REPORTBACK: Nov. 27th PSN - Fighting Words: Oral Histories of the New York Sanctuary Movement

By Fanny García 

This Practitioner Support Network (PSN) session for Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change was coordinated by Shefa Nola Benoit in collaboration with Jon Earle and Janice Amaya of the New Sanctuary Coalition.

Nov. 27th PSN - Fighting Words

On November 27th, 2018 Groundswell’s Practitioner Support Network coordinator Shefa Nola Benoit hosted Jon Earle and Janice Amaya, two oral historians and activists conducting oral histories with the New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization based in New York City that advocates on behalf of people facing deportation. 

Since January 2018, a group of four which includes Jon and Janice, Ben Kruse and documentarian Chloe Zimmerman have been recording oral histories every week. The project was born out of a sense of determination that the voices of immigrants facing deportation needed to be recorded and preserved. So far, they have recorded more than 25 interviews.

At the beginning of the PSN, Jon explains that the group has experience in a variety of fields including theater and documentary media. This has provided opportunity to use the oral histories collected in a variety of public facing mediums which help spread the word about deportation in the United States and the stories of individuals and families impacted.

For example, the group has partnered with a theater group in New York City who is using the oral histories to create a script for a performance. At New York University, they collaborate with a group who listens to the oral histories and conducts research to pair the immigration policy that has caused the displacement mentioned in a person’s story.

The group has three core rules they follow when deciding to collaborate with an outside group, or present the oral histories to the public: 

1.    Do no harm – the group does not want to put anyone at risk, and only record when a person has expressed interest in documenting their story. 

2.    Provide opportunities for the narrators to hear themselves and their oral histories through public performances. This also includes sharing space for people to speak for themselves. 

3.    Integrate the project as part of the New Sanctuary Coalition and continue to build trust in the communities they document. 

Child holding banner oral history

When conducting oral history interviews, the group does focus on stories of immigration, deportation, and crossing borders, but throughout the course of the interview, the oral historians try to find and explore what they call “pockets of joy” or instances in the narrator’s life that spotlight their lives, personalities, and relationships. The goal is to avoid framing the person as only an “immigrant” or “undocumented” person. Throughout the process, Jon explains that the job of the oral historian in interviewing “friends” as the group calls their narrators, is to listen, not to get good tape. This allows the interview to unfold based on the needs of the narrator. 

Lastly, one important section of the PSN conversation focused on consent and its various iterations. Both Jon and Janice mentioned that bringing up the consent form can become an awkward situation if done at the end of an interview. PSN attendees provided various alternatives including sending the consent form via email ahead of time or going over it at the beginning of the interview. For Jon, it’s important to also mention to narrators that the consent form is not a legally binding document and can be voided at any time if and when the narrators change their mind about their participation in the oral history interview.  

Prompted by Shefa Nola Benoit, the group also discussed security procedures needed to protect the interview process and the recordings. This includes the use of WhatsApp to communicate with narrators, encryption software to protect communication about the interviews including the interviews themselves, and consulting attorneys regarding the risks and dangers of recording someone’s story. 

To LISTEN to the audio of the Practitioner Support Network session with Jon Earle and Janice Amaya of the New Sanctuary Coalition, click HERE.


Janice Amaya is a Salvadoran-American theater artist and activist. She is a founding member of The Hummm, a theater collective whose aim is to democratize the experimental. She is currently part of the creative team behind Cartography, a play that examines the forces that shape where we have come from, how we have moved, and where we are going, to be performed at the Kennedy Center in DC in January of 2019. She holds an MFA from the Moscow Art Theater and Harvard University.


Jon Earle is a Brooklyn-based documentarian and Russian translator. His audio work has aired on KCRW and NHPR, and appeared on the Spotify podcast “United States of Music.” He produces “Success @ Sinai,” a podcast for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Jon is an alumnus of the Transom Story Workshop and the Oral History Summer School.