At the 2014 OHA Annual Meeting, the African American Oral History Program at Story For All received the prestigious Vox Populi Award, one of the highest honors in the oral history world. Today on the blog we hear from Angela Zusman, the project’s Founder and Executive Director, about the inspiration for her work, as well as successes and lessons learned. Story For All has achieved important victories, building coalitions with local partners and officials that promote shared understanding and meaningful change.
Can you describe what a typical Story For All project or workshop looks like? What is it about your approach that makes it unique?
At Story For All, our goal is to expose disenfranchised communities to the power of oral history for the purpose of healing, building skills, elevating an authentic narrative, and ultimately transforming communities and systems through policy reform. We do this by training community members in oral history methodology, then supporting them in recording, archiving, and reflecting on their own communities’ stories and wisdom through art, dialogue, policy recommendations, and public presentations. Our process was designed with the understanding that the sharing of stories through oral history has multiple beneficial impacts, especially for historically marginalized communities whose stories, values, and cultures have been subsumed by the often-negative narratives promoted by the dominant culture. As stories have been weaponized to use against such communities, our narrative change approach is literally a method for individuals and communities to take back their story, as well as their culture. Additionally, by supporting communities in documenting their own stories, we create a culture of storytellers, like the griots of West Africa. Instead of the stories and wisdom being extracted from the community, they reside within the hearts and minds of present and future community leaders.
Using storytelling to heal is a key part of your work. Can you talk about what that looks like in practice? How does your curriculum enable healing, and what kind of results have you seen?
We all know how powerful it can be when we are listened to. Think about it. Think about a time when you were really listened to. How did that make you feel? Empowered, important, relevant, cared about. For many of the people we work with, especially youth of color and immigrants, this respectful attention is revolutionary in and of itself. Too many young people tell us that this is the first time they have ever been asked what they think about anything. So, our storytelling programs, whether they last an hour or a year, always incorporate multiple levels of acknowledgement so people feel heard. Then there is the listening component. Oral historians are great listeners, and a lot of our projects’ skill building revolves around listening, asking questions, and reflecting on what was said. The healing power of listening might best be summed up by this experience of one our youth participants, who said, “It helped me so much to hear that other people have gone through similar things as me, or even worse. I don’t feel so alone.” On a community level, when we are able to share the oral histories and associated data through exhibits, videos, books and reports, the impact on the community can be equally healing. For example, we created a survey for people who visited our R.O.O.T.S. exhibit last month in the Mississippi Delta. 94% of people reported that the R.O.O.T.S. exhibit made them feel hopeful about the future of youth of color in their community. Especially in communities mired in multi-generational poverty, hope may be the most powerful healer and motivator of all.
The SHINE program takes your work into local communities, empowering young men of color to make their voices heard. How did the program begin, and what was especially attractive about the cities you’re currently working in?
In 2012, we were blessed to design and facilitate a Listening Campaign for African American young men in Oakland. This was a life-changing experience for me personally. When I started the project, I thought I had an idea about what life was like for these young men, many of whom lived within a few blocks of me. After listening to their stories, the bubble of white privilege that I had unconsciously existed within was officially burst. These brave young men, and their stories, forced me to see the world in a new way. I also watched them blossom as they were nudged to share their stories and get out there in the community to listen to, and then represent, their peers. Over the following months, the project data helped to inform a new Public Safety plan for the City of Oakland. We began getting calls and emails from young men, mothers, educators and others around the country, asking us to bring the project to their town so the voices of their young men could also be heard. This type of project was the reason I founded Story For All, so we have focused most of our resources on answering the call.
One of your goals in Sunflower County is to put young African-American men in contact with teachers, police officers, and those with legislative powers to involve everyone in on the conversation. How do you introduce these conversations and what kind of results have you seen from the program so far?
We have been blessed to partner with the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and others in a coalition created to disrupt the school to prison pipeline in the Mississippi Delta. Our partners had done an excellent job of building and unifying this coalition of stakeholders around the common goal of supporting young men of color by instigating school discipline reform. All of the project partners had deep ties in the community, giving our oral history project credibility and community buy-in. So when our interview team showed up at the courthouse with their iPads and microphones, when we called the Police Chief to come over for an interview, when we stopped community members in the streets to ask if they would share their stories, they were generally amenable. Many of them already knew about the project, and those who didn’t were often genuinely happy to see the youth out in the community asking good questions. This in fact is a key component to the narrative change – it’s not just about telling a new story, it’s about these young men being seen in a new way.
Now, as the project moves from data collection to policy reform, the oral histories have lifted up so many community voices that it’s hard for the data to be ignored. One of my favorite impact stories involves a leader of the participating school district. She came to one of the community meetings and was given a copy of our R.O.O.T.S. data report. As my colleague described it, the leader took that report into the back corner and buried her face in it for over an hour. When she emerged, she was clearly very moved. She offered her full support for the reforms being recommended, some of which were quite controversial, because, as she said, “I really see the whole community being represented here.” Her experience encapsulates what we are trying to achieve – lifting up community voices in ways that are authentic and emotionally compelling to motivate and inform policy change.
In additional to policy change, we are also very interested in contributing to scholarly study and the collection of affirmative-based data around young men of color. The Griots of Oakland oral histories are archived at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, and the R.O.O.T.S. oral histories are being archived at Jackson State University’s prestigious Margaret Walker Center so that scholars and others around the world can learn from these communities.
And finally – the youth! I am inspired by the 19 young men who walked this R.O.O.T.S. journey, and came up with the name R.O.O.T.S., which stands for “Reclaiming Our Origins Through Story.” I watched them grow, literally and figuratively, as they formed friendships with each other, learned their history, branched out into the community, and became the spokespeople for the project, school discipline reform, and the greatness of our youth of color. They have emerged from this project more grounded, more confident, and more visionary than before. They have learned whose shoulders they stand upon, and how they can contribute to make this world a better place. This is what our work is all about.
Do you think recent political and social events have changed the project or its reception?
Under Obama, there was an explicit, collective effort to improve health, academic and career outcomes for boys and young men of color. Importantly, there was increased recognition of the impact of systemic racism, as enacted through school discipline policies, mass incarceration, lack of educational opportunity, pervasive negative narratives, and other attributes of modern day slavery. The Black Lives Matter movement and mass protests around police brutality brought national awareness to racial inequities and the impact on our society. People were getting woke! And then came…the next administration. Immigrants, the environment, Muslims, women, etc., all came under attack. Resources disappeared or got scattered. Racism exposed itself brutally and unapologetically. The hope I hold onto is that this administration is exposing the festering wounds of this nation. Only when a problem is exposed can it be solved. Racism and inequity are issues each of us must address, personally and in community, in order for our nation to live up to its promise and potential. As the late, great Viola Liuzzo said, “It’s everybody’s fight.” Are we up for it? Time will tell.
Have you had any particularly memorable successes or frustrations with the project?
We have had our share of successes and frustrations. When I see the light go on in a child’s eyes, I see success. When a shy young man evolves into a dynamic leader, I see success. When a group of teenagers crowds around an elder to hear his stories, I see success. When the stories and wisdom of historically oppressed peoples are celebrated and promoted, I see success. When policies are created that represent a community’s needs, I see success. All this success I have seen as a result of our work at Story For All, and it keeps us going. On the other hand, the greatest frustration comes not from those whom we oppose, but from our supposed partners. The non-profit business model is unsustainably competitive, funders change their priorities, and an unfortunate number of partners seem to be more invested in their own PR than in real change. Good people get bogged down. Innovation is underfunded. I could go on. Suffice it to say: when we talk about systemic issues, they really are systemic, and it’s going to take long-term collective action locally, regionally and nationally for there to be real change. I am incredibly humbled by the great people who have come before me and those I get to interact with every day. I believe that together we can make this change, and I will do my part.
Featured image credit: “Griots of Oakland interview team, Oakland, 2013” by Mi Zhou