Menu Sidebar
Menu
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.

A few of Andrew’s favorite things

With our time on the Editorial Team quickly winding down, we’re taking turns sharing some of our favorite moments from the last three years at the #OHR. Below Andrew Shaffer, our Social Media manager, shares some of his fondest memories.

The first blog post I worked on was a podcast with the always brilliant Amy Starecheski. I still remember how nervous I was to write it up and hit submit, as evidenced by the title, which I just lifted from Amy’s article. #SoOriginal. https://blog.oup.com/2014/10/power-oral-history-making-practice

I was a little more confident by the time I interviewed Linda Shopes about her #OHR article, but still worried that I was asking all the wrong questions. I still come back to her blog post frequently, as I reflect on the “urge to collect.” 

My interview with Jennifer Helgren about the role nostalgia plays in #OralHistory produced one of my favorite phrases: “oral history as a history of the present,” another one I come back to regularly. 

The most fun I ever had in an interview (and my only time on the podcast!) came when I got to talk to Elspeth Brown about the LGBTQ History Digital Collaboratory. I won’t admit how many times I re-recorded the intro before I was ok with the sound of my own voice 😬. 

In addition to the podcast, I’m proud of the efforts we made to highlight LGBTQ Oral History on the blog, including a short list of some projects documenting queer lives across the U.S. 

By partnering with others, we got even more great content, like a sneak peak at some amazing content that the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program recorded at the Equality March 2017. 

During the #OHMATakeover of 2016, the students and staff of the Oral History MA program at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research took control of the blog and published some really fantastic content. My personal favorite was Audrey Augenbraum’s piece on the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

I ❤️ their work and had mentioned them on a previous post, along with mapping projects from Youth Radio and the Fiji Time film. Apparently, Maps + #OralHistory = my idea of a good time.

And last, but certainly not least, I still get chills reading our two-part conversation between Henry Greenspan and @timcole_bristol.
Part 1: https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/hank-greenspan-tim-cole-part-1/
Part 2: https://blog.oup.com/2016/02/hank-greenspan-time-cole-part-2/

I am eternally grateful to Troy Reeves for taking a chance on me after I showed up hours late to my first interview, to Kathy Nasstrom for constant encouragement, to Caitlin Tyler-Richards for teaching me how to twitter, and to all the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet in this gig.

A few of Caitlin’s favorite things

Before we sign off for the last time, the outgoing #OHR staff want to toot our own horns one last time. Below Caitlin Tyler-Richards, our first Social Media whiz, relives some of her favorites from her time at the journal.

Obviously, I have to include my first piece for the OHR blog. While I am still proud to have published something on such a public platform, and still believe in the power of #publichistory projects…wow, it has not aged well.

This interview with Jennifer Abraham Cramer, director of Louisiana State University’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, remains one of my favorite pieces. Definitely worth a re-read in the wake of the 2017 summer apocalypse.

In December 2013 I interviewed Claire Payton about conducting #OralHistory in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake & the Haiti Memory Project.

Claire Payton recently returned to Haiti for a DLOC digitization workshop geared towards Haitian librarians and archivists

And last but not least, this post comes the closest to capturing the OHR office’s kind irreverence, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

You can follow Caitlin on Twitter at @ctredits.

Allowing the past to speak

View Post on the OUPblog

Beginning in January a new editorial team will take over the OHR, bringing in some fresh voices and new ideas. Before we hand over the reins, we asked the new team, composed of David Caruso, Abigail Perkiss, and Janneken Smucker, to tell us how they came into the world of oral history. Check out their responses below, and make sure to keep an eye on our social media pages in the coming weeks for more.

David Caruso

It’s really hard to get dead people to talk to you. Séances don’t count. For my doctoral degree at Cornell University I researched the history and use of American military medicine from the Spanish-American War through to the First World War. I buried myself in various archives, digging my way through voluminous folders to find answers to a plethora of questions. I read memos and reports, analyzed admission applications and equipment orders, and pulled out as much information as I could from the century-old records, and then coupled all of those with personal memoirs written in the aftermath of war. But there was no one left alive who could answer my questions directly—I had to use my training in historical research to come up with the most likely truths that the archives and books could provide.

I also had the opportunity to work on smaller, contemporary projects that focused on the history of science, involving both archival research and the chance to actually speak to scientists and engineers. The frustrations I felt when researching the history of American military medicine were nowhere to be found when working on these contemporary projects. Near the end of my graduate career there was a job opportunity at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, an independent, history of science-based research library in Philadelphia. The position entailed interviewing biomedical scientists who received an early-career grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts; I saw it as an opportunity to better understand the history of modern biomedical research funding by talking to the individuals whose work benefitted from that financial support.

I came to oral history not through a formal degree program but by realizing the limitations of traditional historical records, and deciding that I needed to talk to people to understand history better. While working on the biomedical scientists’ project, I ensconced myself in the world of oral history, fortuitously meeting Roger Horowitz when he was a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Roger introduced me to Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, which led me to the Oral History Association.

Abby Perkiss

As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, I studied sociology, history, and creative writing with the intention of carving out a life at the intersection of storytelling and social change. My last year there saw the US invade Iraq, and I undertook an independent senior thesis to examine whether and how Americans were using the memory of Vietnam as a way to understand and engage with the current conflict. My thinking was that I would interview folk singers from the 1960s and contemporary folk singers/singer songwriters, as the creators of collective memory, to see how each cohort was conceiving the situation in Iraq. Over a few months in the spring of 2003, I interviewed more than a dozen musicians, including Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, and Mary Travers. The project was completely flawed, methodologically and conceptually, but I was hooked.

It’s really hard to get dead people to talk to you. Séances don’t count.

From there, I studied documentary writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, and then completed a joint JD/PhD in US history at Temple University. Oral history played a central role in my dissertation research, and continues to define a significant part of my scholarly and pedagogical identity.

Today, I am an Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in New Jersey, where I teach courses in US history, African American history, legal history, and oral and public history. From 2013-2016, I worked with undergrads at Kean to develop a longitudinal oral history project on the relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I will be using those interviews as the backbone of a narrative monograph documenting the uneven recovery of Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coastline.

Janneken Smucker

Looking back over the last 20 years, there’s no specific moment when I began to self-identify as an oral historian, but somehow the method has been a reoccurring theme in my academic career. As a college senior, I interviewed individuals for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College about the origins of the college’s Women’s Studies program. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I then conducted around thirty interviews for my doctoral dissertation research focused on the relationship of Amish quilts to the art market and consumer culture. All of sudden, it felt like I’d become a bit of an oral historian, which made sense since much of my research focused on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and 80s.

I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students at West Chester University to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies. In the spring 2018 semester, I’ll be teaming with WCU colleague Charlie Hardy to teach a new course, Immigration and Digital Storytelling, which will draw on a collection of oral history interviews Charlie conducted in the early 1980s with immigrants who moved to Philadelphia from Europe early in the twentieth century.

Join us in eagerly welcoming the new team in the comments below and on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and Google+.

Featured image credit: Listen by Simon Law. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Engaging with history at #OHA2017

View Post on the OUPblog

By Gabriale Payne

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for all of the best things in life: family, friends, football, and, of course, heaps of delectable food. Few care to spend any time thinking about the myths that underlie American perceptions of the holiday, and even fewer can appreciate how and why this holiday is frequently observed as a day of mourning among many Native Americans. Protests at Standing Rock and throughout the football world have made it much more difficult to sweep the histories of historically marginalized groups under the rug this holiday season. This year, Thanksgiving and its commonly espoused “theology of divine abundance” will not be enough to obscure the histories of inequality and violence America was founded upon.

Like these protests, the presentations I attended during the Oral History Association’s 2017 annual meeting delivered critical historical narratives and resources that can help us to further challenge some of the nationalist myths that obscure the experiences and perspectives of various marginalized communities in American history. These presentations helped to illuminate important lessons we can learn from an engagement with the histories and contemporary concerns of marginalized peoples in the US. In honor of the holiday season, I have put together a short list of what I was most thankful for during OHA2017.

1. OHA 2017 Keynote Address: Jill Lepore, “Joe Gould, Augusta Savage, and Oral History’s Dark Past”

I think most OHA2017 attendees would agree that the real star of Jill Lepore’s keynote address, in addition to Lepore herself, was Augusta Savage. Though Lepore’s talk (and the book it draws on) focused largely on Joe Gould, the ostensible father of oral history, conversations during the Q&A that followed her lecture focused almost exclusively on Augusta Savage and Lepore’s allusions to the years of physical and sexual violence she suffered at the hands of Joe Gould. And, perhaps even more significant was Lepore’s assertion that there were a number of important men involved in protecting Gould from facing any legal consequences for his violent acts against Savage. This story has begun to ring loudly in my ears as a number of influential men in Hollywood–long protected by their status and associations with other prominent men in the business–tumble down from their pedestals in the face of women who have been inspired to tell their stories by campaigns like #MeToo. Serendipitously timely, Lepore’s, address helps to advance our knowledge on the subject of women, sexism, and (sexual) violence in American history just as we–as a nation–are finally beginning to grapple with the knowledge that women are subjected to wide-spread and largely accepted forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence on a daily basis. As we begin to deal more fully with this reality and all of its (un)intended e/affects, it will be important to earnestly reflect on how race plays a role in shaping women’s (and men’s) experiences with sexism and sexual violence, and stories like Savages’ will provide us with a critical starting place to do this work.

When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

2. Roundtable 065. Documenting Activism in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock

Everything about this roundtable was superb, however, what I want to share with readers here are links to some of the oral history focused resources roundtable participants have played key roles in establishing for public consumption. These resources would be great sources of information for teachers and researchers alike:

The Documenting the Now project works to ethically collect and preserve “the public’s use of social media for chronicling historically significant events,” and is supported jointly by the University of Maryland, University of California, Riverside (UCR), and Washington University in St. Louis.

Inside the Activists Studio (IAS) is a web-based series that is easily accessible via YouTube and takes inspiration for the interview-styles of the popular television series “Inside the Actors Studio.” Each episode features an interview with activists about their own “political awakening and biography of activism” and is posted online for free and easy access (at least for those with access to a computer and internet).

Invisible to Invincible: Asian Activism in MN, a short documentary film available on YouTube, works to unpack the model minority stereotype while also exploring the history of Asian activism in Minnesota and the US more broadly.

3. Panel 091. Oral History and Critical Pedagogies

Each of the papers presented during this panel were extremely different in their content and subject matter, some presenters sharing insights from their university based institutional ethnographic work and others discussing the use of family oral histories to destabilize neoliberal pedagogies; however, these presentations were tied together by a few underlying ‘truths’ about the significance of oral history to developing critical pedagogies. First, the theme of lost knowledge and/or obscured stories came through in all three papers, as did the real ways that oral history can be used as a tool to bring light to ‘lost’ knowledge or stories of the past. Perhaps more significant, however, are the ways in which each presenter showed us exactly how and why it is so important for teachers, academics, and activists to learn from the communities they work within. In bringing the methods, theories and tools of oral history research into the classroom and other educational spaces, these presenters were able to show us how giving students and teachers the opportunity to bring parts of themselves into their learning environments can enable them to work together to build solidarity and new forms of identity. Thus, the most important truth to be gleaned from the presenters on this panel: When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

What are you thankful for this year? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: ‘Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter’ by Johnny Silvercloud, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

On burnout, trauma, and self-care with Erin Jessee

View Post on the OUPblog

Last week, Erin Jessee gave us a list of critical questions to ask to mitigate risk in oral history fieldwork. Today, we’ve invited Jessee back to the blog to talk more in-depth about her recently published article, “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork,” spotting signs of trauma during interviews, and dealing with the sensitive nature of oral history.

You note that discussion of dangerous or distressing research encounters are common in “corridor talks” among oral historians, yet rarely make it into the scholarly literature. What kind of feedback or reactions have you had from colleagues as you make these conversations more public?  

Since the article went online, I’ve had a handful of emails thanking me for taking the time to write it, as it’s helping oral historians think through the dangers they’ve faced in past projects, and begin assessing potential future dangers. I also presented a few key points from the article at the Oral History Association meeting in Minneapolis, and the responses were entirely positive and supportive of the idea that—particularly given the recent deregulation of oral history in the United States—we can and should be doing more to assess danger in our work. Most oral historians seem to at least recognize the need to be more open about the potential for danger or emotional distress resulting either directly from the difficult narratives to which they’re exposed or from the personal wounds that these narratives reopen. The few resistant individuals tend to come from other fields, and object on the grounds that it wrongly detracts attention away from our participants. I understand this concern, but I think we need to find a balance between acknowledging the potentially negative impact our research can have on our mental and physical health—ideally, to create an environment that offers practitioners who are struggling more support—while still privileging participants’ narratives.

How can oral historians do a better job of spotting signs of trauma in each other, and responding positively?  

This is important, because I get the impression that many oral historians feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit when their physical and mental health has been negatively impacted by their research. Many of us are navigating heavy workloads, and it doesn’t seem practical to suggest that we all undertake formal training in counselling. Likewise, we may not all be in positions where we’re able or willing to take on the often-unpaid emotional labor that is demanded of us in helping our colleagues process personal or work-related crises, particularly when it extends beyond a momentary bad mood or emergency. But there are things we can do in our professional lives that can make it easier for us to support our colleagues when they’re in distress or minimize the potential for that distress to occur in the first place. For example, Beth Hudnall Stamm’s tips for self-care are helpful for resilience-planning in advance of fieldwork but also include small acts that people can incorporate into their everyday lives. Over time they can help to make them not only more aware of the sources of stress and harm they navigate in their work, research, and personal lives, but also make us more supportive and empathetic colleagues and coworkers.

Because of the sensitive nature of your work, some of the life histories you record must ultimately be destroyed. Have you had any difficulty navigating that reality with narrators who want to have their full story told, or institutions and scholars that want access to the primary data?   

Because I’ve incorporated a very thorough informed consent process throughout my fieldwork, and most of the people I’ve interviewed are intimately familiar with the potential risks they face in participating in the research project, I haven’t encountered any resistance from participants to destroying the interviews we’ve conducted in the past. I should note, however, that the destruction of these interviews was a requirement of the ethics committee at the university where I conducted my doctoral studies, the underlying research design for which underwent review in 2007. I haven’t heard of any researchers in recent years being required to destroy their fieldwork data. Indeed, current best practices seem to allow for the anonymization of any materials that contain personally identifying information, and limited archiving—usually closed to the public and future researchers unless permission is given by the original researcher and/or participants.

That said, with the push to demonstrate positive public impact in academic research, I have noticed some tensions between researchers, and university administration and funding agencies. In the UK, universities often maintain online repositories in which oral historians are expected to deposit their interviews, as well as associated publications, to comply with open access requirements. Funding agencies can, as a starting point, require researchers to make use of these repositories as a condition for applying for funding. The tensions emerge around researchers’ concerns that while these repositories include options for closing sensitive materials to the public, they’re still held online and, as such, are hackable. Researchers’ efforts to remove any personally identifying information prior to depositing data in these repositories doesn’t eliminate the possibility of someone’s face or voice being recognized in the event these materials do find their way into the outside world. As such, researchers who are conducting research on potentially sensitive subject matter often feel they are inappropriate for archiving their data, particularly for older projects in which these online repositories were not discussed as a potential means of archiving or dissemination for the interviews entrusted to us.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here? 

The US Oral History Association (OHA) has formed a Task Force charged with revisiting the organization’s Principles and Best Practices in light of deregulation and the increasingly authoritarian political climate in the US. The Task Force will be presenting the revised best practices for discussion at the OHA meeting in Montréal in October 2018. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Oral History Society and the Oral History Network of Ireland are organizing what will undoubtedly be an important conference in June 2018 on Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities, and Rewards. This means there will be lots of opportunities for oral historians to publically discuss the challenges they face in their research, as well as strategies for more effectively anticipating and managing danger, regardless of where and with whom they are conducting interviews.

What self-care strategies do you utilize? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Exhaustion” by Jessica Cross. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Six questions to ask before you hit record

View Post on the OUPblog

By Erin Jessee

Erin Jessee’s article “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork” in the most recent issue of the OHR provides a litany of practical advice about mitigating risk and promoting security. The entire article is well worth a read, but for the blog we’ve asked Jessee to provide us a list of some of the most important questions for oral historians to think about in evaluating and limiting exposure to risk. Enjoy the response below, and make sure to check out the complete article, where Jessee dives more deeply into the problem and offers an important perspective on the relationship between danger and oral history fieldwork. And make sure to come back to the blog in a couple of weeks for part two of our conversation with Jessee, where we talk about best practices, spotting signs of trauma, the ethics of open access, and more!

The most important thing that oral historians can do is network to establish a community of scholars/practitioners who have experience working in the communities or areas where you plan to conduct your research and who might be more keenly aware of the potential dangers you’ll need to address. It’s particularly important to speak with people who share at least some facets of your identity in terms of gender identity, class background, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, sexuality, and so on, to better determine how your identity—as perceived by the people you’ll be working closely with—might shape or limit your research and the kinds of questions you can ask. Similarly, in my experience it’s important to evaluate the information that is freely revealed in the course of conversations with experienced scholars/practitioners, but also to consider the silences that might be emerging. Not all scholars/practitioners are comfortable speaking openly about the problems they’ve encountered in their research—particularly if it stems from some real or perceived error on their part—and so these areas of silence can be crucial for anticipating where you might experience potential pitfalls.

To help oral historians anticipate risk, I’d suggest asking the following:

  1. Who are the ideal people within and beyond academia to speak to about my intended research project? In drawing up your list, be sure to consider not only who might constitute ‘experts’ in terms of their overall publication record in relevant fields, but in terms of recent on-the-ground experience conducting qualitative research within and beyond academia. Additionally, consider what is the most appropriate way to approach them for advice.
  2. How might different facets of my identity be perceived by the people I intend to work with?These can shape how people respond to you in interviews and more generally.
  3. Where am I encountering silences? Listen closely during the background research and early conversations you conduct, and consider the extent to which any emergent silences might indicate additional areas of risk or danger that are important to evaluate further prior to starting my fieldwork.

Oral historians should also take the time to consider the various ways that they might be vulnerable within their research projects, and identify the resources available to them in their immediate surroundings aimed at helping them maintain positive mental and physical health. I’d suggest the following questions as starting points:

  1. In what ways might this research project negatively impact my mental and physical health?Think not only about the obvious stressors related to workload and deadlines, but also ways in which your personal experiences and deeply held values might render you vulnerable to transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burn-out, for example, as well as physical danger.
  2. What resources are available to me in my community that I can draw upon to help maintain positive mental and physical health? It’s important to consider not only health services associated with the universities and organizations that you’re working with, but also options external to our places of work, such as 24-hour help lines, community support groups, and so on.
  3. What are some everyday activities that I find enjoyable and relaxing, and that take my mind off my work/research? Focus on arranging your day/week/month to include these activities frequently enough to maximize your potential for resilience throughout the project.

As researchers, it’s important that we incorporate self-care strategies into our everyday lives throughoutresearch projects—not just once we begin to experience poor mental or physical health.

What risks have you encountered in fieldwork, and what strategies have you developed to mitigate them? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Risk Word Letters Boggle Game” by Wokandapix. CC0 via Pixabay.

Erin Jessee is a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Armed Conflict and Trauma (Modern History) at the University of Glasgow, and a research associate with the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde.

Older Posts

Oral History Review

OHR on Twitter

css.php