[Workshop Reflection] Alisa Del Tufo: Surfacing Solutions

In Alisa Del Tufo’s talk on Thursday, January 31st the oral historian and activist sought to inspire her large audience with the story of her life’s work. Watch a video of the talk here.

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Del Tufo credits inflection points, or life changing moments, with the direction of her career and her inspiration to use oral history to surface new solutions to domestic violence. The first major such inflection point was in 1987. The case of Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg, in which a young girl, Lisa Steinberg, was killed at the hands of Joel Steinberg, stirred significant public controversy and prompted Del Tufo to explore the link between adult domestic violence and child maltreatment; which up until this point had been ignored and unexplored.

In 1991 Del Tufo left Sanctuary for Families, which she had founded in 1984, and began the oral history project that ultimately opened up New York City’s eyes to intimate violence.  To hear Alyssa explain the project, the ah-ha moment that led her to try oral history as a method and what she learned, listen to the following clip:

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Conducting these interviews was a second inflection point for Del Tufo and what surfaced in these conversations with battered women inspired her to begin meeting with influential feminists, politicians, and community activists to begin to make a change. The primary result was a domestic violence handbook, “Behind Closed Doors: The City’s Response to Domestic Violence,” which brought the issue to the front and center of the city’s politics.

In oral history, we look at “a-ha moments” as moments when the narrator is able to create a new thought or response though the process of the oral history interview, “I didn’t know I felt that way” or “I’d never thought about it that way before.”  This is not entirely different from what Del Tufo deems an inflection point.  Both are self-imposed structural shifts in the narrative.  When using oral history as a tool of activism, it is the a-ha moment or inflection point that recognizes the problem and can lead to the corresponding action.

As aspiring oral historians themselves, the authors of this blog post experienced a few inflection points/a-ha moments during the discussion.  Sara was challenged and motivated by Del Tufo’s assertion that in order to make change, one must choose the right moment. As oral historians looking to make an impact on the world, what is our moment?  Is it possible to not only choose the moment, but to create the moment? Can one document the present to change the future? Ellen’s inflection point came when Del Tufo discussed altruism as a motivation for battered women to tell their stories. Many of the women Del Tufo interviewed agreed to these intimate conversations not for their own well-being, but because they believed their stories might help others in the same situation. Should we assume (or hope) that these altruistic motives can be found in other at-risk communities? Towards the end of the discussion several people discussed other issues to which Alisa’s methods might apply – such as elder abuse and sex trafficking. How can we tap into and encourage this community service model elsewhere?

For more information on oral history projects inspiring social change, check out the following sites:

Groundswell http://www.oralhistoryforsocialchange.org/

Tibet Oral History Project http://tibetoralhistory.org/index.html

Voices of Rwanda http://voicesofrwanda.org/

Khmer Legacies http://khmerlegacies.org/

It Gets Better http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject

Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHRkPuJfasg

Other organizations founded by Alisa Del Tufo:

Connect http://www.connectnyc.org

Threshold Collaborative http://www.thresholdcollaborative.org

(post by OHMA students Sara Wolcott and Ellen Brooks)