In this post, current OHMA student Monica Liuting (2016) reflects how Terrell Frazier uses oral history interviews to frame personal experiences in political expressions. This article is the final in a four-part series exploring Terrell’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Becoming an Organizer: Narrative, Identity and Social Action.”
Sociologist Terrell Frazier’s research on activist network structures in New York documents the connections and importance of movement organizers based on how many times they are named as successful organizers by other organizers. In his network visualization, the big, colored dots represent the most central organizers with high prestige and social resources, while the small ones with fewer connections are those in more marginal positions in the network.
It was those in the more marginal positions Terrell focused in on for the oral history part of his project, in which Terrell interviewed LGBTQ people of color organizers for their life stories and to see how their experiences led to their organizing work.
In his interviews, Terrell prefers life stories told at length, with all the nuances of the complex interactions of the individual, the society, and the community. In his interviews, the organizers—central or marginal—tell their stories in detail, and correspondingly describe different goals and strategies for organizing in movements.
For example, David tells a detailed story of his early experiences: how his Christian parents drove him out of his home because he is gay and HIV positive. He initially offers a story about HIV activism in college without mentioning his early experiences, although they are a major influence that drives him to become an organizer.
The story, when Terrell uncovers it, expands the meaning of David’s role as an active organizer in the intersecting fields of LGBT and HIV activism. David has developed an approach to organizing through his experiences of multiple oppressions from his own family. Oppression is killing, he determined, and acted on that conclusion.
Mark, another interviewee, emphasizes his work on changing the image of HIV positive individuals. People anticipate that they are sick, weak, dying, and being beaten up, and he wants to “fight back” against that stereotype and to protect other people.
Mark described his experience of watching a historical event—the ACT UP protests—on TV in his interview and how he decided to be one of them. Mark attributes his strategy and method to the preceding activities, and connects his life stories with history as a way of learning from the past.
Later in one of the activities organized by Mark, he “made the murder [of a gay person] the front page of the news” and helped to “make the LGBT group visible and transform into a political force.”
Mark learned about not only the success of ACT UP but also the difficulties he would face in his organization. His understanding of the movement scales up within these experiences from “fighting for a group of people” to “anti-violence.” The successful organization among many anti-violence movements is not a coincidence.
Terrell’s narrators’ experiences shape “what kind of activist they will be and what kind of activism they will do.” In both of the cases, the organizers have specific experiences that underlay their understanding of multiple oppressions, which later help them to find effective ways of framing their appeal in movements against the prevailing discourse. They have actively “shaped” their voices to express the specific interest of the group, and target certain issues (price of pills, anti-violence, etc.) in their movements.
Furthermore, on the conceptual level, the organizers from marginal groups value the participants in a movement, so their connections are closer. They are more flexible and innovative in shifting their expressions in the movements to meet the bigger trend or to find a more specific voice in a unified discourse of the extensive movement.
Terrell’s oral history approach provides a more grounded analysis for social movement research and shows how marginalized organizers effectively use their own experiences in movement organizing. In Terrell’s words, they use “their position at the nexus of multiple in equalities and several foci of struggle to surmount overlapping systems of domination to create social change.” Oral history helps us to see how.
To learn more about Terrell’s work, visit to the INCITE website.
Monica Liuting comes to OHMA with an MA of English Literature from China University of Geosciences, Beijing. She worked as a volunteer worker in Changzhu Historical and Cultural Ancient Town Program (Shannan, Tibet) as an interviewer and writer after graduation.
Monica came to OHMA with an interest in exploring the construct of the narrative in sociological, literary, and oral historical domains. She was an intern with the Queer Newark Oral History Project in 2016 and is working on her thesis project on Chinese Young Artists in 2017.