In this post, current OHMA student Xiaoyan Li (2016) reflects on how the difference between elite students and Walmart workers shapes the dialogue between them, and how the organizers observe this and put it into words. This article is the second in a four-part series exploring Adam Reich’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “The Summer for Respect: Student Activists, Walmart Workers, and the Future of the American Labor Movement.”
“This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer. Why isn’t there anything going on for the fifth anniversary?” Adam Reich recalls saying. In a recent Workshop lecture, he told us about a conversation he had with his friend in 2014, which became the origin of the Summer for Respect project.
Freedom Summer is a project that happened in 1964. Hundreds of northern young students were trained to organize southern Blacks to register to vote. Fifty years later, the Summer for Respect project followed it in a smaller way by gathering twenty college students and sending them to Chicago, Southwest Ohio, Central Florida, Dallas, and Los Angeles to interview Walmart workers. Their large goal was to chart a more successful future for the US labor movement.
As an international student from China, Walmart is also very familiar to me. When I was in college in Jilin, China, there was a Walmart right beside our campus. It looked the same way as Reich described Walmarts in the U.S.—“huge parcels of land dominated by big box stores.” It is so true that “Walmart is everywhere and nowhere.”
However, the American labor movement is something new to me. In Chinese contemporary history, there were many political movements such as the Anti-Rightist Movement, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution. But a labor movement in civil society has never happened. While I was interviewing Reich, I raised the question: “Many of us are from other countries with other histories and might not know the context for your work. Can you explain how your work fits into the broader context of the American labor movement?” And he explained it to me.
Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli said, “Common ground makes communication possible, but difference makes it meaningful.”[i] My interaction with Reich at that moment demonstrated how difference could create what Portelli called “a learning situation” and open a space for the production of narrative. The learning spaces showed that the many differences between the college students Reich worked with and the Walmart workers they were getting to know were a big part of what Reich was studying.
“There’s a lot of dimensions of the project. The students studied doing oral history with Walmart workers and tried to organize. Then we also studied the students,” Reich said. To me, this is the most intriguing part of this initiative. As the organizers of the project, Reich and his colleague were aware of the difference between those elite college students and the Walmart workers, and worried a little bit about the risk of the encounter of these two groups. It was this difference that created a distance between them. What Reich was interested in learning about was “when such a distance works and when it fails for both sides of the interaction.”[ii]
I remember how, when I started my thesis project with veterans of the Kuomintang in New York, I faced a similar question. As a person from Mainland China, when I interviewed those Kuomintang soldiers who are from Taiwan, our different political identities made me unsure whether or not they would talk to me in an open way. From then on, I started to think about how difference affects the interview process. Portelli said, “Common ground does not have to mean a shared identity but must rather depend on a shared will to listen and accept each other critically.”[iii] In many ways, this saying resonates with most of my oral history practice.
When the 19-year-old interviewer Beth sat with the 19-year-old Walmart worker Anthony, the similarities and contrasts between their different life experience and present circumstances did multiple things for the young Walmart worker—“It was deepening his commitment to OUR Walmart by making his voice heard; but it was also making him aware of the experiences that Beth (the interviewer) had had that he had not. Could he go back to school? Or at the very least, could he find a job in which he got to drive around in a rental car like the job Beth had?”[iv] We could see how the interview process had an effect on the young Walmart worker’s life. A similar thing happened in my thesis project, too.
Most of the veterans that I interviewed felt ashamed of the Huaihai Campain (Xubang Battle), a decisive campaign during the Chinese civil war, because they lost that war and identified themselves as losers. During the course of the interview, as they gradually opened up to tell me—a person from the Mainland—some fragmented details of that campaign, they started to get rid of that kind of shame from their life
Not only does difference offer an opportunity for dynamic interaction between the interviewer and interviewee, it can also affects their lives moving forward.
Xiaoyan Li is an international student from China. Before her study in OHMA, she worked in the Cui Yongyuan Center for Oral History at Communication University of China for over two years and took part in the "Oral History in China Project". This year in OHMA, her project for her thesis, Veterans of the Kuomintang in New York, documents the life stories of nationalist soldiers originally from the mainland who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war. Xiaoyan is a 2016 Davis Fellow.
[i] Alessandro Portelli, “A Dialogical Relationship. An Approach to Oral History”, P. 3.
[ii] Adam Reich and Peter Bearman, Our Walmart (Draft), P.4.
[iii] Alessandro Portelli, “A Dialogical Relationship. An Approach to Oral History”, P. 3.
[iv] Adam Reich and Peter Bearman, Our Walmart (Draft), P.13.