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Oral history for youth in the age of #BlackLivesMatter

The #OHMATakeover of the OHR blog comes to a close as Andrew Viñales discusses the benefits of youth listening to activists in their communities. Thanks for following along as we invited our East Coast colleagues to shake things up a little, and come back in August for a return to our regularly scheduled program. For more from Columbia’s oral history program, visit them online or follow their blog.

As students in Columbia University’s OHMA program we are often urged to consider Oral History projects that not only serve to archive interviews for future use, but that “do something.” Indeed, many in my fellow cohort, myself included, have participated in community organizing, activism, and pushing for social change. On Thursday 24 March 2016, Paul Ortiz presented his talk “Oral History in the age of Black Lives Matter” as part of the OHMA workshop series. In the talk, he presented much of the work he and his students at the University of Florida are conducting, within the frame of the current political climate. He says what is special about this political climate is that young people, particularly students, are asking if they see a place for themselves in the world. I related heavily to this as a young student also interested in using oral history for social change. Ortiz provided many examples of how he and his students have used oral history to not only document the lives of people fighting for social justice, but also as a tool to inspire young people to act. He gave an example of his students being connected to former members of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movements. Many of his students maintained contact with these civil rights veterans as they pursued their own activism and community organizing.

I was inspired to consider the possibilities of experienced activists and community organizers participating in public oral histories with young folks. This is already being done with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. As part of their Mississippi Freedom Project they have facilitated interviews with residents of the Mississippi Delta, and veterans of the civil rights movement. One of the most impressive outcomes of this project was the community investment in McComb, Mississippi, in which high school students were able to experience the history of the SNCC and Freedom Summer by listening to folks who lived through it. Not only was this a more tangible way to learn the history, but it was a chance for high school students to draw connections with what is going on in the world around them. If they could see people who were their age in the 1960s actively participating in civil disobedience, planning actions and celebrating victories, perhaps some would be moved to participate in current struggles. In fact, as Ortiz mentioned in his talk, some of the participants in that program went back to Florida and founded their local chapter of the Dream Defenders!

What is special about this political climate is that young people, particularly students, are asking if they see a place for themselves in the world.

As for myself, a young Afro-Latinx who grew up in the Bronx and attended high school on the campus of Hostos Community College, I was always surrounded by active participants in social movements. I knew I went to school in a place that existed because of activism including the Hostos Take Over, but I would have benefitted from listening to the these veterans. Although I’m sure not all students would be too pleased to attend a lecture, assembly or class in which an interviewer takes a life history approach to get a narrator’s story, I can imagine a wealth of creativity to make this an active and participatory oral history project.

“Black Lives Matter” by Gerry Lauzon, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

A great example of a community based youth program using oral history is the McComb Legacies Project in McComb, Mississippi which collaborates regularly with the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. According to the McComb Legacies Project website they aim to give youth an “opportunity to learn about, document, and share their local civil rights movement and labor history” and with this history they urge the students to “examine and take action to improve their world today.” In essence, they use oral history to not only archive the important history of the civil rights movement, but to inspire the youth to participate in social movements relevant to them. The best part is the participants seem to enjoy it! Students were even able to work with the Urban School of San Francisco, and the Telling their Stories Oral History Archives Project, to film and transcribe interviews they conducted with McComb veterans of the civil rights movement. For an example of the work McComb students have done, please see their interview with Ms. Jacqueline Byrd Martin, note that in “Part 4” Ms. Martin describes her experiences being arrested and traveling around the country to bring light to what was going on in her Mississippi community.

The McComb Legacies Project, and the Telling their Stories Oral History Archives Project have developed what I believe could be a great tool for oral historians to not only inform students of important local history, but as a way for them to understand that the civil rights movement has never ended, that social justice movements always build from movements of the past. As an oral historian doing work in the age of Black Lives Matter, I believe this approach can be a crucial tool in getting people to contextualize the world around them, but also encourage them to act!

This post was originally published on the OHMA blog. Add your voice the conversation by chiming into the discussion in the comments below, or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: “Photograph of Butler Library, Columbia University’s largest single library.” by JSquish, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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