Community Centered Storytelling: The Relationship Between Oral Histories and Social Cohesion

Oral history has deep roots in activism, with practitioners focused on how the method can build community and lead to social change. Next week’s Oral History Association’s annual meeting centers on the theme of “Pathways in the Field: Considerations for those Working In, On, and Around Oral History,” exploring various modes of working in oral history. Here, staff at the Muslim American Leadership Alliance demonstrate how the Muslim American Journeys project contributes to grassroots community building.

By Ahmed Flex Omar, Deputy Director and Andrew McDonald, Operations Manager

The collection, preservation, and sharing of oral histories is often regarded as an academic pursuit. But it is also a powerful tool for grassroots community building.  By orienting oral history collection and curation to serve communities, our groundbreaking project provides our constituencies with the agency to write and share their own histories, informed by a constellation of unique individual narratives. 

Since 2015, the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA) has existed as platform for Muslim Americans to share their stories in their own life experiences and journeys.  These stories comprise the Muslim American Journeys project: an oral history collection featuring over 500 narratives from individuals representing a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and fluid identities. Through a community partnership with StoryCorps, we archive the oral histories at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

MALA’s approach to storytelling and oral history collection focuses on how stories can be a resource for the communities who contribute to the project.  Whereas, many oral history initiatives pursue stories for their significance as tools for academic research, the Muslim American Journeys project views stories as unique cultural artifacts that emphasize community cohesion. Oral history is a powerful tool because it allows us both a macro and micro view into a diverse, vibrant community.  Stories offer insight into common experiences, struggles, and triumphs, while preserving the individuality of each perspective.  This is an asset that is useful to a range of fields, and it exists as an accessible resource for the communities who participate. 

Holistically, MALA provides members of our community with a platform to speak for themselves and numerous opportunities to represent themselves and the issues that are relevant to them. Through our oral histories and community programs, our objective is to sustain a healthy, pragmatic and empowering Muslim American organization.

MALA’s methodology does not prompt interviewees to focus on particular events, people, or experiences. Thus, MALA’s approach to interviewing and oral history collection focuses on autonomy of the storyteller.  Rather, our interviews take a conversational form and follow the direction set by the interviewee. Prompt questions focus on the interviewee’s perspective on identity, community, family, and other themes that connect our human experiences.  By placing the interviewee in the driver’s seat, MALA encourages Muslim community members to collectively paint their own history, and share their own stories. 

In order to build and curate oral histories that represent communities with honesty, candor, and vibrancy, it is crucial that historians and institutions take an active role in their communities.  As such, MALA maintains a strong commitment to partnership building and engagement. We do this by hosting regular programming in Washington DC, Chicago, and New York that brings people together to learn, share, and celebrate. The organization’s central theme lies in its bedrock to build, grow, and strengthen our rich, diverse communities. MALA has created and sponsored Community Builders Councils, made up of influential and diverse community leaders, mentors, artists, philanthropists, and organizers.  The Community Builders Councils convene monthly and advise MALA leadership on new developments, key issues, and unique projects in their communities. Through the construction of the Community Builders Councils, and a commitment to accessible and engaging programming, MALA has worked hard to play an active role in the communities that our oral history project serves.  This is an important step to building trust, and ensures that MALA is part of a continuing dialogue with the communities represented by the Muslim American Journeys project.

Watch an excerpt from Ahmed “Flex” Ohmar’s oral history.  

MALA also seeks to expand our community engagement by sharing our platform with new demographics and communities.  The most effective way to build a detailed image of Muslim lives, stories, and identities in America is to include as many perspectives as possible.  In accordance with this, MALA invites practicing Muslims, as well as cultural Muslims and folks who identify with Muslim heritage, ranging from orthodox Muslims, to atheists, to converts, and beyond to contribute to the project.  By creating a platform that is broad, accepting, and safe, MALA seeks to bring together a rich and diverse amalgamation of voices. 

Our hope is to continue our community mobilization events and oral history programs in order to support storytelling, heritage, and fostering pride in identity among the Muslim American community. These narratives, which will now be preserved for generations to come, offer insight into the multifaceted and dynamic layers of Muslim American experiences. They also open the door to cultivate new leadership within our community.

Ahmed Flex Omar in the Deputy Director of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance. He coordinates MALA’s Muslim American Journey’s oral history project, in partnership with StoryCorps. A native of Somaliland before growing up in United Arab Emirates, before immigrating to Chicago, he’s currently an active member of the Chicago Leadership Alliance. He is the recipient of the Presidential Service Award, bestowed by President Barack Obama in November 2016. Listen to his StoryCorps narrative.

Andrew McDonald is the organization’s Operations Manager. Originally from the New Hampshire Seacoast, Andrew began working with MALA as an intern in Spring 2017. He joined the team in September 2018 as a Program Associate. Andrew recently finished his B.A. at Hampshire College, where he designed his course of study in Political Islam and Geopolitical identity in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  Andrew is passionate about the transformative art of storytelling, and the importance of community dialogue.  He works remotely to coordinate MALA’s Muslim American Journeys project, and provide support for other national MALA programming.

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Featured image courtesy of MALA.