Oral History and Political Organizing

By Eleanor Naiman

Eleanor Naiman on a Zoom Call
Eleanor Naiman (middle of top right square) on a victory Zoom call with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

In 2020 Eleanor Naiman was a Biden-Harris campaign field organizer for the Nebraska Second Congressional District, working remotely to gain an electoral vote for Democrats. She is a recent graduate of Swarthmore College and completed an internship for the Bay Area Women in Politics Project with the Oral History Center in summer 2019.

Each of the 4,150 phone calls I made as a field organizer with the Biden-Harris campaign had a clear and stated purpose: to establish a voter’s support of Democratic candidates and to convince them to volunteer at a virtual phone bank. A detailed script drafted by the Biden HQ provided the framework for each conversation. Designed to maximize efficiency and recruitment shifts, the script encouraged organizers to get to a “hard ask” as quickly as possible: “We have phone banks at 4:30pm Central every day this week,” I’d explain. “Can I put you down for Monday and Wednesday?”

The direct nature of our recruitment script initially threw me off. My summer as an intern for the Oral History Center’s Bay Area Women in Politics Project taught me to take a subtler approach to questioning. I learned to ask open-ended questions that allowed narrators to tell their stories with authenticity and autonomy. I knew to prioritize the needs of my narrator over my own research objectives, working collaboratively to construct a life story that felt true to both history and memory.

In those early days of campaign work, I longed for the opportunity to sit down with each voter, as I had at the OHC, equipped with pages of notes of background research and confident in the strength of the relationship we’d built over pre-interviews and email correspondence. I missed the warmth and familiarity of in-person conversation; due to the nature of field organizing in a pandemic, the entirety of my conversations with voters took place over the phone or on Zoom. My conversations with voters seemed unpredictable and somewhat chaotic. Parents answered as they shuttled their kids to school, retirees picked up with the afternoon news blaring on a nearby TV, wives declined on behalf of husbands on the farm and in the field. I never knew where a conversation with a voter would take me. Would they hang up abruptly, perhaps after a quick jab at my candidates or an angry request that I take them off the list?  Or would they linger on the phone, desperate for some form of human connection after months of pandemic-imposed isolation?

The conversations that fell somewhere between those two poles posed the greatest challenge. Somehow, in the five minutes allotted for each conversation, I needed to transform a weary voter into an eager volunteer. I found myself increasingly relying on oral history methodology to quell my anxiety about cold calls and hard asks. After all, I reminded myself, despite their obvious differences in form and purpose, an oral history interview and a voter outreach call posed the same basic problem: how to build trust through dialogue. I found myself listening as diligently as I had at the Oral History Center, noting and adopting the tone and lilt of a voter’s voice, sometimes even subconsciously, in an attempt to build rapport before my voter’s interest waned and I lost a potential volunteer. This meant performing in a matter of seconds the careful assessment of intersubjectivity I’d studied as an OHC intern. How did the voter perceive me? How did I see them? I knew that each conversation would require a balance of give and take, leaving both of us changed by its end. To a grandmother, alone in an assisted living facility, I became a granddaughter, or perhaps a memory of the political organizing and idealism of her youth. To a young voter, I became a friend and peer, commiserating about classwork and college stress.  I reminded myself to that even on this small scale, the quality of my listening mattered just as much as the efficiency of my hard ask. Returning over and over to the tools and practices of oral history, I built relationships with voters whose dedication to change and hope for the future fueled my long nights and countless hours on Zoom. Together, we formed a community that ultimately flipped Nebraska’s second congressional district.

I came to appreciate the constant thrill of this sort of speed-interview. By November, I had learned to love catching a voter in motion, getting a peek into homes far from my own, and hearing anecdotes of daily struggle, loss, and hope that consistently reinforced the importance of this work. As I sat at my desk in my pandemic office, cut off from the world yet never closer to it, I felt an immense gratitude for the thousands of people who had let me into their lives. It was the same sense of awe and of appreciation that made me fall in love with oral history in the first place.


The Oral History Center Plans to Launch New Project on Contact Tracing

Contact tracing
Image from Side Effects Public Media

The COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a new era of world history, and continues to have a profound impact on daily life around the world, including the Bay Area. But the fight against this global pandemic also includes a regional public health tool: contact tracing. News outlets and public health officials often say that manual contact tracing is key to protecting the community. 

The Oral History Center hopes to launch a project about contact tracing that will document the historic nature of the work, as well as evaluate its effectiveness in this moment as it relates to public health, community, and politics. 

Interested in helping to make this project a reality? We are now accepting tax-deductible donations! 

Contact tracing, the process of charting the chain of infection to control transmission, has been practiced since the 1930s. It first played a key role in reducing the spread of syphilis among U.S. troops during World War II. Later, public health advisers, referred to as P.H.A.s, used this strategy to control tuberculosis, smallpox, and the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic. Early P.H.A.s were required to have a college degree, preferably in liberal arts, with a variety of work experience that gave them enough emotional intelligence to form connections with anyone from business executives to rural farmers. P.H.A.s have been incredibly successful in reducing the spread of disease and infection, and were responsible for blowing the whistle on the Tuskegee experiment. 

The process has shifted since then, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts often cite contact tracing as the key to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. Job requirements are different, and in San Francisco, furloughed city employees––like librarians, city attorneys, and tax assessors––are filling these roles previously held exclusively by P.H.A.s. 

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to reshape all facets of life, it is essential to explore the experiences of public health experts and contact tracers in real time. The OHC hopes to record and archive oral history interviews with contact tracers and others who are fighting COVID-19 by planning health policy, analyzing data, and tracking the human toll of the outbreak. In-depth topical interviews about tracking the spread of the virus will document the current moment and the intensive human work of manual contact tracing.

Help us make this project a reality by making a tax-deductible donation here. 

*Note: Please check “This Gift is in the Honor or Memory of Someone” when you make your donation. Please write “Contact” for the first name, and “Tracing” for the last name fields. 

Thank you for supporting our work!

Interested in learning more? Contact Shanna Farrell (sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu) or Amanda Tewes (atewes@berkeley.edu).

Funding and Federal Authority: Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment

Guest high school blogger uses UC Berkeley Oral History Center interviews to write about Funding and Federal Authority in AIDS Research and Treatment. This is part three of a 3-part series. Resources for teachers are at the end of the article. 

Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment: Funding and Federal Authority

By Ella S. Damty
Sophomore, El Cerrito High School

As with any disease or scientific endeavor, research on AIDS required money. The federal government at the time didn’t have an efficient system to approve funds for projects that desperately needed it, like AIDS. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that funds might not be approved at all, because federal officials weren’t always convinced that AIDS was an important disease to research. Medical researchers had to work with little to no funding or equipment to research and treat AIDS until the first federal funds were approved by Congress in 1983.

Don Abrams, an oncologist studying AIDS, describes his experience writing a grant proposal for the National Institutes of Health, and the bureaucratic mistakes that delayed his funding. He recalls that his grant proposal was lost and put into the wrong category, so instead of being weighed against the six other applicants for the program he applied to, it was considered with hundreds of others for a different type of grant.

In addition to navigating slow federal bureaucracy, researchers had to contend with the government’s belief that AIDS wasn’t a lasting or serious disease. Their proposals weren’t always reviewed because for several years they were seen as a waste of time. Art Ammann, a specialist in pediatric AIDS, explains,

Again, who was going to review [an application for AIDS research funds] if most people didn’t believe that this epidemic was a problem to begin with? So grants got rejected and individuals had to reapply—maybe a two-year process. So research on AIDS was done initially by people who had funding which they could use flexibly…. A federal funding mechanism didn’t get built until people accepted AIDS as a disease, and the government put money into that area. (Ammann, 64)

AIDS protest signs
AIDS protest at Federal Drug Administration offices in Washington, DC.

When the federal government finally realized that AIDS was an important disease to research, the grantors (such as the NIH) wanted to maintain control over both the funds and the researchers because of the money and awards that could be earned. But, as Marcus Conant, the dermatologist who first diagnosed Kaposi’s Sarcoma in AIDS patients, describes, “The problem with that is that when the government retains control, it by definition slows down the process. There are very few examples where the government’s been in control of something that has moved rapidly.” (Conant, 152)

Conant goes on to describe a specific instance where quicker funding could have made a difference in thousands of lives: Jay Levy, the doctor who developed the HIV antibody test, had put in a request for funding to get a fume hood, so that he could work with viruses. Had he gotten it, he could have been the first to discover the virus months earlier, and developed the antibody test sooner. The number of AIDS cases caused by blood transfusions could have been greatly reduced if blood could have been tested sooner.

Through their oral histories, medical researchers show how government bureaucracy and reluctance to fund AIDS research greatly slowed the efforts to find a cause and a treatment for the devastating disease. But these oral histories also show that doctors and researchers did the best they could and valiantly soldiered on, saving thousands of lives.

Photo: AIDS protest at Federal Drug Administration offices in Washington, DC, 1988. (UC San Francisco, Library, Special Collections. Source: Calisphere)

Resources for Teachers

Student project: See the website by Ella S. Damty, based on the class assignment developed by UC Berkeley undergraduate research apprentice Corina Chen: Virus Hunters Newsletter: Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment

Education resources, including how-to on interviewing, tips for searching our collection, and the complete AIDS/HIV curriculum with sample assignments. 

Seven-episode podcast: First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco.

All interviews in the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco Oral History project. 

“The True Experience of Terror:” Fear in the Medical Community in AIDS Research and Treatment

Guest high school blogger uses UC Berkeley Oral History Center interviews to write about Fear in the Medical Community in AIDS Research and Treatment. This is part two of a 3-part series. Resources for teachers are at the end of the article, including the Oral History Center’s Epidemics in HistoryHIV/AIDS Curriculum.

By Ella S. Damty
Sophomore, El Cerrito High School

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, no one knew what the disease was or how it was transmitted. This led to medical professionals who treated AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital to fear for their lives, not knowing whether they could get the disease themselves. This fear was particularly intense for gay health professionals, who were already in a high-risk group. This fear subsided for medical professionals once the HIV antibody test was developed in 1985, but in the years before that, fear plagued doctors and other health workers.

Doctors treating AIDS patients in the beginning didn’t use any protective measures when treating patients, including taking their blood for testing. Andrew Moss led the first epidemiological study of gay men with AIDS. On why health workers didn’t use gloves or other protective measures, he says, “Denial. We were refusing to acknowledge how afraid we were.” Moss went on to explain that despite the denial, the health professionals lived in fear.

We all thought we were going to die. By the middle of the next year, 1984, we all thought we were going to die. Volberding thought he was going to die. He was going around saying, “Oh, my lymphadenopathy is bad today.” He thought he had AIDS. He thought he had given it to his wife and his kids. Everybody did. I went to see my doctor five times. (Moss, 283)

Magazine cover about AIDS
Cover of Science 83 with AIDS headline.

Moss describes the period between 1983–1985, as “the true experience of terror.” During this time, he was working with patients, but the antibody test had not yet been developed.  The lack of knowledge on who could get it or who had it was terrifying to health workers. “It was a period of maximum paranoia. Nobody knew who was getting infected (Moss, 283).”

Paul Volberding was an oncologist who first became involved in AIDS while treating patients with Kaposi Sarcoma. He created and worked in the AIDS clinic in San Francisco General. He describes the environment in his home during this period, and how when he developed any sort of sickness or fever, he thought he had AIDS, but wasn’t allowed to discuss it.

There was about a year or year and a half period where the anxiety was so great that AIDS was just not permitted as a discussion item at home. There was so much anxiety attached to it that if I’d say, “Gee, I’m worried about taking care of these patients. I’m worried I have a fever, maybe this is PCP,” my wife, Molly, wouldn’t let me talk about it. (Volberding, 122)

After the HIV antibody test was developed in 1985, all the health workers in the AIDS ward were tested, and most came back negative, except for some of the gay employees. At this point the fear was over for people like Volberding and Moss, married heterosexual men. But the risk remained for gay health workers, and Moss recalls several coworkers who ended up dying from AIDS, and informing them of their test results.

In January 1985, I tested myself, when I had seen how the results were coming in. All the heterosexuals were negative. It was a very difficult study to do. There were a lot of gay men working in the clinic, and one-third of them were positive. And they’re dead now. Philippe Roy, the receptionist, the Shanti social worker, Gary Starliper, and a whole bunch of people that worked there are now dead. We tested them and they were positive, and I had to tell them. (Moss, 283–284)

The fear of catching AIDS in the medical community dissolved after many were tested and all came back negative except for the gay men. This also allowed doctors to assure the public that there was no risk of casual transmission from things like coughing and saliva. For medical professionals, the period of fear was for the most part over, and doctors could focus on treating and researching AIDS.

Photo: Cover of Science 83 with AIDS headline. (UC San Francisco, Library, Special Collections. Source: Calisphere)

Resources for Teachers

Student project: See the website by Ella S. Damty, based on the class assignment developed by UC Berkeley undergraduate research apprentice Corina Chen: Virus Hunters Newsletter: Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment

Education resources, including how-to for interviewing, tips for searching our collection, and the complete AIDS/HIV curriculum with sample assignments. 

Seven-episode podcast: First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco.

All interviews in the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco Oral History project. 

High School Researcher on Social Biases: Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment

Guest high school blogger uses UC Berkeley Oral History Center interviews to write about Social Biases in AIDS Research and Treatment. This is part one of a 3-part series. Resources for teachers are at the end of the article. 

Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment: Social Biases

by Ella S. Damty
Sophomore, El Cerrito High School

Early responses to the AIDS epidemic across the United States were slowed by biases against—and lack of concern for—the country’s gay communities. Many community leaders didn’t believe that a disease ailing homosexuals would affect their communities, and the methods of transmission (gay sex and IV drug use) made it appear to only affect people who engaged in illegal or, as some considered it, immoral behavior. In addition, the disease heightened stigma against homosexuals with names like gay cancer and GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), and made the gay community wary of public health officials. These social biases ostracized AIDS victims and made many public officials reluctant to act on their behalf.

One of the ways that public health officials tried to slow the spread of the disease was to spread information about it, with the help of local political leaders. But many of these politicians shrugged it off as something that wasn’t important or wouldn’t affect their communities. Dermatologist Marcus Conant, who first diagnosed Kaposi’s Sarcoma in AIDS patients and was involved in AIDS treatment and research since the epidemic began, recalls a meeting held to distribute pamphlets:

Ernie came to me that night and he said, “You won’t believe this. Most of the people just took it [the pamphlet] and kind of shrugged and walked off. One guy said, ‘Homosexuals?! We don’t have homosexuals where I come from!’” (Conant, 102)

Quilt hanging from SF City Hall
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panels displayed at San Francisco City Hall during San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade.

Another obstacle to getting local leaders to take interest in treating the disease was that is was widely viewed as a law enforcement issue, because it was spread through gay sex and intravenous drug use, both of which were illegal activities at the time. As Conant explains it, “If you have this mindset, that this is a law enforcement problem, not a medical problem, then it’s not surprising that from the top all the way down there has been this constant resistance to do anything, to move (129).”

In addition to local leaders’ resistance to act on the issue, gay communities feared that the public health officials would use the disease as an excuse to curb their newfound freedoms. The gay community in San Francisco at the time saw the bathhouses as a symbol of gay liberation in the city. But it was also a hotspot for HIV transmission. Donald Abrams, a gay man treating AIDS, discusses the issue of closing the bathhouses from his perspective as a member of both groups.

But still, as a gay man and as a member of a group of people that had been persecuted from time immemorial, I also thought that in the absence of knowing what AIDS is really caused by and being absolutely certain that closing the bathhouses would have very wide-ranging repercussions, I saw both sides of the issue. The gay community had achieved a lot of liberation and a lot of prominence in San Francisco over the seventies and on into the early eighties, and I thought that closing the bathhouses would really be a political setback. (Abrams 46)

These biases against and from the gay community delayed the response to AIDS in San Francisco and around the country. The view of homosexuals as outsiders and criminals made public officials reluctant to act on their behalf, and made the gay community skeptical of their efforts when they did act.

Photo: The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panels displayed at San Francisco City Hall during San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, 1988. (UC San Francisco, Library, Special Collections. Source: Calisphere)

Resources for Teachers

Education resources, including tips for interviewing, tutorial for searching our collection, and the complete Epidemics in History — AIDS/HIV curriculum with sample assignments. 

Student project: See the website by Ella S. Damty, based on the class assignment developed by UC Berkeley undergraduate research apprentice Corina Chen: Virus Hunters Newsletter: Obstacles in AIDS Research and Treatment

Seven-episode podcast: First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco.

All interviews in the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco Oral History project.

From the OHC Director: October 2020

While we are in the midst of a year without precedent, I am lucky enough to be able to draw upon any number of well worn cliches to describe the current state of the Oral History Center: we’re running on all cylinders, chugging along, moving full steam ahead, and, happily, derailed no more. In this month’s newsletter you’ll see very clear evidence of the work that was accomplished during the months of shelter-in-place: the completion of many long-in-progress oral histories, our first remotely conducted Advanced Oral History Institute, and several other productive initiatives. 

Amanda Tewes
Amanda Tewes teaching oral history remotely

We have also moved well beyond the “wrapping up old projects” phase of 2020 and have forged ahead boldly by resuming our core activity of conducting new oral history interviews. Since I last wrote a newsletter column, the OHC team of interviewers has conducted oral histories for our projects with the Getty Trust, East Bay Regional Park District, Sierra Club, and San Francisco Opera—and we’ve done new interviews for our Chicano/a Studies and Women in Politics projects. History cannot wait and we’ve resolved to make progress in spite of the obvious limitations of this strange historical context. As always, we welcome ideas, feedback, and support.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center 

OHC at the Oral History Association Conference

As with most things this year, the 2020 Oral History Association conference will be held digitally. The theme, “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle,” was inspired by the Centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, yet excluded Black men and women in the Jim Crow South. In choosing this theme, we hoped to encourage submissions that interrogate the idea of “Democracy,” its inherent assumptions and challenges; submissions of oral history projects that illuminate the ways in which we participate in democracy, who has access to the political process and who has historically struggled to gain such access.

OHC’s own Shanna Farrell and the Smithsonian’s Kelly Navies (who is one of our Advanced Summer Institute alumni!) served as the conference co-chairs and are very excited to kick off what promises to be an engaging and dynamic week of presentations.

If you’re attending next week, we’d love for you to check out sessions from the OHC staff. Here’s the lineup:

  • Monday, October 19:
    • Amanda Tewes leading “An Oral Historian’s Guide to Public History” workshop from 11am – 2:30pm ET/8 – 11:30am PT
  • Wednesday, October 21:
    • Paul Burnett will be on the “Educating in High School and University Involves Listening” panel talking about UC Berkeley OHC K16 Outreach Project: The HIV/AIDS Curriculum Pilot at 3:30pm ET/12:30 PT
    • Shanna Farrell will be chairing the “Oral History for an Audience: Podcasts, Performance, and Documentaries” session at 3:30pm ET/12:30 PT
  • Thursday, October 22:
    • Roger Eardley-Pryor will be talking to OHC narrator Aaron Mair for the “Hitched to Everything: Aaron Mair, Environmental Justice, and the Sierra Club” session that will be chaired by Shanna Farrell at 3:30pm ET/12:30 PT

We hope to “see” you there!



Janet Daijogo: Japanese Internment and Finding Her Place through Aikido and Teaching

by Deborah Qu

“I’ve actually heard that what you think of as your earliest childhood memory has a certain importance, but not because it’s necessarily your first memory. Just that having that association as your first memory means that you’ve placed a certain importance on it, for whatever that’s worth.” — Janet Daijogo

Janet Daijogo’s first real memory was the day military police knocked on her door and gave her family two weeks to relocate. It was during World War II, and she was Sansei or third-generation Japanese American. “The whole thing was just shrouded by fear,” she recalls during her oral history for The Bancroft Library in 2011. There was a fear of police knocking at her door and the uncertainty of where she was going to live. She realizes in retrospect that this memory was like a “body imprint” that influenced her personality, and something she carried with her into adulthood. 

Janet Daijogo was born on March 21, 1937 in San Francisco, California. At age five, she and her family were relocated to internment camps at Tanforan Racetrack and Topaz, Utah, during WW2. Post incarceration, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended UC Berkeley. Today, Daijogo is a veteran kindergarten teacher at Marin Country Day school, having taught children for 40-plus years. She incorporates Aikido, a noncompetitive form of martial art, in her teaching, and attributes her journey in teaching and Aikido as a mental practice where she found her space and purpose.

Janet Daijogo
Janet Daijogo in her classroom

Daijogo remembers moving to Topaz after a few months in Tanforan. Her parents carried on with hope or gaman, the belief in Japanese culture that they “can get through this kind of thing, and we do not complain.” While she does not remember much about Tanforan as a child, she recalls barracks with dirty wooden floors and sheetless cots, and mess halls with long waiting lines that served food on metal dishes. But Daijogo most distinctly recalls the large fences that encased the Topaz camp along the grey landscape, and how her imagination went wild about the people and mystery outside the fence. 

After the war, the Daijogo family moved to Oklahoma. There, she remembers seeing black-white segregated bathrooms and being unsure about which one to enter. Daijogo recalls feeling divided, saying “I think at that moment . . . I realized that I was not one of them. I was not white, I was an outlier. I was somebody on the fringes.” 

From fourth grade onwards through high school, Janet Daijogo lived on an American Army base in Japan. She describes the unfamiliarity about not knowing the language or dressing like her peers, and becoming more ‘Americanized’ in Japan. “There was this distance,” she remembers. “I did not really identify with them even though they looked like me.” Later, she looks back on her childhood and high school years by saying, “I think one of the themes of my life is being the outsider and finding the comfort of that, where to be, how to be in that situation.”

Janet Daijogo attended UC Berkeley, majoring in child development and minoring in history. Both her parents were Cal alumni and strongly valued education, but her mother was especially proud of attending Berkeley. Janet describes how “unusual” that her mom was able to attend Cal and how “it was also an important part of her identity.” Like many Berkeley students today, Daijogo felt the same excitement in anticipation for school. She describes the feeling of picking up books for the start of the semester, saying “there’s a real energy in them…like you’re getting ready to explore something out there.” But while Daijigo describes her experience as “amazing,” she also remembers thinking, ”oh my God, what am I doing here with all these smart people?” 

Janet Daijogo with her family
Janet Daijogo with her family

After graduation, Daijigo and her new husband Sam moved to Japan, where she taught at an international school. While she still was seen as a foreigner, this time she experienced Japan more outside her American bubble. Once they returned to the US, Daijogo stayed at home to raise her children. However she quickly felt discouraged. She recalls that her “sense of purpose and personal value that comes from work” was missing, because she could not express her academic side. This was when she found a job at the Marin Child Development Center teaching emotionally disturbed children. First, she recalls coming home and crying every day for four or five months, frustrated at the difficulty of teaching children. Yet over time, Daijogo found there was something about these situations she had no control over. With the help of her mentor, Janet Daijogo realized that she was not the cause, but she also could not magically make them happy. She was just “part of the journey.” 

Around this time, Janet Daijogo found Aikido. For Daijogo, Aikido was a space for reflection and grounding, where she found her “center, a place of stability and of ‘okayness’, of feeling good, of relaxation and of power.” She integrated the practice of Aikido into her teaching curriculum, and stressed the importance of cultivating a supportive relationship with oneself to students at a young age. Janet Daijigo discovered that she needed to treat herself in the same way she had taught the children; like them, she was “part of the journey.” Today, Janet Daijigo is a grandmother who still teaches at Marin Country Day and still practices Aikido. About accepting uncertainty and understanding the self, Janet Daijigo says, “I think at this stage in my life I now know what I know, and I know what I don’t know.” 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of women being admitted to UC Berkeley on “equal terms as men,” as approved by the Board of Regents in 1870. Since the doors were opened that first year, there have been an innumerable number of accomplished women graduates from Berkeley who have gone on to contribute meaningful work in STEM and humanities, excel in sports, devote their lives to public service and communities, and introduce new and valuable perspectives on old patterns of thought. From looking at their outward accomplishments alone, it seems like large shoes for today’s students to fill. As a student studying remotely this year, I would not be surprised that many of us are anxious about school or future career prospects, health and wellbeing, financial issues, or the news in general. But Daijogo’s oral history stood out to me, because she openly speaks about the mental challenges of stressful life events and the importance of self care and patience. Her vulnerable story reminds us that that life is a journey of continued learning, and we are all along for the ride. 


Deborah Qu is a sophomore at UC Berkeley and is majoring in psychology. As a research assistant for the UC Berkeley Oral History Center, she developed a collection guide to UC Berkeley Women Oral Histories, which is available on the Berkeley Women 150 and Oral History Center websites. 

Read the Daijogo oral history: Janet Daijogo, A Life’s Journey: From Child of the Incarceration to Master Teacher, Translating the Truths of Aikido for the Kindergarten Classroom.

2020 Advanced Summer Institute Recap

In early August 2020, OHC staff gathered once more for a weeklong event: our annual Advanced Summer Institute, where we teach the methodology, theory, and practice of oral history to other practitioners. In 2020, however, COVID-19 upended our best intentions for an in-person event, and the OHC made the bold decision to turn this weeklong seminar – from lectures to small group discussions to interview exercises – into an all-digital experience. Certainly this was a sharp left turn for our office and required retooling. Nonetheless, we had a record number of applicants and 50 participants from around the world, which proves that the demand for oral history education remains strong even during a global pandemic. Despite changes for this year’s Advanced Summer Institute, I am now better able to appreciate what remains constant about the practice of oral history.

One way in which this all-digital format changed the Advanced Summer Institute was in increasing its international draw. In previous years, we have welcomed a smattering of participants from around the world. Admittedly, however, the additional cost for traveling internationally to Berkeley is something that has kept these numbers relatively low. In 2020, our all-digital format not only eliminated the cost of this travel, it also created a space for participants from several continents and timezones to join us for stimulating discussions – even in the wee hours of the morning – and share a variety of perspectives about interviewing across different cultures. Especially during a time when we are socially distancing from even our closest friends and neighbors, it was a joy to see people from around the world gather together in this way.

What did not change in our 2020 Advanced Summer Institute was the OHC’s emphasis on teaching oral history best practice through both practical experience and shared knowledge. Indeed, we doubled down on connecting participants to one another through an expanded interview exercise, wherein paired individuals planned a pre-interview and then engaged in 30-minute oral histories. They then switched roles so both could experience conducting an oral history and participating in one. From initial feedback, participants found this a valuable activity because it taught them how to ask better questions and to empathize with narrators. We also made sure to continue our small group discussions in the digital format so that participants could present their individual projects and ask for feedback in a smaller setting. This, too, proved important to sustain.

Despite these many successes, it is still important to acknowledge what we lost in this new digital format for the 2020 Advanced Summer Institute: the conversations in between sessions or during lunch that lead to meaningful connections, hands-on help with recording equipment, a distraction-free week of learning, and a sense of place near our offices at UC Berkeley. And yet, participating in this seminar – and indeed working as oral historians in the era of COVID-19 – seems to have encouraged all of us to examine the role of storytelling and documentation in this challenging moment. The resounding chorus I heard at the Advanced Summer Institute was that now more than ever we need oral history to help humanize the past and record the present. Personally, this experience reinforced my desire to connect with people – even over long distances – especially the narrators I interview in my own oral history practice.

Willie Brown Oral Histories, UC Berkeley Oral History Center

“If you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘What the hell was Willie thinking?’ … well, now you have the chance to hear for yourself!” — Mayor Willie Brown on his oral history

About the Willie Brown Oral Histories

Willie Brown was the 41st Mayor San Francisco, serving two terms between 1996 and 2004. Prior to that, Brown represented San Francisco in the California State Assembly for thirty years, serving as that body’s Speaker for a record fifteen years. During his four-decade political career, Brown was admired and despised, respected and feared by politicos statewide. His passion for politics and exuberant style of leadership attracted the attention of leaders and influencers nationwide. 

Together, two oral history interviews from the UC Berkeley Oral History Center form a remarkable life story that began in the segregated town of Mineola, Texas, in 1934, and run through four decades in politics, law, and policy up to 2016, on the verge of that surprising presidential election.

Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004 (2020) 

Willie L. Brown, Jr.: First Among Equals: California Legislator Leadership 1964–1992 (1999)

Willie Brown
Mayor Willie Brown (Courtesy of the Oral History Center)

Commentary by Interviewer Martin Meeker

Interviewer Martin Meeker comments on Brown’s importance to San Francisco and California politics, the significance of the oral history as a draft of the city’s history at the turn of the millennium, and what it was like to interview the legendary mayor. “At times deeply thoughtful and soft-spoken while at other times exuberant and laughing boisterously, Brown brought all his passion, intelligence, and personality to bear on the telling of this story.” Martin Meeker Commentary


“His Williness” at Beach Blanket Babylon

Willie Brown comic

San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Phil Frank repeatedly lampooned Mayor Brown, drawing him as a king; Willie Brown played the caricature in Beach Blanket Babylon, San Francisco’s iconic musical revue. Hear Willie Brown talk about handling criticism and the importance of laughter. “I enjoy any form of humor, whether it’s about me, against me, or with me. I really love to laugh.” (p. 145–146)

Photo: “His Williness” as drawn by cartoonist Paul Frank, from the Phil Frank Archive of Comic Strips, The Bancroft Library (Banc pic 2012.032).

Foreword to the Oral History By Mike Roos

Find out why Mike Roos, Member of California State Assembly, 1977–1991, found Willie Brown to be passionate, spellbinding, authentic, and brilliant — and “the most effective state leader in the later part of the twentieth century in the most influential state in the United States.” Mike Roos on Willie Brown

Oral History Transcripts

Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004

The 10-hour history begins with the remarkable tale of how Democrat stalwart Brown managed to get re-elected Assembly Speaker in 1995, even after Republicans won a majority in the state Assembly. Facing the prospect of terming out of office, Brown then set his sights on running for San Francisco mayor. The new oral history then delves into his successful campaigns for mayor in 1995 and 1999; Brown’s first term agenda, including tackling economic development, homelessness, housing, and the development of an entire new neighborhood, Mission Bay, now home to the University of California San Francisco, the San Francisco Giants and the Golden State Warriors; and his appointments to the Board of Supervisors. The history moves on to his second term agenda, including replacing the Transbay Terminal; the city’s housing crisis; so-called  “Progressives” in San Francisco politics; and his own reflections on his image and legacy. 

The Willie Brown: Mayor of San Francisco, 1996–2004 oral history was sponsored by the University of California, Office of the President, under the leadership of then-President Janet Napolitano.

Willie L. Brown, Jr.: First Among Equals: California Legislator Leadership 19641992

Spanning nearly fourteen hours, Willie Brown’s first interview with the Oral History Center documents the events of his life preceding his election as mayor of San Francisco. Brown begins with his experience growing up in the segregated town of Mineola, Texas, where he was born in 1934. He then describes what is perhaps the major physical turning point in his life: the move from Texas to San Francisco, where he would eventually rise to unprecedented political and cultural influence. His story in the city begins in 1951 with his years at San Francisco State University, where he first became involved with Democratic politics. He also describes his time at UC Hastings School of Law and his resulting law practice of the late 1950s and early 1960s, during which he continued his involvement in politics. The oral history goes on to explore his journey to the California State Assembly and expands on his career and contributions as a member of the legislative body. He then describes how he became speaker of the assembly and the issues he faced in the position, including government organization, revenue and taxation, African American equity, and challenges within the Democratic Party. Finally, he recounts his experience as chairman of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign, the major issues facing California in the early 1990s, including welfare, workers’ compensation, and health care in California during the early 1990s, and the dangers of term limits.

Notable Quotes

Written excerpts from the Willie Brown oral history transcript on topics and people including:


  • Absentee ballots as election strategy
  • Identity politics
  • Progressives in San Francisco politics
  • Homelessness; affordable housing
  • Economic redevelopment; Mission Bay
  • Education budgets and party politics
  • The importance of diversity in appointments
  • The power of Democrats in the State Legislature
  • Term limits
  • Building the central subway system
  • Incorporating lessons from past experience


  • The public’s perception of “Willie Brown”
  • Early impressions of Bill Clinton
  • Maxine Waters’ early recognition of Bill Clinton
  • Response to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan
  • Early impressions of Gavin Newsom
  • The political power of Nancy Pelosi

How to Request Audio

To request audio from anywhere in the transcript, please send an email to the director of the Oral History Center, Martin Meeker (mmeeker@library.berkeley.edu). Be sure to include beginning and ending time stamps.