect process and we need to allow ourselves to make and learn from mistakes.
On the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Shane: We want to allow individuation and collective transformation that happens in the work to inform our way forward, together. But non-profit structures and grant funding, with stringent timelines and pre-determined outcomes, can sometimes inhibit this organic development of highly collaborative or participatory projects.
Angela: We’ve run into this too - where a funder had intentions regarding what they wanted done with the content created in our project (or how they wanted to use it) that were actually quite different from what they said at the beginning. It ended up impacting our project. Now we know that we need to be careful about where we get our $, and make sure to demand copyright over the content produced in our projects.
We aren’t empty vessels
Cynthia: In my work exploring gentrification, I’ve tried to incorporate representatives from each of the different groups (shorter term residents, longer term residents, artists, etc.), recognizing that each group brings different agendas and want different outcomes, and even competing issues/interests. I’ve considered what it might look like to bring people from two (or all?) of these different groups together into the same room for a group interview of sorts. Could I just step back and let that unfold so that they learn from each other?
Suzy: As the facilitator or coordinator of a project, you have power in facilitating which voices are included and how, what the decision-making process looks like, etc. We also have priorities. We aren’t - can’t be - just empty vessels.
Shane: Neither are the folks we work with or interview empty vessels either. In my work with youth to address the “pipeline to prison” in the public school system, we take a popular education approach, where we are all learners and teachers, respecting the lived experience of individuals involved in the process. That same notion can be helpful to us in oral history work - narrators and interviewers alike are both learners and teachers in the oral history process.