Reportback: The principles of allyship for oral historians

October 21st, 2014


  • Shane Bernardo

  • David Spataro

  • Sarah Loose

  • Amy Starecheski

  • Sarah Hollingsworth

  • Victor Yang

  • Ariel Appel

  • Nicki Pombier Berger

Allyship is a fundamental concept in anti-oppression organizing, and it has become especially important in projects where organizers are situated in different positions within the structure of race, class, gender, and sexuality oppression. In this PSN chat we will talk about how the concept of allyship fits (or does not fit) within the context of an oral history project. In the instances where oral historians have access to different sources of privilege and power (institutional funding, educational privilege, mobility, white skin privilege and so forth), do the principles of allyship help to make oral history projects stronger? Finally, we will also explore criticisms of the ‘ally industrial complex,’ talk about the shortcomings of the misuse and overuse of allyship, and look at recent calls for people with privilege to become ‘accomplices’ not allies.


Introduction Notes

What is the definition of ally?

An ally is a member of a majority group who works to end all forms of oppression and especially forms of oppression that allow members of their majority group to gain unearned privileges. Hence – a male ally works to end the system of male supremacy that gives the ally privileges. The ally works to end oppression in their personal life through support work for oppressed groups, by recognizing that oppressed groups lead their own powerful struggles, – struggles that can be strengthened or bolstered by particular forms of active support by members of the majority.

Allyship in terms of group dynamics:

  • Allyship is a framework that people use when collective resistance involves working effectively together while differences of power and privilege exist. In this regard, allyship is a strategy for people in the group to understand: points of conflict/unity, issues of unequal access, oppressive divisions of labor/leadership, just to name a few.

  • The allyship framework is built upon the idea that people with privileges often carry systems of oppression with them into collective work, creating problems through discriminatory assumptions about leadership, about expertise, about tactics, whose voices are most important, and so forth.

  • In this regard, allyship is often communicated as specific strategies for identifying or stopping oppressive behavior so that the group can more effectively accomplish their goals – whether it be a demonstration, campaign, or living/working together.

  • To use an example for myself with an interview project: I was doing interviews with members of an anarchist group as a participant as well as interviewer and during this time the group went through a conflict around male power and gender dynamics in the group, which ultimately led to a group of people leaving the larger group. I found that some of the work that I had done in terms of understanding allyship and power and privilege gave me some tools to communicate with during this conflict – although it was still extremely difficult.

Allyship in terms of personal work

  • For all people but especially people who hold multiple forms of privilege—for example cis-gender, heterosexual, white men—allyship is also a set of principles that provide a map of everyday, internal work for self-education and the transformation of internalized prejudices.

  • In this regard, allyship is not specifically about group process, but a set of guidelines that map out how people should be in the world.

  • During their everyday life an ally should be educating themselves about the struggles of oppressed groups, engaging in self-reflection and identifying what they need to do to work against internalized discrimination.

  • This may not be specifically within a group that is working towards a social change goal, but could be at your home or place of work – changing the language we use for example with gender pronouns, or developing a more active response for the kinds of oppressive behavior that occurs in daily life – responding to racist or sexist jokes with a statement rather than silence. Many other examples.

What are some common criticisms of the allyship framework?

  1. The first one is a criticism of the ally as an “identity,” that people take on, or as a badge that someone might brandish or use as a way to be self-satisfied. Within group dynamics, holding allyship as a badge can be used problematically to avoid being accountable or as a defense mechanism to suggest that someone has done the work and should not be called out or should not do more work. I think the NASCO zine we sent around makes some good points that being an ally also means knowing that members of target group may question peoples' motives or sincerity about being an ally and this doubt/questioning is valid. Ally is not a way for a member of a majority group to change their identity – a common way that people talk about this is: “your ally card expires at the end of the day”

  2. The second criticism comes from recent work coming out of indigenous struggles, and it is a criticism of allyship that is professionalized, that lacks militancy, and that reproduces rather than erodes the power dynamic between majority groups and oppressed groups. I see this as a call to more closely look at what groups and with what tactics do allies tend to gravitate towards. As members of majority groups, allies don't face the need for militancy in order to survive, which is the case for many groups. As allies we have to recognize that if ally energy flows towards some tactics and not others – for example the flow not going towards militant struggle – then that signals a flow of power towards certain groups.

Jumping off into the group conversation:

What are you taking away from what you've heard, and how does this relate to your own work? React to what i've shared. Please add to what I've missed.


Discussion Notes

Nicki (who is currently applying to a PhD program) posed a question to the group about participants’ experiences with the tensions that arise when doing activist oral history work within a system or institution (such as the “university”) that confers certain power and privilege.

Shane: What the group seems to be getting at is a blurring of the lines between the interviewer (often seen as the more “professionalized” role) and the narrator, which as an idea is parallel with some much older forms of storytelling that are based upon co-creation. Embracing this notion of co-creation also means asking questions: How are you, as an interviewer, impacted by these stories? What are the policies and institutions that uphold your position?

Following this, we had several comments about access to resources, in which people used the ally concept to ask questions about how to make spaces more accessible or transfer institutional resources to narrators. A few people gave examples where they identified that their institution (or the institutional space of a conference) had specific mechanisms to value or to invite in the interviewer but block access to the narrator.

Sarah L. used the example of a particular grant that she was awarded, which she wanted to use to bring a narrator into an institutional space, but the stipulations on the money made it difficult. They had to find a work-around in order to overcome this obstacle to narrator participation.

Nicki explained how one of the narrators in her project about intellectual disabilities was excited about co-presenting at an oral history conference that didn’t usually deal with disability. Who was I, she asked, as a person with privilege and access to these platforms to question that narrators’ desire to access that space?

Amy asked what’s the point of emphasizing or engaging oral history vs. other forms of storytelling? Oral history has a certain power and prestige and we can deploy that strategically and broaden access to that power. At the same time, we need to value and surface other modes of expertise. In other words, we can work to democratize access to certain forms of expertise but also try to recognize and value other forms of expertise and methodologies.

David: We’re talking about access. How do we prod institutions and come to a greater awareness of how they both destroy knowledge and limit access to it? Allyship isn’t just a personal thing but also implies pushing back against institutional power and systems.

Ariel brought agency, clarity of purpose, and positionality in to the discussion. She gave the example of a queer trans youth project where the youth are using digital storytelling to create short videos that will then be used by local health institutions for sensitization and training with mental health providers on these issues. Although the problems of who controls the narrative and the issue of exploitation of stories does not go away, having clarity about the project  (e.g. who has control over how the stories will be broadcast later, knowing ahead of time what the platform for the project will be, etc.) and about one's position vis-a-vis the narrators and the goals allows for direct communication. (Also helps hedge against the ways that authorship can become skewed or lost or appropriated in conference type settings, etc.)

Sarah H. gave the example of working with a homeless individual who she realized over time had a lot of reluctance to follow through with the interview due to the project's affiliation with Columbia. (In fact, Sarah felt that her affiliation with Columbia seemed to make it harder for her to find narrators willing to participate in the project in the first place.) She made the point that the process has to be more about the relationships and connections between people than the end product.  Moreover, the relationship between narrator and interviewer goes beyond the interview itself.

Victor reflected on his own challenges around doing oral history work as a graduate student. He explained that he has sometimes made the decision not to mention his affiliation, at least not when first initiating the relationship. Is this hiding privilege? Or is it a valid choice when trying to first establish bonds by other means? Victor raised several other points:

  • Confidentiality and ethical boundaries: when interviewing people who are (or become) friends, how do we negotiate boundaries about what is public/private, what can be shared more broadly, and how knowledge about a person acquired outside of the interview process can (or not) be brought into the interview space.

  • One response to that, perhaps, is about making sure that narrators have the option and power to review transcripts or other interview products. But while some people can review and double- check their transcripts many others don’t, won’t, or can’t.

  • Who is represented in and interviewed for our projects?  How are we reproducing forms of oppression and silence in our projects in the selection of narrators? E.g. people with the time and stability to do an interview are able to participate while those whose lives are marked by greater insecurity or instability might be unable to participate.

Sarah L. suggested that a fundamental step for oral history practitioners seeking to apply allyship principles to their work is to ensure that the work or project will be of interest and/or utility to our movements and communities.  Is this work useful to our shared struggle?  We put a lot of resources and energy into these projects.  Is that use of energy and resources being strategically deployed and flowing to where it needs to flow?    

Shane: Consent goes beyond the interview itself; it is embedded in the quality of the relationships we build. In my work as an adult facilitator with a youth group, I hold social privileges that others don’t. What we’ve tried to do in our work with the group is approach the work not as authority figures, but as facilitators. Drawing on popular education’s premise that we are all teachers and we are all students, we try to bring out everyone’s life-based experience in the facilitation process.  As we navigate and try to dismantle hierarchical relationships in this work, the notion of consent is core. It’s analogous to participatory research which questions and shifts who is driving the research (e.g. the “researched” are also the “researchers”).

David emphasized the importance of clarity around project processes and outcomes.  He shared an example from a project in which participants pushed back against the project. One of the narrators (wary of my relationship with a university) decided that they didn’t want to do the interview, didn’t trust that the interviews would be useful [to the movement], didn’t trust they wouldn’t be co-opted in surveillance efforts. Part of the problem was that the clarity of the project wasn’t there from the beginning. It wasn’t clear if the project would be useful or not.  The purpose wasn’t clear.  

David [?]: in thinking about access and feedback, I also found that people didn’t have time or energy to go over their transcripts. The challenge is a methodological one: can we create a more feasible, practical way for people to give feedback? For example, sitting down with the narrator and listening to the interview together, or taking the time to identify and flag specific passages in a transcript that might be of concern so that the narrator can focus their energy on those specific sections.

Amy used examples from the way that she uses consent in her projects as something that is ongoing. She has different stages in the project where consent comes back into the relationship with the interviewee and where she outlines what is happening at that point in the project and where the interviews are heading – this allows the narrators to reassess how they feel and to come to a different conclusion about their consent if things change. For example:

  • even after she had secured legal releases that gave her full permission to use the interviews, she still sent everyone who was quoted in her dissertation the specific quotes for their review.

  • She organized a public meeting (with free pizza and beer financed by a research grant) for project participants (not just interviewees) to learn about and share feedback on the concepts and conclusions in her dissertation.

  • Made the extra effort to reach out via phone to individuals who don’t communicate much over e-mail.

Amy: another thing to consider in terms of access & privilege in oral history work is who gets paid for their time in the project.  Might be necessary to rethink this traditional prohibition against paying interviewees.

Ariel: What are the incentives for participants or narrators to help design and participate in a project? Creating access to expert knowledge? How is it not just “your” project, but a shared project? How do you consider allyship in designing your project?

Amy: I think part of this comes back to the idea of usefulness. We can approach people in this way: “I’m interested in working with you. What do you think would be useful?” But if you are going to ask that, you have to go in being open to change and adapt your own ideas.


Closing thoughts and feelings:

Shane: A lot the times we are coming at these ideas from a scarcity lens rather than an abundance lens. That binary between the interviewer (“who has the resources”) and the narrator (“who lacks resources”) sets us up for that lens of scarcity. In designing projects, we need to begin from the point of where people are already socializing, where the stories are already being shared and then build from there. Ask ourselves: How are people already socializing?

Amy: I’m thinking about: 1) finding ways to value and recognize other forms of expertise, and 2) challenging and providing access to the power of my institution (e.g. it’s not my place to tell people they shouldn’t want access to it)

Ariel: This chat continues to make me think about the professionalization of storytelling and the problems that ensue when there is expertise and professionals.  Also, how to mobilize allyship in our work without exploiting it.

Sarah H.: Helpful to think about consent as something that happens at every stage of the project. How do we develop relationships with people so that they feel comfortable expressing their consent (or lack thereof!) with us?

Victor: Takeaways: “Repetitive Consent”! Creating different formats/methods for people to provide feedback.

Sarah L.: We’ve been asking the question how doing oral history work mirrors social justice work or organizing. But I don’t think the two are always distinct.  At least in this new project I’m working on, oral history work is organizing work.

David: This chat makes me think that there is already quite of bit of overlap in the way we think about oral history projects and how allyship is framed. Amy's point about consent as an ongoing process makes me think of the way allyship is meant to be a process without a specific endpoint – just as our “ally” card expires at the end of the day, that consent form expires at the end of that phase or segment of the project.