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    • Call for Book Proposals

      Could you be our next Voice of Witness editor? We are seeking book proposals that address contemporary, underreported human rights issues. We’re looking for editors with:

      • Expertise in the field they’ll be covering
      • Willing participation from a pool of narrators
      • Editorial sensibility to bring out the level of detail necessary to do the stories justice

      Please email Luke Gerwe for proposal guidelines.

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    • We All Have a Story to Tell

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

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      Trevor Barton is a 4th grade teacher and a writer who lives in Greenville, SC. He believes commitment, creativity and compassion can build a better world for everyone

      “We all have a story to tell.” These are the words that greet my 4th grade students as they enter my classroom every day.

      At the beginning of the school year, I told them my story: who I am, what I do, when I was born, where I have lived, why I am a teacher, and how I came to our school.

      I told them this story: “When I was your age, I carried a tattered journal, a Papermate pen and a pocket dictionary everywhere I went. I wrote about the people, places and things I saw with my eyes, heard with my ears, smelled with my nose, tasted with my tongue and felt with my hands. I put down on paper the ideas and feelings that were floating around in my head and my heart.”

      And I told them this one: “I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I loved to read and write, and my family and friends told me I was a good writer. I majored in English there. I had some of the smartest, most accomplished professors in the country and they helped me become a better writer. I once sat in the office of my favorite teacher, Dr. Reid. A bust of Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers who wrote one of my favorite stories, The Old Man and the Sea, was on Reid’s desk. He looked up from a story I wrote for our class and said, "You write like him,” as he nodded toward Hemingway. “You are clear, concise and compassionate. I am proud to be your teacher.”

      “Will you tell me your story?” I ask my students.

      “I want to say something to you as your teacher that will mean as much to you as the words my college professor said to me,” I tell them.

      I have heard many stories—real stories that didn’t come out of any book but that came right out of the lives of children—in my work as an elementary school teacher.

      “Mr. Barton, the thing I want to be when I grow up is a high school football coach,” said Shenice, a 9-year-old girl in one of our third-grade classes. Other people told me she was obstinate, disruptive and incorrigible, but I wasn’t interested in their stories about her. I was interested in her story about herself. By the end of the year we were running up and down the playground, blowing a whistle and practicing calling out offensive and defensive plays and planning the steps she would have to take to become the first African-American, female high school football coach in South Carolina.

      Isis, a 7-year-old girl in one of our second-grade classes, wrote, “I am from Honduras. I loved my home. But I was afraid there. My dad carried a gun. I was always afraid we would be killed.” Other people told me she was a child from an undocumented family that lived in the shadow of my community, but I wasn’t interested in their stories about her. I was interested in her story about herself. By the end of the year, we were reading the book Amelia’s Road by Linda Jacobs Altman and Enrique O. Sanchez and building her road to become a doctor for migrant children in South Carolina.

      And then there was James, a 10-year-old African-American boy in one of our fourth-grade classes. “You won’t believe this, Mr. Barton, but I’m going to be a writer.” Other people told me he couldn’t read, was a slow learner, and could never become an exceptional reader and writer. I wasn’t interested in their stories about him. I was interested in his story about himself. By the end of the year, he was writing moving poetry, scoring proficient in English Language Arts on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards and making his way toward becoming the Langston Hughes of his generation.

      Langston Hughes told his own story in a poem called “Aunt Sue’s Stories.” In the middle of the poem he writes:

      And the dark-faced child, listening,
      Knows that Aunt Sue’s stories are real stories,
      He knows that Aunt Sue never got her stories
      Out of any book at all,
      But that they came
      Right out of her own life.

      I am a teacher at my school, and a storyteller at heart. I understand that not only am I Aunt Sue telling stories to my students but I am also the dark-faced child, listening…listening to the stories of my students.

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    • Oral History and Vulnerability

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

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      By Cliff Mayotte

      Renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli refers to the optimal interview experience as a “mutual sighting” between interviewer and narrator. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’d like to have a mutual sighting! Who wouldn’t? As an educator, I especially appreciate this as a necessary (and often challenging) goal between student and teacher. But with most worthwhile endeavors, these mutual sightings come with a certain level of risk. In order to see or be seen, one must be willing to be vulnerable, both as a narrator and interviewer. For many of us, and especially for someone like me who uses storytelling as a key element in education, it’s an example of teaching others what I most need to learn myself.

      Throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, I have been socially conditioned to believe that vulnerability is a form of weakness. The message I received was that being vulnerable was way too risky and something I’d probably be sorry for later. As someone who often expresses himself in public (how ironic), I have often thought about the origins of this myth and who stands to gain by its perpetuation. I have a fair number of theories about this, but that’s a topic for another blog post.  And yet the fact remains that the work I do as an oral historian (and human being) counts on my willingness to enter a space in which I need to embody presence, openness, and vulnerability.

      All of us want our stories to be listened to and appreciated, and have our experiences validated. A great number of us are also terrified at the prospect of this happening, or at the very least, extremely nervous about getting what we claim we want. Familiar responses include: What makes me so unique? Why would anyone want to talk to me? I’m probably not worth being listened to, anyway, and I’m going to do it wrong and make the interviewer unhappy. What’s worse, my anxiety about being interviewed sounds trivial and privileged compared with the many stories I encounter during a typical day at the office.

      At Voice of Witness, we strive to share stories that might not otherwise be heard, and an individual’s desire to share their story can be tempered by justified instincts of self-preservation, such as “Why should I share my story with you? What are you going to do with it, and how will it help me?” We grapple with issues of agency and representation on a daily basis, which again, requires vulnerability, and humility. Being in the presence of such courage is eye opening, to say the least. In this regard, I’m confronted by yet another steep, personal learning curve.

      A similar, mutual reality exists for the interviewer. It’s challenging to be an audience for someone else’s story—staying open, desirous of learning, actively listening, and suspending judgment regardless of the story’s content. Hearing about other people’s lives is complicated, and for many professionals like social workers, teachers, counselors, and oral historians, it brings up such questions as, Can you experience too much empathy? and What are we gaining from my perceived neutrality? Knowing this discomfort is a distinct possibility during the interview process, why would anyone want to participate in it? What are the benefits to this kind of vulnerability?

      Well, in spite of the fears and anxieties I’ve grappled with as a narrator, interviewer, and teacher, I can say that the benefits of experiencing what I can only describe as “human moments” are pretty extraordinary. I’m recalling a time during an oral history workshop when I was interviewed by a group of undergraduate history students and I shared with them that I felt like a horrible imposter and was very uncomfortable being on their campus. Their school was such an impressive institution; I could not possibly belong in such a place. It was incredibly liberating, especially when many of the students said they felt the same way! The rest of our workshop took on a giddy tone of solidarity.

      I’m also remembering a follow up interview for one of the books in the Voice of Witness series. This particular narrator had shared aspects of his story on numerous occasions and was probably thinking, “Why am I telling this story again?” As the interview progressed, and our connection increased, it became clear that our mutual willingness to be vulnerable created an opening for new details and feelings about his experience to emerge. Our interview concluded with hugs, gratitude, and sharing a meal.

      While I continue to navigate my own vulnerability, and the ambiguities of seeing and being seen, I can say without hesitation that these risks and uncertain outcomes are well worth the possibilities for experiencing connection, astonishment, and joy. These are the opportunities I’ve been frightened of and have been yearning for in my life and work. Teaching what I most need to learn, indeed. Whether I was conscious of it or not, this ongoing dance with vulnerability has led me to the unpredictable and exhilarating form we call oral history.

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    • 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

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      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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