Report Back on May’s PSN: Self-Care for Social Justice Oral Historians

Interviewing is not just an exchange of disembodied words—it is very much about our bodies.

By Natasha Tamate Weiss

On May 26th, seven women-identified oral history practitioners gathered for May’s PSN, Self-Care for Social Justice Oral Historians. Our sharing circled above a loving attention to our bodies and the ways in which they communicate their profound knowing to us. In the social justice and oral history communities in which many of us operate, the idea of caring for ourselves is regarded as an afterthought, internalized as secondary to “the real work”. This compartmentalizing and deprioritizing of our own need for healing is a function of the capitalistic system in which we operate, which divides the human into that which carries out labor, and all the other aspects of our being. In this gathering, we collectively acknowledged that only as expansive beings can we carry out expansive work—healing work, that carries us towards an existence in which every one of us is invited to inhabit our full humanity.

Artwork by Japneet Kaur

Artwork by Japneet Kaur

Each of us present testified to the experience of negating, denying or delegitimizing the impacts of this work on our own physical, spiritual and emotional well-being due to the dynamic of privileging the pain of the interviewee over our own. As oral historians, we position ourselves to hold space for the experiences of others, which often come to us in the form of deeply intimate stories of trauma, violence, dehumanization. When holding space for others to open and unravel traumatic narratives, we found that we share a sense of responsibility around muting our emotional responses as a means of allowing the teller to enter into a vulnerable space without being re-traumatized or feeling responsible for someone else’s emotional reaction. Indeed, if we are to invite another person to tell their story, particularly those who are not often extended the opportunity to recount traumatic narratives, their sense of safety and centrality is critical and non-negotiable. At the same time, one participant spoke of the genderizing of emotion, being instructed by man-identified practitioners to remain neutral and maintain composure in the moment of bearing witness to another’s trauma. In believing that we must deny our body wisdom in order to be “effective” oral historians, how do we perpetuate patriarchal and capitalist belief systems around the illegitimacy of spiritual, energetic and emotional ways of knowing? If our sense of purpose as social justice oral historians is rooted in a fundamental belief in storytelling to activate our sense of empathetic interconnectedness, then we should be the first to acknowledge that the pain of our brothers and sisters is our pain too. For many of us, we engage in social justice work because of our own proximity to systemic trauma, our own need for healing, and our own intimate awareness of the healing that must be done.

What happens to the emotions that we repress when we sacrifice our own need for healing on the basis of striving to “be effective” in holding healing space for others? One participant spoke about feeling fine in the moment of conducting an interview, and then, to her own surprise, crying uncontrollably on the car ride home. Others spoke about bodily injuries that accumulated over the course of months before one day erupting into immobilizing pain. If we repress of our own pain and emotionality as oral historians, then how are we stifling our collective progress toward community healing? If we pretend that we are capable of neutrally holding space for others without fully acknowledging how this toxicity is already sitting within our own bodies and being triggered by the stories with which we are engaging, then this pain is never healed, but merely passed from person to person.

Ultimately, caring for ourselves provides us with the foundation upon which to hold space for others, facilitate transformative projects, and carry out the commitments we make to our communities. One participant spoke about how once she began to attend to the needs of her body, her capacity for doing the work fundamentally shifted in necessary ways. She shared about shifting away from working in a reactionary manner out of a place of internal trauma, but rather from a place of internal strength. For her, this shift required withdrawing some time and energy from community work and investing it in self-work. Many of us voiced pervasive feelings of guilt around “self-indulgence,” the idea that it is shameful to privilege caring for ourselves over caring for others. However, other models do exist, in which we see that our pain as well as our healing are mutually interdependent and must not be seen through lenses of competition. If your pain and struggle is interconnected with mine, then does the same interconnectedness not apply to our healing?

In our conversation, we discussed a number of tools, strategies and practices that support both the oral historian and narrator in the act of exchanging intimate accounts. One notion that we all agreed to is that by cultivating awareness of our own reactions to others’ stories, we can better meet our own needs as witnesses to these narratives, and the needs of narrators testifying to their own experiences. One woman shared an anecdote in which an oral historian yawned while her interviewee was recounting a traumatic event, effectively retraumatizing her interviewee. We discussed how yawning is the natural response of the body when it is not receiving enough oxygen, and how we often fail to breathe fully and properly in times of stress. This led to a conversation around body-based awarenesses and practices that we can cultivate in order to hold space more supportively, for if we are not consciously and respectfully managing our own physical and emotional responses, we run the risk of causing the narrator additional injury. With regard to this particular anecdote, an example of a useful practice would be a daily practice around breathing, with the intent of teaching ourselves how to breathe more regularly in times of stress. With regular self-practice comes self-awareness—self-awareness that allows us to take responsibility for what is ours, rather than placing additional weight on the people we interview. In the example of the oral historian who yawns when experiencing stress, cultivating a regular practice around breathing might allows us to better understand our own bodies. With this awareness, we build capacity to explain to our interviewee in the moment, “I wanted to let you know that I yawned because your story is impacting me and my breathing—not at all because I am bored or disengaged.” By knowing and being present to ourselves, we are better equipped to let interviewees know that they are being fully heard and supported.


For those of us present, this PSN was an opportunity to share practices that have worked for us individually, and to articulate the kinds of community care we would like to engage in as a collective of social justice oral historians. Many of us shared a common desire to see body work and energy work integrated into oral history trainings and gatherings, recognizing that social justice work demands the presence of our fuller selves. One participant noted that oral history work is highly energetically demanding regardless of the content of the interview. To listen so deeply to another person’s truth is, after all, an exhausting—and life-giving—endeavor. Not to be lost in this conversation about taking care of ourselves is the intention of sharing the bodily, energetic and spiritual healing practices we are cultivating with the communities with which we work. What healing practices are already present in all of our communities, families, and cultures? How do we integrate these practices into our oral history relationships? When we approach community work with honor for the full human—rather than merely viewing ourselves and others as composites of social, political and economic identities—we see that self-care and community healing are one and the same.

 

 

Natasha Tamate Weiss is a Hapanese, queer spectrum poet, taiko drummer, sister and justice-focused media maker. Born in San Francisco, Natasha currently lives in Detroit, learning from life-long Detroiters about land-based practices & intelligences, studying healing touch & Reiki, and writing her way back into her own bones.