Home

    • 10 Years of Voice of Witness Books: The Power of Oral History

      The Voice of Witness book series is now in its tenth year! Today, thanks to our community of supporters and readers like you, we now offer a robust education program and a publishing schedule that brings at least two Voice of Witness books into the world each year.

      “First-person narratives have a unique ability to reach people,” Dave Eggers writes in his introduction to the soon-to-be released Voice of Witness Reader: 10 Years of Amplifying Unheard Voices. “Studies have shown that when faced with a complicated issue affecting scores of people halfway across the world, we often get confused or become disengaged, faced with the monumental scale of, say, a civil war or a systemic problem hundreds of years in the making. But when we can focus on one person who has lived through that war or was caught in that system, we are able again to see it, to focus and empathize.”

      You can be one of the first to get an advance copy of The Voice of Witness Reader, signed by Dave Eggers, at our upcoming 10th Anniversary Benefit on May 6th. All proceeds benefit Voice of Witness books and our education program. Purchase your ticket today.  


      Read more on Tumblr...

    • Dave Eggers Awarded Amnesty International Chair



      Congratulations to Voice of Witness co-founder Dave Eggers, who was recently awarded the Amnesty International Chair at Ghent University. The chair is given annually to an individual who has made exceptional contributions in human rights. Dave and VOW Executive Director and co-founder Mimi Lok were interviewed by Ruth Joos on her program “The World Today,” airing on Belgium’s Radio One. Hear the full interview (in English) online here.



      Read more on Tumblr...

    • 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.

      Read more on Tumblr...

    • 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.

      image

      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.

      Read more on Tumblr...

    • 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.

      image

      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.

      Read more on Tumblr...