Reportback: What lessons can radical oral history/storytelling projects draw from the concepts and practices of anti-oppression organizing?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


  • David Spataro, Activist & Scholar, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  • Manissa Maharawal, Writer, Scholar, Activist (
  • Sarah Loose, Director of the Rural Organizing Project’s Roots & Wings Oral History Project; Groundswell Practitioner Support Network (PSN) Working Group


  • James Cersonsky
  • Naimah Johnson
  • Paula de Angelis
  • Senait Tesfai
  • Anonymous

How can oral historians make the concepts and training tools of anti-racist and anti-oppression organizing useful in oral history work?  On this PSN video chat, we’ll draw on our collective knowledge and experience to imagine together what an anti-oppression framework for doing oral history might include.  We’ll discuss ideas such as power, oppression, privilege, accountability, access, anger, allies, supremacy (internalized and institutionalized) to figure out what’s most useful for oral history projects and why.  We’ll consider how an anti-oppression approach to oral history would impact our practice before, during, and after an interview, and in the conceptualization and implementation of oral history projects.


Before an Interview

What happens before an interview takes place is critical in ensuring that an interview (and the project it is a part of) not only avoids further oppression, but also can actively contribute to ending oppression.

  • The articulation in advance of clear organizing goals or ways that the interview process and products will be used to challenge oppression and injustice can help focus a project, informing who will be interviewed (& who will do the interviewing) and the kinds of themes explored.  Narrators interviewed for the Black Women’s Blueprint project know, for example, that their narratives are being collected to use as evidence in a Truth and Reconciliation process designed to expose and hold the US government accountable for the ways it violates the human rights of women of color who have experienced sexual violence. In her work with the Rural Organizing Project, Sarah Loose is experimenting with intentional pairings of interviewers and narrators from different racial backgrounds, and with facilitated listening sessions for ROP leadership, as a way to support ROP’s transition from an organization identified primarily as a white-ally organization, to a multi-cultural, multi-racial organization.

  • Disclosure and transparency in the pre-interview process can be a means of mitigation against oppressive dynamics and power imbalances between narrators, interviewers, and project stakeholders.  One call participant is a white, middle class woman who has interviewed Burmese refugees and people affected by the country’s military regime, as well as low-wage workers, mostly people of color, in NYC.  She uses pre-interview conversations with narrators to talk openly about her own background, clarify her intentions, and open the door for narrators to ask questions about her motives, political views and political/ethical commitments.  Whether implicit or explicit, conversations about power and privilege with narrators before the interview begins can establish the grounds for a mutual (and mutually beneficial) exchange.  Concepts from anti-oppression organizing traditions can be especially helpful in providing a framework to talk about these differences and dynamics.  (Also, there may be some instances in which these conversations are most appropriate in a community setting, involving not only the narrator and interviewer, but other individuals as well.)

  • We can proactively prepare ourselves/project interviewers to be aware of and listening for issues of power, oppression, and privilege that may surface in the interviews.  As Director of Student Community Action Tours, James Cersonsky trains high school students to interview neighborhood residents about the residents’ experiences of space and place, including issues of labor and gentrification.  Before students begin interviewing, they engage in a “power mapping” exercise to explore the relationships between actors involved in the history/stories they will ask narrators to share.

  • Oral history’s “culture of consent” (Senait Tesfai) naturally overlaps with anti-oppressive practice, in which the right to self-determination is primary.  In oral history, the consent process clearly begins before the interview even happens (i.e. the process of seeking narrators’ informed consent to be interviewed).  Less talked about, but equally important, is the continuation of the consent process throughout the life of a project.

During the Interview

  • Oral history interviews can offer narrators an expansive space to define and talk about oppression and identity in ways that are different from the ways that people often talk about oppression and identity in daily life or in organizing campaigns/spaces.  For example, in the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project at the Brooklyn Historical Society, narrators talk about issues of race, ethnicity and mixed-heritage in terms of stories about food, siblings, etc.  As CBBG interviewer Manissa Maharawal explained, “It’s a move away from the ‘I am mixed-race, my dad is Irish and my mom is Indian’ construction, and a move towards a more nuanced conversation, ‘I felt this way about my identity at this time in my life…’” Interviewer Senait adds that, in the CBBG project, it is up to the narrators themselves to interpret the meaning of the project’s “mixed-heritage people and families” focus.  The narratives shared in the space of an interview can impact interviewers, narrators and listeners alike, engaging each of these parties in a re-evaluation of their own identity, positionality, and understandings of oppression. (In fact, Manissa explained that she often says as much to narrators as part of the pre-interview process, acknowledging that the interviews have impacted how she thinks and feels about her self.)

  • An anti-oppressive approach to interviewing might need to consider the ways and contexts in which narrators have been asked to talk about their lives and share their stories in the past.  For instance, individuals and communities who interface with social service providers are often asked to share detailed personal and life history information as part of an “intake” process.  It may take extra care and intentionality in an interview space to ask questions in a sequence and format that a) doesn’t replicate that “intake” process, and b) allows narrators to speak about their own lives and what’s important to them, on their own terms.

  • Offering narrators and interviewers community-based spaces to process, reflect on and talk about issues surfaced in interviews can help contribute to a systemic understanding of oppression and provide an important complement to the largely individual nature of most oral history interviewing.  Black Women’s Blueprint, for instance, organizes regular “sister circles” and other venues where the women interviewed for the project can come together in community to reflect on the issues that have come up in their personal narratives as women who have experienced sexual assault.  Such spaces help narrators understand that sexual assault “doesn’t happen in a silo”, and help strengthen organizing efforts to end sexual assault.

After an Interview

  • Public-ness: a commitment to an anti-oppressive approach to doing oral history does not, in-and-of-itself, answer the questions about if and how an interview should be made public.  Anti-oppressive principles remind us, however, that there is power at play in making interviews public, and that the right to self-determination and the process of consent ought to be considered throughout the editing process and that issues of representation are bound up with issues of privilege and power.  One chat participant pointed out the incredibly “delicate” nature of these decisions and processes: some narrators, for instance, are happy for everything they’ve said to be made public, but say potentially damaging or hurtful things about other people in the interview.  Extending consent into the editing process is important but can also make for a very long process.  And not everybody wants to be involved in a long-term process. In a project dealing with narratives of displacement, Manissa found that the decision to make a public, online map connecting narrators’ stories of displacement to geographical sites was a particularly powerful and poignant way of publicizing narrators’ narratives and their demands.

  • Oral history interviews are potential sites of resistance and visioning.  As Naimah Johnson of Black Women’s Blueprint’s explained, interviews with women of color who have experienced sexual assault offer a space to hear and learn what these women’s demands are, what a blueprint for justice looks like.  Interviews can surface ideas for policies and programs to redress and prevent injustice.

  • Oral history as advocacy vs. oral history as direct action. Hearing about Black Women’s Blueprint’s plans to host their own Truth & Reconciliation Commission (including public deliberations and tribunals), David Spataro pointed out the difference between simply delivering interviews to decision-makers and asking them for something and engaging interviews in direct action.  With the TRC process, Black Women’s Blueprint isn’t asking for permission, or asking for change.  They are forcing people to actually listen to and deal with their demands.

Some outstanding questions:

  • David asks: Can oral history help break through an over-emphasis on class and support the development of analysis that incorporates class and other forms of oppression?

  • Could sharing the interviews of immigrant and workers of color, for example, help counter narratives dominant in the US labor movement where white men lead our organizations?

  • Senait asks: It’s easier to think about how to prepare for an interview and recognize oppressive dynamics within an interview.  It’s harder to know what to do after the interview is over.  The culture of consent helps – but it can still be complicated to know/control where an interview will land, and to figure out questions of ownership in products generated from an interview.