The first time I attended the Oral History Association Meeting in 2017 was when I was a month into the Oral History Master of Arts program, and a novice in the oral history field. Frankly, I thought I had failed to make connections or learn anything. Not because the conference wasn’t good (it was well organized and informative) but because I was feeling a bit awkward in this new space.
Some of the questions that were swirling through my head at the time were: What makes an oral historian? When do I start calling myself that? What exactly is my goal in this field? How does oral history factor into my commitment to social justice? What is this new “oral history” lexicon that I’m hearing and how do I make sense of it?
Conferences are designed to provide the maximum amount of knowledge in a short period of time. This can be overwhelming. Some speakers are dynamic, others not so much, and sessions sometimes fall flat. The truth is that there is no way you can see and do everything. For example, out of the more than 110 sessions that were organized for OHA 2016, I only attended six and only two resonated and proved extremely beneficial to my ever-evolving journey as an oral historian. The first was a session called “Listening Beyond the Interview: How Oral History Can Inform Social Change” with Zaheer Ali, Adrienne Petty, Manissa Maharawal, and Amaka Okechukwu. The second was called “Narratives at the Intersection: Oral History, Identities and Feminisms” with Danielle Dulken, Ruth Hill, and Marie Eszenyi.
These two sessions on the intersections of race, class, and gender, taught me much about the type of oral historian I wanted to become and it introduced me to the people that I wanted to collaborate with – individuals committed to using oral history to shed light on complicated and often controversial human relationships and events.
Months after OHA 2016, I reached out to Zaheer Ali at the Brooklyn Historical Society and we further discussed a concept that he presented about at his panel – the different stages of listening (follow this link to a video of his workshop for OHMA). When prompted, he also shared excellent wisdom about another question that was troubling me at the time – does oral history even matter, and why? And will I be able to find work in this field? He couldn’t answer the latter in the definitive but, after my conversation with him, I left feeling positive that oral history work is an important tool in the struggle for social justice and equity, if for no other reason than that it creates space for individuals and communities who have been relegated to the margins of history.
This conversation with Zaheer provided me with enough confidence and motivation to say yes to Danielle Dulken when she invited me to collaborate on a panel about the theoretical and practical reasons for making oral history into art at the 2017 OHA meeting. Danielle put together a panel with a diverse group of women who organically gravitated towards art as a visual aid for the stories emerging from the oral histories we are collecting. She contacted me because Fernanda Espinosa (OHMA alumna) told her about my thesis project with Central American refugees and she reached out to Jess Lamar Reece Holler because Danielle knew about her work through their Twitter interactions. Additionally, Rachel Gelfand and Kimber Thomas came on board because both are graduate students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where Danielle is also enrolled in the American Studies Ph.D. program.
All credit to the success of our mini-workshop is due to Danielle – she wrangled us together, asked us to submit a description of our work, and drafted the abstract. Weeks before OHA 2017, we hopped on a conference call to discuss the agenda items for the workshop. It was important to all of us that the workshop include various options for audience participation, because honestly, one session where people read their academic papers is one too many and often lackluster. I understand that this is the traditional format for presenting work, but oral history is an involved, dynamic and transformative process. It should not just be discussed theoretically. We must find diverse ways in which to interpret it and introduce it to the public, be they academic scholars or non-specialists.
Oral history is an exciting and rewarding methodology that contributes immensely to the fields of ethnography, anthropology, human rights, social justice movements, the Humanities, and social and political studies around the world. The field however, does not yet have a secure place in the marketplace, meaning that full time jobs are scarce, and part-time work falls squarely into the ever-growing gig economy, and therefore uncertain. For this reason alone, it is important to find your people within this field. People that you want to learn from and collaborate with to ensure the longevity of oral history as a method in research and as a field.
Fanny Julissa García is an oral historian contributing work to Central American Studies. She is currently writing a literary oral history manuscript using the interviews of Central American refugee women jailed in detention centers at the U.S./Mexico border. She has worked for more than 15 years as a social justice advocate to combat the public health and socioeconomic impact of HIV/AIDS on low income communities, worked closely with organizations fighting for the end of family detention, and supported survivors of sexual violence. She has written plays about the impact of HIV on Latinas and their families, plus short stories and essays about the Central American diaspora.
She serves as the Communications Coordinator for Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change, a network of oral historians, activists, cultural workers, community organizers and documentary artists that use oral history to further movement building and transformative social change. She is also co-founder of Social Exchange Institute, a company that uses multi-media tools to produce content that promotes social justice and equity. Recently, she joined the New-York Historical Society as a staff member. In May 2017, she graduated from the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University where she received the Judge Jack B. Weinstein Fellowship for Oral History.