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Oral history and empathy at the Women’s March on Washington

Today we continue our series on oral history and social change by turning to our friends at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) at the University of Florida. A group of SPOHP students and staff traveled to the Women’s March on Washington this January as part of an experiential learning project. Their recordings captured a snapshot of a divided America, and the project aims to use oral history to encourage empathy. Check out the reflections from two members of the project below, and enjoy their special podcast from the march below.

Holland Hall:

One of the most spontaneous interactions I experienced during our three-day fieldwork trip to Washington, D.C., to document the Women’s March on Washington occurred in the lobby of our hotel in Arlington, Virginia. On the night of President Trump’s inauguration, while we were discussing our fieldwork strategies for the following day in our hotel lobby, a woman stuck her head in our circle to ask, “Are you all protesting tomorrow?” Enthused by her interest in our group and feeling her excitement for the Women’s March on Washington the following day, I greeted the woman, Alyson Aleman, and informed her that we were a research group from the University of Florida. After hearing that we were in Washington to document the inauguration and Women’s March, she told me about her family and how extraordinary of a moment this was for her parents specifically.

Her parents had been divorced for over two decades, and her family’s trip to the Women’s March on Washington was the first time they were coming together as a family for an extended period since separating. Meeting this family and hearing their story not only hinted at how momentous of an event the march was going to be, but this introduction also beautifully displayed the oftentimes whimsical nature of oral history research. We were able to sit with three generations of this Connecticut family to gather their thoughts regarding the overall 2016-election cycle and why they were compelled to attend the Women’s March on Washington in response to the election of Donald Trump.

What made this interview so enjoyable for me to conduct as a researcher was creating this recording with a family during such a momentous time for not only the nation, but for their family. Ms. Aleman also brought her young daughter along to the march to instill in her that she is able to own her voice and to express her opinions freely. Another striking point Ms. Aleman brought up during our interview was the importance of the work we were doing as a research team, and how such material can be used to inspire the primary ingredient for social change: empathy.

While the family discussed the many ways empathy can be encouraged, Ms. Aleman’s husband, Karl Odden, actually highlighted where oral history comes in to play in the process of building empathy for others. Mr. Odden spoke about needing to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to gain authentic empathy for others from different walks of life. He noted that self-educating on the lived experiences of others is the most effective way to gain the understanding necessary to be able to empathize with others. Our research team sought to collect diverse perspectives from a broad spectrum of identities in the hopes that this digital material can be used to educate and inspire, as well as assist in the collective goal to build more empathy for one another as a nation.

It was 19 January, and my group had just finished our first day of fieldwork in Washington, DC. As the streets began to darken, we stumbled, sore and tired, into a food court next to the National Press Club. We’d passed a few people dressed up in prom attire – “They’re celebrating the inauguration, they’re holding parties,” my colleague Marcela explained – but hadn’t quite realized that we were directly next to the largest inaugural ball event in the city. When we emerged from the food court, we stepped into the protest burgeoning outside of the “DeploraBall.”

Alexandra Weis:

Frantically, we sprang into action, trying to capture as much footage as possible. We filmed as protesters used a floodlight to project the words: “Impeach the Predatory President! Bragging About Grabbing a Woman’s Genitals” on the otherwise pristine and sculpted face of the National Press Club. Nearby, someone inflated a giant white elephant labeled “RACISM.” The energy in the crowd of hundreds was urgent – people were palpably frightened, outraged, and desperate. We spoke to several members of an anti-fascist group shouting ill omens of the inauguration day to come. We interviewed a queer transgender woman who defiantly held up a trans pride flag against religious extremist counter-protesters. Amid the chaos, the interviewees made their concerns known: Trump and Pence are illegitimate, they emphasized over and over. Protect marginalized folks, they insisted. They were people for whom these issues were undeniably real; their lives were political not because they sought out politics, but because for them, there was no alternative to social justice.

For me, this was not only the first day of fieldwork for our trip, but the first day of fieldwork ever. As a graduate student in Gender Studies with a background in psychology, I had little experience doing hands-on research. I was passionate about social justice in my everyday life, but struggled to incorporate it into my academic practice. This first day threw me headfirst into the oral history process. People were struggling to be heard, crying out about the ways they were hurting. When I asked what brought them to the protests, people told me repeatedly and almost unanimously: they were scared for themselves, but also for their neighbors and their country. Given a platform, they were eager to explain their perspectives. As Audre Lorde wrote in her poem A Litany For Survival: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard, nor welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid.” The act of speaking out can be revolutionary, but it is our job as scholars to openly listen and welcome the raw honesty, turmoil, and complexity that accompanies the moment in social movement history.

These reflections and recordings are part of the larger Women’s March on Washington Archives project, run by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and others at the University of Florida. For more from SPOHP, find them on Facebook, Twitter, or their homepage. To submit your own piece on oral history and social change, check out our CFP.

Featured image credit: “Alex and Celina” by Holland Hall, from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, used with permission.

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