Reflections from the OHA Roundtable on Social Justice

Every year the Oral History Association holds an annual meeting at which oral historians, students, and others in the field of Oral History gather to reflect on their practice, present papers and projects. However, social change is not always a key consideration at the conference. This October, Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change and Oral Historians for Social Justice came together to sponsor a roundtable discussion to ensure that oral historians had the chance to put social justice at the forefront of the conversation and connect with other like-minded practitioners. The discussion was facilitated by Malinda Maynor Lowery, director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program, Columbia University’s Mary Marshall Clark (Co-Director of the Oral History Master of Arts program (OHMA) and the Director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research) and Amy Starecheski (Associate Director of OHMA).

Participants included professors, students, and professionals doing a variety of oral history projects all over the world from places like New York, South Africa, California, North Carolina, and the Balkans.

The main theme of the discussion centered on models for effectively using oral history in social change and necessary shifts in the paradigms we use to do our work. Mary Marshall Clark highlighted the valuable work of Alisa del Tufo in using interviews to change New York City domestic violence policies and the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, who recently visited Columbia to speak about their newest book of oral histories collected from former Israeli Defense Force soldiers regarding their activities in the Occupied Territories. Breaking the Silence made explicit their goal: simply to “change reality.” This was radical for many of us oral historians who want to move beyond just “collecting stories.”

When considering oral history as a method of understanding and furthering social justice work, Malinda Maynor Lowery brought up the problematic tendency to over-emphasize and seek out a coherent narrative of social movements. Individuals become politicized and act without the coherence of a movement. A movement emerges after the fact, as a result of individuals, not the other way around. Additionally when we look at the oral histories of activists, we often treat activists as a separate community, different from ordinary individuals. This dovetails with an implicit belief that social change and activism is something that exists outside of daily life– a distinction that is critical in the pedagogical uses of oral histories.  We discussed how important it is that when teaching about social justice and using oral histories that we do not portray activism as something that happens outside of the classroom, divorced from the reflective engagement in the classroom– a splicing of oneself that doesn’t examine the multidimensional ways that individuals live participate in and live out activism. Oral history can be a way to problematize those dichotomies.

Much of the discussion centered on these themes of individualism and collectivity, of understanding the individual within community context. Malinda and Mary Marshall both highlighted the need for shifting best practices in order to value the community story as much as the individual story.  South African oral historian Sean Field emphasized the need to contextualize the often hyper-focus of oral history work within regional and international networks.

We discussed how pedagogy is necessarily a part of effectively using oral histories to mobilize social change. Amy Starecheski described a project that she coordinated in New York schools after 9/11 in which they taught students how to conduct oral histories as a way to encourage them to see themselves as social actors situated within a historical context. Malinda also described the important shift that students should experience when working with oral histories: that what people need is not someone to give them a voice, rather a space in which they can make that voice heard. Another critical piece of this is the way that settler/colonialism manifests itself in our understanding of social justice work. Indeed many of the activists in this country, Malinda noted, are privileged and have been able to take advantage of free speech, freedom of assembly, etc. and be activists because of this privilege.

The discussion was incredibly energizing and generated the idea of “talking a book,” the way that Paulo Freire and his cultural circles “talked” Pedagogy of the Oppressed into existence. It was a great opportunity to connect in person with other oral historians working for social change and we all expressed the desire to see more formal spaces like this available at future OHA conferences.