A Story is Not a Story Until it Changes

Amy Starecheski is Associate Director of OHMA. In this post, she discusses Della Pollock and Hudson Vaughan's storytelling with real impact.

People doing oral history often have noble aspirations – to add voices to the historical record that would otherwise be excluded, and sometimes, like many of the speakers in our Oral History and Public Dialogue workshop series, to amplify these voices in the public sphere. Going even further, oral history seems like it should be a powerful tool to create social change, but it turns out that is very hard to do. 

While good oral histories are compelling – vivid and intimate - they are long and often rambling. Turning them into sound bites might make them more accessible, but how do we do that without robbing them of the complexity and nuance that makes them valuable? In the oral history interview, the person telling the story and the person listening can both be transformed. But how does that intense intersubjective encounter translate to other listeners who are not sitting in the room and asking questions?

On February 18, 2016, Della Pollock and Hudson Vaughan travelled from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Morningside Heights to tell the story of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Making and Saving History. It’s a story that shows that it is possible for engaged oral history work to not only meet but exceed our dreams of real-world impact. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And it’s not about sound bites or strategic storytelling, it’s about listening and being transformed by what we hear.

Della Pollock, a tenured professor at UNC and an influential scholar in the field of oral history and performance, never expected to become a grassroots activist. It started when she realized that the good intentions of liberal oral historians are sometimes completely inadequate.

She wanted to run away and hide, but she didn’t. Humbled, she kept engaging, learning more about the historically black neighborhood adjacent to, but invisible from, her university campus. Northside had been a segregated neighborhood built to house service workers for the university, but in the twenty-first century those workers and their extended families were being displaced by student renters and university-driven development. Through oral history, the rich history of resistance and resilience in Northside became visible to Pollock and her students, alongside the deepening crisis of displacement. But just recording and archiving this history would not be enough to disrupt the studentification of Northside.

In her writing on performance, Pollock has argued against archiving, and even recording, as privileged modes of documenting history, telling her students that

they can only use the technology of the ear. That they must listen body to body, heart to heart, not so much recording as absorbing the other person’s story.

(89, Memory, Remembering, and Histories of Change)

And then, alarming some purists among us, arguing that

a story is not a story until it is told; it is not told until it is heard; once it is heard, it changes—and becomes more open to the beauties or frailties of more change; or: a story is not a story until it changes. Indeed, until it changes or it changes someone else, until it becomes part of the vital histories of change it recounts.

(93, italics in original)

Doing oral history this way means opening oneself to the potential for radical change. We cannot predict how the stories of others will change us. Della Pollock, a charismatic but introverted professor, did not expect to become a community organizer, but that was what the stories of Northside residents demanded of her, what the residents themselves demanded. Not only the stories, but the whole team of interviewers, became part of the “vital histories of change” in Northside. 

Through the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Northside residents and UNC students and faculty started organizing. They created and hand delivered a newsletter telling people when a house was going up for sale, or when a hearing was being held to discuss a new development. They developed an oral history walking tour to introduce young people in the neighborhood and from UNC to the people and histories of Northside. After telling their stories in oral histories, retired civil rights activists came out of retirement to fight for their neighborhood. 

And then in the fall of 2015 they negotiated a three million dollar interest-free loan from UNC to fund a landbank in the neighborhood, allowing local residents to acquire and hold land so they could make careful, collective decisions about how to develop their neighborhood. That is real change. In this project, people were transformed, and then relationships, and then policies. This is what oral history can do when we acknowledge that good intentions are not enough.

Want to hear more oral history for social change success stories? Check out Groundswell's recent "Success Stories" video chat featuring the Anti-Eviction Mapping ProjectBronx African American History Project, and the Threshold CollaborativeStay tuned for a video of the chat.