What Does it Take to Move from Oral History to Social Change?

On Thursday, June 27, over thirty Trinity students and staff, HMTCA and other local public school teachers, and community partners gathered at the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research to learn about how they can use oral histories to create social change in their communities. We were led by guest facilitator Fanny Julissa García, a Honduran American oral historian contributing work to Central American Studies with a focus on applied oral history and social justice. Fanny explains, “Oral history is about meeting people where they’re at and allowing them to tell their stories.”

Oral history projects can be a daunting task if you’ve never done one before (or even if you have!). To introduce participants to the challenge, Fanny passed out an example of one of her first projects titled “Show Me Your Hands,” where she collected and archived life histories of Central American refugee women detained in the United States. Fanny said,

“I documented these stories with photos of women’s hands, and I took these photos using my iPhone. You don’t need fancy equipment to begin a project like this and there are simple ways to maintain anonymity. I also decided to present these in a booklet rather than have them sit in a library somewhere because I knew my participants would never walk into a huge library and ask to see their oral history. I needed to make sure it was truly accessible.”

Participants described a range of oral history projects they are interested in or already working on, including: telling the stories of black elders and sharing those within a family, working with young people in a classroom setting and allowing freedom of expression, imagining and understanding Hartford and Willimantic neighborhoods before urban renewal and displacement, destigmatizing abortion, and more. These projects from students, faculty, community partners, community organizers, teachers, and local artists encompass family storytelling, school work, academic research, grant-funded projects, and community organizing strategies. We were especially happy to see students and community partners in the Public Humanities Collaborative attend and discuss their projects. Our interests shaped the events of the day, forming the foundation of how and what Fanny taught us about oral histories. 

Rose Reyes, Willimantic Councilwoman ; Kaytlin Ernske ’20 and Sophia Lopez ’22, Public Humanities Collaborative students; Arvia Walker, Political Organizer; and Jasmin Agosto, Community Partner at Hartford History Center.

One of the first key points Fanny discussed was the importance of staying true to the “heart” of your oral history goals. She asked participants to write down their overarching social justice goal for their projects and share them with a partner. She encouraged us to always be asking–“What is my intent? Where is the heart of this for me?”–as we continued on through our projects, allowing the heart of our goals to lead the project. 

Throughout our time together, participants asked deep, insightful questions about how to collect and share stories ethically. How do you address the complexities of big, hard issues like immigration in a single interview? How do we minimize the possibility of re-traumatization during interviews? What does ethical storytelling and story collecting look like, especially when end products might look the same in spite of different collection processes? Fanny shared her expertise as someone who has waded through these kinds of questions throughout her work. In particular, she talked about how important an ethical process of co-creation is for oral history collection, especially in consent processes (see resources below). Fanny also gave participants the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with each other’s work through small group workshops of each other’s projects. All participants were willing to dig in and sift through the complexities of these projects and the difficult questions that come up in this work. 

Toward the end of the day, Fanny encouraged everyone to think about the future of their projects. She explained, 

“Oral history should not end at collecting and archiving. How do we engage a specific community and the general public with these stories? Why do these stories matter for generations to come? How can they be used to educate futures?”

When we are using oral history storytelling for the express purpose of creating social change, we must think beyond the archive. Stories kept in a box in a library or even in a public database can’t do the work of creating change. Changemaking requires that we build in plans for sharing stories within our current communities and the general public as well as how they can be shared as histories with future generations. 

To close the workshop, Fanny reminded us of the importance of what we had done together and who we are in community with each other. Toward that end, she recreated an exercise by Adrienne Maree Brown, New York social activist and educator and author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Through this exercise, we left grounded in our shared stakes in the movements for social change and the power of co-creation. 

Thank you to Fanny Julissa García for her time and thoughtfulness in creating and offering this workshop for us!

If you would like Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change to visit your group, organization, community center and/or class for a workshop on the use of oral history for social change, please send an email to fanny@oralhistoryforsocialchange.org. Please also check Groundswell’s website at www.oralhistoryforsocialchange.org for updates on upcoming online classes and resources!

For some basics on how to get started with oral history and engage participants ethically:

Oral History Association: Principles and Best Practices

Sample Informed Consent Form

Example Projects:

Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories 2018

Forced Trajectory Project, a multimedia project using oral history to document the longterm effect of police brutality on families and communities

Unfinished Sentences: A Collaboration to Preserve the Historical Memory of El Salvador’s Civil War