On Sunday, I took part on a conference panel at Left Forum organized by Lesley Wood, on the topic of “Oral History and Movement Building – Strategies and Methodologies.” After consulting with a few of us on facebook, Wood, one of my favorite social movement scholars and organizers, drew up the following abstract:
There is a hunger for radical history – to give credit to past struggles, to learn from our mistakes and to improve our strategies for the future. Oral histories are a popular method. This panel brings together people who want to think about the possibilities, strategies, challenges and implications of movement based oral history projects. Adam King will talk about the use of oral history as a methodology, and consider some questions concerning the production of collective memory, 'reliability', and the social context of narrative and remembering. His work is on miners and labour struggles in Sudbury, Ontario. Nate Prier is an organizer of sorts in migrant justice and indigenous liberation work in Toronto and elsewhere, and is trying to slowly develop a hopefully useful movement archive for a city that kinda needs one. Benjamin Shepard will discuss the use of oral histories about the AIDS and global justice movements to help organizers reflect on the lessons, meanings and future directions of movements and collective organizing efforts. Lesley Wood is part of an activist-initiated oral history project of the People’s Global Action Network. She is thinking through the different ways to make the project useful to movements.
Adam King -- firstname.lastname@example.org, Lesley Wood -- York University, Benjamin Shephard -- CUNY/NYC College of Technology, Nate Prier -- York University, Amy Starecheski -- Oral History Program, Columbia University/ Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change
Left Forum is the largest annual conference of the broad Left in the United States. Each spring thousands of conference participants come together to discuss pressing local, national and global issues; to better understand commonalities and differences, and alternatives to current predicaments; or to share ideas to help build social movements to transform the world.
I have not been at the Left Forum in years. So it was a great surprise to see how many people and how much energy there was in the space. Walking in, the socialists were still peddling their newspapers and a man let me know, “James Earl Ray did not really shoot MLK.” Upstairs, a sign declared: “Trotsky lied and thousands died.” It’s good to see some things do not change in the left.
Walking up to the session, I met Amy Starecheski, the author of Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners. We immediately started talking about the gardens movement and who was where at the auction of Charas El Bohio Community Services Center. Differing accounts offer different names and explanations. Who was not there? And then there are our memories of these moments. It seemed the panel had begun before we even got there.
Lesley, who wrote a wonderful essay with Kelly Moore in our book From ACT to the WTO, introduced our session, asking us to reflect on the uses of oral history for movement work.
Starecheski opened the session discussing what works and does not work with oral history research. Oral history is an area with tremendous potential and challenges. The first challenge involves framing what oral history is; it’s a method for telling stories about the past, long recorded archived interviews. They are retellings of past moments, in the present, intended for the future. They are intended to be heard by others. They are interactive, created by the listening and teller. They are not always consistent. Stories are embellished, with details given and taken, with each retelling. “I’ve told a different story every time I’ve been interviewed,” Starecheski confessed. It is a way to learn how to think about the past going into the future. Good oral histories mix anecdotes and interpretation, abstraction and thinking, making meaning of our analysis. For example, she pointed to the Groundswell oral history for social change program.
The limits of the method are many. For example, it takes a lot of time to interview someone and transcribe the interviews. And it is not as fundable. It produces different findings. It is hard to generalize with these stories. They produce different findings. To balance out contradictory accounts produces complex narratives. They do not produce sound bites. As Francesca Polletta points out, oral histories produce complicated stories.
They are a great tool for building empathy and larger structural forces, forming a bigger we. They are a great way to learn from past organizers and build intergenerational knowledge. Yet, claiming the authority of stories is hard in a world that puts a premium on quantitative knowledge. Numbers and statistics are the currency of the realm of much of social science and medical research. But there are other ways of knowing, which oral histories help demonstrate. This is a method that is full of affective power. It is a great way of learning and building relationships and consciousness raising.
Starecheski offered a number a wonderful resources, including upcoming workshops, groups, and guidelines for exemption for oral history from IRB’s.
Nate Prier offered a lovely overview of an oral history project around No One is Illegal in Toronto, trying to build movement history and preserve it. Adam King reflected on a study he conducted of union members reflecting on a union campaign in which differing people have strikingly divergent accounts. What happens, he asked? Are we saving face? You have to deal with tensions between divergent accounts. It is our job to help make the stories and differing accounts divergent. Memory is socially mediated, he explained. It is narrated. And this is subject to power. These stories are not just objects of the past but are social phenomena that help shape the future.
Throughout the event, audience members asked wonderful questions about ethics and approaches to protecting sources and supporting alternative forms of knowledge production, which favor different kinds of stories and accounts of activists from multiple points of view. We talked about ways to include more voices, inviting impacted community members to help identify questions. Listening, I recalled the conflicts between narrative and historical truth I first grappled with twenty years ago in my research. I was going to go on Studs Terkel’s show in Chicago. But it did not happen. So I listened to Studs interview Tennessee Williams, who reflected on Blanche Dubois, who famously argued, “I do not tell the truth, I tell what ought to have happened,” in Street Car Named Desire.
It is our obligation as oral histories and supporters of movements to protect those who are sharing their stories, remembering people are in jail, and we cannot create evidence that might keep them there longer. On the other hand, we are not supporters of propaganda. Instead of sugarcoating, we need to learn from the past errors, collective dynamics, and contradictions that inform conflicts. We need to include these contradictions and make sense of them. Oral histories need to happen.
I was the last to speak at the panel. I recalled some of the heroes and friends from my quarter century of Oral History research. My first oral history was with my father about the Beat Generation in which he was a member. That realization that history was everywhere around us, and we could each play a role, and have an impact, that changed my life. I began the session recalled the Holocaust Oral History Project and the Pitzer History Project which taught me methods during my historiography class senior year. The rest was and is, as they say, history.
Oral History and Social Movements, From Chicago to San Francisco and the world.
Goethe said there is no past and future as much as an ever flowing present. I think about this when I do organizing. Its always been my point, through eight books based on oral history methods and a quarter century of organizing. Throughout these stories, I find through lines between my life and the movements in which I have been involved. Malcolm X once said you have to know where you come from to know who you are. Through oral histories, we participate in some of this process of collective memory creation, preservation, and myth making.
Martin (1996: p.8) has attempted to integrate social work and oral history on the basis of: a) obtaining information where little evidence exists or where documentation is suspect, b) revising history in which conclusions are suspect; c) protecting against loss of history; and d) collecting data to paint a holistic pictutre of biopsychosocial functioning. Each story highlights the integrity of distinct points of view (Kissinger, 1995). With each project, I have asked, how does organizing work? What does it do? Why are we doing this? Where do we find ourselves in this work?
My first social work internship at Chicago Area Project in 1995-6 had helped galvanize the point. As part of my orientation, I learned about organizers associated with the project dating back to the 1930's. The organization’s founder University of Chicago sociologist Clifford Shaw collected oral histories of delinquent youth, documenting their stories to highlight the multiple dimensions of their worlds and the various impacts on their lives. The lesson from Shaw’s work was that there is no need to remain detached when one listens to these stories, especially if one listens carefully with an eye toward changing social conditions (Shaw, 1930). Reading the stories of Clifford Shaw and his work with delinquent youth, I was lulled into participation.
By the second year of my time in Chicago, I followed Shaw’s calling, interviewing many of the organizers who had worked with him starting the 1930’s. One of the first interviews for my oral history was with Billy Brown, a short then 86-year-old African-American women with short - curly brown hair and animated eyes. She explained what she had learned about neighborhood life from Clifford Shaw.
“I think Dr. Shaw felt that this was yours. This was my plot where I belong so I want to make it the nicest part of my life and the nicest part of my entity to live here. It was just like a castle, like a castle that belonged to you. And he felt that each person. Just wherever you went that was your home. If you were a part of it, you lived there. Its small neighborhoods, that's what it was, small neighborhoods. And he felt that you could organize wherever you went, you could organize. And this organization could be your castle” (quoted in Shepard, 1997A).
A love for community was intricately connected with her story.
Brown was not the only member of CAP to reflect on the group’s neighborhood emphasis.
Another organizer with the group, Tony Sorrentino, recalled Clifford Shaw's understanding of community:
Shaw's approach was, sure he wanted to bring about change in the community but he believed very strongly in the notion that the way you do that is by neighbor helping neighbor. And so that was his experience of growing up in a very small town in Indiana in the early days of industrialization. He would give us such examples, if somebody's farm or home burned down, the neighbors all automatically came together, they didn't apply for a grant or call in the government. They just did it themselves. Likewise, with the delinquent, he'd get out of line, they didn't call in juvenile court. They just handled it informally. So he hoped that some of these forces of the primary community of the rural
small town could be utilized in efforts to deal with the problems of an urban community” (quoted in Shepard, 1997A).
Saul Alinski (1989) argued every campaign begins with an issue which galvanizes those impacted to organize. “I think that Saul Alinski and the Industrial Areas Foundation did a very, very excellent job of community organizing,” noted Arthur Brazier, a Pentecostal Minister with of the Apostolic Church of God and founder of the Woodlawn Organization, where he worked with Alinski (see Fish, 1973). Noted for successfully organizing a campaign to push back the development of the University of Chicago in the Woodlawn Neighborhood of Chicago, Brazier was recognized as one of the most effective organizers in history when he died in 2010. For Brazier, organizing is about identifying issue, not enemies. “I think what you do is you identify a series of injustices. I never did look at the University of Chicago as enemy. I looked upon something that they were doing as something that was not beneficial to this community. And I didn’t look upon slum landlords as enemies. I looked upon slum landlords as an injustice that had to be dealt with. As a Christian I do not want to identify anybody as an enemy. That creates a lot of animosity in your thinking.” Rather, Brazier viewed issues as the glue, the passion which brings people together to move a campaign. “Its my view that organizing does not happen by snapping your fingers. People do not organize just for the sake of organizing. Unions do not organize just for the sake of organizing. You organize for a reason. The reason does not mean that you are trying to locate an enemy. The reason is you are trying to deal with some injustices that are happening. And you want to deal with that. You deal with that better if you organized as a group rather than trying to deal with it on an individual basis. I worked very closely with Alinski, for years. I didn’t see the people who we were opposing as enemies. I saw us opposing certain objectives to certain kinds of systems that I thought needed to be changed.”
For me, much of organizing began in San Francisco with the AIDS movement, in which organizers were forced to contend with constant losses while moving forward. My first oral history project began there, busing around town collecting oral histories about the roots of the AIDS movement, in gay liberation organizing. I wanted to talk about AIDS, but they wanted to talk about gay liberation and creating a community in the decade before the epidemic began.
Cleve Jones, who organized with Harvey Milk and later founded the Names Project, recalled. “So when I was 17 sort of coincidentally, because the Quakers were grappling with the whole issue of gay rights, I met a number of the real pioneers in the movement and then I went back to Phoenix and joined the gay liberation group there. It was a very repressive dangerous situation and I was very anxious to move to San Francisco. The spring of '73 was when I hitchhiked up here. I don't remember the day I met Harvey, I just know I met him on the street on the corner of 18th and Castro. He ﬂirted with me and I told him he wasn't my type. When he started running for ofﬁce, I wasn't really into electoral politics. I was quite the little radical boy. I lived in a communal house in the Haight/Ashbury, worked as little as possible and went to all the clubs. It was an incredibly exciting romantic time because it was brand new, so everything about gay people was brand new. I am only 40 but I do remember the old days. I just barely experienced them but I remember that when I came out of the closet, there were only two gay bars in Phoenix. One was in the back alley and there were no windows or doors. It was just amazing to come here and other gay people were coming here from all over the country. There was just this electricity, this knowledge that we were all refugees from other places and we'd come here to build something that was new. I'm sure I romanticize it and idealize it but I remember it as a very happy, remarkable time.
Cleve suggested I talk with Hank Wilson. He had lots to recall about the gay liberation years, but he was also deeply involved in working to house people with HIV in an old, speed infested HRO. He was acutely aware of the losses everyone was enduring. Of all the losses people endured, it was the fabric of friendship disappearing which wore at those I interviewed. It was opening a book of photos and seeing that most of the images of friends from pride parades throughout the years, from Harvey Milk to the mid-1990s, hundreds of those friends were gone. “All gone,” one interviewee recalled (Shepard, 1997). Hank Wilson recalled friends he used to trust when he entered a community meeting:
I see some incredibly strong people who aren't here. I have a lot of sadness. I have people that I used to call up at night and we would bullshit and talk. I don't have people like that now. That was fun and I still remember that. I still value that. They are a strength. I think I've been very lucky. I've worked with some incredible people. I remember a group of people who moved this community forward, who asked the hard questions. They weren't career politicians or career in the industry. It used to be that I would go to a community meeting and I would look around and I would see two or three honest ethical people in there. It didn't matter, you knew if they were present. I still think of them when I go to a meeting and I want to be powerful. We gave each other support. We're at the right place at the right time to make history… (Shepard, 1997).
In Wilson’s narrative, loss extended from friendships to collective memory and practices, stretching across time, impacting Wilson and his activism long after death.
I was swept up on that narrative, spending the next decade or my life steeping in AIDS / queer organizing around halt the epidemic and the stigmas surrounding it, making friends, getting arrested, making connections. In my first arrest ever, I went to jail with Sylvia Rivera, Leslie Feinberg, Charles King and Keith Cylar of Housing Works.
I became close friends with Cylar, who was himself HIV positive. He sat for an oral history about friendships.
BS: When did HIV/AIDS first cross the path of your life?
KC: 1984, and ’83, when I was in Boston and a very good friend that I had met.
I had developed an incredible network of young black gay professionals, that were my core group of friends. It was an awesome support group of people that were gifted and lovely. In 1983, the first of our group died from some rare blood disease – it was AIDS, only the world didn’t know it. As the epidemic began to show its true nature, we became increasingly uncomfortable. And at some point around then, we began to count the years of unprotected sex and drug use against the years of monastic life behavior, knowing all the time that any one of us could be the next. And one by one they died. Of that circle, I happen to be, I believe, one of the last ones still alive, and I’m infected and scared.
In sharing their stories people are offering gestures of friendship. Here, the interplay between experience and recollection, narrative and history, interviewer and interviewee helps us to consider the intangible and often messy subject of friendship and social change. “Anyone who gives you enough to talk about himself to you is giving you a form of friendship,” confesses journalist Lillian Ross (1999, p. 58), in her memoir. “If you spend weeks or months with someone, not only taking his time and energy, you naturally become his friend. A friend is not to be used abandoned; the friendship established in writing about someone often continues to grow,” (p.58). The interviews which form the backbone of this story serve both the form and content of the larger end of this ethnography.
Through these stories, we connect through lines between movements, those who participated in the anti-war movement and gay liberation who joined act up, who later joined reclaim the streets and the global justice movement, and Occupy, and Black Lives Matter.
Last week, I interviewed Andrew Boyd of the Billionaires for Bush or Gore. He talked about his first bust at the Livermore Laboratories thirty years ago with Daniel Ellsberg and Wavy Gravy, connecting the anti-war movement, the ludic Yippies and the antics of the global justice movement in one space.
Friday, I talked with Bertha Lewis, who organized with ACORN. She recalled AIDS demonstrations, the theater of the civil rights movement and the millennials who are taking their passion and running with it.
Yesterday, as we were getting arrested at the AIM Pipeline, a young seminary student was busy reading, us stories from, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, involved with an assassination plot to kill Hitler. This activist suggested we all have to live and be part of history, however we can. Its our obligation. Through these stories we learn how.
We all have something to learn from each other, locating our narratives within larger stories of organizing.