• What’s Your Story?

      Editor’s Note: The bi-weekly blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.

      By William Ayers

      We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.
      ~~Moshin Hamid, How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

      I shall create!/ If not a note, a hole/ If not an overture, a desecration.
      ~~Gwendolyn Brooks, “Boy Breaking Glass”

      After a long period of illness and suicidal despair, the tormented French painter Paul Gauguin created a vast and sprawling panorama that suggests a wildly improbable Garden of Eden, or perhaps an outrageous tropical island with a looming mountain surrounded by water, twisted orchards, a large blue idol with a peaceful expression and uplifted hands, cats, a dog and a contented goat, as well as a man in the center plucking fruit, a baby, a young child, several grown women, and a withered hag. Gauguin scrawled the title of the work on its surface, which reads in English: 

      Where do we come from?
      What are we?
      Where are we going?

      These questions were troubling, even horrifying for Gauguin, but for us—teachers and students, writers and readers—they may prove to be a useful provocation and a powerful invitation toward other important questions.

      How do you see yourself and your problems/challenges/potential? What have you learned from your experiences and your journey thus far? In other words, what’s your story?

      All human beings lead storied lives, of course, spinning our tales to ourselves, to family and friends, and sometimes out into the wider world, sampling and collaging and curating shards of reality, and weaving them into intricate webs of meaning that make our lives significant and tolerable. We invent a past, we imagine a future, and here we are: suspended in the messy muddy middle.

      Oral history adds to the depth and reach of democracy when it asks people to make sense of their experiences and their lives: “What’s your story?” The question rests on an assumption of agency, a belief that all human beings make meaning no matter what, that each of us is free and fated, both fated and free. And we are never so free as when we are naming our situations and resisting our fates, storming the heavens and telling what it’s like for us.

      There is never a single story to tell—there are hundreds, thousands, millions of stories, each one embedded in a cascading cacophony of convergent and divergent stories. Every day another story and every person a philosopher, an expert on his or her lived experience. Oral history relies on the people Studs Terkel called, “the etceteras of the world,” the extraordinary ordinary people who speak in the “poetry of the everyday.”

      All human life, of course, is in part a story of suffering, loss, and pain. When that pain is preventable, the suffering undeserved, the loss avoidable, we resist, and in that opposition we find another common-place in our human story: refusal, resistance, revolution. Sometimes our stories are ignored or diminished by others, sometimes we are seen through the heavy lenses of stereotype and label, our undeniable and indispensable three-dimensionality suffocated and diminished, our hopes handcuffed and our possibilities flattened and policed. The development of a more powerful and compelling voice becomes even more essential.

      Telling our stories, trusting our stories, listening carefully and empathically to the stories of others, revising and editing, starting over, creating a new draft is part of the vocation of oral history and the indispensable work of democracy. This is because democracy is based on a fragile but precious ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each an intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, signifying, and creative universe swirling through the vortex of time and space, dancing the dialectic with a zillion other universes, and that everyone counts and nobody counts more than anyone else. In a true democracy the fullest development of each becomes the necessary condition for the full development of all, and conversely, the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each.

      “Who built the pyramids?” Bertolt Brecht asks to kick-start his poem, “A Worker Reads History.” It’s a provocative question, for while the pharaohs may have wanted to aggrandize themselves and persuade future generations that they had been powerful and splendid gods—they may have longed for immortality—they certainly did not build the pyramids: Did their backs bend to the task, or their hands crack? Were their bodies broken? Clearly the peasants and the slaves did the actual work; it was they who hauled the stones and mixed the mortar. But since no one ever went among the builders and asked them what it was like, how they did what they did, how they got those massive stone blocks arranged just so, and what it all meant to them, a colossal piece of history was lost.

      Bertolt Brecht re-imagined history from the angle of the worker:

      When the Chinese wall was built
      Where did the masons go for lunch?

      Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy—an education toward freedom—is developing in students and teachers alike the ability to think and speak for themselves, to tell their own stories and to seek their own truths. The core curriculum—explicit or assumed—of a liberating education is this: we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we need no one’s permission to interrogate the universe, or to act on what the known demands of us; we can each tell our own story.

      People can contribute to making the world a more humane, peaceful, democratic, just and joyful place when we have the opportunity to come together as communities of equals to share stories from our lives, to draw on those stories to examine and reconsider the conditions of our existence, to resist being objectified or thingified as we step into history as actors and subjects exercising our stubborn agency, and to learn to accept the fact that we are human.

      What’s your story? How is your story like or unlike other stories? Where are the common edges, and where do our stories veer off into unique and distinctive highways and alleys? What’s next? What are the next chapters going to be and the chapters after that, and after that?

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    • Celebrating International Women's Day


      For International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating inspiring women who fight for human rights around the world. 

      You might remember the incredible story of Kalpona Akter that appeared in our book Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy. Kalpona, an internationally recognized labor rights advocate, participated in her first strike at fifteen while working in a garment factory. As an adult, she now faces arrest, torture, and constant surveillance for her work. Kalpona is now in the U.S. and will be on tour around the country with United Students Against Sweatshops to enforce worker safety measures in Bangladesh. Find out more about the tour here.

      Read Kalpona’s story—and many others—in Invisible Hands learn about the secret history of the things we buy.

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    • Celebrating Women's History Month: Books and Resources

      Voice of Witness is celebrating Women’s History Month by highlighting female storytellers from around the world. Women’s narratives are essential to our understanding of historical events and contemporary social justice issues.

      To kick off the month, we’re sharing an excerpt from Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons.

      Download the corresponding curriculum here.

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    • Education Program Update: Oral History Workshops


      Pictured, top: Education Program Associate Claire Keifer, Inside This Place narrator Ashley Jacobs, and VOW Managing Editor Luke Gerwe present at a Haverford College workshop. Pictured, bottom: participants of “In Our Own Words: Oral Histories for Writers” workshop at 826 Valencia.

      So far, 2015 has been a busy and productive year for the Education Program! In January, we hosted “In Our Own Words,” an oral history workshop for educators and students at 826 Valencia. We also concluded a two-part workshop at DeAnza College and The California History Center. Last month, we visited Haverford College, where we facilitated a workshop for students about oral history ethics and methodology, with Inside This Place, Not of It narrator Ashley Jacobs and Voice of Witness Managing Editor Luke Gerwe.

      Contact Cliff Mayotte if your school or organization is interested in bringing Voice of Witness to host a workshop.

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    • How are Single Stories Dangerous?

      Editor’s Note: The bi-weekly blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.

      By Claire Sorrenson

      By now, anyone concerned with education or storytelling has probably heard Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.”

      In her talk, Adichie recounts her various interactions with the single story: as a young Nigerian girl, steeped in Western literature, who believed that all her stories must feature blonde, blue-eyed protagonists, and later as a university student in America whose roommate could not reconcile this English-speaking, Mariah Carey-listening woman with her idea of an “African.” Adichie explains, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

      When I first heard Adichie’s talk, it gave form and substance to the nameless discomfort I’d felt whenever I encountered a single story. So this, I thought, is why I get queasy when I see the latest charity appeal populated by nameless African orphans. This explains my fury whenever a joke’s punch line is, “Because-women/black people/poor people-ha-ha.” Adichie’s conceptualization of the single story helped justify the work that I wanted to do as a storyteller and an educator. The single story is why oral histories matter, why the subaltern must speak, why we continue to try and teach students amorphous concepts like “empathy.”

      But I wondered: what makes the single story actually, physically dangerous? Isn’t it just that—a story? To Adichie, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Ok, I thought. But how does the single story impact our daily, lived realities?

      Darren Wilson’s Single Story

      When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot in August of 2014, communities responded with actions full of anger and beauty, and our justice system was put on trial and found lacking. With Darren Wilson’s non-indictment came his testimony, a single story propelled by racist fear.

      Describing their initial altercation, Wilson said, “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan…that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Never mind that Wilson himself is a 210-pound, six-foot-four man. Never mind that he was inside his police SUV, armed, radioed, carrying all the trappings of power that a police officer does in our country. Under his hands—and through his words—Michael Brown took on the powers of a superhero.

      According to Wilson, the men continued to tussle. Wilson shot Brown and Brown started running away. Then Brown turned around: “He looked up at me and had the most aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up. At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” Here, Brown transforms from superhero to superhuman; a “demon,” a blank-faced aggressor who swats bullets aside like they’re flies.

      Wilson shot Brown several times: “When [the bullets] went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone … the threat was stopped.” Here, finally, Darren lays bare the truth of his single story: Brown was not a human but a threat that Darren felt compelled to combat. He did so, and “it was gone.”

      “Show a People As One Thing, and That Is What They Become”

      Now, I am not here to examine the truth of Darren Wilson’s statement. Nor will I dive into how Darren Wilson’s story of black men in America became so singular: how a young man walking down the street could transform in Wilson’s mind into a “Hulk Hogan,” a “demon,” bulletproof, blank-faced, gone. (Others have done so here and here).

      I return instead to Adichie: “So that is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” A father like Eric Garner becomes another superhuman to be grappled to the ground; a 12-year-old like Tamir Rice becomes another threat to be neutralized within seconds. In the death of Michael Brown, we encounter the real tragedy of the single story: it silenced a young man in the most fundamental way possible. We will never hear his story.

      Storytelling From Below

      If we acknowledge that stories have power, then storytelling-from-below becomes a revolutionary act: a way to fracture and eventually dismantle the dominant narratives. The question that I keep returning to is this: what stories could have changed the course of Darren Wilson’s actions? What if he had studied accounts of police brutality in high school? Read oral histories about the lives of black men in America? Undergone police training that discussed how and why we hold the racial biases that we do? Talked to young men in the neighborhoods where he worked? What if he had known that Michael Brown loved video games, and was exploring his religious beliefs, and rapped, and planned to go to technical school, and acted up like all teens do; that Michael Brown was flawed; that Michael Brown was human?  

      The answer, of course, is that none of these stories would have changed Darren Wilson’s actions. Or maybe they would have. The beauty of storytelling lies in its unpredictability. I often struggle with this nuance. If stories are so nebulous, if their effects can’t be tracked, if we can’t ensure they will affect the actions of even a single person, then why bother telling them? But I know the answer to this question, too.

      We can’t afford not to.

      Claire Sorrenson is a former Voice of Witness Education Program Intern with a passion for telling stories that drive social change. Claire currently works in the nonprofit communications sector. 

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