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.