Summer Institute Alum Spotlight: Julia Thomas
Julia Thomas attended our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute in 2016. When she joined us, she was studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. She’s now working as a freelance journalist, traveling the world to document grassroots media, as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. We caught up with her recently to find out what she’s been up to since, and how oral history informs her work as a freelance journalist.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work, and how you use oral history.
Thomas: I’m a freelance journalist, just beginning my work after studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. My current research is supported by a year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, during which I’ve been learning about and documenting grassroots media from the ground up in Nepal, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador. I’ve been spending time in the field, working alongside, and interviewing journalists as they report on current stories in progress and the methods they use to present people’s voices on a mix of platforms.
Oral history has played a major role in this project and I’m continually adjusting the ways I use it. Sometimes, and especially in my most recent work in South Africa, I’ve used oral history in more formalized interviews about the organizing and establishment of a community newspaper under Apartheid, the housing crisis in Durban and Cape Town, and community radio practices. At other times, I’ve engaged with oral history as it’s being produced in the moment, in the form of podcasts and radio, by journalists in-country.
Throughout this project, one of my hopes is to incorporate oral history sensibilities into any conversation I have, regardless of whether the recorder is on, or the topic is related to journalism. Oral history requires slower and more deliberate attention to questions to allow people to open up and share. I’ve sought to use oral history as a means of understanding new places and explore its possibilities. How far can the discipline of oral history stretch? What recitations of sound fall under its umbrella? I’ve developed a habit of recording the atmosphere of places, such as buses or streets, and protests or songs performed at community gatherings. I do this both as a means to viscerally return later and capture the sounds around every day movement and life. I believe that this is oral history in a way, too, and that preservation of how an environment sounds unprompted – who is allowed to be heard or what kind of voices dominate – is just as important as difficult questions posed in conversation.
Playing with oral history in conjunction with understanding journalists’ work and how best to preserve it, is a lot of fun and a consistent challenge. The questions stay the same for a while, perhaps shaped by current happenings in place, and then they change drastically depending especially, of course, on lingual context and whether or not I can understand or communicate. Much of the time, I haven’t been able to do interviews in the first language of vernacular language journalists, so the practice of oral history becomes dependent on recorded sound and my own observations of context.
This then raises the question: how much can one truly translate or take away from such a listening experience? I am still figuring out how to present and connect the many stories this exploration has led to, but my hope is to create a collection of transcribed interviews, a podcast that brings community journalists focused on similar issues in different contexts into conversation, and a longer form written project that connects the media landscapes and current stories in the countries I’ve visited.
Q: What is the state of the project that you workshopped at the Summer Institute?
Thomas: The project I workshopped eventually grew into my undergraduate thesis, which traced the use of buses as a space in social movements throughout the twentieth century in Mexico and the United States. It also became a condensed long form piece, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that examined contemporary examples of buses as a site of protest and state control – such as phenomena of “busing” protestors in the wake of the 2016 election and attendance at the 2017 presidential inauguration as measured by number of bus permits secured. Both of these projects are more literature heavy than I anticipated when I went to the Summer Institute, largely because my workshop group helped me to think about this research on buses as a larger and longer term focus than what I could have accomplished in an single undergraduate academic year. My workshop group very much influenced my thinking about positionally, potential angles, and people to interview. Funnily enough, I am actually answering these Q&A questions while riding on a bus in Spain!
Q: What kinds of oral history techniques do you use in your work as a journalist?
Thomas: Whenever possible, I try to think about interviews as opportunities for oral histories and ask questions that bring out a longer history beyond the topic at hand. My hope is to make interviewees comfortable enough to open up in sharing their own stories. When I’m doing an interview in a journalistic capacity, I try ask more open-ended questions and step back rather than steering the interview according to a particular angle for a story. Staying focused on the individual narrative, rather than thinking of them as a certain voice that will speak a particular perspective, is a technique I always try to use. In journalism, it can be easy to ask questions oriented around a certain topic and shut off the opportunity to go deeper into someone’s story, but oral history makes you step back, take more time, and see each conversation as an opportunity.
Something I’ve started to ask people is, what kind of story would you like to tell or feel should be told about your situation, this particular movement, etc.? Oral history gives agency and power back to the person sharing stories from memory, in their own words and lived experiences. It also inherently requires more of an emphasis on context and an individual’s position within the issue being discussed, which journalism can always use more of. I try to think about my interviews as oral histories a chance to gain a deeper understanding about situational context as much as possible.
Q: How did the Summer Institute shape your work?
Thomas: Attending the Summer Institute was a very inspiring experience for me, particularly as an undergraduate student with a strong interest in oral history but no formal training in its methodologies. I developed a lot of new ideas and gained eye opening insights from fellow attendees. The people in our 2016 cohort came from such a wide variety of places and this in and of itself was exciting to see how academics, journalists, architects, activists, policy makers, teachers, were curious about using oral history in their unique applications. I learned a great deal about the logistics of carrying out an oral history projects as a freelancer though the mock interviews and techniques that were presented. At the time of the Institute, I was actually preparing my application for the Watson Fellowship and had a general idea of my project but couldn’t quite articulate what it was that I wanted to explore. On one of the last days of the Institute, it became clear to me that the practice of asking questions and capturing people’s voices is what really fascinated me. I remember it suddenly clicking in my head after a few days of being immersed in discussions of oral history that I knew this was what I wanted to learn more about in other parts of the world.
Q: How do you hope to grow your work in the future?
Thomas: I’m planning to spend the next couple of years working as a freelancer, and hope that the year following this fellowship will be spent writing long-form feature pieces about what I encountered in each place, and continue to report (hopefully abroad!). I’d love to return to the topic of buses and do some oral histories with transport unions and workers, activists, organizers of solidarity caravans, etc., particularly in Mexico. This year has also piqued my interest in radio programming and podcasting, so I’d love to break into that. Some broad topics of interest as of right now are individual experiences and social movements related to elections, land and housing rights, and music composition and performance. Graduate school of some sort is definitely in the future at some point, but until then, my hope is to keep learning, interviewing, experimenting, collaborating. We’ll see what happens from there!
For more from Julia, follow her on Twitter: @juliathomas317 and Instagram: @jthom317