In this post OHMA student Elly Kalfus (2017-2018) discusses how Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz’s approach to designing and facilitating oral history storytelling events led her to a deeper understanding of the value of collaboration and humility.
On September 14, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz spoke to Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program as part of OHMA’s year-long series on oral history and the arts. Mi’Jan’s talk, Oral History as Engaged Community Listening, Ceremonial Practice and Performative Art, was beautiful and grounding. One theme I drew from the talk is Mi’Jan’s commitment to work collaboratively with people from different disciplines to design storytelling events. I see this as a practice in humility.
I am new to the field of oral history, though I’ve been interviewing people under the guise of other fancy titles (program evaluator, support specialist, research associate) for six years. The people I’ve interviewed in the past have all been connected with the criminal justice system in one way or another – mostly stakeholders such as public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and elected officials.
I’ve struggled with how I want people I’m interviewing to perceive me, particularly because I don’t often share many identities with them – I’m younger and I don’t have a law degree. My tendency is to act as though I do share these identities and that I know exactly what the people I’m interviewing are talking about, particularly when it’s something technical.
Lawyer: I filed 5 motions in limine.
Me: Oh, did you? Uh…how did that go?
The reason I was interviewing people was to get specific information from them - about their work experience, or the number of constitutional violations they were committing on a regular basis. I usually met people for the first time that day, talked with them for an hour, and will likely never see them again. While they may have fascinating personal lives, I knew my job was to stay in control of the conversation so we would get to the things I needed from them.
By contrast, Mi’Jan is a cultural worker, teacher and story gatherer. Her work is rooted in asking people to share vulnerable parts of themselves with her, sometimes in front of an entire live audience. But she doesn’t see herself as having to be a master of all disciplines in order to make her work a success. Instead, as to how she designs live storytelling events in collaboration with people from other disciplines, she said:
“What I’m starting to begin to learn through this practice is that I'm not the expert of all those other things [disciplines]. I don’t need to be the expert of all those other things. What is the most important thing for me to do is sit down and have as many conversations as possible in the design process, as well as - because again I'm evolving my practice - in the reflection process. Because I get an opportunity to learn how to most meaningfully collaborate with folks who have expertise and practices that are not my own. I’m not a visual artist, I will never be a visual artist, it's just not in the cards for me in this lifetime more than likely. I mean who knows? And I recognize it's inconsiderate and it's a missed opportunity and it's a gap if I don't center their discipline - in terms of methods, needs, joys, aspirations, hopes, challenges, potential obstacles - if I don't center that as much as I center the ethics of oral history and what it is that I’m trying to get out of the gathering as well.”
Mi’Jan’s desire to collaborate with people from different disciplines and learn how to mesh the values of oral history with her collaborators’ own professional, personal or aesthetic values is deeply rooted in oral history work. I was attracted to oral history because it comes from a radical tradition of people sharing stories to learn from each other and build for collective liberation. To practice oral history is to stop thinking of myself as in charge of an interview or event, and instead think about how I can share power and work alongside others. This is particularly true when working with individuals who have been historically oppressed and denied power over their narrative, but also important when working with people of any identity.
Mi’Jan’s work is inspiring for many reasons. It is easy for me to say I support collaboration, and sharing power – who could disagree with that? But for collaboration to really mean something, I need to become more comfortable acknowledging other people have strengths and knowledge that I lack, and that I don’t need to be the expert.
To learn more about Mi’Jan Celie’s work, check out her website: http://www.mijancelie.com
Elly Kalfus is an Oral History MA student at Columbia University. She comes from a prison abolition background and is currently organizing Ballots Over Bars, a project of the Emancipation Initiative dedicated to documenting Massachusetts prisoners’ fight for the right to vote over the past 40 years and to achieving universal suffrage for all residents. She also loves jellyfish and drawing.