[Workshop Reflection] Beyond the Archives: Oral History and Community Dialogue in Brooklyn

by Allison Corbett

As an oral historian, I am committed to using my work to engage communities in the present. In keeping with this commitment, I would probably steer clear of institutions with names like “Brooklyn Historical Society.”  However, the name Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) belies the innovation and deep level of community engagement that this institution and its projects embody. Sady Sullivan, the director of Oral History at BHS, recently visited Columbia to talk about one of the organization’s ongoing projects, Crossing Borders Bridging Generations, an oral history project and public programming series that “examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity in the historically diverse borough of Brooklyn.”

Anyone who identifies with themes of mixed-heritage families is invited to participate in Crossing Borders Bridging Generations (CBBG). Sullivan says people often approach the project, share their story and then ask if they fit in. “Yes! Yes!” she says, “It’s self-identifying. If you think you fit, then you do!” This broad definition of “mixed-heritage” allows for an expanded understanding of diversity that includes interfaith families, intercultural, as well as racially mixed families. Oral history is a particularly well-suited methodology for exploring these “borderlands,” where intersecting identities become entangled. By allowing narrators to identify themselves as they wish, and relate their experiences as individuals with mixed-heritage in their own words, CBBG complicates the way that communities talk about race, ethnicity and culture in the United States.  

CBBG seeks to create a rich collection of oral histories that will document the diversity and fluidity that comprise Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, but it also has an explicit goal to promote racial justice through the creation of a space for interracial dialogue that rarely exists today. This multi-faceted mandate is for me the most compelling aspect of CBBG. Despite contentious origins as an apparatus for state control, the archive, as an institution, has come to play an important role for scholars and historians. Traditionally though, wide engagement and accessibility to communities are not always high-priorities for archives. CBBG however, has built this into the core of its mission. They have hosted listening events using the oral histories recorded in the project so that narrators may come together to discuss their experiences. CBBG public events run the gamut from provocative discussions like the now-annual “What are you?” and “Muslim and….? Portraits of Muslim Americans” to performances, and last year’s “Science Fiction and Multiraciality: From Octavia Butler to Harry Potter”, which led to the “Visionary Fiction Workshop” in which participants collectively began to imagine multi-racial worlds, characters and plots. These events have become laboratories in which participants can practice conversations about diversity and racial justice, and they are also an important way to recruit future narrators.

Sady stresses the importance of early collaboration for oral history projects that seek to promote community dialogue and social justice. From the start, BHS and the CBBG team conducted outreach with both scholars who work on critical mixed race studies, as well as advocacy organizations like Loving Day, Swirl, and Mavin. Many of these groups became partners with the project and helped co-sponsor events, design materials, and provide educational resources for the CBBG team. In addition to partnering with those working in the field, CBBG opened themselves up to their narrators. By inviting narrators and members of the communities that CBBG documents to become part of the project, they are also inviting narrators to help shape the way their stories are interpreted.

Following on the heels of Steven High’s workshop on sharing authority in Montreal Life Stories, CBBG provides another example of the dynamic role that oral history can play in shaping communities today. While documentation of the past is critical to the discipline and to archives as institutions, oral history can and should be used more as a tool for working in the present-- to create dialogue, stimulate transformation and build bridges.