Student Dispatch: Sophia Burns writes about her experience in Groundswell’s Spring 2018 Oral History for Social Change class

By Sophia Burns

When I noticed an ad for Groundswell’s spring Oral History for Social Change course on Facebook, I immediately knew I had to sign up. Even with the lingering exhaustion that accompanied the end of my undergraduate career, reading about Groundswell reinvigorated my mind and spirit in a way that social justice work often requires. I had gotten my feet wet in oral history through my senior thesis, which aimed to expose the community-level impact of mass incarceration in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the ways that it has necessitated renewed grassroots and political actions. The practice of oral history itself--from first introductions to final listens--spoke to my innate love of listening. While I relished in this process, I was looking to learn from and with experienced oral historians committed to social change.



After the first class with Alisa del Tufo, I felt at peace with the messy, at times spontaneous nature of my work. At the end of the class, she emphasized the importance of working backwards from your purpose into the work itself.  I found that this natural development, is easily lost in academia, a setting whose disingenuousness (read: suspect-ness) I had been grappling with. When discussing what sets oral history apart, Alisa noted the researched and improvisational, slow and focused nature that demands collaboration and flexibility. Relieved, I felt like I could be comfortable with the pace of my oral history journey.

This resolution was followed by several necessary challenges to my thinking and planning schemes. Benji de la Piedra’s class stressed the dialogic, a-formulaic quality of oral history. This is not an excuse to be disorganized, but rather it implores practitioners to be prepared and well-resourced. On being well-resourced, he highlighted the need for living documents and creating questions in collaboration with interviewees. Benji’s lesson dispelled some of my looming anxiety that the overarching issue would be lost in the complexity of the stories. By the end of my time with Groundswell, I stopped being afraid of the parts of the process that I found difficult, and started to fully embrace the need for constant change, learning, and re-evaluation in my approach. With those lessons in hand, my first step is to get writing, reflecting, and document-making.

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Sophia Burns grew up in the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work operates at the intersection of prison abolition, critical geography, and racial justice. When she isn’t reading, looking at maps, or meeting new people, she can be found appreciating the sunshine and dreaming up future plans. Sophia is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she was an Urban Studies major and a member of the Transitions (a community of first-generation, low-income, and/or undocumented students) family. Sophia wrote this piece for Groundswell as part of the organization's Labor Equity Option.