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Oral history and social justice

The #OHMATakeover of the OHR blog continues as Sara Loose explains her origins in oral history and how the skills and perspectives she gained at Columbia have influenced her career so far. Stay tuned to the OHR blog throughout the month of July for additional pieces from OHMA students and alumni, 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.

How did you become interested in oral history?

I conducted my first oral history with a U.S. Catholic bishop who had been active in the Salvadoran solidarity movement in the 1980s for an undergraduate history paper. But I really fell in love with the power and practice of the field when I moved to El Salvador in 2001 to coordinate a multi-year, participatory oral history project exploring one rural community’s experiences in popular education during the country’s civil war.

How did you hear about OHMA?

After a long stint working as a community organizer and popular educator in the Pacific Northwest, I was eager to more fully integrate oral history into my organizing practice and further develop my skills as an interviewer. I found OHMA through an internet search!

Tell us a little about your master’s thesis.

In 2011, I organized a two-day gathering of some fifteen activist oral historians to share our experiences and explore the possibilities of oral history as a method for movement building and social change. Eventually, that gathering grew into Groundswell, now a national network of over 600 oral historians, activists, cultural workers, organizers, and documentary artists who work at the intersections of oral history and social justice.

Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable.      

I relished the quiet, early mornings sitting in a rocking chair in my Washington Heights apartment, listening to interviews and doing course readings—and then rushing off from a thought-provoking class discussion on interviewing ethics to catch a bus to the suburbs of D.C. to convivir and do another round of interviews with Salvadoran immigrants who had come from the community I had worked with there a decade earlier.

Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

Currently, I co-direct Amamantar y Migrar, an oral history/organizing project exploring the connections between motherhood and migration and, more specifically, the impacts of immigration policy and enforcement on breastfeeding practices among immigrant women. I also serve as the co-coordinator for the Groundswell network, together with Amaka Okechukwu.

How are you applying oral history approaches to your work?  

In our project, oral history interviews with immigrant parents serve as the basis for collective analysis to surface barriers that immigrant mothers face in exercising their autonomy in infant-feeding decisions and their potential solutions. From there, we are engaging project narrators in the creation of oral history-based media to share their stories and analysis via forums designed to support grassroots organizing, shift policy, and enact systems change.

What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?  

Rural Organizing Voices is the other major oral history initiative I’ve directed since graduating from OHMA. The project documents and shares the stories, organizing tools, and wisdom amassed through the Rural Organizing Project’s (ROP) history of grassroots, progressive organizing in rural and small town Oregon. Over the course of four years, I worked with a small group of volunteers to record nearly fifty oral history interviews with former and current ROP affiliates.

How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path?      

OHMA provided me with an important theoretical foundation and the opportunity to refine my skills as an interviewer. It also established connections to a broader community of oral history practitioners that has helped ground and propel me forward as I map out a new path for myself and my work as a movement oral historian.

What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field?    

In this emerging field of applied oral history, risk-taking and innovation are central. OHMA is a great place to experiment with new ideas with some solid institutional support and resources behind you.

How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop?  

My hope is that the field will build on its radical foundations to create even more dynamic opportunities for individuals and communities to preserve, share, and interpret their own histories, in ways that actively further the collective liberation of all peoples.

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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