Activism 101: Schooled for change

Edward "Bud" Kliment is a current OHMA student. In this post, his examines the relationship between academic institutions and oral history.

One of the recurring themes of this semester’s oral history workshop was the relationship between academic institutions and oral history--the ways in which higher education can assist, promote--and sometimes be challenged by--the goals of faculty members and oral history students on their campuses. Three of this semester’s presenters spoke about their significant oral history work taking place at or near university settings:  Professor Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies and advisory board member, SNCC Legacy Project, Duke University, and Della Pollock, Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, near the The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

All of them take different steps to make different strides: through their website, “One Person One Vote,” the SNCC Legacy Project is redefining how activists, archivists and scholars might collaborate, the Jackson Center is using the Northside and Pine Knolls communities near UNC to recall and honor the past while providing for the future, and the Proctor Oral History Program, among many efforts, is responsible for five different ongoing oral history projects focusing on African Americans, Native Americans, Veterans, Latina/o Diaspora and Mississippi Freedom. 

Drawing from their academic environments, what all of these programs have in common is students:  students who work as interns, volunteers, interviewers and transcribers, who want to engage with oral history techniques to discover the recent past, to understand local and national history, and to gain additional insight into their own culture and others’.  Directly and indirectly, many of the projects on which students work include activists’ stories of injustice, organization, struggle and sometimes success.  While gathering narratives about the past, the students may learn that they, too, have the ability to transform the present.  Charlie Cobb, who holds the estimable title of Visiting Activist Scholar at Duke, summed up this discovery when he presented with Wesley Hogan and spoke about his life with SNCC. What is often not emphasized in histories of the civil rights movement, he told the group, is that “ordinary people broke Jim Crow.”  That sense of possibility and change, encountered by students as they are learning to navigate their society, is a powerful piece of extra credit that can be learned with oral history.

In his March 24th presentation on “Oral History in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” Professor Paul Ortiz spoke eloquently on the responsibilities that oral history has to its students in the academy. He emphasized the importance of students talking to people engaged in struggle, and learning about the organizing tradition, not only for the histories but for the strength that can be generated and gained by movement building skills and movement culture. He spoke about transferring confidence through community, and creating an intergenerational space to build new types of family. And he described how the university might be the setting, the catalyst, for the past to align with the future. ”Everyone has a history,” he said. “Students teach each other.”

Professor Ortiz also asked questions for all students of oral history to consider:  Why are some voices marginalized? Should we not pass along certain stories?  Those questions, he said, may provoke bigger ones:  How is this society organized?  Will I be able to live in the same comfort as my parents?  Do I have a future in this society?  Through the examples of their work and the past that they’re trying to preserve, all of our workshop presenters were offering the same response, and lesson:  to make things better requires struggle.

Some of the oral histories of struggle may seem radical--change has often demanded contentious behavior--and higher education may be reluctant to endorse attitudes or actions that challenge authority, especially from their current students.  But academic institutions need to be as proud of the committed men and women that they graduate (and their causes) as they are of those whose oral histories they archive.  Universities are not only about the past, but about nurturing individuals whose ideas and actions can re-shape society.

This is an investment in the future.  The chance is that students working as oral historians will look forward as they look back.  Besides learning the practice and craft, students involved in school-based programs such as those described in our workshops, as well as the incoming and graduating cohorts of OHMA at Columbia, will doubtlessly come away with fresh appreciation, not only for the subjects of their research and interviews, but for what those subjects accomplished—often some heavy lifting that made things better, turned right from wrong.  When such lessons are absorbed they awaken new desire for change, and the awareness that it can happen. Activism is contagious.