Intro: In this post, OHMA alumni and recipient of our alumni travel grant Lynn Lewis reflects on her experience presenting at the 2018 Oral History Association annual meeting in Montreal. The 2019 call for papers is now open!
The Oral History Associations Annual Conference in Montreal in October, 2018, was one of my many oral history firsts.
Oral History is a new field for me. The OHMA program provided me with a theoretical and technical foundation and invaluable moral support, but it is up to me to actually make something of it. Building relationships and being in community with other oral historians is essential to moving my own work forward. Amplifying the lessons to be found in the stories of those who resist oppression is necessary in our challenging times, as the conference title suggested. I travelled to Montreal in the hopes of meeting others engaged in oral history as a way to document resistance, as well as those who engage in oral history a resistance strategy.
I was traveling from another conference in Berlin and as our plane touched down in Montreal it was cold and snowing. Looking out the airplane window my mind went to the segments of interviews that I would play as part of my workshop. I had some editing that I still wanted to do. I wanted folks to be able to truly hear DeBoRah, Marcus, Anthony, William, and others from the Picture the Homeless Oral History project which I would share as part of my presentation. It was exciting to fly from New York to Berlin and to Montreal, editing and reflecting along the way. I thought to myself I can live like this.
The couple seated next to me on the plane offered to share a cab from the airport. I took this as a good omen but when I arrived at the hostel, my reservation had been confused with another’s. The staff had already left for the evening but the other women with whom I ended up sharing a dorm-like room were warm and welcoming. Accepting this prelude to the conference in the spirit of adventure, I settled into my hostel bunkbed, took out my headphones and continued editing.
I have made the leap from community organizer to oral historian as a way to contribute to social movement building. I was heartened to see workshops presenting the voices and vision of First Nations practitioners, Palestinian practitioners, and among the most moving of workshops that I attended, Turkish practitioners for whom oral history was a political choice carrying tremendous risk - challenging times indeed. Attending the Community Organizing Basics for Oral Historian workshop by Sarah K. Loose and Isabell Moore was the perfect way to begin the conference.
It was difficult to choose among the workshop panels. I was especially eager to learn the creative ways that other oral historians are extending the dialogic encounter of the interviews by converting those truths into public facing works that engage audiences. From performance pieces, literary works, murals, and text that interrogates and challenges state power, as a newly graduated alum just taking my head out of thesis writing mode, I was ready for all of it.
I was honored to present on a panel Oral History in Dialogue: Community Organizing, New Documentary Work, and Our Changing Practice, with OHMA alums Cameron Vanderscoff, Svetlana Kitto and Eylem Delakanli. As you read these words, know that they are creating powerful work that is important, smart and paradigm shifting. My initial reflections on my current project, the Picture the Homeless Oral History Project and attempts to articulate what a participatory oral history research approach would look like were met with generosity from my co-panelists.
Beyond the generosity of the community of oral historians that I am now a part of, one of the main takeaways from the conference is that there are people all over the world using oral history to deepen understanding, generate empathy, and to inspire solidarity based action. As the luncheon keynote speaker Leyla Neyzi, Turkish anthropologist and oral historian, began to speak a hush fell over the room. Her remarks took root. It was clear that the next time we hear her name it may be because she has been incarcerated or disappeared for crimes against the Turkish State. The practice of oral history amplifies truth and meaning. Truth telling can be dangerous work in our challenging times.
The drive back to New York City from Montreal was a mixture of oral history shop talk about our projects, consulting work and tips on how to engage prospective projects combined with a nature hike on the road to John Brown’s Adirondack homestead in Elba. We didn’t make it to Elba, but the hike through golden light streaming through the turning leaves of the early fall was the perfect ending to the OHA conference. I was full of hope and inspiration.
These times are challenging. Each of us has the obligation and the opportunity to find our own way to respond to these challenges. As individuals, every day we make choices which contribute to the making of history which is continuously unfolding, whether we intend to or not. As oral historians, we aren’t only recording history. Through the dialogic encounter with narrators, to analyzing interviews and making oral histories public, we engage in history-making. Oral historians are a vehicle for the past to extend into the present and into the future. The oral histories that we record and the methods we select to share these histories: through audio, text, visuality or performance, are all ways to interrupt narratives.
Documenting resistance is a form of resistance because it creates new possibilities for others to learn lessons and apply those lessons to their own times. I am grateful to be part of this community.
Lynn Lewis is a life-long social justice worker who believes in the power of collective analysis and direct action to win justice. Since graduating, she continues to deepen her understanding of oral history with the Picture the Homeless Oral History project