Bringing Oral History to the Community

By Samantha Fredrickson

It’s not easy to talk about the death penalty in Texas in an open and non-judgmental way. It’s a polarized debate. For or against. Right or wrong.

But at the Texas After Violence Project we’re trying to use oral history to change this. Our hope is that by sharing the stories of people personally affected by the death penalty or murder we can cultivate a sense of empathy and help people recognize the humanity in one another.

In Sam Robson’s blog post last week, he wrote about the ways in which oral history projects such as ours share our narratives online as a way to achieve social change. Our online presence is important, and we’re constantly working to improve it. But to truly achieve a cultural shift we cannot stop there.

So, at the Texas After Violence Project we have been developing ways to share our stories with the community. We’re hoping to achieve three goals: to inspire, to educate, and to help heal. It’s this way of sharing our oral histories that I’d like to address today because it’s even more important than sharing them online.

To Inspire:

The first ‘Community Conversation’ we put together was meant to inspire a new way of thinking and talking about the death penalty. We put together a 13-minute mini-documentary based on oral history interviews we’d done with activists who stand vigil or protest on execution nights outside of the Walls Unit in Huntsville – where all executions in Texas take place. We added in some other voices, including that of a former prison warden who has overseen 89 executions, and layered it all with some historical photographs. The final product – The Corner – is meant to transport viewers to Huntsville on an execution night so they can question the way we talk and depict the death penalty in Texas.

When we show this video we usually pair it with short clips of family members talking about their experience watching a loved one’s execution. And we follow the video screening with a conversation that poses questions. What is the right way to talk about the death penalty? Whose voices are important? And what role can storytelling play in achieving social change?

What we’ve seen is that even among activists working to abolish the death penalty, this video and ensuing conversation can really inspire a deeper conversation about how to turn the tides.

To Educate:

We also like to think of our project as providing an opportunity to educate people about the impact of violence and the state’s response to it. People typically don’t spend much time in their daily lives thinking about the far-reaching effects of this and we think that the oral history interviews we have can help people understand the personal impact.

So, a recent ‘Community Conversation’ we organized for a more general audience was a Mock Truth and Reconciliation Hearing on the impact of Capital Punishment in Texas. To put this together, we culled through transcripts of several different types of narrators. We picked out some family members –  of both a death row inmate and a murder victim – as well as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, a prison warden, and a juror. And we put together a script of their actual words that addressed issues like the capital trial experience, the conditions of death row, the grief experienced by family members, and the problems with the justice system. And when we presented this, we called upon volunteers from the audience to come up to the table and play the characters.

The overwhelming response was positive. People in the audience engaged in a deep conversation afterward about how the capital punishment system affects all of us. It was quite moving to see such a meaningful dialogue!

To Heal:

The third audience we try to reach are people who have experienced violence and its effects, or people who live in communities vulnerable to violence. Many of our oral history narratives touch on stories of loss and survival. People talk very candidly about losing a loved one to murder or to the criminal justice system. And we think these stories can serve as powerful tools for people going through similar experiences.

Our first ‘Community Conversation’ of this type was “Living with Loss,” which we presented to a group of prison family members in Houston. We showed short video stories of family members who either lost someone to execution or to the system, as well as the story of an advocate who provides services to family members. We followed this with small group discussions about disenfranchised grief, ambiguous loss, and survival.

The conversations were inspiring. People cried, laughed, hugged, and were able to share and learn from each other’s experiences in a meaningful way.

At the Texas After Violence Project, we’re constantly trying to strive for new ways to share the stories we’ve gathered. We have powerful stories and we know they can play a role in changing the conversation about the criminal justice system in Texas. Though we’re proud of what we’ve been able to do in the last year, we know we can be doing so much more! Stay tuned as we expand even more into the community to break down stereotypes, cultivate empathy, and inspire new conversations.

Samantha has been TAVP’s Executive Director since April 2012. As a lawyer, advocate and journalist, Fredrickson has years of experience working for social justice. She was the Director of a New York Civil Liberties Union Chapter on Long Island, New York from 2009 to 2012, where she advocated for policy reforms in immigrants’ rights, prisoner treatment, and marriage equality, among others. Previously she was a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and a newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Contact her at sfredrickson@texasafterviolence.org.

 

This is Part 3 of the series Social Justice Missions and Interview Accessibility.

Part 1 provides an overview of the subject, and Part 2 features Amy Hill of Silence Speaks