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Down at the crossroads: the intersection of organizing and oral history

In the last few weeks, we have explored the possibilities oral historians have for using their work to create and promote changes in the world around us. Joshua Burford explained how listening to activists of the past helps locate hope and direction in the present. Holland Hall and Alexandra Weis shared their experiences at the Women’s March on Washington, and the power of listening for creating change. Today, Daniel Horowitz Garcia asks where oral history and organizing come together, and how focusing on public engagement can change the structure and value of oral history.

The crossroads, in Southern folklore, represents a place where worlds meet. It is a place where realities collide and deals can be made. Since the 2016 election I have experienced colliding realities on an almost daily basis. Until then my 20 years’ experience as an organizer and my 10 years’ experience in oral history overlapped in areas and at times but for the most part seemed separate. After the November election that is no longer the case.

Within weeks of the election I was interviewing members Project South, a southern-based, movement-building organization I worked for 12 years ago. By the end November 2016 I launched Feeling Political, a podcast about politics, emotions, and action. My original plan was to produce five or six episodes by talking to thinkers and organizers about how they felt about politics and what we should be doing. Instead I produced 11 shows, one bonus episode, and will start the second season this summer.

The premise of the podcast is that not everyone gave up hope because Trump won. In fact, there are many people who did not fundamentally change their basic political strategy because of the presidential election. These people’s optimism and hope about the future is not connected to the electoral process. Of course work adjusts based on different election results, but a Democrat’s loss or a Republican’s win does not alter how marginalized people must approach politics to survive. A fish swims even though there are sharks about, but she learns to swim well. I thought the shock of a Trump presidency was a good time to talk to some of these folks. I asked them three questions: how do they wish to be identified, how do they feel in this political moment, and what’s their advice to someone about what should be done. In addition, I asked anyone who wished to use their phone and email me a voice memo answering the same questions.

The premise of the podcast is that not everyone gave up hope because Trump won.

Asking people how they felt after the election was a powerful question. Through the podcast I found that talking with people affiliated with an organization, such as Project South, was an efficient way to gather interviews but also a collective learning process. I asked past and present board members and staff of Project South my three questions. The audio, ranging from five to eight minutes, will form the basis for a collaboration on political education curriculum incorporating emotions and politics. The goal is to help participants analyze and strategize about their work. This type of partnership will be, hopefully, the frame of the podcast in each season. I am not pretending that a podcast is an organizing or an oral history project. But I have learned from this experience that there is overlap in the skill sets.

Dan Kerr’s 2016 article for the Oral History Review, as well as the accompanying presentation at the OHA 2016 conference, argued there are methods of oral history that do not owe allegiance to Allan Nevins and the Columbia School. Furthermore, Kerr argued that oral history of or in service to an activist project does and should pursue a different methodology than the Nevins school. I thought about that argument when I heard a participant at the OHA conference argue that oral history and organizing do not share a skill set. I believe the participant is objectively wrong, and I think Kerr’s observation about different methodologies explains why someone would make that mistake. Simply put, oral history aimed at improving organizing or facilitating a victory may no longer look like oral history, at least not the academic kind. This doesn’t necessarily make things easier. If the organizing centered, then what happens to oral history standards? The field has spent decades struggling to develop guidelines that protect participants. Protections must exist whether or not Nevins can recognize the project. This is just a single example of complications of combining scholarship with activism. At the crossroads the future is uncertain, so if you show up be ready to make a deal.

Simply put, oral history aimed at improving organizing or facilitating a victory may no longer look like oral history, at least not the academic kind.

Society is changing all the time. Making social change a goal, therefore, does not seem useful. How are people engaging, or not, in change? To what end? These are good questions for the organizer or the oral historian. How do we engage with people and to what end are even better. I haven’t identified as an organizer for years, but the goal of the podcast is to move people to action. The deal I’ve made is that oral history skills, like listening and amplifying people’s voices, is enough to make that happen.

Forgive the Hegelian overtones, but when two realities collide don’t they make something new? Presently, I sit at the crossroads. My realities are colliding, and I am making deals.

Featured image credit: “2017.02.04 No Muslim Ban 2, Washington, DC USA 00521” by Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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