From the Oral History Center Director, December 2020
Resilience is one of those words that the Transcendentalists would Capitalize — and I’m good with that. Oxford Languages (which publishes the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary) offers two main definitions of Resilience:
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness and
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
Strength and flexibility. Google analytics has an interesting tool that proposes to show the prevalence of word use over the centuries. For “Resilience” it finds notable upsurges in the Great Depression, in the wake of 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a word we turn to with aspiration in difficult times. I’ll bet that we’ll see a marked increase in 2020, this difficult year of years, with a global pandemic, unrest in the streets, and a nation starkly divided.
While the word is often used in an aspirational way, to motivate and inspire, when I use it here, it is a fair and accurate description for the perspective and work of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center in 2020. The year began with optimism but also challenges — we knew we had our work cut out for us with a large docket of projects to complete alongside the ever-present pressure of being a self-funding research program. Then, by late January, ominous clouds appeared on the horizon and we soon learned that vigorous hand-washing wasn’t going to stop the approaching storm. Not knowing if we’d return to the office in two weeks or … two years … we moved our operations online and became familiar with Zoom — as did most of the world. I’ll admit that those first weeks were difficult, rife with uncertainty and worry, so our virtual staff meetings focused on simply checking in with one another. And I remain thankful for having a group of smart, concerned, and level-headed colleagues to converse with in those early days of isolation. They made that time bearable and helped give me direction as head of the office. Notably, I recognized their Resilience and their readiness to continue to do the work that they are so passionate about.
When it became clear that we weren’t returning to the office anytime soon but that we weren’t quite ready to conduct oral histories virtually (something we always advised against “if at all possible” when we teach best practices), we turned our attention to other important tasks. Shanna Farrell, Amanda Tewes, and Roger Eardley-Pryor each contributed to our ad hoc podcast season, “Coronavirus Relief,” which was less about documenting the virus than about ways in which we were seeking relief from the emotional toll of it. Amanda and Roger, working with stellar Berkeley undergrad Miranda Jiang, completed a project begun pre-pandemic and released the excellent podcast/performance piece, “Rice All the Time.”
The Oral History Center is perhaps a more complex operation than might be apparent from the outside. A massive amount of work goes into the creation of the oral history interviews that you read and/or view on our website. There is of course project development, research, and videography, but there is also managing the complex process of creating, editing, and preparing transcripts that often run several hundred pages and can include forewords, photographs, and multiple appendices. In essence, we’re a small press publishing house that produces all original content. Two years ago we began the process of redesigning and then documenting this back-end operation and that process not only continued but accelerated during the course of this work-from-home year. Communications Manager Jill Schlessinger, with an eye for detail and keen awareness of what needs to be done, helped build this structure, drew up its plans, and then made it work by implementing a new online project management software solution. Likewise, Office Manager David Dunham contributed documentation of the technical side of our work (creating new transcript templates, digitizing analog recordings, writing metadata, etc.) during this time; moreover, he innovated by finding work-arounds for tasks usually done in person that now had to be done remotely. This behind the scenes work is plainly evident in this newsletter, with its abundance of newly released oral histories, completed with the necessary aid of this process during the pandemic.
As it became clear that in-person meetings would largely be prohibited for the foreseeable future, we adopted the spirit of flexibility and resolved to bring the operation fully online and conduct interviews remotely. Paul Burnett and Roger spent many hours studying and testing various options and came up with a workable solution — Paul even hosted an online tutorial which was attended by hundreds and is now available online. We began conducting remote interviews in August and have conducted close to 200 hours of recordings already! If that doesn’t indicate Resilience, I don’t know what does. As one of those interviewers who has benefited from Paul’s research, I can attest that it works; while remote interviewing isn’t the same as in-person interviews, I’ve learned it is still possible to gain a similar sense of familiarity and intimacy as in person. Even more important: all of these essential stories are getting preserved, the importance of this is glaring in the face of the fact that well more than 300,000 Americans will have died of this dreaded virus by year’s end.
The above is clear evidence of the Resilience of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center but it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. Rather than let their student employees go unemployed, David and Jill have devoted many hours to keeping them busy doing important tasks and allowing them to maintain their income. Todd Holmes, returning to the office in July after caring for his wife who sadly passed away, has finished up a number of outstanding projects, including the oral history of Chicano/a Studies and a set interviews with and about esteemed Yale scholar James C. Scott. Shanna was determined to forge ahead with our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, changed by its virtuality but also by the fact that we had a record number of applicants and attendees. Amanda launched the new Women in Politics Oral History Project with a well-attended online panel discussion that featured Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, former SF City Attorney Louise Renne, and Pittsburgh City Councilmember Shanelle Scales-Preston. Paul with Jill’s considerable assistance launched our new educational resources pages (a space you’ll want to watch for exciting developments in 2021). Jill kept our communications program running and robust and thus helped spread word of this great work far and wide. We submitted three major grant applications (fingers crossed!). And, last but not least, Shanna kept this newsletter going with several content-packed releases.
When we look back at 2020 and see that almost predictable upsurge in the frequency of “Resilience,” I’ll know that this word is not only an apt descriptor — toughness and flexibility — for people’s aspirations during difficult times but also an accurate description of how we persevered and rose above to achieve something of real value. Finally, I want to offer my profuse gratitude to our many friends, sponsors, and partners and to Amanda, David, Jill, Paul, Roger, Shanna, and Todd, for making 2020 truly a story of Resilience.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
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