Reportback: How can we engage oral history to help today's activists learn from our movement past?

Practitioner Support Network, Thursday, November 20th, 2014


  • Kiera Loki Shackleton

  • Sarah Loose

  • Suzy Subways

  • Aliza Becker

  • Daniel Horowitz Garcia

  • Rachelle Ocampo

  • Wiley (Grace)

  • Jim Haber

  • Rosalie Riegle

Don't reinvent the wheel. If we don't know our history, we're condemned to repeat it. History is a weapon of the oppressed. Part of the promise of oral history for organizers, activists and movement leaders is to help us learn from the success and mistakes of our movement elders.  But how does that happen?

What questions can we ask to draw out the knowledge and lessons that will be useful to us today? How can we solicit the perspectives of 'others' or outsiders in ways that are useful or that offer critical insights on movement building and tactics? What are the best formats for sharing interviews with activists in order to facilitate critical reflection and generate strategic conversation about the present and future of our work? How can we learn from the past while also recognizing the unique and changing context of our present and future? In doing this work, how do we balance our roles as activists and researchers?

In this chat, we'll draw on the experiences of call facilitators and participants to explore the utility - and challenges - of using oral history to "learn from our past."



Loki: in Scotland now. Was in Oregon working with Earth First! Cascadia forest defense in early 2000s. Doing oral history with EF! activists from late 90s, early 2000s. Conflicts around building anti-oppression culture, confronting sexual assault. Incorporating audio into video, sound pieces. Reader’s theater: script based on OH material. Readings with activists involved now, to explore issues. Was involved in some of those conflicts myself, some folks have moved apart and are hard to find b/c of conflict. How to frame conflicts differently now. Challenging b/c people remember me from my perspective. People have some distance but people still feel the impact.

Sarah: Oregon community organizer, popular educator, oral historian. Completing work on an oral history project with the Rural Organizing Project ( that was explicitly trying to inform future organizing practice by learning from our 20 year history of grassroots, progressive organizing in rural Oregon. Interested in this chat because we did some things well in that process, but want to learn how to do it better.

Suzy: Working on SLAM Herstory project. Any activist group worth its salt creates myths about itself.  How can we use oral history to break those myths down and learn from our past?

Aliza: Project documenting Israeli-Palestinian peace activism 50s-present.

Jim: Harm reduction/needle exchange/qualitative interviews w/ injection drug users. And working with Aliza on archive of Jewish peace groups, resolution of Palestine/Israel conflict.

Rachelle: work with Filipino community in NYC metro area, thinking of collecting OH from Filipino American community here.

Grace: participated in Loki’s project, was interviewed, currently a forest activist in Oregon. Thinking of working on an OH project, curious about, we might be interested in interviewing people who may not want their interviews shared. Were there useful things to do with info that was given to you that can’t be shared with other people? Narrators don’t want it recorded beyond people taking notes. No audio. Older, private people.

Daniel: Atlanta. StoryCorps. 15 years (organizing?). Before, working with Black women’s welfare rights organizing. Burned out organizer.


Aliza: In project documenting Israeli-Palestinian peace activism 50s-present we are interviewing representative activists from each period, mostly Jewish activists mostly in Jewish groups. I recruited 5 young adult activists and one young adult oral historian to work on the project [so intergenerational sharing among activists is built in to the project]. One offered to do a monthly blog post about the project aimed at young people. I think there are three important things coming out of the interviews that can inform future organizing:

  1. Stories that demonstrate a lesson

  2. Times in interviews when people share lessons learned

  3. Moments in interviews when we ask specifically for narrators to reflect on the future (e.g. what do you think is next?)

Question about conflict: One narrator still upset about an interpersonal conflict in 1970, wanted to talk all about how he was right and the other guy was wrong. When conflicts still feel so raw, do you want to make all the info public? Do you want to put it in a really public archive or just share with current activists?

Grace: As I’m thinking about doing this oral history project in Coos County, I anticipate that some folks might not want their interview to be recorded or shared. Is there still a benefit to doing the interview then? What are useful things to do with that info if it isn’t appropriate to be shared publicly?

Aliza: Especially older people, usually are dying to be listened to. Our challenge is getting people to focus. We’re not going to edit these, so remind them to think of what they want to put in an archive.  

Jim: There’s a huge amount of documentation of movements - paper and booklets, etc. References go back and forth, it would be great to be able to deal with it all, though may or may not be relevant to today’s movements.

Daniel: I’m interested in using oral history to disrupt narratives that many people hold dear about what civil rights organizing looked like in 1970s. Was welfare rights part of that? Success of riots, changes made. Within organizing circles there are a lot of assumptions made about the term “social movement”. Is there actually a movement? In what ways does that term hide things? 1968 and 1994 were completely different times, things now are really bad, after all this struggle. Need to deal with world as it is, as organizers. OH can help with that.

I was the first person to write about a lot of welfare rights work in the South. People forget about Atlanta after ‘68. Georgia in 80s and 90s was important, but people are ignored. Was huge for people interviewed for the project to know their interviews are in a publicly accessible archive. OH re-examined the narrative of the organization - an anchor organization in the South that has been through a lot of crisis. Research and interviews helped people understand that an org led by poor Black women will have to continually justify itself to funders. Now I’d like to break down academic thesis into 20-page history handbook. Could share it with the new generation of staff. People don’t understand why poor people’s movement has been called that for 35 years. Keep institutional memory alive.

Sarah: Oral history can help break down our own myths about our own movements and organizations and also myths the general public has. Need for accessible materials that can reach people organizing today.

Suzy: In SLAM Herstory project, we’ve created a zine or pamphlet with edited interviews. I’ve also organized listening events, playing snippets of audio from the interviews and speaking about the lessons I learned. Events with activist-narrators as speakers can lead to mentoring relationships with younger activists. We haven’t used video, but I imagine it as a good medium for reaching current activists - sharing 3 minute videos and then facilitating a discussion.

Sarah: ROP (Rural Organizing Project) in OR started with organizing in small towns and rural areas against anti-gay ballot measure in early ‘90s. Now includes racial and immigrant justice, antiwar. As part of the oral history project documenting ROP’s 20-year history, I organized a series of workshops, one around leadership development, one on starting from a values-based framework for organizing, one on campaign work vs long-term movement building, etc. We invited historic leaders and current leaders and had people listen to audio clips from interviews and reflect on them (and their own organizing) in a workshop setting. Workshops designed around specific questions being addressed in the organization’s strategic planning process for next 5 years. Tried to present the audio in a way that allowed people to critically reflect on it. Entrenched culture within org, hard to break with some of that and look critically. Also this happens in nonprofit world, pressures to speak well of what we’ve done. Sometimes people don’t remember things in the level of detail that would really help us examine and learn from their past practice.

People in and outside of Oregon want to know how the ROP network of 10,000+ progressive rural people was built. Staff don’t have time to respond to all inquiries. So we’re also working on a website for the project. Hope that the website can be its own workshop: organized in terms of narrators and themes, how did group respond to challenges? Without necessarily saying what lessons are, b/c people take dif lessons away. Be humble, offer stories and reflections.

Aliza: (In response to Jim’s concern: Longtime activists have boxes of materials. John D’Emilio set up Gay Liberation Archive. Need to build archive so people can donate items to it.) Also, a lot of people say their vision of the future is hopeless. Not a vision we want to share. They may have great stories from the past. How do you deal with that sense of hopelessness?

Suzy: I would try to explore that feeling with them.  Ask: when did you start feeling that way? Dig deeper...

Daniel: People who’ve been activists for a long time aren’t feeling positive. Disconnect between where people are at. I might ask: What does your hopelessness mean? What does the hopelessness come from? What did you want to happen that didn’t happen? When people compromise their vision, that ends up hurting them. Illogic, like b/c revolution didn’t happen in New York at that moment, revolution is not possible. Need to recognize how emotionally hard that is for people. We need to take care of each other, and I don’t think we’re doing it.

Sarah: I might ask what were the moments when they really did feel hope? What was happening then for them? Ask them to think about what it means to have hope.

Aliza: People we are interviewing were active 40-50 years ago, most not active anymore.

Jim: [question via chat] As the situation worsens or fluctuates, people's attitudes will change. In the case of Israel/Palestine, many people's pessimism is growing. When we conduct the different interviews will be a response to the snapshot moment, or just cumulative to that point. How will this be reflected coherently in an archive?

Sarah: What are some of the kinds of lessons or knowledge that OH can help share with current and future activists/organizers? Lessons on how to take care of each other? Tactics?

Loki: Was expecting current organizers to be curious about internal conflict, but more so they were looking for strategic lessons. I had assumed they already had knowledge of tactics and strategy but actually people were lacking a lot of knowledge about how people actually run campaigns, etc.

Grace: In 2009, new activists, we wanted to start campaigns but people were gone, in prison, movement was low. Knew about the internal conflict already, big reason why older folks weren’t around anymore. Hard to find mentors who still felt it was worth it to fight. There was no existing movement or organizational structure left to plug into. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to come to meetings. Memory of conflict can linger a lot longer than memory of successes. What is a failure for one person is a success for others. People may give impression of failures but, for example, I would later learn of places still standing, watershed still intact because of the activist work - that same work that others had described as a total failure.

Rachelle: Question: I’m in exploratory phase of starting a project collecting stories of community organizing in the Filipino American community. How would you start?

Aliza: I’m just starting, too. Got a video camera, challenge with tech stuff. Learned about OH field. This group has helped a lot. In my second year now. Raised some funding. Find mentors, oral historians, read basic guide books in OH, look at OHA website. Try things, make mistakes.

Suzy: Reach out to a broad array of community organizing groups if doing a project about community in general.

Rachelle: Been talking with community orgs, hearing stories and lessons learned, want to document them.

Aliza: Oral History Summer School. Also Columbia U’s OH program has free events throughout the year.

Sarah: Ask yourself, what are you hoping the communities will get out of the interviews? Get clarity yourself and with people who might participate about not only the documentation goals of the project, but also the strategic organizing or educational goals.

Grace: Context for my project would be rural, environmental mvt with conflict with counter-protesters. Would you interview people you don’t agree with on a basic level?

Suzy: If goal is to share lessons with current activists, it may be useful to hear what people’s values and interests are, what motivates them to counter-protest.

Aliza: Need to be in good emotional place, not exhausted, to listen thoughtfully in those types of interviews.

Rosalie: I’ve turned over my oral history project to a younger person who will be interviewing older people. Want to learn to mentor younger interviewers.


Final Go-around – what are you taking with you from this conversation?

Suzy: Appreciated discussion about themes of demoralized/hopelessness. Important to acknowledge that. Also the conversation on internal conflicts - while I don’t think healing can really be a “goal” of an oral history project (too ambitious) I do think it is sometimes a powerful side effect of interviews.

Daniel: Using OH with orgs to help them create a narrative to disrupt the dominant narrative. Potential for OH to do that. Also has the potential to disrupt our own narratives. That story is sticking in my mind of the activist who thought they didn’t win anything, but realizing they did. There is hopelessness, need to confront it.

Loki: Using OH to disrupt a variety of narratives, dominant or also within movements. What’s my responsibility as an academic and activist to respect these groups? Interview people from a range of different perspectives. Not just people who remain in group, but also people who were kicked out of the group. And do that in ways that empathize with why they were kicked out.

Aliza: Useful to hear everybody. Discussion on hopelessness was good. I had thought, I’ll just wait for someone else who has a good vision, and wrote them off. Leaving for another 10 interviews soon, will see if it comes up again.

Grace: Got to hear about all these other projects, helps, resources and things I’m going to look up. Better idea of how to start.

Rachelle: helpful to hear about everyone’s experiences. Going to do a lot more research than I expected about OH. Think about a clearer vision. And start interviewing.

Rosalie: Look forward to seeing the notes.