‘Stories Matter’: Audrey Petty and Insider/Outsider Dynamics in Oral History Interviews

by McKenna Stayner

It’s difficult to write anything unbiased about Audrey because, well, I adore her. She’s a generous and intelligent person, a fierce thinker, and even though I’ve never been in her class, Audrey breathes learning effortlessly into all that she does. I count her as a close friend even though I met her in person only minutes before her November 7th workshop at Columbia. For about a year, we worked together over email and by phone for Voice of Witness, where I was the publicity and outreach manager for the two years before I came to Columbia’s Oral History Masters program this past semester. Voice of Witness, the nonprofit oral history book series and education program, published High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing last September, the eleventh book in the human rights-focused series, and I consider the time I spent working with the book—and Audrey—to be some of the richest and most meaningful of my time in the organization. So, as I mentioned, I’m not exactly a neutral observer.

Being a bit of an insider in this instance, what better to spend this time considering than the insider/outsider dynamic in all interviews and in oral history practice in particular? We discuss it in each of our classes. In our method and fieldwork classes, it comes up explicitly as we question what factors can help or hinder you when working with a narrator; what pressures being an ‘other’ (or not) exerts on the relationship you create when you sit down with the recorder and attempt to bridge a divide? How do these dynamics blind us or do they give us deeper insights? It’s tricky; by contriving and guiding the conversation, the interviewer will always sit in opposition to the narrator, despite any similarities that exist. And, so often, the differences that seem at first like an insurmountable barrier to understanding crumble in the face of informed questions and an honest desire to hear.

In both the early discussion with OHMA and in the public talk, Audrey brings up many of the nuances to this dynamic. She discusses how developing relationships with the narrators transformed her sense of responsibility:

 Having grown up in Chicago, having grown up on the South side, and feeling like I had a relationship with these spaces [the high rises], I’ve felt inside that I was getting what I’ve come to describe as the pinpoint perspective of what these communities were, and what happened, how people lived these lives in these communities. And when the buildings started coming down, I felt this urgent need to know more and to be part of something that I didn’t see in other places. I didn’t feel like, the larger story, the wider aperture of stories were widely available—and especially as the buildings were coming down—I felt like I wanted to be a part of documenting those communities and for accounting for those stories that I didn’t see out in the world, or I couldn’t find them…

When I first started, before I first met anyone, I felt like my intended audience was a Chicago audience, and were people like me in the city, who lived in the city, who maybe perceived these places as iconic, but did not have any inside experience of those places. But that was the first group that I had in mind—Chicagoans, people like me. And then as I started working on it, in an odd way—or maybe not so odd—I felt like my narrators were my audience, and the more I got to know them, the more they shared their stories, not only did I feel accountable to them, but I felt like the book needed to be something that they would read and recognize themselves in it, but they might also read it and have access to different accounts themselves. As it was becoming a book, I felt more tuned in to them and their reactions and their responses and how they might receive the book.

Although Audrey is a Chicago native, it’s not until she met the residents of the housing developments and began to build those relationships that she moved beyond an observer and began to participate in the lives of those who truly know the high rises.

For those of us who approach oral history practice as a means of shortening the distance between our own experiences and another’s, Audrey is describing what we hope happens for ourselves and for those who read, listen to, watch, or otherwise engage with oral histories. Not just through the form of a story, which Audrey calls a form of currency (“stories matter”), but also by the power of a first-person narrative. She says, “first-person stories can account for things in ways that others cannot”.

What are some of these “things” to which personal narratives are uniquely able to give meaning? Another discussion we have often in the program is whether oral history is a valid form of historical account. I admit, as someone literary-minded and trained in the Great Western Canon to look at history through an accumulation of first-person accounts of science and literature, philosophy and mathematics, I have no qualms about taking subjective and oral accounts as part of human history. What is the point of history if not to see how our actions impact the lives of those around us, to see how the actions of those who came before us have set the tone for our present? As we are constantly witnessing, the meaning of what has happened before us—no matter how far back we go—is constantly being revised, and there’s no one to call our history the true history but ourselves. Oral history interviews account for the history of our intentions and our actions. The contradictions that arise from those sometimes conflicting accounts adds to the depth and complexity of reality, and hint at the alternate future realities embedded in all our choices.

Say we take this reading of an oral history narrative as historical document as true, at least for the moment. Like Audrey, it might change the way we view the narrators in High Rise Stories, and complicate the responsibility we feel to the residents, too. The divisions of outsider versus insider might break down a little bit, and our perspectives might begin to include more voices from each side.

In the workshop, Audrey described the assumptions that the narrators had of her, coming from a world that so often reduces public housing residents—in Chicago and elsewhere—to statistics and stereotypes:

I did feel like there was this kind of dance, initially, where I felt like narrators expected me to have certain questions and assumptions, and sometimes there would be this initial conversation where I felt like some narrators were looking to me, anticipating that I was coming with broad stereotypes, and so sometimes I wouldn’t even be asking those kind of questions but they would be answering those kind of questions. And I understand it, but it was a strange thing to navigate initially. But I think that was a part of the process. I think there were narrators who were, in explicit and upfront ways, talked about feeling stigmatized, feeling that stigma of “living in the projects” as a lot of them would say. And I think they felt like maybe I just wanted to hear certain kinds of information or certain kinds of stories. Or there might be a kind of push back, if I wasn’t asking that kind of question but they were coming right forward and saying, “it wasn’t like you think it was”. And that was a huge part of the dynamic with some of the early [conversations]. 

The residents are reacting to a sensationalist and myopic narrative formed about them based on only a component of life in the high rises. As oral historians, we are working not  only with the narrator as they see themselves, but the way they see themselves perceived and represented by an outside world in the media, by cops and politicians, by people who do and don’t enter their neighborhoods. We combat these other sets of eyes with open-ended questions, transparency in our process, and by giving the narrator the respect of time and careful listening. And perhaps more important than how we conduct the interview, is what we do with it.

Oral history is a method and a practice; a lens through which to view our work as journalists, social scientists, educators, historians. How we interpret and represent the narrators in the language of our fields must be colored by this responsibility to the narrator. In journalism, for example, as it struggles to redefine itself in the digital age, oral history archiving techniques make sense of infinite sources of information and connect readers to subjects. The interview style counteracts the desire to reduce and simplify, and interviewees are given room to fully voice their experience.

Like Audrey as she collected the narratives for edited High Rise Stories, we are responsible to our narrators—regardless of our chosen field. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to represent them holistically, in their own words and with layers and depth and contradictions. When narrators open up in the interviews, we move in a little from the outside. As Audrey says, “I don’t think of a city block in the same way I used to think of a city block. Everything is different.”