Reportback: Honoring the Story

Honoring the Story: Ethics, Integrity and Exploitation in Movement Oral History

Shane Bernardo, Detroit Asian Youth Project and EarthWorks
Sarah K. Loose, Groundswell and Rural Organizing Project

Our November 2012 PSN Video chat focused on the ways that practitioners using oral history in a movement context balance activism with respecting and honoring the integrity of the narrator and the narrator’s story.  Several participants shared moments in their own work or practice when they had faced potential conflicts between these two ideals (of furthering movement goals and respecting narrators’ and their stories).  Examples included:

  • I was reporting a story on a bakery/re-entry program. It was suggested that maybe the bakery could be a worker-owned business, but there wasn’t a long-term plan. How serious is that claim? Do I include it in the story? I had to examine where I stood there.  [Interviewer was excited about the idea/possibility of the worker-owned business, but it didn’t seem very likely to happen.]
  • I was interviewing a conservative wing of the Catholic Workers for an oral history book about the movement, and they had some additions to their transcripts. The shaping of the narrative in the book was mine, but I included the addition.
  • As a journalist, I used to ‘edit’ what people said- I would include the quotes that I agreed with. Well, in this work of oral history, what if it’s just something I disagree with? I am trying to create an archive that’s as open as possible.

Using these examples as a starting place, we explored the following questions and ideas:

  •  Conflicts can arise in different moments of the interview process: in deciding who is interviewed, in the process of interpreting and/or representing/editing the story/interview, in the process of public dissemination, etc.
  • Awareness of subjectivity and historical/institutional dynamics: We cannot assume that the story is “pure.” Nothing is really “pure.” Our role, our institutions, the impetus for the oral history practice/purpose of collecting the interview, the questions we ask and the way we ask them all affect the story that’s told. We need to remember that the personal is political, be aware of these complex dynamics and always ask ourselves: What is the role of institutional structure in this? Historical structure in this? What kind of experiences and perspectives am I bringing into this space? What is the political climate and how does that contextualize the narrator and their story/memories? We need to work to deepen and broaden our awareness.  But after “awareness,” what’s next? Is there something more/different that we can/should do to address these dynamics once we are aware of them?
  • What is the source of our stories?  Do we create ourselves? When someone is telling their life story, do they give the “Goldilocks” version? Is it something that is coming from the outside? Where in you and your ancestry does the story come from? Where does that self come from- for the sake of movements? Importance of entering into a dialogue that pushes past this so we can be liberated.
  • Commodification: Stories can become commodities (e.g. in international development contexts).  Sometimes, people go into the field to do international aid, and certain stories are collected/delivered to get aid.
  • Power and decision-making: Sharing our stories can both empower and disempower. Important to respect narrators’ right to decide how and where their stories are shared – this is about sharing power.  Other questions: Whose stories are told? What is the level/degree of narrators’ participation in the process of interpretation/dissemination? What happens when stories are interpreted or shortened?
  • Analyzing and learning from our stories & the individual vs. the collective: Formulas and patterns emerge when we talk about our movements.  How do we talk about our movements collectively? What can we learn from analyzing that?  If/when we move from interviewing individuals to an analysis of a group of interviews and trying to draw conclusions from that analysis, we risk losing the richness and specificity of the individuals’ stories.  How do we document multiplicities of narratives?  Multiplicity of voices is what makes our work worthwhile. Collective analysis and multiplicity are our saving graces.
  • The relationship as key: Where does the process of oral history start? How do you start the process of building the relationship, even before the interview begins?  What, in practice, does it look like to nurture that relationship and respect the narrator during the interview itself?
  • Sharing stories: Sometimes people say that their stories can’t be shared because they are too stigmatized. That can be a power play. We do have an ethical responsibility to figure out how things are shared. Letting people be heard is important.
  • Movement strategy: How can stories be used strategically (and ethically) to further our movement goals?  When and with whom do we address this question in our projects?