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Diagnosing Public Health Crises: What We Can Learn About Ebola from Oral History

In this post, public health journalist Katherina Thomas contemplates the power of oral history to not only document a public health crisis, but also create greater understanding about health inequities by empowering communities and allowing those too frequently silenced to share their stories.

By Katherina Thomas

Last week, as the Democratic Republic of Congo declared a new Ebola outbreak, I thought back to the 2014-2016 epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa and I hoped: perhaps this time, responders will listen to communities from the onset. The new outbreak in the Congo is much smaller than West Africa’s crisis, which was one of the most serious eruptions of viral hemorrhagic fever in history as health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea buckled. That was a public health emergency stoked by inequity, fragile health systems, lack of trust and gaps in global compassion, but also a crisis of connection  both spurred and slowed by the power of stories.

As the epidemic raged, policymakers did not heed lessons from previous public health crises such as SARS and H1N1. Early global conversations about the response excluded civil society and community leaders in West Africa—the pillars of knowledge and decision-making in local society—and by the time the world realized, many of them were dead. The post-mortem was damning: at the community level, the people with the answers had been shut out. In the wake of the epidemic, countless ‘lessons learned’ reports and conferences emerged, but few placed West African perspectives front and center. Living and working in Liberia as a writer and health journalist during the aftermath of the crisis, I kept coming across pieces of knowledge—shards of story from ordinary people—that the world had chosen to ignore. As vaccine trials advanced and geneticists sequenced the Ebola genome, I, along with five Liberian colleagues, turned to oral history.

Although it is not a tangible tool like a stethoscope or thermometer, narrative is another kind of diagnostic instrument.

Oral history seems a particularly apt medium for understanding the nature of infectious disease outbreaks and how pathogens spread. Although it is not a tangible tool like a stethoscope or thermometer, narrative is another kind of diagnostic instrument. The Ebola virus hijacked human relationships, slashing the fabric of society and making vectors of life’s furniture: bed sheets, door handles, handshakes, love. It infected patients and doctors, police officers and criminals, taxi drivers and passengers. Most importantly, in countries with inequitable access to health information and education, narrative played a pivotal role. In some cases, rumors and stories spread faster than the pathogen itself.

My Liberian colleagues were Paradise Oghenereuse Young and Abraham Fahnbulleh, university students who had led the Liberian health ministry’s Ebola contact tracing operation for western Monrovia. Angie Dennis, a former aid worker, aspiring journalist and an Ebola survivor joined us too. Together we traveled around the country, pressing together the missing pieces of the epidemic through hundreds of oral history interviews.

So far we have collected about 200 oral histories, from city slums to remote villages accessible only by canoe. Our interviews have typically lasted between 40 minutes and three hours each, and include testimonies from Liberian policymakers, thought leaders, activists, traditional and religious leaders, burial teams, hygienists, community health teams, military personnel, active case finders, but mostly from ordinary people: survivors and their families. More than 90 percent of the narrators are Liberians, thus leveling the playing field by propelling community leaders to expert status and illustrating the pivotal roles of ordinary people whose actions helped to curb the outbreak.

The collection is provisionally titled Heart Fall Down: An Oral History of Ebola in Liberia (a Liberian term for when hope is lost). In addition to discussing the disease, we asked about topics including fashion, old photographs, nature and dancing, childhood and family, lovers and marriage, birth and death, farming and food. We talked about nightmares, war crimes, religion, and justice. We asked about hope. In rural places with little access to formal education, this often meant chancing upon deep repositories of oral knowledge, or impromptu storytelling sessions by elders.

Old Ma Bendu Fofee is a 90-year-old traditional midwife who had spent three weeks in Ebola quarantine. “I’m happy you came,” she told us. “Since I’ve been knowing myself, none of you people ever asked to sit with me on the same bench before.” Richard Cooper was a teacher who ran algebra classes in the back alleys of a slum when schools closed during the outbreak. “I want to share. You can be old as anything and still teach people something,” he said. Josiah Karmie was a pharmacist in the West Point community. “Nobody cares to listen to poor people,” he said. “That’s why this Ebola thing happened.”

“I never knew what Ebola was, I never went to no workshop about Ebola,” said Sean Don, a jeans salesman who broke into and looted an Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia’s West Point slum. “I only knew that movie, Resident Evil…. a scientist creates a virus and he spreads it around so he can get more money because he has a cure. People kept saying, ‘Ebola is real, Ebola is real,’ but I never knew what it was. It didn’t mean anything to me.” Dr. Mosoka Fallah, a Liberian epidemiologist and foremost expert on Ebola, said, “people were in pain. People were hurting. One morning I remember the health minister coming into work and a colleague of ours, Dr. Brisbane, had just died … and I remember going home that day and my friends were having a birthday celebration. They said, ‘can you come by the party?’ I looked at them and I just said, ‘no, I’m going home.’ That was the lowest day of my life… There was a lack of hope, you know.” Folo Siakor, a softly spoken midwife who delivered the babies of pregnant women infected with Ebola, said, “it takes more than medicine to make an Ebola patient well. Even the talk from your mouth can help make them well.”

In some cases we traced the stories of affected communities from start to finish, following the journeys of taxis, ambulances, extended families, and groups of friends as the virus spread through them, and among them. But amid data challenges during the outbreak, our interviews revealed a more nuanced picture. About one in eight of our interviewees at the community level claims to have survived Ebola without treatment, suggesting many more people may have contracted the disease and survived than official figures imply.

Together, the oral histories we collected form a crowdsourced picture of the outbreak in Liberia that could inform our response to future health crises. Still, stories are not science, and there were times the fault line trembled between fiction and memory. Sometimes recollections of events shifted during second interviews, or changed with the faces in the room. We fact-checked many memories— names, data, places—against records from the Liberian health ministry and aid agencies, but sometimes stories splintered, or fell apart in our hands. Every death from Ebola meant not only a cut to family or community but a loss of knowledge, a hole in our understanding of the outbreak.

The project raised challenges. We approached our work from both journalistic and oral history ethics, but in a country with unreliable and inequitable access to health information, sometimes narrators asked us questions. One man wanted to know whether he was responsible for sexually transmitting Ebola to his late girlfriend. Because we worked closely with the Liberian Ministry of Health, we knew that he had. But we didn’t know how to answer him both fairly and ethically, and neither, it seemed, did any oral history textbook.

Many narrators cried, often freely and at length. In most cases, they wanted to continue the interviews, but we worried about the toll it might take on them. This was an unfunded project on a traumatic topic and none of us had access to much in the way of psycho-social support. Thanks to the kindness of colleagues, I eventually completed a short course in trauma interviewing and counseling, and we referred narrators to licensed clinicians wherever possible. But these kinds of questions persist in my mind: how can we, as oral historians researching trauma, do better to safeguard the wellbeing of our narrators as well as ourselves?

Ultimately, we hope to publish these oral histories as a book and establish or contribute to an archive of publicly accessible oral histories of people affected by the outbreak. Substantial resources have tackled the health system gaps that fueled Ebola, but science and medicine are only part of the picture. We think that the lessons of an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola can only be fully digested when communities, no matter their size, come together and share their learnings. Perhaps an oral history research project such as this one, carried out at the community level, could become a replicable model for deepening understanding in the wake of other public health crises.

Katherina Thomas is a Harvard and MIT-affiliated writer-in-residence, and a Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. She began her career in journalism on the foreign desk of The Independent in London, and lived and worked in West Africa for ten years, where she covered global health and human rights and translated French poetry. She was the founding editor of Ebola Deeply, a Rockefeller Foundation-supported platform that covered the outbreak in depth, advancing global health literacy through public service journalism. She is an MPH candidate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and has held patient advocacy and health information equity positions in Liberia. Her research interests include narrative medicine, literature, medical anthropology, and patient experiences. Her writing has been published by The Guardian, Reuters, BBC, Guernica, The Economist, PEN America and many others, and recommended by The New York Times and The New Yorker. 

Images courtesy of the author.

Embodying the interview

In the latest issue of the Oral History Review, Nien Yuan Cheng’s “‘Flesh and Blood Archives’: Embodying the Oral History Transcript” explores ways in which oral historians can consciously engage with embodied communication for the benefit of future audiences of the interview by including this dimension in transcripts. Here, she recalls embodied moments from two interviews, sharing methods to convey the interpersonal dynamics between interviewee and interviewer.

By Nien Yuan Cheng

The first oral history interview I conducted was set in a gauzy fog. Ribbons of smoke from the clove cigarette between my interviewee’s fingers never stayed vertical as his hands enthusiastically accompanied his gravelly voice. We were in a quiet café in Indonesia, one with lukewarm air-conditioning but excellent cappuccinos. An ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver, Fakhri (not his real name) had greeted me before our interview with a flash of his white teeth and a strong handshake. This benign contact between our palms seemed awkward despite the fact that during many a hairy traffic moment I had clung to the back of his leather jacket like a baby koala, knuckles white and my inner thighs tight against his outer legs. Yelling out a few friendly words to each other over the angry sputter of a motorbike was a far cry from sitting at a quiet booth, face to face, not touching but trying to make a connection.

As a performance studies scholar, I have always been interested in bodies, movement and place. I found out through this experience, rather unexpectedly, just how much of a performance event an interview was. I had trusted the comforting presence of the voice recorder to provide all the information I needed, until I realized how much more I would have missed: Fakhri’s physical demonstration of how he played chess as a child, the group of teenage boys watching us wondering what a young Chinese woman was doing with an older Muslim man, even my own gestures as I struggled a little to communicate to Fakhri in Indonesian, more nervous than usual in this framed, heightened encounter. All these factors influenced the process and the result of the interview in some way.

That was how I decided to find out more about the oral history interview as embodied performance. While there was a burgeoning discussion in the field about this, Jeff Friedman’s 2014 article in this journal being the most recent, beyond being aware of embodiment in the interview I wanted to know how we could include embodiment in our research and interview outputs so that others would be able to benefit from and appreciate this aspect. Knowing more about bodies, movement and place in the interview is more than adding ‘color’ or embellishment. It gives important insight about the interpersonal dynamics between interviewer and interviewee, about how place plays a part both in the interview situation and in the stories interviewees tell, and even about the embodied historical knowledge interviewees have. How could future audiences get an idea about all of these things? Current ways of disseminating oral history, either through books, audio recordings or archival transcripts don’t seem to accommodate these aspects.

The notion and value of ‘embodying’ the transcript became clearer to me in another setting – this time in Bengaluru, India, at the XIXth International Oral History Association conference in 2016. In one of the sessions, Mark Wong from the Oral History Centre in Singapore talked about the Centre’s new handy search function in the online archival database: they were experimenting with automated transcription software to improve the ability to search for text within an audio track so that users can listen to that moment in the transcript in its original vocal expression. It’s a great idea, because it encourages researchers to attend to the orality of the interview. To demonstrate, Wong first asked the audience to read a portion of an interview transcript of a former Singaporean midwife. Madam Mary Hee describes how midwives used a bicycle pump to induce labour in the 1960s:

Fig 1: Screenshot of the transcript, available online at the OHC portal.


There were a few surprised laughs among the audience, perhaps at the subject matter, as we took a little time to read the script. As Wong played the audio recording of that moment, those words, and some which had been edited out of the transcript, came to life (This is my printed representation of what the moment sounded like. Listen to the audio excerpt, starting from 19:55):

Ah! They use the thing, put in,

apply ah, the cup ah,         put in the head there

then is connect        aall the tubings        into the bottle?         Then got the bicycle pump ah, we pu-u-u-ump and pu-u-u-ump and pu-u-u-ump

and then pull thebabyout. You’ve never seen, eh? Oooooh, wonderful that’s why I say eheheh last time we really had tough time you know

pumping the thing 

Instead of beginning her explanation with a mere, ‘Yes,’ (as stated in the transcript), Madam Hee launches into it when an emphatic, very Singaporean agreement, ‘Ah!’ in a tone as if she were saying, ‘You better believe it!’. She relishes her interviewer’s surprise, as evidenced from her knowing, gleeful utterance of ‘You’ve never seen, eh?’, and the descending glissando of ‘Ooooooh,’ edited out of the transcript.

Madam Hee’s words may have come to life with her voice, but there are still gaps discernible in the spoken description which I represented with literal, extended gaps between her words above. To me these pauses, together with the instructive tone of voice Hee used, indicate that she accompanied her words with demonstrative gestures that stemmed from her embodied knowledge and history as a midwife who actually used these pumps. These gestures seem to make up the bulk of what she was trying to communicate to her interviewer, and the audio recording actually highlights the absence of some of these meanings.

Such moments benefit from a treatment of the body in the transcribed text to fill those gaps. There is a false distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘text’, one that excludes the dimensions of moving bodies in place. Embodying the transcript blurs this distinction by documenting the oral history interview event as a three-dimensional, affective performance, and allows us to include details that audio and even video recordings cannot. In my article, inspired by the expertise of people who have always been writing the body such as anthropologists and dance scholars, I put forth some practical ways in which we can do so. It’s not, by any means, a comprehensive handbook or a list of instructions, but it suggests ways in which we can begin to understand and practice oral history as what the legendary George Ewart Evans calls it: “flesh and blood archives”.

Nien Yuan CHENG is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. Her doctoral research on Singaporean oral histories touches on the performance of citizenship, neoliberal storytelling and the interview as embodied performance and performative. She is co-founder and editor of Perspectives on the Past in Southeast Asia.

Featured image: Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2007, by Flickr user Rosino. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

New Issue Live!

We’re pleased to announce that the digital version of Winter/Spring 2018 OHR is live, featuring the Special Section, “Decentering and Decolonizing Feminist Oral Histories: Reflections on the State of the Field in the Early Twenty-First Century,” organized by guest editors Stacey Zembrzycki and Katrina Srigley, along with a slate of other articles and reviews. Check out the full table of contents.

In the coming weeks, we will feature some of the authors here in interviews and guest posts, with additional digital content. Stay tuned an be part of the conversation.

Featured image: Juliette Sutherland’s Family, circa 1940s, Mushkegowuk Territory. (Photograph courtesy of Lorraine Sutherland.) Learn more in Katrina Srigley and Lorraine Sutherland, “Decolonizing, Indigenizing, and Learning Biskaaybiiyang in the Field: Our Oral History Journey,” The Oral History Review, 45, no 1,  Spring/Winter 2018, 7–28,

Industry’s Long Good-bye: Listening to Stories of Jobs Lost and Hopes Remembered

In this installment of our Oral History in the Age of Trump series, Annie Valk discusses interviews conducted by students at Williams College with residents in the nearby deindustrialized town of North Adams, noting how the accounts complicate the superficial narratives of our current political moment.

By Annie Valk

Three years ago I began teaching an oral history class at Williams College that asked undergraduate students to interview people about living and working in North Adams. Tucked in the mountains of northwestern Massachusetts, North Adams and Williamstown (home of Williams College) are separated by four miles and myriad economic and social differences.  Williamstown represents the affluence commonly associated with the Berkshires: nearby tourist sites include the dance venue, Jacob’s Pillow; Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; numerous spas and yoga retreats; and the popular Appalachian Trail.

Looking north on Eagle Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, between Center and Main Streets. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Within this culturally rich area, North Adams stands out — and usually not for positive reasons.  With approximately 13,500 residents, North Adams has the character of a small town but shares problems faced by many urban areas across the U.S.  About 30% of the population is food insecure and 21% live on incomes below the federal poverty level.  The conditions wrought by underemployment have worsened in the past decades following numerous plant closings; notably, Sprague Electric Company, which made capacitors and other electrical components shuttered in the 1980s, ending fifty years as the area’s chief employer.  Three years ago, the city’s hospital dramatically cut staff and services. Countywide, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen by 78% since the 1970s, leaving tourism and hospitality the most energetic part of the local economy.

The disparity among the white, working-class, struggling residents of North Adams and the wealthy, urbane institution of Williams College does not escape the attention of students– that is, when they even think about North Adams at all. My goal of using oral history to introduce students to the nearby city has taken on new meaning in the months since the last presidential election.  As a nation, we’ve become comfortable explaining electoral politics in terms of such contrasts. Listening to residents’ stories gives students new understanding of the human impact of the loss of manufacturing while offering a powerful way to challenge many current political truisms that blame disgruntled former industrial workers for Trump’s ascendancy.

Since the spring of 2016, we have interviewed about 30 individuals who describe the long process of deindustrialization they and their city have endured. Most narrators grew up in North Adams and recall the city in the years before the 1970s, when industry hummed and Main Street bustled.  Adults enjoyed access to plentiful jobs and although conditions often were harsh, generally pay was good and work was steady. These benefits translated to upward mobility: the ability to buy homes, afford vacations, send children to college, and retire while healthy enough to enjoy it all.

Robin Martin describes working at Wall Streeter shoe manufacturing, her first job.

Friends, neighbors, and family members, sometimes spanning multiple generations, worked together in textile, shoemaking, and other mills, creating a tight sense of community and bonds that supported people through hard times, including labor strikes and turmoil resulting from alcoholism and accidents.

Tony Pisano recalls the work his family did for Sprague Electric Company.

The North Adams that endures in residents’ memories differs starkly from the city that students see (and generally avoid) today.  Stories of loss reverberate powerfully throughout the recordings: lost jobs, lost business, lost community, lost pride, and a lost communal vision of the future.  As historians have noted, deindustrialization is a process, not an event; in North Adams, that process has continued for decades and the community has been barely holding on for a long time, as individual residents cope with systemic change.  The interviews detail the ways that plant closings shredded the social fabric of this tight-knit community. The downsizing and departure of factories forced other businesses that served food, sold clothing, and offered necessary services to close, a wave that rippled to every corner of the city.  One resident explained that the community has been saying a “long good-bye” to Sprague Electric for more than thirty years. A new museum, Mass MoCA, has moved into some of the buildings deserted by Sprague but the “hole in North Adams’ soul” left when Sprague closed remains unfilled.

Residents talk about working at Sprague, the company’s closing and their hopes for the future.

Most interviews concentrate on the local economy’s transformation, going from vibrant to stagnant in the period of fifty years. But the country’s broader political context becomes especially evident when residents talk about the future. In deep blue Massachusetts, North Adams’ voters backed Bernie Sanders in the primary; and 65% cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election. These, then, are not the allegedly racist and embittered voters responsible for Trump’s victory.  Given their familiarity with the widespread and long-term impact of job loss, residents put little stock in candidates’ campaign promises.  It took a long time for the jobs to disappear and it will take more than slogans to guarantee their return. Generally, residents don’t expect the state or federal government to enact measures that successfully bring back work and repair the damage done to the community.  Instead, they stress that residents themselves need to come up with solutions.

Robin Martin expresses skepticism that federal policies can bring back factory jobs.

It will take a while to sift through the accumulated interviews and even longer to know how four years (or more?) of a Trump presidency will affect the local economy or modify the political attitudes of either residents or students.  However, the interviews already go beyond the superficial narratives too frequently offered to explain this current historical moment. Oral history reminds us to listen with empathy and not disregard the hard lessons of lived experience. The stories of North Adams reveal the richly textured lives of low-wage workers and the resilience of those living on the edge financially and they offer alternative narratives about the impact of disappearing jobs and lost industry.

Jennifer Munoz recalls the  widespread impact of the closing of Sprague Electric.

Interviews from the North Adams Oral History Project will be archived by Williams College Special Collection Library. Access excerpts from some interviews, along with short audio essays produced by students here.  

Annie Valk is Associate Director for Public Humanities and Lecturer in History at Williams College. She is a specialist in oral history, public history, and the social history of the 20th century United States. She teaches experiential and community-based classes in oral history and public history. During 2015-16, she served as president of the Oral History Association. 

Featured image: Buildings of the Arnold Print Works (now MASS MoCA) as seen from the Route 2 overpass over State Street in North Adams, Massachusetts. Photo by Beyond my Ken.

Transcribing Woes of Disabled Oral Historians

In this guest post, public history graduate student Grant Stoner reflects on the difficulties of oral history transcription for individuals with physical disabilities, challenging us to consider issues of accessibility within oral history methodology, while noting the limitations of digital technologies.

By Grant Stoner

During my first semester as a graduate student in the Public History program at Duquesne University, I was tasked with conducting an oral history of the Third Alternative campaign, a local campus movement that lasted from 1970-1971 consisting of several student-led fundraising events. With the goal to raise one million dollars, students garnered national attention for their efforts to prevent Duquesne from shutting its doors. I was thrilled knowing that my classmates and I had the opportunity to sit down with participants of this movement, learning about their incredible experiences.

Before our prospective interview dates, our professor facilitated classroom discussions on best practices for conducting an oral history interview. These conversations even included recommended transcription methods.

Depending on the length of the interview, transcription by a non-professional like me may prove to be nothing more than an 8-hour process: laborious, but doable. Plus, our lab came equipped with Express Scribe software, as well as a transcription pedal. Transcribing shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Not for an able-bodied individual. Surprise, I’m physically disabled.

At 13 months old, I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, a neuromuscular disorder that gradually weakens my muscles over time. I utilize an electric wheelchair to move, a speech-to-text program in order to finish my numerous assignments, and a friend who acts as my scribe in the classroom.

Despite my physical limitations, I completed my undergraduate schooling with a dual degree in Classical Civilizations and Journalism. Throughout my Journalism studies, I sat down with countless individuals asking them to share their stories. Similar to oral historians, journalists often transcribe excerpts of their recordings. However, journalists only need to search for a few specific quotes in order to produce the piece. An hour-long interview may only utilize a fraction of a specific recording. Therein lies the problem for me as a budding oral historian. If a particular section was especially pertinent, I would simply ask for assistance with typing the necessary passage. But it would be unfair of me to ask someone to transcribe my 45:01 oral history, word for word.

Not wanting to disappoint my interviewee, I suggested that I would attempt to transcribe the interview through my Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech-to-text software. After all, I had read that voice recognition programs, while not entirely successful, were accurate enough to create a decent transcription. With my professor agreeing to my plan, I borrowed the appropriate equipment, and set out to create a modified transcription. After returning home, I simply activated the software, positioned the microphone toward my speakers, and turned on the recording.

This is the result:

“All 616 so first question what do you dislike and the individual the only Mount Washington my father would it is so applied to it quite a while will but I really want to stay home and precinct on was the campus like very welcoming verys the student union with just a cross place that was really nice the ball all that was your starting to have been possible names that this that was a witness agreed by non-as far as I think that was it wasn’t so much the buildings and everything is it was the intellectual”

Here is the audio of the same excerpt:

Within an hour, the software was only capable of producing 99 words, none of which formed a cohesive sentence. My plan had spectacularly failed.

In a state of panic, I attempted to discern the problem. So, I repeated the steps and watched as my program decided to reboot itself to its introductory stages. Essentially, it was unable to accurately understand the voice through my speakers, thus requiring me to go through the painstaking process of retraining the entire program to accurately hear two voices.

Thankfully, my professor was more than understanding, and asked that another student whose interview withdrew at the last minute perform the task of transcribing my piece.

I do not write this post to complain about my transcription woes, but rather to comment on this aspect of inaccessibility within the oral history field. Oral historians who require assistive technology need to be aware of the pitfalls of voice recognition transcription. Speech-to-text may seem like a panacea to the obstacle of transcription, but it is far from perfect, and will not solve the issue of transcription for those of us with accessibility needs.

Are there any solutions? Unfortunately, I have no answers. Until voice recognition programs become accurate enough to detect the varying volume levels and accents of interviewees, speech-to-text software is not a viable option. Although, hybrid models like Pop Up Archive (recently purchased by Apple) and Trint are beginning to improve quality, while providing users with an easy way to edit the rough transcriptions generated through voice recognition.

It is also possible to transcribe by listening to the interview then speaking it back into a microphone connected to the voice recognition software, yet there are factors that may mar this method. For example, if my voice is particularly weak, then my software will struggle to produce an acceptable product. Also, oral history projects need to consider time restraints. If an able-bodied individual can finish a transcription within 8-hours, then it would be safe to assume that a disabled historian’s time would be doubled. Hiring transcribers is desirable, but budgets frequently prove to be restrictive.

Does this recent incident negatively impact my experiences as an amateur oral historian? No, not at all. I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with my interviewee, learning of her involvement with the Third Alternative movement. I enjoyed drafting questions with my classmates, spending class periods articulating each question. But more importantly, I enjoyed preserving these stories for future generations.

I am hopeful that my university continues to invite me to conduct more oral history interviews; I just won’t be the one to transcribe them.

Grant Stoner is a first-year Public History Master’s student at Duquesne University. His primary interests include designing museum exhibits pertaining to disability representation in the ancient world. He also enjoys learning of personal experiences through oral history interviews, and relaxing with his cat, Goomba.



Help us brainstorm

As we at the Oral History Review continue to expand our online initiatives, we’d like to hear from you about how we can best use this blog platform. Do you have ideas for posts relevant to the oral history community and discipline? Who should we talk to? Do you want to guest post for us? Let us know! Fill out the survey below in order to share your bright ideas.

Featured image by Flickr user Jason Lombard.

Analia Cabral interviewing Maria Elena Durazo, union activist; AFL-CIO

Context Matters: Interviewing Political Women in the Age of Trump

In this, the second in our series of guest posts considering the role and significance of oral history during our current political climate, Natalie Fousekis reflects on interviewing women involved in California politics in the years leading up to and following the historic presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

By Natalie M Fousekis

On September 27, 2016 I walked in to the offices of the  Feminist Majority Foundation to interview one of its founders, Peg Yorkin.  The office was abuzz with excitement over the upcoming election and the prospect of voting for the first woman President in U.S. History.  I sat with this 89-year-old feminist as she recalled the details of her life surrounded by photos of Yorkin with other feminist activists, Democratic presidents, and female political icons, including Hillary Clinton.  

Fousekis with Feminist Majority founders

Natalie Fousekis (middle) with Peg Yorkin and Kathy Spillar, founders of the Feminist Majority.

I interviewed Yorkin as part of the Women, Politics, and Activism Since Suffrage Project, which I launched in 2013 with the goal of recording stories of Southern California women who have been engaged in politics and activism from the 1960s to today.  My hope was to develop an archive of women’s stories so that when we begin celebrating the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2019-2020, we could share a body of interviews with women who shaped politics and policy in Southern California with scholars, students, and the community.  I wanted to provide more recent, local stories of women’s political power as well as reflections from the women themselves on the unique contributions of women to civic life.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas, Director of Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Eleven students in my 2013 oral history course conducted the initial interviews.  They recorded memories of immigrant women who led a rent strike in Santa Ana in the 1980s, mothers who demonstrated against police brutality after their sons were killed by police, mothers who defeated an effort to build a prison in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in east Los Angeles, women who worked to advance the Republican party’s goals, women who fought for gay and lesbian rights, and the woman who served as the first female mayor of an Orange County city.  While rumors circulated of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency at the time, no public discussion existed of Donald Trump’s presidential run.  After receiving major funding from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, in fall 2015 my students, the staff at the Center, and I embarked on two years of intensive interviewing with over 100 women who had/have been politically active in Southern California.

Norma Gibbs, the first woman to serve on the Seal Beach City Council and as the city’s mayor (1960-63)

In my grant proposal to Haynes, I suggested that “The current presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton… highlights the importance and timeliness of this project and will undoubtedly shape the views and perspectives of the women interviewed for this project.”  While I included this line in my proposal, I could not anticipate the myriad of ways Hillary’s campaign and her loss to Donald Trump would influence the creation of these narratives.  

As an oral historian, I have long understood that contemporary context shapes the narratives of my interviewees, but not until this project had a topic of study resonated so closely with the national conversation and discussion.  Almost daily, newspapers and online periodicals published articles discussing the issue of women in politics, the barriers these women faced, and the history of women’s political involvement.  Moreover, gender itself became a topic as the campaign intensified, with accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against Trump, daily scrutiny of Clinton’s outfit selection in contrast to Trump’s ability to throw on a dark suit and a red tie, differences in the ways the public evaluated the qualifications of male and female candidates, and the significance of Hillary becoming the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee.  

“I couldn’t be happier than thinking that there could be a woman President of the United States….  I also worry about sexism and I think that that will be rampant in the campaign.”  Joy Picus, 2015

With these contemporary events in mind, we developed questions to ask directly about Hillary’s candidacy, although many narrators referenced the current political context without prompting, expressing hope and optimism.  In April 2015, my first narrator, eighty-four-year-old former Los Angeles City Councilwoman, Joy Picus, said: “I couldn’t be happier than thinking that there could be a woman President of the United States. I really couldn’t be happier. I think [Clinton] has all the requirements to make an outstanding president. I also worry about sexism and I think that that will be rampant in the campaign. I think it will be rampant once she is elected. It was true of Barack Obama, racism, and I think it will be less veiled than the racism has been against Obama. I think it will be much more overt. That worries me, but not enough to say she shouldn’t be President.”  

Natalie Fousekis interviewing Nury Martinez

Natalie Fousekis interviewing Nury Martinez, Los Angeles City Councilwoman, in 2016

Narrators told powerful stories about watching Hillary accept the Democratic Party’s nomination in June 2016. For example, Los Angeles City Councilwoman, Nury Martinez (the only woman serving on the LA City Council at the time), recalls an emotional tale of her last-minute decision to attend the Democratic National Convention, flying on a red eye the night before Hillary’s acceptance speech without a hotel or credentials.

Nury Martinez, Los Angeles City Councilwoman (2013-present)

Even Republican women spoke to the importance of Hillary’s candidacy. Former city of Orange mayor and councilwoman, Carolyn Cavecche, responded: “Well, it’s funny because a lot of us who are more conservative have talked about it.  I think there will be great pride even if we don’t care for her or her politics.”   

Caroline Cavecche, former City Councilwoman and Mayor, City of Orange

The tone and conversation shifted after November 8, 2016, as many narrators grappled with Hillary’s loss as well as the fear and uncertainty that came with Donald Trump’s election.  Just three week’s after Trump’s election, I sat across the table from Cheryl Parisilong-time Executive Director of Los Angeles American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I did not ask Cheryl a question about Trump directly, but rather asked about the most critical issues her union faced today.  She looked at me, gave a long sigh, rolled her eyes, and paused before she said: “Well, we’re in a very different environment today, you know, with the election of Donald Trump, and what that’s gonna mean for the entire labor movement… I mean, I just think that we’re facing potentially kind of a full effort to decimate the power of the US labor movement.  So, this is a very serious time, and I don’t know the answers.  I know that this is a time to continue to organize.”

Cheryl Parisi, long-time labor activist and current Executive Director of Los Angeles AFSCME

I am just beginning to reflect and unpack the multiple ways the 2016 election shaped the interviews we conducted for the Women, Politics, and Activism Project.  Those I’ve shared above represent some of the most direct ways Clinton’s candidacy and Trump’s election shaped our narrators’ responses.  This spring I am on sabbatical and will spend much of my time culling the over 150 interviews in this collections for references, both subtle and obvious, to the current political context, paying particular attention to tone and outlook.  In a future and much longer piece, I look forward to sharing with you my observations, reflections, and conclusions about what we might learn as oral historians from our two years of interviewing in the Trump Era.

“We don’t want our daughters to slay the same dragons, we want to pat down the grass for them.  But at the same time it’s important to know their own history and the champions that came before them.” — Gloria Molina 

Like our narrators, I’ve had to grapple with my own disappointment and dismay at the results of the 2016 election.  One thing is clear: interviewing strong women who have been politically engaged for years while overcoming barriers and political opposition, yet still advocating for the issues they believe in, has lifted my spirits on more than one occasion. Since October I’ve continued to repeat in my head words spoken in my interview with Gloria Molina: “We don’t want our daughters to slay the same dragons, we want to pat down the grass for them.  But at the same time it’s important to know their own history and the champions that came before them.”

** Many of the interviews we recorded (and eventually all) are available in their entirety on the Women Politics and Activism website.

Featured image caption: CSUF 2017 graduate, Analia Cabral interviewing Maria Elena Durazo

Natalie Fousekis is Director of the Lawrence B. de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) and Professor of History at CSU Fullerton. She specializes in modern U.S. History, grassroots politics, women’s history, and oral history.  Fousekis has been engaged in oral history work for almost twenty-five years — conducting dozens of interviews, teaching oral history methodology to undergraduate students, graduate students, and community members. She is the project director for the Women, Politics, and Activism Since Suffrage Project.

Listening for Our Times

Tomorrow will mark one year since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. It’s been a year in which many of us have asked how our oral history practice can be useful not only to preserve the memories of the past, but also to intervene in the present. This post is the first in a short series addressing the role of oral history within the current political climate of the Trump administration. Stay tuned for more, and participate in the conversation.

Below, independent oral historian Allison Corbett builds on her experiences in multilingual and cross cultural oral history work to offer some thoughts on where we are now.

By Allison Corbett

In the weeks after the election and after the inauguration I met a lot of people who were out protesting all night, several nights in a row. I can’t do that because I have a newborn. So I can’t be out all night, every night. But nobody can do that for four years, four decades, or four lifetimes. You can’t. So, we have the charge now, the responsibility, the need to develop sustainable and reproducible ways of doing our work. You cannot do it by yourself. We have to find the people with whom we have real solidarity in order to create those links, those connections to be able to work together. Because otherwise, you just can’t.

And of course, I recognize the fear, the anger, the desperation, and anguish—all of the difficulty implicated in the current situation and context, but I also see in that same need, and in these same emotions, so many opportunities to grow with like-minded people and other folks that are doing work connect to ours. And one of the positive outcomes of this political moment is that our network has grown so much, because people are reaching out, and in the diverse ways of confronting this political moment, a lot of people are becoming politicized, and a lot of people are seeing the need to do cross-language work. So that gives us the opportunity to find lots of people who are new to this work, to do a lot of education, and to also be educated.
– Jen Hofer, Los Angeles (translated from Spanish by the author)

Listen to Jen Hofer, Los Angeles (Antena & Antena Los Ángeles) 

A year ago, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, I found myself in a gloomy Washington DC, bleary-eyed and downcast, on the eve of the National Women’s March. I was overwhelmed by our political situation. I wondered what on earth I should or could do to push back on the hate and regressive policies that came with Trump’s election.

As protests spread throughout the country and crowds of people swarmed JFK to shut down Trump’s Muslim ban, I was far from my New York City home and far from any of the ostensible sites of resistance featured on my newsfeed. I was shuttling between my parents’ home in Virginia and other parts of the country, conducting interviews for The Language of Justice, an oral history project that documents the stories of language workers and organizers that facilitate multilingual movement building.

I was haunted by the contrast between the urgency I felt around the need for protest, political change, and resistance and the slow work that I was doing as an oral historian.

I felt extremely blessed to be able to listen and learn from the stories of these narrators. In many ways I felt that I was right where I needed to be. Yet I was haunted by the contrast between the urgency I felt around the need for protest, political change, and resistance and the slow work that I was doing as an oral historian. In order to carry out this practice of listening and recording, I removed myself from these perceived sites of action. During the course of my interviewing around the country I became less itchy about all of the work that I was not participating in by virtue of doing this project, but I have continued to feel this tension. I wrestle with this question with renewed urgency—what is the role of an oral historian in working towards collective liberation?

Listen to Matt Jaeckle-Ginsberg, Chicago (Southside Together Organizing for Power)

This question necessarily asks us to examine our ideas of how change works. Healer, author, and movement facilitator adrienne maree brown suggests in her recent book, Emergent Strategy, that “What you pay attention to grows.” So what do we want to grow in our communities and in our movements right now? What does it mean to give so much energy to efforts born in reaction to this foul-hearted leader at the helm of our country? How does it shape our futures when we feel forced to respond to the pressure and pace of lightning-speed news, tweets, and executive orders?

It can feel like nothing we do will bring about enough justice quickly enough. But it is essential that we keep a dual focus and are able to think dialectically in this moment. We need (and owe much gratitude to) the people on the frontlines that are pushing back on the policies that are regularly being thrown at vulnerable communities, but we also need to be visionary.

As historical sociologist Immanual Wallerstein, asserts, “…people need to have less pain immediately.” Yet he reminds us, that that relief “doesn’t transform the world.” Lifelong thinker, organizer, and Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs says, “Every crisis, actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society. Going beyond protest organizing, visionary organizing begins by creating images and stories of the future that help us imagine and create alternatives to the existing systems.” It is precisely in this visioning process that we as oral historians can play a role. So the question becomes, how can we share stories, complicate narratives, and facilitate listening that assists in visioning to buttress the work being done on the frontlines?

At this year’s Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Minneapolis I was struck by the title of the plenary session, “Documenting Activism in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock.” What if instead of focusing our energies so much on declaring this the “Age of Trump,” we remembered that this is also the miraculous age of visionary movements? How can we, with our work as oral historians, lay the foundations for the world that we want to live in?

I was inspired to begin The Language of Justice because I believe that the work of creating multilingual movements models the world that I want to live in. Not only does having a multilingual space allow for the necessary work to get done by people in movements, it alters the way we relate to each other, our ability to listen to each other, thereby transforming us in the process of transforming our world.

Listen to Tony Macias, Durham (Tilde Language Justice Cooperative)

Documenting activism is not the only way to take up this task of political oral history work. It can also involve collecting and sharing multi-vocal narratives that invite “historical thinking,” that reveal and challenge our ideas about why things are the way they are—a form of activism that public historian Julie Golia and oral historian Zaheer Ali of the Brooklyn Historical Society have described as the “active questioning of dominant ideologies.”

It is of critical importance that we think about the connections that we foster in the interview space as well as the ways in which we use our work to convene people and create spaces for reflective listening beyond the interview. In this challenge I turn to the words of the Ultra-red collective who remind us: “Collective listening is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a tool among other tools available for the long haul of struggle.”

Listen to Joyce Lam, San Francisco (Chinese Progressive Association)

Whatever form it takes, the work that oral historians do to advance positive social change and collective liberation should be rooted in the unique strengths of our discipline. There is no one path that is guaranteed to lead us to a more just future. The opportunities are countless and the entry points are multiple. As the saying goes, “to change everything, we need everyone.”

A note about the audio clips here:  

As you listen to these clips, you will notice just how particular our conversations were to the early months of 2017. Many of my interviews were conducted soon after the Trump administration’s January 27, 2017 executive order— known as the “Muslim Ban,” which suspended entry of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—and the subsequent protests that helped defeat it in its original form. While most of my interviews did not focus specifically on language workers’ involvement in anti-Trump organizing, I did dedicate some time in each conversation to talk about this, some of which is featured here. The conversations are very historically situated, but they also speak to the points I bring up here—about sustainability in activism, about how to respond in real-time to current challenges with an eye towards the bigger picture.

Allison Corbett is an independent oral historian and Spanish-English interpreter based in New York City.  Over the last few months she has been interviewing social justice interpreters and people doing multilingual organizing across the country for her project The Language of Justice, which is dedicated to the celebration of multilingual spaces and the people that maintain them. Her work has been by shaped the combined legacies of Columbia University’s Oral History Masters Program and the radical traditions of popular education in the Americas.

New year/ new blog!

By Janneken Smucker, Abigail Perkiss, & David Caruso

With the start of 2018 comes a new editorial team for the Oral History Review. The outgoing team was kind enough to introduce us a few weeks ago. We have big shoes to fill, with the departure of Kathy Nasstrom, Troy Reeves, and Andrew Shaffer. But we are eager to take on the job.

One of our first initiatives is moving OHR’s blog to a new format. And here we all are. We are committed to facilitating conversations about the field of oral history and its impact on society, both as it relates to the articles that appear in our journal, and to other timely events, discussions, and topics. And we want you to be involved! We solicit ideas for posts that demonstrate the significance of the field, method, and theory of oral history to a wide range of topics. We will also be turning to you for responses and reactions to our peer-reviewed articles, so we can keep the dialog going in between issues.

So as part of your New Year’s goals, resolve to join us! Bookmark us, subscribe, and engage!

A few of Troy’s favorite things

Now that Caitlin and Andrew have had their fun, Troy Reeves gets a turn to highlight some of his favorite posts from the OHR blog and make us feel nostalgic for all the time we’ve spent in our little corner of the internet.

As I’m neck deep in the Holidays and my final weeks as OHR’s managing editor, I’m coming back to the pop culture of my youth(-ish) and the DJ in my head is playing “It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” while I look over what we’ve published.

First, (and my DJ has moved to Joe Cocker here) I leaned on my friends (and colleagues) to help us keeping the blog fires warm. Now that we’ve got our playlist set up for a trip down memory lane, I have to stop by our interview with audio transcriptionist Teresa Bergen. We still think all of our transcripting friends are beautiful.

The blog also gave us a chance to hear from #OralHistory colleagues from all over, including Sarah Milligan, Doug Boyd, and Stephen Sloan (to name just a few).

My Madison peeps also helped us get by (not high … hugs not drugs people) on several occasions. Sam Snyder’s review of voice recognition software was both fun and informative. And the interview we did with Scott Seyforth & Nichole Barnes about their piece in the #OHR helped to highlight the role Madison played in a story that often focuses only on coastal cities.

Dana Gerber contributed twice to the blog, and her love of podcasts and her interest in trying to actually preserve them for future generations comes through so clearly in her first post. On top of that, she has become a great friend.

Finally, I cannot sing Andrew Shaffer’s praises enough, and while not a Madisonian anymore – he went to San Francisco, perhaps with a flower in his hair?— since taking over the blog from Caitlin Tyler-Richards, he has excelled at keeping the posts on-time, tight and timely. While nearly impossible to choose from all the posts he wrote or co-authored, his November 2015 post, “Getting to the core of Story Corps, and other audio puns,” stands as my favorite. It shows off his writing skill, as well as his sense of humor.  

I’m stopping now both because of space and because I have hit my pop culture reference quota. One last, short but sweet comment: I loved working with Andrew and Caitlin. You can find them online at @aw_shaffer and @ctredits.

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