Reportback: Getting Oral Histories Out!

Movement Archives Part 1: Getting Oral Histories Out!

PSN Reportback

September 12, 2013

Part I of this two-part series focused on getting movement oral histories out of the archives and into the hands of organizers and activists.  There are so many amazing oral histories of social justice activists and rabble rousers and freedom fighters stored in university and community archives all over.  What can archivists (and others) do to liberate these materials in service of organizing happening in our communities today?

Attending: Sarah, Claude, Kara, Joanna, Kelly, Linda, Luke, Rebecca

Sarah K. Loose, Director of the Rural Organizing Project’s Roots & Wings Oral History Project; Groundswell Practitioner Support Network Working Group
Claude Marks, Director, The Freedom Archives

Questions for the discussion:  How can oral history help with social justice and organizing?  How can we better get our materials out to the folks who could use them?  What are the challenges and barriers? Solutions?

Sarah gave an update on Groundswell work and structure.

Claude started off with an example of the International Hotel in San Francisco, a residential hotel from the 70s populated mostly by Filipinos and Asian Americans.  It was torn down by developers after a long struggle. The documentation of that struggle and history is now on display in a new Filipino community organization’s storefront. Claude used this as an example of history being re-infused into a community and used to educate, esp. young people who don’t know the history.  While this isn’t necessarily a replicable model, Claude suggested that this is an argument for archives to be decentralized, to be located where they have the most impact.

Sarah brought up the point  that if we want to get social justice-related oral histories out of the archives and into the hands of organizers, we first have to know they are there!  While old-fashioned “searching” (google or otherwise), can certainly yield some results, perhaps Groundswell could play a more active role in networking activist archives, so that we can share information about which archives have movement-relevant collections with activists and social change organizations. As a start, maybe a list of archives with radical/grassroots collections could be placed on Groundswell site?

Claude encouraged us to continue to find ways to blur the lines between activist/archivist/academic, to teach young people the love of history by exposing them to radical histories and archives. The archival materials can be motivators, and inspiration to next generations.

Rebecca talked about the printed word, how that’s still sometimes the most effective means of communication and access.  Resources for digital projects and access are limited, costs are high.  What is a good use of our time?  Hours to edit a single clip to be placed online?  How can we better use transcripts, for example, in programs?

Claude reminded us that often the written word is all we have, particularly in light of the restricted access the media has to particular groups and stories, witness the resistance by prisoners in California this summer and the limited access to incarcerated people by media.

Kelly shared experiments on Smith campus with theater and oral history and the impact that had on the Smith community and the use of oral history by nonprofit organizations as a piece of strategic planning.

Kara talked about the BBC’s effective use of podcasts, the importance of radio, and new technologies like sound cloud.  She reminded us that the sharing of stories in this manner can lead to the creation of communities and the shorter pieces can have wide circulation.

Joanna echoed Kara’s nod to radio and found that a useful tool in her work with farm workers. She is partnering with Spanish language radio.

Kara offered to share her air time on blog talk radio, where she has a weekly radio show, if anyone wants to get excerpts out that way.

Linda reminded us to think about the difference between reaching large numbers of people and having an impact.  Wide access is fine but we must also think strategically about who we are reaching. What constituencies do we want to impact? Where will our work have value?

Sarah asked about the role of archivists in getting this material out.  Activists don’t always know where to look for relevant oral histories. How can this be facilitated?

Kelly and Linda both shared the importance of relationship building between archivists and activists.  Get to know your local archivist. She will help you find good materials. And archivists need to get out there and make the work useful to grassroots groups.

Joanna encouraged everyone to think about student involvement. They can help with projects, events, creating videos, etc.

Claude said that the Freedom Archive creates documentaries in order to have wide and purposeful impact.  It’s a great way to merge access and organizing, a way to go into communities. Last documentary was made for about $15K. And students can be very helpful in these kinds of projects.

Linda echoed the importance of students—lots of public history programs out there and the students need internships.

Sarah talked about her work with the Rural Organizing Project and the impact of using oral history clips as conversation starters as part of the organization’s current strategic planning process.   While time intensive, the clips did help generate clarity and direction. But this kind of work requires capacity and time.

Much gratitude to all!