In her book Curating Oral Histories, Nancy MacKay quotes Geoff Froh, then Technical Manager of the online oral history project Denshō: “The drive to develop a sophisticated data model or deploy a ‘cool’ website can crowd out the underlying purpose of the project. We are about people telling their stories. Information technology facilitates that work; it is not an end in itself.” Ideally, the way a personal narrative project presents its content online – including the format of the narratives, their accessibility, their copyright permissions, and the language used to describe the narratives, alongside many other aspects – will help to further the project’s stated mission.
This becomes especially interesting when we look at narrative projects that have a mission of social justice or social change. In what ways are the ethical goals of the projects manifested in the sites’ presentations of narratives? In this post, I explore this question by looking at three narrative projects committed to addressing violence: The Texas After Violence Project, The Storytelling and Organizing Project, and Silence Speaks Digital Storytelling. The ways these projects present their narratives all say something about how they approach structural and interpersonal violence. With their different approaches, they all have something unique to bring to the table.
Headquartered in Austin, the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which makes extensive use of oral history interviews. Its mission is “to encourage people affected by violence to share their experiences, to preserve unrepresented voices in the criminal justice system, and to inspire community conversations as a way to move toward a more just and less violent Texas.” For the purposes of this blog post, the final goal is the most relevant: how does the presentation of TAVP’s interviews encourage conversations about violence?
TAVP declares: “We oppose violence, whether it is perpetrated by a private individual or by the state.” This philosophy leads them to include interviewees who have experienced violence personally as well as interviewees who encounter violence in their professional lives, which range from law enforcement to activism. Because of this, conversations based on TAVP’s interviews are likely to focus on both interpersonal and state violence.
TAVP has interview content posted in two ways. First, they have full interviews available for discussion which are uniquely accessible through a separate website managed by the University of Texas. On the UT’s Human Rights Documentation Initiative website, clicking on an interview brings you to a page in which the video is located in the center, and to the right are three boxes: Search, Table of Contents, and Transcript. Type a word in the Search bar, and the site displays all the instances in which that word appears in the abstract, metadata, and transcript. Next to every transcript entry is a Play button; clicking on it takes you to the section of the video in which the interviewee says the term or phrase you searched for. These play buttons are distributed liberally throughout the transcript, appearing whenever the interviewee or interviewer starts speaking and roughly every “paragraph” the interviewee speaks. Most interesting is the Table of Contents, which divides the interview into different themes in a way similar to the traditional index. The features are all very similar to those of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.
When I first ventured onto TAVP’s website, I thought the innovative transcript and search features of the long-form interviews might lend them well to community discussion. Actually, TAVP Executive Director Samantha Fredrickson says that while these features have been well utilized by some academics and students, in a discussion setting it is easier to show concise excerpts of interviews that highlight various issues. For example, a short video featuring the stories of several individuals discussing their experiences with the criminal justice system can inspire a conversation among prison family members watching the videos. TAVP has begun to organize short videos based on theme on its website as well, and has several short excerpts (both video and audio) of people talking about witnessing an execution as part of its ongoing project The Emotions of Justice, which examines capital murder cases through the stories of people affected by them backwards from execution to the childhoods of victims and offenders.
TAVP has also begun creating pages for individual interviewees in which there are several interview clips, each lasting a few minutes. The idea, as explained by TAVP Executive Director Samantha Fredrickson, is that a collection of short clips is accessible to more people, and that after watching short excerpts people will be drawn to learn more and will visit the full online archive. Browsing the People section of TAVP’s website, the truth of this idea is pretty apparent. Narrators are divided into three categories: The Family, The Law, and The Community, reflecting their different vantage points. So far, four of the narrators have individual pages, each of which contains a series of clips with short summaries, a few paragraphs of context at the bottom of the page, and links to further resources. Although the clips are self-contained, they are compelling enough that it is hard to watch only one or two.
TAVP’s range of full interviews and shorter clips serves to increase site accessibility in a way that furthers TAVP’s mission. I imagine members of a violence support group watching a video and being able to share particularly affective segments, or an anti-violence speaker easily broadcasting sections of TAVP interviews that are relevant to her/his topic.
The mission of the Storytelling and Organizing Project (STOP), which was staff-run until 2011, is informed by an approach to violence different from that of TAVP. This led STOP to post interview content in a different way than TAVP.
STOP was an initiative of Creative Interventions (http://www.creative-interventions.org), an organization in Oakland with a vision “based upon liberation — the positive, life-affirming, transformative potential within communities.” Unlike TAVP, STOP primarily organized workshops that focused on sharing and reflecting upon stories of violence. The stories on their website appear to have originated from these workshops. The “What Is STOP” page on STOP’s website explains the reasoning behind the project’s collection of stories: “People have many stories about things they did to stop violence. . . What can we learn from stories? We can learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We can find out what helped survivors feel supported or what helped people change to stop their violence. We can get good ideas about how family, friends, neighbors, and community members can create safety and accountability among ourselves. We can build healthy, self-determined communities.”
As may be apparent from these statements’ focus on individuals and communities, STOP focuses on interpersonal violence. They do so in order to discover community-based approaches to violence that challenge entrenched structural responses to (and causes of) violence. The page of the Bay Area branch of STOP talks about “how people are building safe communities and intervening in harm without policing and imprisonment.” STOP does not locate the causes of violence entirely in how individuals and communities choose to treat each other, but it does believe that individuals and communities have the power to stop violence.
This philosophy is reflected in the interviews STOP has posted to its website. Most of them have to do with individuals, families, and communities responding to violence; a few of them advocate doing so in order to circumvent the police or other powerful institutions. In accordance with STOP’s story-based approach, each interview has been edited down to a concise story, accessible in two formats: a few minutes of audio and transcript of those few minutes.
One notable thing about the stories is their lack of contextualization. For instance, here is the one-sentence abstract of the narrative “Kicking Ass” by Liz: “When a visiting instructor sexually assaults a member of a cultural center, it causes this storyteller to consider the use of violence as a response to violence, highlighting the gray area this question often occupies.” There is no metadata, so online listeners generally cannot tell where the interview took place, who conducted it, or when it was conducted.
What this approach emphasizes are universal aspects of suffering from violence and responding to violence, especially the feelings involved with this. Although the contexts of violence described in each interview may not apply to each workshop group, STOP must have believed that we can reach beyond the boundaries of context to create affinity with certain narrators and identify with certain situations. The interviews are edited down to stories, and stories are meant to be reflected upon, contested, and compared to our own experiences.
A project based at the Center for Digital Storytelling, Silence Speaks holds workshops across the world which “blend oral history, popular education, and participatory media production methods.” From these workshops, Silence Speaks facilitates the production of media narratives related to many types of violence and other human rights abuses. While influenced by oral history, Silence Speaks does not conduct interviews; rather, its workshops support participants in the verbal and written expression of stories, which are then captured as audio recordings and combined with still images and video clips to create short videos. Because Silence Speaks works in close collaboration with other nonprofits/NGOs, it relies on these partner organizations to take the lead on distributing stories created in its workshops. While some Silence Speaks partners make stories available for viewing online, others choose to broadcasts narratives only in “carefully-considered public spheres.” Strategic decisions about where, how, and why to make stories public are made based on the goals of various projects and on the critical need to protect the safety and dignity of survivors.
While TAVP and STOP put their interviews online for general listening, the “public sphere” of Silence Speaks’ narratives often tends to be far more local. The project web site states, “Amidst the explosion of online video, we question the notion that enabling isolated individuals to view media on the web will on its own lead to substantive change. When does the passive consumption of stories about distant suffering simply encourage pity or compassion fatigue, and how can the power of the Internet and social networking spaces be harnessed effectively to support justice? We see Internet distribution as merely one option among many.”
For each of 10 sample international projects Silence Speaks features on its web site, a story is available for online viewing. Watching these moving videos and reading about the workshops, it is clear that Silence Speaks has developed its own, unique method of story distribution. After helping participants create video narratives of their stories of violence, the videos are played within the workshop setting. After consultations with participants, the videos are sometimes screened in training and at conferences, shown in local community settings, and/or broadcast via TV and radio. The idea, which is shared by TAVP and STOP, is that while progressive laws make some difference in ending violence, change needs to happen on a popular level.
Silence Speaks says they take great care to contextualize their interviews when they are presented in workshops. “Attention to context is critical – we believe that it is our responsibility as facilitators to assist storytellers in situating their lives within broader frames, so that stories do not reinforce the misconception that ‘problems’ reside within individuals but instead implicate broader social, economic, and political structures.” In this, Silence Speaks offers a useful comparison to STOP.
These projects’ differing approaches to violence shape how viewers interact with narratives online. Comparing the sites’ approaches, we might ask at least two significant questions: What is the best way to bring people into contact with narratives of violence in ways that foster nonviolence? To what degree is online contextualization of these narratives important? I value the approaches of all three projects, and am interested to hear what readers think!
Look for posts from Samantha Fredrickson of the Texas After Violence Project and Amy Hill of Silence Speaks!
 Nancy MacKay, “Oral Histories on the Internet,” in Curating Oral Histories: From Interview to Archive (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007), 75. Geoff Froh is now the Deputy Director of Denshō.
 About, Texas After Violence Project, http://www.texasafterviolence.org/about-1.aspx.
 “Our Approach,” on About page, Texas After Violence Project, http://www.texasafterviolence.org/about-1.aspx.
 Vision, Creative Interventions, http://www.creative-interventions.org/vision/. Creative Interventions was the one organization I contacted which did not get back to me. If you work for Creative Interventions and see something inaccurate in the post, please let me know!
 “What is STOP?” The Storytelling & Organizing Project, http://www.stopviolenceeveryday.org/stop-2/.
 “Bay Area,” The Storytelling & Organizing Project, http://www.stopviolenceeveryday.org/bay-area/.
 Silence Speaks, http://www.silencespeaks.org/.
 About, Silence Speaks, http://www.silencespeaks.org/about-us.html.
 About, Silence Speaks, http://www.silencespeaks.org/about-us.html.