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Tending the roots: a response to Daniel Kerr

Here at the OHR blog we love a good origin story, where we get to hear firsthand how one of our colleagues fell in love with oral history, and how they use their own backgrounds and experiences to inform their practice. Sometimes, the people we hear from are drawn to oral history because it’s a place “where history really matters.” Sometimes oral history sits at an interesting intersection, a good place from which to hope. Other times, oral history is a way to build something meaningful from a disaster.  Today we hear from Allison Corbett, who explains her own radical roots and why it’s important to acknowledge the diverse experiences that enable us to listen to each other.

As a young person, I spent several hours a week learning with a group of immigrants who did maintenance work at a local golf course in Virginia. Supposedly, I was helping them learn English. I did do some of that. A lot of what I did, though, was learn. Their lives, which transpired alongside my own upper middle class white existence in my hometown, were composed of realities about which I had no idea before.

Shortly after I started to get to know these workers the local professor who was facilitating this experience introduced me to the work of Paulo Freire. Freire’s work shifted my understanding of the work that I was doing, and transformed my understanding of exchange across power differences. It taught me that any sound analysis of social in/justice and vision for lasting change must come from those directly affected.

When I went to college I continued to run adult English classes, and also began to volunteer as a community interpreter.  Years later, when I began to do oral history work, I did so with these foundational experiences in mind. Freire’s approach to popular education, which I contemplated through my weekly sessions in college, and later as a facilitator at a neighborhood community center in Chicago, greatly influenced my framework for working with people in oppressed communities. It helped fuel my own curiosity about what other people made of their lives and realities, and it gave me a critical lens with which to view so much of the “helping work” I saw around me.

The popular education center where I worked in Chicago had roots in Freirian philosophy, but was also founded by Myles Horton’s daughter, Amy Horton, and so was infused by the learning circles of the Highlander Folk School. I eventually left the world of adult education, but I did so to pursue the same principles and ethics that grounded my work there: a belief that people’s stories matter, and that when people are given space and encouraged to tell their stories and analyze them together, community transformation can be possible.

My work now straddles the worlds of interpreting and oral history. Both are specialized forms of listening and transmitting stories across difference. Both have the power to support self-determination and societal transformation. The current incarnation of this dual practice for me is The Language of Justice, an oral history project documenting the stories of interpreters who facilitate multilingual movement building across the country, a practice and ethic known as “language justice.”

These interviews have also brought me full circle back to popular education. One of the first places in the US to intentionally create multilingual grassroots spaces and train social justice interpreters was in fact the Highlander Center for Research and Education, formerly known as the Highlander Folk School.

While conducting interviews for the Language of Justice, I traveled to Highlander for the first time and met with others who now facilitate language justice circles in Western North Carolina. I was humbled and honored to be reminded of the traditions that originally sent me off in the direction of oral history as well as the deep listening that these practitioners were engaging in as part of their work.

He also reminded me that as I and others seek to engage with communities beyond the archive, and often wring our hands about what good it can do to “just” stimulate dialogue in the pursuit of some abstract embodiment of “empathy,” there are generations of folks out there who have been using storytelling and listening as the basis for deep-rooted community change, to whom we can turn to for example.

Shortly after returning from my visit to Highlander, I sat down to read Daniel Kerr’s article: “Allan Nevins is Not My Grandfather: Radical Roots of Oral History Practice in the United States.” I was already pondering the roots of popular education in my own oral history work, but the article helped demonstrate that these roots were critical to the development of the radical oral history practice that I aspire to.

Kerr affirmed what I felt to be true in my own path to oral history. He also reminded me that as I and others seek to engage with communities beyond the archive, and often wring our hands about what good it can do to “just” stimulate dialogue in the pursuit of some abstract embodiment of “empathy,” there are generations of folks out there who have been using storytelling and listening as the basis for deep-rooted community change, to whom we can turn to for example.

By acknowledging this history, we allow ourselves to make connections with valuable alternatives to the archival, university-focused model that Nevins embodies.

Featured image credit: Photo by Allison Corbett, unidentified artist, La Estación Vieja, La Plata, Argentina, 2014.

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