Nicole JeanBaptiste writes of her experiences as a doula and a current OHMA student.

I am a Master’s degree student in Columbia University’s Oral History MA Program.  I also happen to be a doula. A doula is a nonmedical person who assists a woman before, during, or after childbirth, as well as her spouse and/or family, by providing physical assistance and emotional support.  

I’m stating these two facts in hopes that they’ll serve as useful information behind why I’ve chosen to conduct my Master’s thesis work on the evolution of birthing practices among women of African descent over the last four generations.  Clearly, it’s a topic near and dear to me.  Thus, when presented with the option to intern with a New York City based organization for my work in the Oral History program, I thought it was a great opportunity to do some further work with Bedford-Stuyvesant community based organization, Ancient Song Doula Services.  Earlier this year I participated in a truly life altering doula training led by Ancient Song and learned that its Founder and Executive Director, Chanel Porchia-Albert, also known as Jasira Sauda, had an idea for a book that sounded like it needed some oral historian love.  I reached out.  She reached back.  And so the Fall 2014 internship alliance between myself and ASDS commenced.

I must say that each experience at the ASDS office, which is located in Brooklyn’s historic Stuyvesant Mansion, was like witnessing reproductive justice being served.  In an interview I conducted with Chanel in mid-November she described reproductive justice as “anytime someone makes an informed decision about the care that they’re receiving…because [they] are not relinquishing [their] voice or body to someone else’s current position.” Pregnant women would walk into the office, sometimes with an appointment, other times not and Chanel always made time to speak with each mother. The questions ranged from “What do you suspect this rash I’ve developed could be, and should I take the pills the doctor prescribed me even though she didn’t bother to have a look at the rash?” to “Sis, can I deliver my baby here in your office?”  Did I mention that Chanel ALWAYS made time for every mother who walked through ASDS’ doors? Needless to say she kept busy and I certainly felt the effects of her busy life as a mother, community doula, executive director and activist when I waited around during one of the first few weeks of my internship to get an official oral history interview with her.  I waited a good seven hours before we got the audio and video recorders rolling once the office was clear of clients and visitors.  Here’s what the set-up looked like:

It wasn’t long, however, before I took down this set-up.  About ten minutes into our interview, Chanel’s three beautiful daughters strolled in—to stay.  That was my cue to reschedule.  And so we did for the very next day.  Although that second interview was only audio recorded and picked up the suckling sounds of a nearby nursing six month old, it was well worth the wait.  My theories about Chanel’s pure dopeness were proven in that interview.  In it, she shared wonderfully moving stories of her childhood, memories of her late mother, and the day in Union Square when she learned that Black midwives still existed because she actually met one.

I learned a great deal from my internship with Ancient Song Doula Services this Fall.  One lesson that I’ll walk with is that oral history is a process.  Time and patience are imperative.  The other is that real movements move.  I was able to witness the makings and motions of the reproductive justice movement on a constant basis from a grassroots, community based organization in Brooklyn.

For more information on Ancient Song Doula Services, visit their website.

For a report released in October by Choices in Childbirth on Doula Care in NYC, click here.

Below is an infographic on the impacts of and need for doula care in NYC:


Steven Puente reflects on Sayantani DasGupta's workshop on narrative humility and medical listening in oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 16, 2014.

On October 16th 2014, Sayantani DasGupta, a professor of Narrative Medicine, discussed her experience with Oral History and her thoughts concerning its place in the field of Narrative Humanities.  Over the years OHMA students have taken electives courses in the Narrative Medicine program and many sing Prof. DasGupta’s praise. I’ve not had the opportunity to take one of her courses and so I anticipated her scheduled workshop.

The workshop began with Prof. DasGupta participating in a private Q&A session for the OHMA workshop students.  In that space she did something I don’t often see scholars do. With quiet humility she honored the lineage of ideas that came before her. Prof. DasGupta took a few minutes to discuss the recent history of her program yet went further back in history to discuss the emergence of the Health Humanities field.

For an Oral Historian this was a great example of a scholar knowing where to place their research in the constellation of ideas. Prof. DasGupta talked of the vastness of the Health Humanities field and envisioned the many applications of the Oral History. She mentioned “The Health Humanities Reader” a recently published book containing the work of many prominent thinkers in the Health Humanities and said, “The benefit to having many people in the field is that we get to disagree.”

This statement got me to think of Oral History as a growing profession and my place in it. Do I have any disagreements with established theories or with a particular methodology?  It reminded me of a moment at the recent Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association in Madison, WI (my first conference). In one of the sessions, an Oral History scholar was presenting their paper and mimicking a foreign dialect when quoting their interviewees. It struck me as antiquated and disrespectful to their interviewees. I wondered if it was intentional and thought of times I’ve made similar blunders. I waited for the Q&A to ask yet, withheld my question.  I decided a private inquiry would be more respectful. The conference went on and I never approached the presenter. Did I know enough to question a scholar in the field? Was I alone in my thinking? Disagreement can be a source of progress according to Prof. DasGupta, and a source of discovery. She paraphrased the author bell hooks, saying that the greatest potentiality is in the margins.

Through a social justice lens, DasGupta challenges her colleagues. Inspired by the term cultural humility, she builds on Rita Charon’s (Co-Founder of Narrative Medicine at Columbia) term narrative competence and pushes the idea further by discussing it in terms of humility.  With this term she refutes “the idea that health and humanities teachers can train clinicians to be utterly competent in eliciting and interpreting patient stories.” She states, “Narrative humility suggests an inward orientation, requiring not only that we learn about others, but that we begin by learning about ourselves.” The explanation is simple yet for many it’s a radical idea that leads the discussion of narrative to the issue of power and politics. The more I’ve thought of this principle the more I thought of the OHA presenter and my missed opportunity to grow.

Social justice is not always a comfortable topic and often met with silence.  DasGupta shared a time where a student pointed out that she was the only professor of color in the Narrative Medicine program and the only one teaching texts by authors of color. She admits her surprise when a student brought this to her attention and asked, “Don't you think that is marginalizing of yourself?” It was a moment where she questioned her professional trajectory. She is a great example of a scholar striving to live an authentic life. She wears her passions proudly on her sleeve.

Her workshop provided me space to imagine new horizons in Oral History and my place in it. I’m encouraged to challenge scholarly thought and to participate in public discourse. I’m excited to explore the merging of my passions and professional career. And if I’m lucky, somebody, somewhere, will kindly disagree with a published idea of mine and we’ll talk. 

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.


Bill Smith reflects on Brian Purnell's workshop, which explored questions about when and where oral historians should enter products of oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Throughout our first semester the OHMA cohort analyzed collaboration in our interviews. In the fifth Workshop Presentation,  Brian Purnell invited us to think about the advantages, pitfalls and possibilities of bonding with our narrators.

At the beginning of the Columbia Oral History program in September, the cohort group read Alessandro Portelli‘s account of his field work with the coal mining families of Harlan County Kentucky.  Portelli emphasized the value of being accepted by his narrators.   He had been warned that the families would be suspicious of “strangers and anthropologists.”   We all enjoyed the Harlan County matron’s explanation to Portelli that “The reason I talked to you… was that you came in and you sat down.  You didn’t look around for a clean place to lay your butt on.” [1] Portelli’s advice to the beginning oral historians:  ‘behave yourself’—‘start a conversation’—earn the trust of your narrator. 

Brian Purnell took us a step further.  Purnell’s upcoming biography of New York City activist and educator Jitu Weusi is the fruit of a ten year relationship and hours of interviews.  Brian admired his subject—a leader in Black and Latino educational rights in Brian’s home borough, Brooklyn.  

Weusi won national recognition in 1967-68 for his role in the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville strike.  “In 1967, only four out of 865 principals and 12 out of 1,500 assistant principals in New York City were Black [2].  The Black community of Bedford led a fight for a stronger voice in the city’s public schools.  The Ocean-Hill/Brownsville strike was the largest teacher’s strike in American history.  Ocean-Hill/Brownsville advanced community authority over school leadership and policy across the United States.  Weusi went on to campaign for state senator, city councilman, and  governor.  While unelected, he was a critical adviser to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins.

Brian Purnell admired his subject and he bonded with him.  Brian’s challenging question to all of us was, “Should oral historians enter their own oral histories?  “Is the best use of oral history one in which an oral historian seems to disappear from the dialogue?  If so, why?  If not, when would or can the oral historian speak?”  

“The Art of Conversation” in the December 8 Issue of the New Yorker, profiles a leader in the art world, Hans Ulrich Obrist.  The publication ArtReview named the 46 year old Obrist as “the most powerful figure in the field of contemporary art” in 2014 [3].

Obrist, a Swiss born, London based curator, finds his power as an accumulator of information: he has conducted 2400 hours of interviews with artists and related talkers.  As an interviewer, Obrist believes the “conversation should be supportive… (he is) seeking always to make a connection” [3].

Portelli, Purnell and Obrist bond with their narrators.  Purnell and Obrist go even further  -- they bond with their audiences as well.

Purnell transitioned from our informal OHMA Q&A to his prepared talk for the workshop by inviting the OHMA group to join him as collaborators: “You’re gonna help me run this right?”  We were invited to share his authority.

The contribution of Obrist in the art world is that he subverts the notion of the passive viewer.  His exhibitions are collaborations both with other curators and, more importantly, with his audience.  In one show visitors were invited to leave with an object from the exhibition.   In another, viewers were invited to bring something and leave it.  For Obrist, the content “cannot be separated from its communal reception.”  The New Yorker describes this style as “relational art.”

The OHMA cohort resisted the style of presenters who were not relational. We became the Harlan County families suspicious of strangers who defined their authority by disassociating ours.   We embraced Brian Purnell’s invitation to join him in creating a dialogue.

As a narrator, as an interviewer, as a presenter, as an audience:  to make it matter, you have to be “in it.”  

Steven Puente, one of our OHMA Cohort has pioneered cross provider/client storytelling in methadone treatment.  Steven shared a passage from his oral history with Dr. Robert Roose, the Co-director of an HIV/Methadone treatment center in the Bronx:  “It can’t just all be uni-directional.  When you’re in something you are fighting together.”

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program sponsors a workshop series that is free and open to the public. Join us next time.



1)     “Tryin’ to Gather a Little Knowledge.  Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Oral History.” The Battle of Valle Guilia:  Oral History and the Art of Dialogue.  University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.


2)    Rickford, Russell. "A struggle in the arena of ideas": Black independent schools and the quest for nationhood, 1966-1986. Columbia University dissertation. Gittens, Olufunmilayo. ‘Baba Jitu Weusi’. –


3)    Profiles, The Art of Conversation, by D. T. Max, The New Yorker, December 8 2014.

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Nicole JeanBaptiste reflects on Nicki Pombier Berger's workshop, which discussed the work she did for her OHMA thesis, a multimedia collection of stories from self-advocates with Down syndrome.  This talk took place on Thursday, November 13, 2014.

For current and, I’m guessing former OHMA students, deciding on a research topic can be a daunting task, one made even more complex by the many interests with which we enter the program.  These interests can range from Rastafarian art and culture to unconventional marriages to childbirth in the Black community. Those three might only be interests of my own, but I’ve made it through nearly half of Columbia’s year-long Oral History Master’s program, and have learned that most others in my cohort share the same sentiment when it comes to picking a research topic and actually sticking to it.  This is why former OHMA alum, Nicki Berger, could not have given her talk on her thesis work, which centered around stories from self-advocates with Down syndrome, at a more opportune time.   

From her November 13th talk, Oral History and Intellectual Disability: Navigating Authority, Authorship and Advocacy, I gathered that students should follow their passions when choosing a research topic for one’s thesis.  When I prefaced one of my questions to Nicki by stating my observation of her skillful ability to weave her personal interests into her academic work, she agreed.  Nicki says, “… My research [and] my personal life are inextricable.” This was demonstrated even further when I asked Nicki how, with a project that deals so heavily with matters concerning health and medicine, she managed to balance her more hardcore research on Down syndrome with the actual collection of oral history interviews.  She says,

“I think activity that fell under the category of research included things like going to my sons' doctors' appointment and… hearing how he was seen by the medical community, and talking to other parents. And so, there was the whole level of research that had to do with my own experience of what living with a child with Down syndrome is like. And then, research specifically related to my project came more in the form of trying to educate myself about disability rights more generally and…the historical and social context for the Disability Rights Movement..and trying to understand the historical trajectory that I was both parenting on, but also that my narrators were living through.”

Nicki’s thesis, the centerpiece of which is titled Nothing About Us Without Us and is a combination of photos, audio, video and text gathered from her oral history interviews with self-advocates with Down syndrome, was showcased on  She explained that the most crucial element in choosing a platform upon which to present her work was consideration of her audience. She was “interested in the possibility of taking these interviews, these voices…and …bringing them to an audience that might not hear them otherwise.”   You can view Nicki’s thesis online.

Nicki continues to work on issues surrounding Intellectual Disability Rights.  Currently she works with an agency called Toward Independent Living and Learning (TILL).  There she piloted its Living Legacy Project, which documents, preserves and shares the family histories of longtime residential service clients at TILL. This seemed to Nicki as a good place where oral history could “really live” so she proposed an oral history project in which she’d work with several families to record their stories. 

In addition to her work with TILL’s Living Legacy Project, Nicki recently joined the team of A Fierce Kind of Love, a play written by Suli Holum and directed by David Bradley.  The play engages people with disabilities in the construction and representation of their own rich history, and introduces this history to new audiences.  In her role with this production she uses oral history to connect "citizen recorders" with individuals with intellectual disabilities living or working in segregated settings.  Learn more about the project. 

So, to my fellow OHMA-ites: use Nicki Berger’s success at identifying a research project that spoke to her personally and intellectually as a model for the possibilities of that thing you’re always thinking about, but aren’t sure anybody else would find as important as you do. 

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.

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Kate Brenner reflects on Sam Robson's workshop. This workshop featured a staged reading of Robson’s one-act play Timothy and Mary, which is based on the oral histories of two interviewees from his OHMA thesis.  This talk took place on Thursday, September 11, 2014.

Oral history lends itself to creative adaptation. What other medium allows you to explore such depth of character? In a recent OHMA workshop, OHMA alum Sam Robson presented his play, Timothy and Mary, which has many parallels to two famous plays also based on oral histories, Fires in the Mirror and The Laramie Project. While it has similar themes and purpose, its unique approach to dementia plays with the notion of oral history as performance.

Oral history performances are often used as ways to address political issues. Fires in the Mirror was created in response to the Crown Heights riots that erupted in 1991 after a young Caribbean-American boy was hit and killed by a Jewish driver. Tensions escalated even more when, in response, a group of black teenagers killed a Jewish student. Anna Deavere Smith chose to tackle this issue in her one-woman play, Fires in the Mirror. She conducted interviews with people on each side of the conflict, and then she compiled them into a play, acting as every one of the characters.

The Laramie Project arose from the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. A theater company wanted to understand the town where a hate crime like this took place, so they, like Smith, interviewed the people in the community. The multitude of voices they included created a more encompassing portrayal of the town.

This is the first part of Anna Deavere Smith's play, "Fires in the Mirror." Smith's dramatic technique is highly unusual. She interviews hundreds of citizens and community leaders, recording their words and then composing the play as a series of fragments from these interviews.

Uploaded by The American School in London on 2014-06-26.

In contrast, Sam Robson’s piece started out in a very personal place. His father had Alzheimer’s. In doing research for his thesis, he only found stories of caretakers, not any from people with Alzheimer’s. After conducting interviews with those who had Alzheimer’s, he came to consider them more as just “very forgetful people.” In fact, most of his play is about his character’s memories, not the lack thereof. He describes it as a love story. By taking away the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s, he attempts to redefine how society views people with Alzheimer’s, which makes the play as politically relevant as the other two discussed here.

Sam’s play does vary from the other two in a few ways. Most notably is that his two characters, Timothy and Mary, are not real people. The other plays rely on the strength of specificity of their characters and the stories they tell. Sam instead created composite characters, formed both from the different stories of the people he interviewed, as well as personal experiences with his father. He talked at the reading of his play about his nervousness at creating characters, and the liberation he felt when he realized that as characters they wouldn’t be able to represent anyone fully. Writing his play as fiction allows him the freedom to do that. Mary recounts the story of waking up and finding Timothy eating and watching TV one morning before dawn. Sam did not pull that from an interview or his own life experience, but as he explained in the question and answer session after the reading, “I made it up, but it was true.” It was an authentic story, though technically one that never happened. 

Uploaded by Kate Brenner on 2014-11-30.

An interesting difference between all three plays is how they acknowledge the fact they come from oral history interviews. Fires in the Mirror’s characters directly speak at the viewer, as if responding to their questions. There is no explicit acknowledgement of the interview, yet the viewer feels like they occupy the space of the interviewer. The Laramie Project brings the viewer to the site of the interview as a bystander, and the actual interviewing is presented as part of the play. Timothy and Mary has an interviewer as a character they interact with, but in a more conceptual way. The interviewer, 5AM, which one audience member pointed out looks a lot like SAM, asks questions sometimes to the point of agitation. His existence both validates and frustrates the storytelling of the characters, especially Timothy, who has Alzheimer’s. His questions are fine until Timothy feels he has to defend himself against the portrayal of him as someone who has memory problems, explaining that he didn’t get lost on the way to the courthouse--ok, maybe he got a little turned around. In fact, 5AM caused him to become stressed about not having the right words when he called on the phone. Sam mentioned this as an experience he personally had with an interviewee, reflecting on the impact an interviewer can have on someone with Alzheimer’s. 5AM also portrays the perspective of the interviewer, frustrated when the interview doesn’t seem to be working. 

Uploaded by Kate Brenner on 2014-11-30.

Upon first glance, Sam’s play seems to differ greatly from the other two, more traditional oral history plays. It does, by use of fictional characters instead of specific representation. The creative portrayal of 5AM as the interviewer role is also different. However, the essence of it as an oral history play stays the same: it gives a political message in a personal way. His play is not about major news events, but it aims to change the way society views people with Alzheimer’s, and that is just as political.

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.

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Steven Palmer reflects on Brian Purnell's workshop, which explored questions about when and where oral historians should enter products of oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Brian Purnell, Professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, worked in a 30-minute interview with OHMA students before his lecture titled “Can the Oral Historian Speak?” at Columbia University on November 5th, 2014.  Not wanting to duplicate his proposed lecture, I reviewed Professor Purnell's website and found a fantastic lecture Professor Purnell gave to a class he taught called, "The Wire": Race, Class, Gender, and the Urban Crisis” that aired on C-Span's American History channel on 2/1/12.  Professor Purnell utilizes the TV series, The Wire, as a reference point to discuss the "crisis" of cities from the 1960s to the 1990s. Here is a clip from his lecture that captured my imagination and provided the material for my discussion below. 

When watching Purnell's lecture, I was intrigued how he discussed terms like "race relations", "race riots", "black migration", and "ghetto".   Purnell's approach is effective:  He does not clobber students over the head with political correctness.  When discussing ghettos, he says, “People don’t live in ghettos, they live in communities.”  Purnell turns the noun, “ghetto” into a verb, “ghettoization”.  He says, "Think of it [ghettos] as a process, not necessarily a place, though there are spatial characteristics to racial segregation, poverty, joblessness...the white noose around the black neck."  His manner is very thoughtful and though his explanation is stark with its visual of the noose, he then employs humor.  He goes on to say “It’s not as if you cross into the south side of Chicago and there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to the ghetto’” at which point he laughs and his students laugh with him.  He then says, “I would encourage you to think of it as a process.” I found myself surprised -- this rethinking of terms is crucial and, honestly, until he brought it up in this context, I hadn't considered that those terms were problematic blind spots in my own vocabulary.  To me, the term "ghetto", constituted a location.  I understood there were inequalities of society that lead to the creation of ghettos, but his reframing and redefining the idea of ghetto is pointed -- it takes the onus off of the people living in ghettos as creating their realities and instead puts that onus on the factors that lead to ghettoization in the first place.

When I prepared for Purnell's lecture, I jotted down notes and started to write about how Purnell addresses "the problem of race in America."  Purnell never uses those words -- "the problem of race in America" -- it was my summation of his talk.  I caught myself, in no small measure as a result of Purnell's discussion of racial terminology, and thought, "Wait a minute, what does that mean?"  What on earth is the "problem of race in America?”  I wondered whether that grouping of words informed the American psyche by suggesting that blacks are the problem -- that something about blacks as a race is an organic problem -- it arises from them, not as a result of the societal context they find themselves in.   This leads to the incorrect conclusion that society has to, as Purnell points out, “fix the way that they act” in order to fix the problem.  I came to understand these terms, and described them to Purnell as linear vectors of implied meaning, aimed at the black community, imbued with negative connotations but never revealing where those vectors originated from which is from a history of racism.  These negative terms are conflated, incorrectly, with the population that has been victimized, not with the perpetrators that victimized the population.

Decoding language isn't going to bring around social justice, but it can help.  And getting back to the title of Professor Purnell’s talk, “Can the Oral Historian Speak?” my personal experience says that we can speak and that decoding language is imperative in order to clarify what the narrator means.  For example, in an interview I conducted about gays and hippies in San Francisco in the 1960s, the narrator referred to “sweater queens”, a term I had never heard before so I asked him to clarify before proceeding with the interview. He meant uptight gay men whose lives were bourgeoisie and socially conforming in the same ways as straight people at that time.  The narrator’s explanation was vital to the context of the interview which would’ve been subject to speculation had I not stopped him.  We have unconscious assumptions about many terms, whether describing race or something else, and we need to allow those terms to come to full consciousness so that they can start to unravel.  In doing so we will recognize that they are dynamic, roiling with meaning passed down through the generations, and begin to uncover the several layers of context and/or prejudice that brought them into being.


Watch the entire lecture on C-Span.

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program sponsors a workshop series that is free and open to the public. Join us next time.

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Liz Hibbard reflects on Tei Okamoto's workshop, which discussed two projects that explore the intersection of oral history and public health.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 2, 2014.

On Thursday October 2nd, 2014, I saw Tei Okamoto present his oral history work at the Columbia Oral History Workshop series. His current projects include The Love and Affection Project, gathering the stories of those who were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, and The AIDS Epidemic and House Music: Twenty Years of Children of Color at Church.

In his conversation with Oral History MA students, prior to the public presentation, he was asked by one student about other people or existing projects that have inspired his work. Tei began his answer by citing None on Record, founded by Selly Thiam, an oral history archive of Africans who identify as QLGBT. He told us that he found the portraits of the narrators especially powerful.

Stories of race and sexuality are embodied. The images of narrators, joined with their words and their voice, bring those stories to life and show what is often hidden from the public eye as well as silenced. He went on to explain his personal need for more stories and images like the ones amplified through None on Record. As a young person the stories he heard about AIDS and activism were centered around white gay men.

That's the representation Tei experienced, but the facts are strikingly different. The Center of Disease Control published these statistics about HIV from a 2011 study:

  • More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 6 (15.8%) are unaware of their infection.
  • Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly young black/African American MSM, are most seriously affected by HIV.
  • By race, blacks/African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV.

Why then, Tei asks, have people of color been left out of the dominant narrative on HIV/AIDS? Knowing how public perceptions correlate to advocacy, public health decisions, and access to care, the narrative needed to change. Tei's work in oral history archives the stories of survivors, dancers, lovers, and artists who can paint a clearer portrait of history by lending their voice.

Tei shared other inspirations with us, including a portrait series called The Real Faces of HIV/AIDS: In honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, advocacy journalist Kellee Terrell talked to survivors about what HIV/AIDS has taught them (2/7/2014, Ebony Magazine). Each portrait displayed also included words from the person photographed about their experience.

I could be silent, but what good would that do? I hope that my transparency allows for others to see someone who has experienced the same shame, hurt and pain that comes along with having this disease, so they know that they are not alone. - Guy Anthony; Diagnosed 2007


These images, coupled with narratives distilled in a few words, grapple with the silence and invisibility of life with a stigmatizing illness.

Tei's observations about these projects motivated me to go deeper and seek out other works that address stereotype, stigma, and underrepresentation through portraiture and personal testimony.


Stand Up Get Snapped: 30 HIV+ people, by Ed Zollo in the UK, set out to show that the story of life with HIV is more complicated than just one race, one gender, and one type of sexual preference which dominates the statistics.

As Tei illustrated in describing his experience of None On Record, seeing a person's face while you hear their words can be an emotional experience. While some of the stories heard in Stand Up Get Snapped were difficult, many spoke positively about life and accomplishments. These narratives served to undercut the perception that a diagnosis of HIV can define the course of a person's life, or necessarily lead to their death. The artists chose to display hope and diversity of experience.

Such choices, made by the artist or story gatherer, were very apparent as I compared the following two photo series on people with breast cancer.

The first is The Open Road, by Joli Livaudais Grisham in Louisiana, US.

Strength is never losing the will to do what is right; it is carrying others through troubled times through your own challenges; it is having faith in optimism. - Barbara Grandon; Diagnosed 2007




I didn't have to take any chemotherapy or radiation but she had to take both. She lost all her hair and she made me very proud of her when she shaved what was left of her hair off and went bald all the way. Sometimes she wore scarfs and wigs, but mostly bald. She looked cute with her bald head and cute big earrings. - Barbara & LaWanda Johnson; Diagnosed 2007









The second is The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon, by David Jay in New York, US.

These two projects are extremely different while still portraying honest experiences of people with the same illness. The seed of this difference lies in the stated mission of each project. One served to remove fear and alienation by portraying "life affirming role models." The other strove to depict a "raw" portrait of courage.

These portraits are not merely displayed, they are gathered with intention to achieve certain goals and frame the narrative in very specific ways. Stories can be told to silence or to amplify experience, to deconstruct or to further an agenda. The hand of the artists, and the hand of the oral historians, are significant in creating meaning out of experience and memory.

For Tei, the narrative of AIDS when told through the perspective of white men is a half story. In his presentation that evening he made the case that seeking out, and choosing to frame a different narrative is in itself a radical act. There is potential for positive change through such work, but also a responsibility for self-awareness and transparency.


Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.

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Leyla Vural reflects on Sayantani DasGupta's workshop on narrative humility and medical listening in oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 16, 2014.

Sayantani DasGupta is a medical doctor, professor of narrative medicine and health advocacy, and writer who says of herself that her “interests, teaching, and scholarly work are at the intersection of social justice, stories, and embodiment, or health more broadly.” DasGupta puts her digital pen to activist use. She writes – a lot. When she thinks something is wrong, she calls it out. She’s smart and funny, biting and direct, open-hearted and warm; my idea of a badass. Not your typical tag for a medical doctor or academic, but DasGupta is not typical. If she reads this, I think she’ll recognize the compliment, and be pleased.

In addition to her work on narrative medicine, outsourcing surrogacy, and women’s stories of illness and healing, DasGupta is an outspoken social critic. She writes frequently for Adios Barbie (“the body image site for every body”), Racialicious (“the intersection of race and pop culture), The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She doesn’t shy away from tough issues. Whether it’s the Global North trying to “save” the Global South, racist and sexist Halloween costumes, fat shaming, or what women should wear to work, DasGupta has something to say when humanity and equality are at stake. She’s a feminist who brings her daughter into her work, just as her mother brought her. 

DasGupta’s work, while rich and varied, is in an important sense all of a piece: It’s about seeing – and listening to – other people in the fullness of their being – body and soul – and granting them the fundamental respect that each of us wants and deserves as a matter of right. She’s interested in the ways “race, gender, class, labor politics, all of these things, impact the stories we tell, and the stories we’re able to listen to, the stories we make space for in health care.”

In her teaching and writing about narrative medicine, this means teaching doctors and other health professionals to listen. To DasGupta, the act of listening can in itself be an act of social justice. In her October 16 talk on “Narrative Humility: Medical Listening and Oral History”, she discussed the ways she teaches medical listening through oral history. Listening, she says, is a “call to a relationship.” But since relationships always involve power, we can’t understand the stories people tell without understanding power and politics. DasGupta draws on oral historian Alessandro Portelli’s idea that an interview is “an experiment in equality” to bring a social justice orientation to storytelling and listening.

The kind of listening that matters to DasGupta has her interested in moving away from a health care model that’s largely limited to the relationship between patient and doctor. “Always starting with the doctor-patient relationship is problematic,” she says. “Maybe that re-inscribes certain medical powers.” DasGupta envisions a broader, more inclusive citizenship model of health care that challenges the standard power dynamics in the system today. “Health advocacy is really exciting because it totally disrupts that dyadic space,” she says. “I’m really interested in communities of listeners. What does it mean to collectively listen? Dialogic witnessing would be a really interesting avenue of exploration at the interstices of oral history and narrative medicine.” Under a citizenship model, health care providers would examine their own frame of listening. Medicalization and power would themselves be subject to questioning and reflection, and people would have the freedom and space to define for themselves whether or not they are ill. The deaf, DasGupta points out, consider themselves a linguistic community; disability is a frame others impose on them.

For DasGupta, stories require context. “Simply reading any story with a medical student or engaging them in a narrative writing prompt,” she writes in a piece on toxic body culture and fat shaming, “is not the same as actually educating them in structural issues of oppression and inequity.” Her conclusion: “Medical narratives are powerful. Let us use them not to ridicule, alienate, or demonize our fellow human beings, but rather, [to] create a much-needed change to a more socially just health care.”

DasGupta isn’t waiting for a better day; she’s working for it. Paraphrasing comedian Margaret Cho, DasGupta ended a talk in June 2013 with a call to action: “For us to have self-esteem is truly a revolution, and our revolution is long, long overdue.”

But if DasGupta is a revolutionary, she’s one with a poetic heart. She opened her October 16 talk on “Narrative Humility” with Rumi’s Story Water and ended it with his Listening. Stories may be about power, but they’re also about change, and the possibility of justice.


Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin, (Free, do whatever you want, high-resolution stock photos)

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Erica Wrightson reflects on Sayantani DasGupta's workshop on narrative humility and medical listening in oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 16, 2014.

“When was the last time you felt truly listened to? Not just heard, while somebody was texting, but deeply attended to….That sort of relational moment—that sort of being seen and being heard and being made to understand that we matter in this world—that is one of our fundamental human needs.”[1]

Medical humanities educator and writer Sayantani DasGupta has thought a lot about paying attention. When DasGupta was in medical school she was taught bedside manner in a class without an instructor. Instead, students watched a prerecorded video in which a white-coated physician seated at the end of a long table explained how to listen. As technology has improved and increased in clinical settings, the nature of communication between doctor and patient has changed. Back in the day, a doctor would set out with his black bag in hand to visit a patient in their own home, but these days there is so much technology between doctors and their patients that sometimes a doctor will not have physical contact with his patient in the course of an appointment, but instead make his diagnosis from behind a screen.

Speaking to a packed room for the 2014-2015 Oral History, Medicine, and Health Workshop series at Columbia on October 16, 2014, DasGupta discussed the role of oral history in narrative medicine, a medical approach and master’s program at Columbia that aims to change the way care is given and received by valuing the stories and experiences of patients and caregivers. If you want her short answer to what it means to be a narrative medicine instructor, Sayantani will say, “I teach people how to listen.”

DasGupta’s mantra is “stories matter,” and this, she explained, has to do with the fact that “stories are also about power” and they demand that we ask questions regarding stories, such as “Whose story counts? Who owns the story? What voices or stories go unheard? Who gets to speak and who is perpetually spoken for?” But while stories should be valued, DasGupta emphasized the importance of not getting too precious about storytelling. “Stories aren’t inherently magical or healing or just,” she said. Quoting writer Chimamanda Adichie, DasGupta reminded us that stories can dispossess and malign as much as they can be used to empower and humanize and that “people should be able to define and not define their bodies as they will.”

DasGupta believes that we need spaces for intersection of storytelling and medicine and that all clinical trainees should be trained in oral history. To teach medical listening through oral history, which she describes as a form of qualitative research, she encourages her students to interview someone with an embodied condition that they’re willing to talk about and to focus on life history, not clinical history. The oral history approach is effective, said DasGupta, because it doesn’t ask people to talk about their illness; patients are encouraged to speak about themselves and their lives as they wish.

It’s not only important to learn to listen to others, but to listen well. Oral history methodology is useful to medical professionals because it teaches humility, sensitivity, and attention to nuance. “Listening is not a one-size-fits-all activity,” she said, and being sensitive, adaptable, and responsive is crucial. She arrived at her concept of narrative humility through oral history, which teaches us that stories are “relational events, with real live people on both ends of them!”

“We have a perspective of stories as fixed objects that don’t change in time,” she said. “We think of stories as immutable, non relational facts to fixed repositories of truth, like statures we carry around.” According to DasGupta, “bad historian” is actually a term doctors use for patients they don’t want to talk to, people they’d rather analyze through numbers and medical records instead of firsthand accounts of self. It’s important for people to feel that they can be trusted to tell their own stories, that they are reliable narrators, and that they will be believed. Oral historians privilege memory and experience over fact, valuing even the narratives of “bad historians.” As the great oral historian Alessandro Portelli has said, oral history allows us to see "through and beyond facts to their meanings.”[2] A former student of OHMA professor Mary Marshall Clark, DasGupta claims “oral history has taught me so much about this demand for narrative truth.”  “Instead of teaching people how to look like they’re listening, let’s teach them to listen.”


To find out more about doctor, writer, and educator Sayantani DasGupta, see her website.

For information about our upcoming discussions, see the 2014-2015 schedule here.


[1] See DasGupta’s TEDxSLC talk "Narrative Humility: Listening as Social Justice."

[2] Alessandro Portelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” in The Death of Luigi Trastulli, pp. 1-26; quote from p. 2.

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Check out Leonard Cox's reflection on Luke Gerwe's presentation about Voice of Witness and cultivating oral history networks.

During a recent forum co-sponsored by the Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program at Columbia University, Luke Gerwe (Gur-we), Managing Editor, Voice of Witness, said, “Fiction writers make great editors of oral histories because they know exactly what details to include. They seem to select the best imagery that really gives the reader a portrait of how the narrator experiences life.”

Gerwe went on to share that skillful editing can yield a text that is more closely aligned to a narrator’s lived experience than can be accomplished solely with an unedited transcript.  His reasoning seemed inviting, if not poetic, as he described the artistry of editing as a mechanism to make a person’s story more accessible to a diverse group of readers.   

It’s clear the oral histories published by Voice of Witness are accessible, beautifully written, highly compelling and certainly full of heart-wrenching imagery—“it was like my skin had been rubbed away,” is just one example. It’s also clear that the editing process required to produce a quality story can be daunting.

When I consider the countless number of hours that must go into the content and structure of a story I get a bit overwhelmed. Having just finished my first three transcripts as a student of oral history, I’m wondering about the next several steps that I will need to add to my path of learning.  Hopefully, well-chosen steps will lead me to a point of refinement where I can make the best editing choices that will, in turn, lead to the most effective stories.  

At this stage, I’m kind of partial to the “ums,” the coughs, the sounds and quivers of choked-back tears, the gulps, the silences, the words that don’t make sense, the words that are specific to the narrator, and the malapropisms that I always find entertaining.  As I read more oral histories, I’m learning that my partialities might need to go. As I read more oral histories, I’m learning more about the essential elements that help give a narrator’s story life on the page. I’m learning more about the power of editing.

Allow me to share the story about my first time out as an editor of an oral history. I spent years recording the lived experiences of my maternal grandmother.  Her words were not captured on one of today’s sophisticated digital recording devices, but instead were painstakingly recorded in the handmade journals that I used to glue together from pieces of tossed paper that I would gather from the trash basket near her typewriter.  On the occasions that I would flip through the collection of her tales, I would relish each and every word.  Her thoughts seemed luscious, sage, and full of histories that were linked to other histories.  To me, her words told the perfect story.

For an undergraduate paper about Indiana history, I decided to resurface the journals and share some of my grandmother’s stories.  I remember poring over each and every word to find the right combinations that would best describe the story of a woman who grew up on an orchard in southern, Indiana.  I had limited space. I was faced with choices.  I remember, however, being totally engaged in the process of selecting just the right story.

Was it the story about how she could peel an apple in one continuous slice? Was it the story about her initiative to organize a group of women from surrounding farms to make quilts for those in need?  Or, was it the story about how I loved to touch her rough hands and ask her to tell me about each and every crack in her skin? Admittedly, I didn’t have the skill, precision or experience of Gerwe’s editors but I remember the process taking a considerable amount of time.  I remember deleting words and moving phrases around to create an image of my grandmother that would resonate with the reader.  Although I knew the audience was limited, I wanted my history class to know the woman whom I so admired. It was a painstaking process.

Gerwe described the painstaking process of editing transcripts.  “We [Voice of Witness] probably have around two hundred thousand words for an average project.  Maybe fifteen thousand words make into a final draft,” said Gerwe.  “After editing, we aim for narratives to be in the six-thousand- to seven-thousand-word range.”

Here he further describes some of the challenges of the editing process and the rigor that was applied to the Voice of Witness book, Invisible Hands – Voices From the Global Economy.

Ultimately, when called upon to edit a transcript, I plan to follow Gerwe’s lead and engage in the rigorous undertaking needed to create a voice for a person’s lived experience. I pledge to select each story with thought, compassion, a nod to imagery, and with a commitment to collaboration. I pledge to be very careful about the red ink I use. I pledge to find the right words.  

This workshop took place on Thursday, September 18, 2014 as part of the 2014-2015 Oral History workshop series.  Join us for the next one! 

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Helen Gibb, a current OHMA student, reflects on Luke Gerwe's presentation about Voice of Witness and maintaining oral history networks. Follow the links in the post for audio clips.

As an adolescent my literary diet consisted of, amongst other things, a shelf or two of autobiographies by Holocaust survivors. Some were recommended by a favourite History teacher and others simply stumbled upon in my local bookshop. Without exception they were filled with stories of loss, survival, fear, hate and the strength of the human spirit. Enthralled and disgusted, they took me far from my comfortable world in a rural part of Wales.

It is only years later that I have come to understand these narratives as part of a much wider context: a post-World War Two era of the individual, personal storytelling and a culture of witnessing unimaginable horrors through the words of those who experienced them. And Holocaust testimony was really just the beginning. Recent decades have seen a boom in the use of narrative to speak out against a multitude of human rights issues from homophobia to genocide, creating a dense web of stories which have only proliferated in this era of socially connected media. Reaching out to a global audience has become a model for healing on both an individual and cultural level.

However, this gathering of personal narratives is not always a positive undertaking. When Voice of Witness’ Managing Editor, Luke Gerwe, spoke at a recent gathering hosted by Columbia’s Center for Oral History Research he raised the problem of exploitation of narrators in vulnerable situations.

Even narrative does not escape commodification. Those books that I read as a teenager were the result of decisions based on what the ‘audience’ wanted as well as what was acceptable to speak of at the time. For human rights advocates this can mean taking stories from ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’ in order to appeal to readerships and supporters, framing their stories in a way that is digestible to listeners outside the crises.

A non-profit organisation, Voice of Witness is aimed at ‘fostering a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of contemporary human rights crises’. The stories they publish in their book series are an attempt to challenge the problematic assumption that individuals are simply stand-ins for an idea or an issue. The organisation’s work demonstrates they are both embedded within, and able to challenge, the culture of narrative within the human rights field. Working as they do from the USA and publishing for a predominantly Western readership, their context is rooted within the historiography of narrative, witnessing and this culture of commodification.

Yet their books reveal the humanity that can so often be lost with similar kinds of testimony by connecting readers on an individual level to the entire life story of another human being. This method is positively influenced by an oral history approach and provides the potential for recognition between reader and narrator that goes beyond the moment of crisis, allowing for a more active, sustained and engaged audience.

Their publications also directly inform the human rights sector, the narratives working as an educational tool for staff at different organizations, helping them to understand their clients’ experiences better.

Taking an approach like that of journalists and oral historians, Voice of Witness does not pay its narrators for their story. The hope is that this way the stories are as close to the ‘truth’ as possible and that together they find other ways for narrators to benefit from the telling, for example through advocacy work or playing a part in shaping policy at all levels. And of course, despite the potential for exploitation, there remains the drive from potential narrators themselves to speak out against the issues they face.

Voice of Witness presents a model for commitment to narrative in a way that works to prevent further power imbalances. As oral historians entering the activist and humanitarian spheres, we likewise hope to do justice both to those we work with, as well as our audience and find ways to both operate within, as well as subvert, the context of these global forces.

This workshop took place on Thursday, September 18, 2014 as part of the 2014-2015 Oral History workshop series.  Join us for the next one!

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 I like visiting museums.  No matter where I have lived, I have always made it a point to visit them.  Having a great love of Native American history, when I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, the first museum I visited was the Museum of the American Indian.  This museum is located in a very large building in southern Manhattan that features revolving exhibits throughout the year.  What I noticed, upon my visit, was the lack of oral history in the telling of the Native American experience. 

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Oral history is evolving and continues to be a platform to study and propose change and activism. What we’ve come to understand as oral history has been turned upside down.

Catherine Charlebois, Curator with the Centre D’histoire De Montreal, adds another sentence to the developing definition of oral history.

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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.