by Carolyn Brave Heart
To watch a full video of the workshop click here.
On October 24, 2013, Muriel Miguel presented a talk with a slide/video accompaniment on her life work. I felt quite honored to meet, sit and listen to Muriel speak.
Muriel Miguel has spent her life working in the performance arts. She is an actress, dancer, choreographer, educator, playwright and director. Muriel began her work in the Arts, in New York City, dancing at pow-wows with her family. She was a Fancy Dancer. She co-founded (with Louis Mofsie) a Native dance group, at the age of twelve, named the Little Eagles; and, also studied dance with Alwin Nickolais, Erick Hawkins and Jean Erdman. Eventually, she went into theater work. She worked in open theater, but felt misunderstood. No one made the connection, she said, that she was Native and liked to tell stories.
When Muriel first spoke, at the beginning of the presentation, she began with telling the group who she was. She explained the importance of identity.
She calls herself a “city Indian”. She is Kuna on her dad’s side and Rappahannock on her mom’s side. She is from the Star Family, she said. It is precisely this voicing of identity that reverberates in Muriel’s Spiderwoman Theater group. It took her time to understand how to bring together her identity as a Native woman, the theater and dance together.
Muriel and two sisters Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo
Muriel describes Spiderwoman Theater as the “oldest, ongoing feminist theater group in the United States”. She formed the group with her two sisters and a select group of talented women in 1976. It is the combination of music, dance, power of voice, artwork backdrops, physical objects (props) and the expression of spirit through body movement that create a powerful testimony. It is a conscious, layered weaving of story. Over the years, Spiderwoman Theater has sought to tackle issues that are not always easy to talk about. They knew that audiences might be shocked and view their theater group as radical. But, they also realized the importance of what they were doing. Some topics were:
Cultural Theft: Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show From Wigwam City
Misuse of Native Spirituality: Power Pipes
Taboo subjects: Hot N’ Soft
Failed Noble Mothers: Red Mother
Violence: Violence-the Next Generation.
The productions are about cultural understanding, remembrance, persistence and resistance. They are filled with powerful expressions of human emotion and identity.
Muriel shared a moment when she presented a part from her Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show From Wigwam City production with Native young people in Washington State:
Muriel works with Native/First Nations young people to encourage them and teach them about the performance arts. Muriel has taught at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto
In my interviewing fieldwork experience, for the Oral History Program at Columbia, I have acknowledged and explained my reasons for doing the work I have dedicated myself to do, in recording collective memories of Native peoples. I always have the young ones-the next generation in my mind. I want to leave something for them. Muriel voiced this, too, at her talk in reflecting what she would like to leave as her imprint for the future generations. It is really important for her too. It is the next generation, who will carry on the traditions, along with recognition of who they are. Thus, generation-to-generation, the people will live on.
It is in our identity as individuals that we find our place in the Universe, how we live our lives on this Turtle Island and accumulate that knowing of who we are. We hear and understand our responsibilities to our communities and share the knowledge we have learned with those “coming up”. Muriel has done this in her life work. She knows and understands who she is. And, she doesn’t intend to stop or ever give up weaving stories of importance to present to the world.
Tell me a story Muriel, I’m just waiting to hear.
By Joyce Farley and Jacob Horton
It is rare to witness dissenting voices from within an active military. The public in the United States is encouraged to honor our soldiers but seldom to question them. It is equally as rare to hear American soldiers publicly questioning their military superiors regarding an ongoing operation. In the October 7th Oral History Workshop at Butler Library Avner Gvaryahu, a member of Breaking the Silence (BTS), presented a book of collected oral histories from soldiers doing just that; questioning the ongoing military strategy of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as it continues to occupy the contested zones that tie Israel and Palestine together.
Gvaryahu is a former Israeli combat soldier and special operations paratrooper of three years. In fact all of the BTS members, male and female, are military veterans who have committed to expressing their combat experiences in order to affect change in the greater Israeli system. Breaking the Silence began in July 2004 as a photo exhibit built around the schism the soldiers felt between the idealism of their mission and the reality of what they did. The project continued to grow, expanding into recorded accounts from the soldiers, online videos and publications. After collecting more than 900 testimonies of soldiers, officers and even sergeants, BTS has published a book entitled Our Harsh Logic. Gvaryahu is touring North America in support of the book throughout November.
In Our Harsh Logic BTS outlines patterns that they have come to recognize over the course of their decade long oral history project. The stories in the book describe a ground-level occupation that is very different from the official mission. BTS claims that after such a quantity of soldier accounts they are no longer seeing aberrant or even normative soldier behavior, but are describing IDF policy on a large scale.
The IDF’s self-described mission is to maintain peace through four methods: (1) Prevention is the means to deter terrorism; shoot the suicide bomber before he or she can detonate. (2) Separation is the means of reducing tensions by separating the populations. (3) Maintaining the fabric of life is the means to avoid human rights violations by allowing Palestinians to live an undisturbed life. (4) Finally, daily peace is maintained by Israeli law enforcement.
The editors use the interviews to demonstrate how these four methods do not maintain a neutral coexistence, but in fact represent an ongoing means of occupation, control and even expansion of Israeli territory. Gvaryahu outlines them accordingly: (1) Prevention does more than deter, it allows room for targeted killings, revenge killings and creates a perpetual oppressive gaze. (2) Separation primarily serves to restrict Palestinian mobility and freedom via checkpoints and permits. (3) Because of the constant presence, the fabric of life policy means that Palestinians are not free to live their lives unhindered, but become dependent on the IDF for how their lives can safely be led. (4) Finally, the law enforcement is not an equal policy. It is governed by Israeli law, is designed by Israeli citizens with Israeli interests, thus any law is exclusive and one-sided instead of even-handed and fair.
“The problem is not in the soldiers, but the system,” says Gvaryahu.
Many that attended the lecture were struck by the bravery that it took Gvaryahu and his fellows at Breaking the Silence took to continue this project. While the audience was largely respectful during his presentation, the question and answer session began to mirror the combat zone he left years ago and escalated into camps of intense opposition. But, Gvaryahu’s relaxed attitude coupled with the neutral space of the Columbia University environment kept the exchanges from escalating into full-scale verbal war. Audience members lingered for over an hour after the event concluded, debating and discussing this difficult topic.
This is the type of emotion and power that oral history can evoke. It takes one from their comfort zone and places them in fatigues. Some truths are hidden from the media and outside of the history books. These are the truths that drive people within their individual lives to seek out the hidden stories and agendas. These are the truths that shape one person's understanding of the world that they live in—the "real" world. These truths can drive us to do terrible things, but can also compel us to do amazing things. It is those truths, the secret ones, the personal ones that we can uncover using the oral history method, which is go to with an open mind, ask all of the questions and leave nothing to presumption. The world of the individual is always uncharted until someone begins to ask questions. BTS and other presenters in the Oral History Master of Arts Workshop series are already busy mapping those seas. It is a call for us to remember the power and potential of our field. Seek! Ask! Know! Inform!
Our thanks to Breaking The Silence for continuing in their work and for sharing it with us.
Sarah Dziedzic (OHMA 2011), who has been a grant-funded Project Coordinator for CCOH’s Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project since 2011, recently transitioned to a new permanent Project Coordinator position at CCOH. Starting this fall, Sarah will be working on the two most recent CCOH projects. One began this summer on the life and work of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, which CCOH is conducting with assistance from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Another project, on the 25-year history of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender here at Columbia, is just getting underway and will involve collaboration with the Center for the Study of Social Difference and the OHMA program. For these projects Sarah will be serving as lead researcher, developing project designs, facilitating training, conducting interviews, and overseeing the post-interview processing.
OHMA is excited to share the successes of its graduates and we will be posting announcements about all of the exciting things our alums are up to in the coming days and weeks!
Erica Fugger [OHMA 2014] was recently hired for the full-time position of Administrative Assistant at the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH). As a work-study editorial assistant at CCOH during the 2012-2013 academic year, Erica gained experience in the archives by aiding researchers utilizing the collections, audit editing transcripts, and serving as a staff member of the 2013 Oral History Summer Institute. In her new role, Erica directs the work of the graduate assistants, offers consultations to individuals and organizations on implementing oral history projects, and develops projects to expand access to the archive. Erica is currently completing her thesis project, which will include an audio documentary based on narratives of practitioners in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh and a guide to oral history interviewing through Buddhist practice.
by Shannon Geis and Laura Barnett
On September 26th, Daniel Wolff, author of The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back and executive producer of the documentary “I’m Carolyn Parker,” both about the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, spoke to the OMHA students about the differences between using life histories in book form versus documentary film. Both were released in 2012.
Daniel Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read, a Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice pick; 4th of July, Asbury Park, a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice pick; You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, a national bestseller; and two volumes of poetry, among other books. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from Vogue to Wooden Boat to Education Weekly.
Wolff also served as executive producer of The Agronomist, a 2003 documentary directed by Jonathan Demme following the life of Jean Dominique, who ran Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, during multiple repressive regimes.
Although Wolff doesn’t necessarily consider himself an oral historian, much of his work as a non-fiction writer has depended on the oral histories of people involved with the subjects he writes about.
Wolff began the process of documenting New Orleans when he accompanied Jonathan Demme about five months after Hurricane Katrina. As he helped with the filming, he started learning more and more about the people trying to rebuild. But it was Demme who convinced him to write the book.
Writing a book also allowed him to focus on many more of the people he encountered through the time he spent in New Orleans than are included in the film, as well as provide background and context to what he was witnessing.
The role of providing background was one of the most important ways he felt his book differed from the film. As an example, he showed the same scene in three different formats.
First he played the opening scene of the documentary, narrated by Jonathan Demme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdShyOYVx_M
Then he read the section of the book where he introduces readers to Carolyn Parker:
The light’s starting to orange toward sunset. It strikes the panes of the twin fanlights. Out one door comes a broad woman with a yellow kerchief covering her hair. “I’m Carolyn…That’s Father Joe Champion, our parish priest.”
Carolyn’s wide short frame nearly fills the door. She’s brown-skinned with a broad nose, almond-shaped eyes, and a welcoming smile. There’s a touch of the troublemaker in the way she turns the priest’s name into Champion. She’s wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt with SAVE THE TIGER printed on the front. When she walks, it’s with an awkward roll, as if something hurts. But the smile is overwhelming. She invites the little crowd on the street to come in.
It’s dark in her house, and there are few walls. The rooms are separated by blue tarp. “This is my brother Raymond. Who’s enjoying himself.” A gray-haired black man is sitting on the edge of a cot, watching TV and eating. Later, Carolyn will explain how she hadn’t seen her brother for ten years when she found him in the crowds of the Superdome. “He’s eating my famous fired fish. And that’s my daughter, Kyrah.”
Kyrah is sitting on a bed in the other half of the double shotgun. She’s watching her own TV. Kyrah looks to be in her late teens with pulled-back short hair, her mother’s almond eyes, and a bright smile. Father Joe givers her a hug and asks when she got in. “Last week,” she says. Her freshman year at New York’s Syracuse University has just ended.
A neighbor appears from down the block. It’s becoming a small, noisy party.
“Come see,” she says, inviting her guests to tour her home.
A shotgun is typically one room wide and two or three deep: a long, narrow rectangle you could supposedly fire a shotgun straight through. Carolyn’s double is two of these under one peaked roof, with a wall down the middle. She thinks it was built in the mid-nineteenth century; it’s on an 1875 map as part of a truck farm.
And then finally, he played the raw footage from the moment that he and Jonathan Demme met Carolyn Parker. Through showing these different versions of the same moment, Wolff was able to make apparent some of the key differences between documentary film and documentary writing, particularly the ability to include background.
For Wolff, being able to provide context to his readers is an important part of the writing process. He is able to shape how the readers view certain moments and events. However, he acknowledges the challenges of objectivity that this can create:
This was also the first time Wolff was writing a book where he had video footage to reference, which meant he could go back and see how a person told the story not just listen to it and try to remember.
Wolff also discussed the politics of editing people’s voices for film and writing and how those editorial choices affect the final product whether he means for them to or not.
Overall, the role of context and background have played largest role in the Wolff’s choice to write a book based on his observations and experiences surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and why he says he will probably continue to write books rather than delve into other formats. Though, if Jonathan Demme asks him to make a movie again, he certainly wouldn’t refuse.
Ellen Brooks [OHMA graduate 2013] was recently hired as the Oral History Archivist and Curator at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison, WI. Aside from coursework and fieldwork experiences, her position as Education Intern at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this past summer helped prepare her for the role of integrating oral history into public programming. She also has considerable experience archiving and analyzing oral history through her work as research assistant to Professor Amy Starecheski, whose work utilizes oral history to explore the experiences of squatters on the Lower East Side. In her role at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Ellen will be splitting her time between organizing the extensive current collection of oral histories, collecting additional interviews, training volunteers and designing exhibits and programming that feature the Museum’s oral history collection. Ellen’s primary objective at the Veterans Museum will be to promote oral history as an essential facet of museum education and public history.
by Jacob Horton
On Tuesday October 1st I attended a lecture at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute titled “Stormy Seas: Japan’s Disputes Over History and Territory and the US-Japan Alliance”. Thomas Berger, the guest speaker, is a Columbia alumnus and professor of International Relations at Boston University. Berger argued that any solution to these disputes will involve direct confrontation with differing historical pasts and he laid out three ways in which historical memory can be addressed. In a lecture that was largely about political alliances and war scenarios I was struck by how important oral history interventions might be.
Briefly: The Empire of Japan began expanding in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 Japan fully occupied the Korean peninsula, many areas in Southeast Asia, and large sections of what is now Eastern China. Today's territorial disputes between Japan, China and Taiwan revolve around (in English) the Pinnacle islands in the East China Sea and between Japan and South Korea, the Liancourt islands in the Sea of Japan. Japan often claims that governance was settled through various treaties over the last 150 years. Japan's neighbors argue that these agreements have been rendered void by history. But how can 8 uninhabited islands and some 38 rocks spark large-scale, popular riots and protests? Berger argues correctly that these disruptions pour from a fount of popular memory; from suppressed and unaddressed grievances. Beneath these disputes lie the deeper concerns of how Japan addresses or ignores its past as an imperial power that exploited the populations of its now sovereign neighbors.
Berger spoke about the construction of historical memory in three ways. The first was through political power. Polities make claims on history in order to legitimize their existence. The governed come to know the world because they are told stories about it. These stories are shaped by political interests. A senior resident of Nanjing in Eastern China, for example, might know Japan as the occupying empire that invaded their city and tormented their neighbors. From this person’s point of view Japan was only ejected by and is only held at bay by the liberating army of the Communist revolution. A young Japanese person, however, may know Japan primarily as a small but wealthy pacifist nation that is struggling to recover from a recession and a series of national disasters. History is instrumental in defining a sovereign state and allowing the population to interconnect, to be sympathetic toward itself and develop a relationship toward outsiders. National stories map the world through prefabricated narratives with a political core. This can be tracked in textbooks. The shape of an individual's world is mapped through personal experience. The oral history method can open this map.
Berger also described how wildly different historical memories can coexist within a political polity. One American may understand the Florida trial of George Zimmerman to be an example of how the American legal system systematically decides cases based on a skin or race bias. Another American may see the trial as another example of the world's most fair and deliberative justice system. Both of these people are Americans and yet they understand the history of their nation in almost contradictory ways. For a government to address conflicts that have roots in historical memory it must address how internal histories have come to be radically different. Historical narratives become impressed on individual lives and they also emerge from individual experience. Oral history interviews can demonstrate the emergence of differing histories within complex, intertwined nations of people.
Lastly Berger identified the history of experience. This is the most obvious home for oral history as he meant exactly the stories that people recall from their own lives. While large identity histories are documented through collective means, personal histories always start with a single person. Berger noted that one of the ways Japan might address grievances with South Korea would be to address the lives of individuals, in particular the so-called “comfort women”. This term refers to Korean woman, now grandmothers, that were requisitioned during the wars to service the desires of Japanese occupiers. Reaching out to these individuals, Berger argued, is an acknowledgment South Korea's historical memory. As these women pass away the issue will not pass with them – the opportunity to address historical damage will. Oral history is exceptionally well suited for documenting such stories, those that will soon pass beyond our reach. The formal documentation of these individual stories would be a suitable core for a reconciliation action as suggested by Berger.
Berger discussed historical memory because he rightly believes it to be central this dangerous set of tensions in our world today. He identified broad actions that might be taken to avoid the worst outcomes. But what I saw was the paths that oral historians should walk. It is into these dens of past hurt and conflict that we must venture. The past is not always so distant. It shapes today. As oral historians we can be actors on this level. It is our responsibility to consider context, method, bias, and modes of analysis not only for the sake of accurately representing our narrators but in order to make clear to our audience the ways that these histories, personal and small, are essential components in the larger, shared histories that change our world. Next time a lecture or an event piques your interest, make time for it. It may be more important to your work than you first think.
To watch the full video, click here
In Croatia, oral history is being used to build sustainable peace after decades of conflict. On September 12, at a public workshop co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History and Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, Darija Maric, a fellow at Columbia this year, shared the work of Documenta, Centre for Dealing With the Past, a Zaghreb-based NGO that has done over 400 oral history interviews in an attempt to end a culture of silence about the wars in the countries that were formerly Yugoslavia.
The interviews are the first stage of a project titled “Unveiling Personal Memories on War and Detention.”
Documenta was founded in 2004 in order to both establish the truth about what happened during wars, and to create a shift in the public dialogue about the wars -- from arguing over the facts of what happened, to sharing individual and subjective experiences of what happened. You can explore Documenta’s work through their website: http://www.documenta.hr/en/home.html
In 2006, Documenta began using oral history with some audio recordings made in Slavonia. The recordings offered a surprising revelation: that people connected the events of the 1990s with the Second World War, explaining how the old violence had been used to justify a fresh cycle of violence. Documenta saw that by uncovering and sharing the wide variety of war experiences, oral history could help people to develop a nuanced understanding of what leads to war.
“Individual voices show us collectively what factors lead to the collapse of civil society,” Maric explained.
For “Unveiling Personal Memories on War and Detention,” Documenta used an extensive NGO network and previous field experience to identify interviewees. “We looked for people who were absent from the dominant or official narrative. We wanted to hear the experience of minorities and of ordinary civilians, not just veterans; we wanted to give power to people who didn’t cause the events,” Maric said.
Look at some interview clips here: http://www.osobnasjecanja.hr/en/video-search/
Maric described the interviews as personally and socially empowering. “After the interview, some people began speaking out publicly after a lifetime of silence,” she said. The interviews can have a community-building impact, as some communities have been holding events at which interview clips are shown.
“It’s amazing how revealing the suffering of your neighbor, or the suffering of someone from a different ethnic group, can start dialogue, which leads to understanding. And that understanding creates empathy,” Maric said.
One audience member observed that human rights advocates always seek big changes. But this oral history project is leading to small changes, imperceptible at first, as shifts occur within individuals, families and communities as a result of telling and hearing stories.
Four hundred video-taped interviews, from all over Croatia, creates an enormous archive. Documenta has transcribed each interview, translated it, gone through a scrupulous informed consent process (including erasing portions of interviews at the narrator’s request), and archived it with impressive security. The first interview clips have just been made available to the public on the Internet, with many more to follow.
“We thought our work was done,” Maric said, laughing. “But now we realize that just putting it up on the Web is not enough. What do you do with such rich material, how do you spread it around? That’s why I’m here.” Maric will be spending this year, she said, exploring artistic and innovative ways to use the “Unveiling Personal Memories” interviews to help heal Croatia’s past and build a lasting peace.
[For a full video of the talk, see here.}
Please tell us about your background and how you got to where you are.
Please tell us about what Weeksville is.
You touched on the idea of the movement creating the museum. It what ways, now that the center has been established, will the exhibits and programs continue to be movement based?
You touched on the idea of trying to make it a democratic place but how do you balance that with the sometimes bureaucratic process of running the center? Are there sacrifices that need to be made?
What does your audience look like? And are you trying to reach beyond the community?
What is Weeksville’s relationship to the surrounding community and how has it affected or been affected by change in the community?
What are other creative ways of preserving community history and what are impediments to it? What kinds of technology do you use?
Workshop Reflection: Weeksville Heritage Center uses Oral History to Preserve a Sense of Place
On April 25th, Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center, which preserves several homes that were part of the original Weeksville community, established in 1838 as one of the first free black communities in the country where blacks owned property, spoke to the OMHA students about the center’s use of oral history to encourage the democratization of this unique Brooklyn community’s history.
The community has always been an important part of the Weeksville Heritage Center starting with the preservation of the Hunterfly Road site in the 1970s, which was a concerted effort taken on by many residents of the area. The level of community involvement through archeology and preservation that could be seen in the fight to preserve the Hunterfly Road Houses is always rare, said Scott, but extremely rare in 1968, when this was happening.
Oral histories were collected in the early days of the preservation of Weeksville in conjunction with Medgar Evers College. Histories were collected from a wide range of community members, including many of the people involved in preserving the Hunterfly Road Houses and other Brooklyn residents associated with the place. Luckily, most of those histories survived and are now preserved.
The Center has started collecting more oral histories from community residents over the past few years. Scott said she sees the oral history collection as vital to understanding the place, helping to connect the people of the community to the historic location and giving these histories and memories a tangible location to be attached to.
Scott emphasized that one of the critical roles of oral history is to erode illusions about people, places, and history. And for Weeksville, it has been a way to encourage a more democratic and inclusive view of this important but relatively unknown part of Brooklyn, New York, and American history.
Scott also said that the oral histories collected from those that were influential in preserving Weeksville have the benefit of showing the webs and networks of people that make things happen. In some ways, she said, it demystifies the process.
As for the future of oral history at the Weeksville Heritage Center, Scott believes that the past needs to be connected to the present and that oral history is a great way of doing that. She said she has used the collection of oral histories as a way of getting people re-involved in the project and that it is a great way of cultivating community involvement.
Scott said that they continue to experiment with new ways of presenting the oral histories within the exhibits at the Center and to rotate the histories used to make sure that every story is heard and available to the community and the greater public. Scott assured students that the Weeksville Heritage Center continues to look at new ways to make the oral history collection accessible and engaging.
By OHMA Student Shannon Geis http://shannongeis.net
On April 11th, OHMA students were given the opportunity to interview Sarah Mountz, a scholar and advocate of LGBTQ youth in child welfare systems. The talk was part of OHMA’s year-long oral history workshop class, in which students meet with oral historians, activists, scholars, journalists and others who incorporate oral history into their work. During the hour-long session, the students asked questions on several topics, including subjectivity, authority, and the role oral history can play in academia and social work. Some highlights from the session have been provided below.
On Thursday, May 2 we will be kicking off our 5th Anniversary celebration with three free, public, interactive lunchtime oral history workshops taught by OHMA alums and students: Oral History and Psychotherapy, Designing Oral History Projects, and Stories Beyond Digital Tools. Register now to reserve your spot! Lunch will be provided, and all workshops will take place in Buell Hall from 12:15-1:45.
This workshop will examine the convergences and divergences of oral history and psychotherapy. Public and private themes will be explored in a sociocultural context, with a focus on trauma interviewing. Participants will learn how narrative may be developed to therapeutic effect in a range of clinical and non-clinical settings. The workshop will include participant role plays and analysis of audio and video interviews.
Part one, Contrasts and Similarities, will compare the approaches and interviewing techniques of both the oral historian and the psychotherapist, will an emphasis on understanding intersubjectivity and appropriate use of self-disclosure. Part two, Understanding Trauma, will provide an understanding of the bio-psycho-social effects of trauma, and the development of skills for coping with vicarious traumatization during the interview process. Register to reserve your spot!
Lauren Taylor, M.A., M.S., L.C.S.W., oral historian and psychiatric social worker, is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. As an oral historian, Ms. Taylor has conducted dozens of life history interviews with older adults, both in the United States and abroad, and is studying the subjective experience of aging through the medium of narrative in a cross-cultural context. Ms. Taylor has lectured and published on the therapeutic use of oral history and life review for an aging population, and on the integration of oral history and social work education, both in the US, in France, and in Canada.
This workshop goes through the steps of planning an oral history project with attention to backward design. We’ll explore how the original intention of the collecting effort is reflected in tangible and intangible outcomes by:
Envisioning connections between potential audiences or publics and narrators to create a project mission statement or guiding question
Identifying points in the process where ‘translation’, or decisions about refashioning research into what is often called interpretation, takes place
Work-shopping questions and scenarios to achieve different outcomes
Brainstorming evaluations which might be built into the process
Marie Scatena experienced OHMA as a student in the first graduating class, and from 2010 to 2012 she taught OHMA’s Oral History Workshop and Fieldwork, Production, Documentation and Archiving courses. Marie conducted her thesis research at the MoMA, and drew on her background in museum education to help OHMA students realize collaborative projects for public presentation and creative theses. In recent years Marie contributed to oral history projects such as Columbia Teacher’s College ART CART Project with fellows interviewing aging visual artists for an exhibition and website and The National Public Housing Museum’s collection efforts with youth. Today Marie is an independent researcher, developer and consultant based in Chicago. She works with institutions, organizations and communities to collect and interpret stories.
Sewon Christina Chung
Explore the world of interactive web technology, and gain hands-on experience utilizing new storytelling platforms and social media outlets for oral history.
New digital tools can help us craft compelling audiovisual and interactive stories. This workshop is designed to provide exposure to new trends in digital storytelling, all the while investigating the potential traps of digital tools. We will work together to develop thoughtful approaches to using new technologies, taking the stories beyond the tools. Chung will highlight Oral History-related websites with interactive functions, beginning a conversation about the potentials of new media tools and will go over main tools and web platforms, giving an explanation of its functionality and limitations. Participants should bring their laptops. At the close of the workshop, the group will spend 30 minutes building a web story on Zeega. We will close with a discussion about more thoughtful ways to approach new technologies and avoid the traps of believing that tools are more than just tools. Register to reserve your spot!
Sewon Christina Chung received her B.A. in Sociology and Literary & Cultural Studies from the College of William and Mary in 2009. During her studies, she produced a documentary film about the U.S.‐Mexico border to facilitate discussion concerning race, identity, and community in Williamsburg, Virginia. After graduation, Sewon completed a multimedia blog series for MIT's CoLab Radio in Kunming, China. Her work focused on the daily experience of urban development in one of China's quickly changing border region. At OHMA, she is combining her interests in visible and invisible borders as well as new media as a medium and method for oral history in research about Central Park North.
On March 14, Lillian Jimenez spoke at the Columbia University during a workshop about the creation of her film “Antonia Pantoja: ¡Presente!,” the power of oral history, and her activist work in the community.
Before the public event, Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) students had a discussion with Jimenez about how she used a seventeen-hour oral history conducted with Dr. Pantoja as the primary source material for the film. Jimenez said, “The film was built around the oral history. I finally figured out what the narrative was, what’s the story I wanted to tell, and that I took that from the oral histories in order to tell that story, and then outside of oral histories I interviewed a lot of her cohorts in order to fill out, give texture to the story of her life and work.”
The star of Jimenez's documentary, Dr. Pantoja, was an educator, social worker, feminist, civil rights leader and founder of ASPIRA. She arrived in New York City in 1944 from Puerto Rico. Working long hours as a welder in a lamp factory, Dr. Pantoja learned of the harsh racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans and the lack of knowledge to overcome these challenges in the United States. Her most notable contribution included the creation of ASPIRA, a Puerto Rican/Latino leadership organization that has helped guide thousands of young Americans into post-secondary schools and professional lives. The documentary, guided by Dr. Pantoja's life history, sheds light on the positive contributions of the Puerto Rican community to New York and their work to shape the country's bilingual education system.
Lillian Jiménez has worked as a media activist, independent producer, and educator for the last three decades. Her interest in media literacy led her to conduct workshops on Latino stereotypes, self-representation, and positive self-imaging as a way to counter the images and messages of the mainstream press. Jimenez explains, “Much of our history is a hidden history but the stereotypes prevail to the extent [that] people still cite mainstream media as a way to define and determine who we are, historically.”
Furthermore, Jimenez explained how her film served as a platform for open discussion and amplified the voices of silenced groups in the community. “So, when I first started showing the film a lot of people from the older generation who had never been asked, 'What was it like growing up in a time of rabid racism against Puerto Ricans in New York?' They had never been asked. People would get up in screenings and start like yelling and I was like they’re venting, they’ve never been asked and here’s an opportunity for them to say what happened to them.”
A great supporter of Oral History methods, Lillian told the workshop attendees, “Go to your mothers, go to your grandmothers. Nobody has ever asked them. You have people that nobody ever asks and then you finally ask. 'Oh my God,' you know. I said before, that when people do oral histories, they change before your eyes. They become young again. They become those people they used to be and it’s a pleasure to watch them. It’s a pleasure.”
This post was written by OHMA students Sara Sinclair and Sewon Chung.
Meet the authors of Refugee Hotel:
Current OHMA students had a conversation about careers, interviewing, and the relationship between oral history and journalism with Gabriele and Juliet before their public talk. Watch a video of the talk here. Here are some highlights:
Q : We were struck by the size of the book, how did you choose the style and format?
Q: How did this
project develop. What inspired you to do this project?
Q: How did you get involved with Voice of Witness?
Q: What were you told is the difference between oral history and journalism?
by Maye Saephanh
In an effort to shed light on the lives of refugees starting from their point of arrival in the United States, journalist Juliet Linderman and photographer Gabriele Stabile offer a collection of photographs combined with text narratives in their new book, Refugee Hotel. As part of the Voice of Witness series, the book takes an oral history approach to collect the stories of refugees from Myanmar, Burundi and South Sudan to give context and narrative to the pages of stark images. It is an interesting way to merge the fields of journalism and oral history.
The field of oral history often emphasizes the creation of meaning and narrative as a subjective process that occurs between the interviewee and interviewer. In the example of Refugee Hotel, this emphasis is seen in the testimonials provided in the text where the voice and presence of the refugees themselves are shared. The stories as narrated by the refugees provide a first-hand account of the challenges and bewilderment they experienced upon arriving in the U.S. In contrast, the images captured in the book give a startling visual account of these same experiences--but through the lens of an experienced Western photographer.
The testimonials by the interviewees in Refugee Hotel conjure up memories of my own family arriving in San Francisco, CA. Although I was only six years old at the time, I can remember the foreboding sense of the unknown that awaited us on the other side of the “arrivals” corridor. Born and raised in the refugee camps of northern Thailand, I didn’t know one English word and nor did my parents. We were shepherded between each leg of our flight by stewardesses and assistants coordinated by the UNHCR and the U.S. government. I remember a long night spent laid over in a high rise hotel in Hong Kong. As I looked out the window of our hotel room, the bright lights of that great city glared back at me, leaving me in shock. We had been transported—overnight—from the cramped, dirt grounds of the camps in rural Thailand to a lit up concrete jungle where the entire world laid below our feet.
It was bewildering. It was fascinating. It was incredibly foreign. In my six-year-old mind, it was a world straight out of a scene akin to the animated show, The Jetson’s--an image I could only articulate years later after watching enough American television. My parents no doubt felt some level of fear and a great deal of anxiety over the unknown that awaited us on the other side of the Pacific.
Based on my personal experience as a refugee, the images found in Refugee Hotel fill me with an array of conflicting emotions. Looking back on that journey, I cannot imagine having those moments of uncertainty and anxiety captured on camera. As refugees who had lived in dire camp conditions, getting our photographs taken were considered special occasions when my parents went to great lengths to make sure we were scrubbed clean at the public baths and then dressed in the finest clothing we owned. Candid shots of our day-to-day existence in settings we did not willingly choose to place ourselves in were not welcomed. In fact, I remember most of the refugees would shy away from the cameras of foreigners unless they were dressed in their finest. How they were presented in photographs mattered a great deal even if they never saw a copy of the photograph themselves.
Although my family was placed in a decent hotel in Hong Kong while we waited for the next leg of our resettlement journey, I still can’t imagine having our feelings and experiences captured in a book. If we were to permit any kind of documentation of that experience, I know my parents would deem it important to have a voice in deciding which pictures ended up getting published. Instead, as uneducated and illiterate refugees who were unaccustomed to dealing with Westerners, my parents would not have felt comfortable voicing their real feelings or opinions. In their minds, Westerners were authority figures because they represented the educated class. They saw themselves as inferior to all white foreigners. My parents would likely have asked themselves, “Who are we to know what is best when the white foreigners are the ones who can write down our names and birth dates?”
Linderman and Stabile want the voices of refugees to be heard. They reached beyond the traditional protocols of journalism by incorporating an oral history approach to capture the narratives of the refugees. Therefore, they intentionally included the refugees as part of the storytelling so they are not relegated to simply serving as subjects of a story. However, this is an incredibly challenging endeavor. The power differential between those who hold the camera and those standing in front of the lens cannot be overlooked--even in spite of the best intentions of the most experienced oral historian or journalist. Could there have been greater consideration of these issues within Refugee Hotel and a more expansive explanation of the role refugees played in shaping their representation in the book?
impressive so many refugees agreed to participate in documenting their
transition to life in the United States by granting interviews and agreeing to
be photographed. Their experiences and views are important and need to be
heard in the public sphere.
Post by OHMA students Kyana Moghadam, Sam Robson, Maye Saephanh
This March OHMA alum Svetlana Kitto will be teaching an exciting new literature and writing workshop at the Brooklyn Historical Society called Racial Realities: Writing About Race in the First Person, which will focus on fiction, memoir, oral history, and essay forms that reflect experiences of race and identity. This workshop is part of Brooklyn Historical Society's Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) oral history project and public programming series, which examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity. Several OHMA alums and current students have conducted interviews for this project, and we are excited about this new workshop, which continues to build on the many productive connections between OHMA and the oral history program at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
We’d like to use this opportunity to launch a new feature on our website: Alumni Profiles, in which we check in with OHMA alums and hear what they’ve been up to since graduation.
Svetlana came to OHMA with an interest in the relationship between oral history and literature, and writes fiction, memoir, and essays with an eye toward everyday history, memory, and place. Most recently, her writing has been featured in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and the book Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, published by Verso Books, among other publications. Her time at OHMA culminated in an interview-based memoir about her grandparents and the Holocaust in Latvia, as well as an oral history project with artists, writers and activists called to action in the early years of the AIDS crisis. She presented that project at the 2010 Oral History Association “Times of Crisis, Times of Change: Human Stories on the Edge of Transformation” conference and the Northeastern Modern Languages Association conference in 2011. In October 2012, audio from those interviews were part of an exhibit for National Coming Out Day at the gallery Space on White in Tribeca; the project is currently making its way to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Since graduating, Svetlana has shared her skills by working as an oral history workshop leader. In spring 2011, the international law firm Clifford Chance sponsored her and an artist to develop an art and oral history program for a high school Gay-Straight Alliance. Through the course of a semester-long series of workshops, the students developed large-scale banners that addressed issues related to identity, visibility and acceptance, culminating in an exhibit at the law firm. She presented these banners at the 2011 OHA conference as well as the Oral History Mid-Atlantic Region conference later that year. She has also taught art and oral history workshops at the Lincoln School in Rhode Island, Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, the Asian American Writers Workshop and the Brooklyn Museum, and a creative writing workshop at a homeless youth drop-in center in Chinatown, NYC.
Svetlana has also been working as an interviewer and oral history project manager. Her background in art and design journalism led to a commission from the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, where this spring she will be doing an oral history of the American Design Club for the museum’s “American Design Now: After the Museum” exhibition, slated to open in March, which will present a series of installations and programs that reveal the largely hidden research component of the design practice, while examining cultural institutions’ role in the shaping of design. She is also the project manager and head interviewer on an oral history project of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, one of the major global centers for academic scholarship in Jewish studies that has produced some of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the past century. She’s also, of course, part of the interviewing team for the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations Project. As of this writing, there are still a few slots left open in her workshop this month – check it out here if you’re interested!
On Thursday, February 14, Doug Boyd, Ph.D. spoke in open dialogue to the current Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) cohort before addressing a larger crowd at an event open to the public. Boyd currently serves as Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, and is renowned for his extensive work on Oral History in the Digital Age. Watch a video of his talk here.
In the early component of the session, Boyd traced his career from early studies in the discipline of history and an interest in music to a focus on folklore and audio restoration. While addressing the specifics of his background in the field, Boyd excitedly spoke about his graduate work in noise reduction while digitizing the tapes of Henry Glassie. Citing direct experience, Boyd noted how ambient noise can be mistaken for the standard ‘pop’ well known to analog, as was the case when Glassie’s tapes picked up the sound of burning peat during field recordings across Ballymenone of County Fermanagh in the north of Ireland.
Speaking to the writing of his most recent book, Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community, Boyd detailed the process of compiling a historical portrait that includes time period documents alongside oral histories. He especially discussed how differences in interviewing style can change the type of information that is unearthed and the perspective conveyed about hidden stories within a community.
From this initial discussion, the OHMA cohort was given an energizing perspective on the multitude of career paths that lead to work in the field of oral history. We ourselves make up a diverse group of graduate students, ranging from those who were introduced to the discipline while studying history or anthropology in college to professionals and filmmakers who have long been working out in the field. Boyd’s honesty and insight provided a point of enthusiasm, especially for the countless possibilities that the digital age brings to oral history interviewing.
The second part of the talk included a comprehensive look at the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), a program Boyd has had a hand in developing, that matches oral history audio files with their written components in online displays. Of particular interest to archives that are digitizing their interviews for public access, the coming release of OHMS as an open source program can alleviate some of the pressures of transcription by providing audio and text link ups based on indexed metadata.
Boyd spoke with passion about the possibility of reaching out to the communities with whom the oral histories were conducted to engage them in the process of tagging the interview themes through OHMS. While such crowdsourcing sounds appealing, it is another question whether it is reliable, practical, and ethical when it comes to managing the contents of oral history interviews. But these, too, are the issues that one must already consider when contemplating the release of interviews to digital access on the internet. Certainly, legality in terms of the narrator’s rights and intentions must be examined before providing such services.
The program is still in the development stage as a plug in for Omeka, a publishing platform popular for online museum and oral history exhibitions, but is currently utilized by the University of Kentucky Libraries. OHMS shares functional similarities to the qualitative analysis software NVivo with the exception that the focus in this case is on making the interviews available for public access rather than research processing. Interestingly, it also offers a different approach to other services in the field, most notably, in comparison to the work of Michael Frisch’s The Randforce Associates, LLC, which instead segmentizes the oral histories into passages in order to manage recurrent themes throughout collections.
Overall, Doug Boyd provided a refreshing balance between exciting the crowd with the impressive opportunities of the OHMS program and providing relatable reflections on the progression of research and education in the digital age. While the release date of OHMS for open access has not been finalized just yet, us oral historians will be waiting with bated breath until that day arrives.
By OHMA student Erica Fugger
In Alisa Del Tufo’s talk on Thursday, January 31st the oral historian and activist sought to inspire her large audience with the story of her life’s work. Watch a video of the talk here.
Del Tufo credits inflection points, or life changing moments, with the direction of her career and her inspiration to use oral history to surface new solutions to domestic violence. The first major such inflection point was in 1987. The case of Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg, in which a young girl, Lisa Steinberg, was killed at the hands of Joel Steinberg, stirred significant public controversy and prompted Del Tufo to explore the link between adult domestic violence and child maltreatment; which up until this point had been ignored and unexplored.
In 1991 Del Tufo left Sanctuary for Families, which she had founded in 1984, and began the oral history project that ultimately opened up New York City’s eyes to intimate violence. To hear Alyssa explain the project, the ah-ha moment that led her to try oral history as a method and what she learned, listen to the following clip:
Conducting these interviews was a second inflection point for Del Tufo and what surfaced in these conversations with battered women inspired her to begin meeting with influential feminists, politicians, and community activists to begin to make a change. The primary result was a domestic violence handbook, “Behind Closed Doors: The City’s Response to Domestic Violence,” which brought the issue to the front and center of the city’s politics.
In oral history, we look at “a-ha moments” as moments when the narrator is able to create a new thought or response though the process of the oral history interview, “I didn’t know I felt that way” or “I’d never thought about it that way before.” This is not entirely different from what Del Tufo deems an inflection point. Both are self-imposed structural shifts in the narrative. When using oral history as a tool of activism, it is the a-ha moment or inflection point that recognizes the problem and can lead to the corresponding action.
As aspiring oral historians themselves, the authors of this blog post experienced a few inflection points/a-ha moments during the discussion. Sara was challenged and motivated by Del Tufo’s assertion that in order to make change, one must choose the right moment. As oral historians looking to make an impact on the world, what is our moment? Is it possible to not only choose the moment, but to create the moment? Can one document the present to change the future? Ellen’s inflection point came when Del Tufo discussed altruism as a motivation for battered women to tell their stories. Many of the women Del Tufo interviewed agreed to these intimate conversations not for their own well-being, but because they believed their stories might help others in the same situation. Should we assume (or hope) that these altruistic motives can be found in other at-risk communities? Towards the end of the discussion several people discussed other issues to which Alisa’s methods might apply – such as elder abuse and sex trafficking. How can we tap into and encourage this community service model elsewhere?
For more information on oral history projects inspiring social change, check out the following sites:
Tibet Oral History Project http://tibetoralhistory.org/index.html
Voices of Rwanda http://voicesofrwanda.org/
Khmer Legacies http://khmerlegacies.org/
It Gets Better http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject
Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHRkPuJfasg
Other organizations founded by Alisa Del Tufo:
Threshold Collaborative http://www.thresholdcollaborative.org
(post by OHMA students Sara Wolcott and Ellen Brooks)