Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice Symposium
Call for Proposals, deadline of October 1, 2021.
Convened by the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
It has been just over one year since a White police officer murdered George Floyd, sparking the largest call for racial justice in this country in a generation. Support for Black Lives Matter reached an all-time high in June 2020, with nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults holding a favorable opinion of the movement, and support spilling over to all corners of the globe. White Americans also helped take down Confederate monuments and bought books on antiracism in record numbers while corporations pledged millions of dollars to social justice organizations and causes. One year later, however, commemorations of Floyd’s life and legacy asked: “What’s changed since?”
We acknowledge that “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” is taking place amid revitalized demands for understanding – and changing – the systemic racism that enabled a White police officer to murder a Black citizen in daylight without seeming fear of repercussions. But it is also taking place at a time of fierce backlash to any understanding of the oppressive forces that enabled Floyd’s murder. At the time of this writing, some state legislatures have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory, even as a majority of states seek to suppress the Black vote and overturn our elections. Recent events such as these are causing many to evaluate the role of structural racism and White supremacy in the arts and humanities, including the practice of oral history.
Building on an enthusiastically received panel that asked “Is Oral History White?” at the 2020 Oral History Association annual meeting, participants in that session (calling ourselves the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice), in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, are convening a symposium that will define, identify, analyze, assess, and imagine alternatives to conventional practices, prevailing ideologies, and institutional structures of oral history in the United States and Canada, as they pertain to historic and current forms of systemic racial discrimination. In essence, the symposium is moving beyond the question the 2020 panel asked – “Is Oral History White?” – to interrogate broader structures and dynamics of race and racialized thinking in oral history.
We are inviting proposals from oral historians and others involved in fieldwork-related interviewing practices, as well as critical race and Whiteness theorists, to submit proposals for symposium papers that pose major questions and offer precise assessments of racial constructs as a factor in all phases of oral history work: project design, research processes, financial and budgetary matters, fieldwork and community relations, interviewing, archival practices, and public presentation and interpretation of narrative materials.
The “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” symposium will take place via Zoom Webinar over a three-day period in June 2022. We expect to convene approximately thirty-five presenters, spread over six to eight sessions of two hours each. With the assistance of a moderator and/or one or more discussants, session presenters will summarize and discuss pre-circulated papers posted on a conference website, which will have also been made available to registered attendees in advance of the symposium. Symposium sessions will allow time for audience questions and comments, vetted and synthesized via the Zoom Webinar “Q&A” function by the session moderator. This format will allow for especially robust and probing discussion during sessions.
This symposium should present a significant opportunity for audience members to reflect personally upon the charged subject of race in oral history in a pedagogically constructive way. Discussions of racialized experience and representations in our field will raise not only important insights but also strong emotions. We expect our audience to have a vast range of racial identities and relationships – including but not limited to Whiteness and Blackness – and varying degrees of experience reflecting upon that. We therefore plan to set shared expectations for constructive conversation rooted in mindful awareness, good faith engagement, and emotional maturity at the very beginning of the symposium and to create opportunities for small-group discussion and individually tailored self-reflection over the duration of the symposium. We hope that the symposium’s virtual nature, with participants in the relative privacy and comfort of their own homes, will contribute to this aspect of the symposium experience. Above all, we plan to keep discussion focused on practical applications of whatever theoretical and conceptual insights into race in oral history our symposium may furnish.
Intended outcomes include publication of revised versions of selected conference papers in an edited volume and a white paper assessing OHA’s racialized history, practices, and programs, to be developed by symposium organizers. Organizers, in cooperation with OHA’s Equity Task Force and Diversity Committee, will also create and promulgate guidelines for racial equity in oral history.
Pending receipt of grant monies, we hope to provide honoraria for symposium presenters.
Each proposal should include a title, an abstract of no more than 500 words, and a short biographical statement of no more than 300 words. Include your name, institutional affiliation if relevant, mailing address, email address, and phone number. The abstract must outline the research that you either have conducted or intend to conduct in support of your proposed presentation, the sources that you have consulted or will consult, and the collections in which you have conducted or will conduct research. While we anticipate that most proposals will be for a single paper, we welcome proposals for full sessions, also – to include 3-5 papers, moderator and discussant/s. We also welcome inquiries from individuals interested in serving as a session moderator or discussant to include a brief statement of interest and a short summary of work in oral history. Proposals are due October 1, 2021. (See below for more information.)
Some questions and themes we expect symposium participants may address include:
(Please note that we are open to other related questions and explorations.)
Whiteness and White Supremacy
- How should Whiteness be defined, and how do the deep structures and conventions of our practice reflect Whiteness, structural racism, and White supremacy?
- How might an interrogation of unexamined Whiteness be brought to bear on work in oral history? This might be done by assessing a past project or the curation of an existing collection or by considering the planning and implementation of a project currently under development. (Note: While we welcome case studies that audit specific projects, we would also like to see papers go beyond that.)
- How has work that has drawn upon existing collections reproduced racialized assumptions?
- What are some examples of projects that handled or represented racial dynamics, including Whiteness, in a creative, antiracist, or otherwise generative way?
Non-Western perspectives and approaches
- What has oral history learned from Indigenous, African American and other perspectives and approaches that fall outside the dominant Western paradigm?
- What patterns do we see in our own work that can be traced to BIPOC origins and models? What do these BIPOC origins and models have to teach us about the pitfalls of Whiteness and White Supremacy?
- How might specific insights, both theoretical and methodological, generated by the field of Critical Race Studies, help guide practical approaches to oral history?
- How and in what circumstances has oral history operated against the grain of prevailing racial assumptions?
- What can oral historians learn about power dynamics and reflexivity from research in the field of trauma studies?
- How have the institutional and organizational structures underlying work in oral history been racialized? How has the way oral history has been funded and otherwise supported contributed to unintentional racial bias? How has the “history from below” approach perpetuated these biases? And how do White interviewers themselves perpetuate bias?
- Over its fifty-plus year history, how has the work of the Oral History Association been racialized or reflective of broader patterns of White supremacy? In what ways and to what effect has the association functioned as a gatekeeper for oral history and oral historians, including some practitioners, practices, and work, excluding others, through its various products and programs such as the Principles and Best Practices, annual meeting, and publication of the Oral History Review? How has the association addressed racial issues over time, to what effect?
- When and where is it appropriate for oral historians to think beyond our individual projects and consider the role of the institutions we work for in order to tackle structural racism?
Oral history and current events
- How are oral historians and the institutions and organizations with which we are affiliated responding to the current political moment? How might we respond more effectively?
- Oral history is by its nature a civic enterprise and a medium for public engagement. How can oral history mobilize anti-racist constituencies, create dialogue around difficult issues, and/or influence public opinion or policy?
- What are the limits of oral history in combating structural racism?
The deadline for proposal submissions is October 1, 2021.
Notification of acceptance: On or about November 15.
Submit proposals to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Proposal Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
Questions may be directed to:
Final papers should be submitted no later than April 15, 2022 in order to post them on the conference website for distribution to conference attendants by May 1, 2022.
Final papers should be between 5,000 and 7,000 words and include a bibliography.
Submit final papers to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Paper Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
*The Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History is composed to date of the five panelists who contributed to the OHA’s 2020 conference session, “Is Oral History White?” – Benji de la Piedra, Jessica Douglas, Kelly E. Navies, Linda Shopes and Holly Werner-Thomas.
From the Oral History Center Director — July 2021
I recently had the pleasure of watching a new documentary film, The Sparks Brothers (2021), which details the solidly unconventional musical career of Ron and Russell Mael, lifetime stalwarts of the band Sparks. This film has everything one might want from a rock and roll documentary: rare footage of live performances, insightful commentary from artists influenced by the band (Beck, Bjork, Weird Al), and a narrative charting several artistic ups and downs. You might watch it and think that you caught an episode of “Behind the Music” (without the cliche visits to Betty Ford) or This is Spinal Tap (the new wave remix). But the thing about this film that really caught my attention — and got me thinking about our work at OHC — is how revealing and edifying a full life history can be (as is done with The Sparks Brothers as well as with many of our oral histories).
Growing up in California in the early 1980s, Sparks originally came to me as another hip, ironic, proudly nerdy Los Angeles new wave band. Surely the first song of theirs I heard was “Cool Places,” an absurdly upbeat synthpop song performed with and co-written by Jane Weidlin of the Go-Go’s. I saved my pennies and soon purchased the album (Sparks in Outer Space) and loved most every song. I followed their career through another few albums then, as teenagers do, moved on to other bands and sounds. To me Sparks remained in my memory as a genre-band — a very good one, but still one of a particular type.
Watching this full-life documentary, however, upset my own memories of this band. It revealed parts of their lives (including telling moments of their childhood) that were unknown to me. It showcased their early years as a Zappa-like freak band, their move to England where they earned fans as glam-rockers, their burgeoning interest in synthesizers and ultimately their collaboration with synth-god Giorgio Moroder, and finally their return to Los Angeles and reincarnation as a new wave band. The film also details the years since the 1980s, which took the pair in even more esoteric musical directions while continuing to win new fans, garner critical accolades, and stage frankly amazing artistic achievements. After watching this video, I am now eager to dig deeper into their music and thus discover bits of pop music past that thus far had been hidden to me. New music need not emanate from this day and age after all.
This is one of the reasons that I think the life history interviews we do at the Oral History Center are so incredibly valuable. When we conduct this type of oral history (ten hours or more with a single individual) we not only have the opportunity to ask the obvious questions (“tell me about the research that led to your Nobel Prize?” “What was it like to win at the Supreme Court?”), we are afforded the freedom to explore the lesser known aspects of a narrator’s life. With the additional hours of interviewing, we can document the narrator’s family background, upbringing, and education. We can detail early career moves that maybe didn’t amount to much but which taught crucial life lessons. We can document failures as well as successes. In my interview with Herb Donaldson, the first gay man appointed as a judge in California, I also learned about his side job as a coffee importer and roaster who gave key advice to a certain coffee shop getting started in Seattle (yes, Starbucks). With former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson, I got a fascinating account of his establishing a new health system in rural Uganda. And in my in-progress interview with famed Newsweek and Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth, there’s a lengthy description of her two years in the Peace Corps. While perhaps not what these people are best known for, these “other projects” not only provide great insight into the individual but often offer useful insights into historical events. Sometimes you think you know the whole story, or at least the most important part of that story. But when you read — or conduct — life history interviews, you soon learn that all parts are important and those less regarded can be the most surprising.
In this spirit of uncovering less known accomplishments, I want to pay tribute to Bancroft staff who recently retired. At the end of June we witnessed the departures of Bancroft Director Elaine Tennant (also a renowned scholar of German literature and culture), Deputy Director Peter Hanff (also a recognized expert in all things Wizard of Oz, which he detailed in his oral history), finance manager Meilin Huang (also the savior of the Oral History Center on many occasions), and photographic curator Jack von Euw (also an excellent curator of many Bancroft exhibits). We bid farewell to these four esteemed colleagues. We hope that retirement adds several new and interesting chapters to already very accomplished lives.
Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center
Good news for all of you book club fans out there! The Oral History Center is pleased to announce the pick for our Summer 2021 Book Club: Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Death, Sex & Money podcast host, Anna Sale. Anna is also a podcast and audio instructor with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Advanced Media Institute.
And there’s more! Anna Sale will be joining us for our virtual book club discussion!
We’ll be welcoming Anna as our special guest on Tuesday, August 10, 2021 from 2-3pm PST via Zoom.
If you’d like to join, please send an RSVP to Shanna Farrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you’ve RSVP’d, Shanna will send you the Zoom information.
You can find Let’s Talk About Hard Things online, at your local bookstore, and at your local library. We look forward to seeing you in August!
As staff eagerly anticipate a return to more regular on-campus work, we have a guest posting by pictorial processing archivist Lori Hines. She provides a peek at one facet of work that we have been doing remotely in 2020-2021. -JAE
A posting by Lori Hines
Working from home during the COVID-19 closure has allowed Bancroft Library pictorial unit staff to enhance descriptions of digitized items, improving online searching.
One of my recent projects was to improve the description of items from the James D. Phelan Photograph Albums, BANC PIC 1932.001–ALB , which were scanned many years ago with only brief caption transcriptions. This photograph in album 85 is identified only as “Geneveve” [sic].
Having previously worked on collections related to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, I had an idea that Geneveve, or Genevieve, could be posed at a similar event. Currently the photo is essentially unidentified and lost in the sea of images.
A photo a few places earlier in the album was identified as “Crossing Columbia River,” so that gave a clue to a possible region. A photo a few spaces later had a date of 1909, so that gave a probable date.
Doing a quick Google check, I typed in “Exposition US 1909”, and voila, I easily confirmed that Geneveve must be at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle. I then added “entrance” to the search, because there appear to be turnstiles behind the arches. Google image search gave me some pretty good matches. There was one image from the Seattle Municipal Archives that showed the turnstiles with part of the arch. A couple of other pictures had better views of the arch.
Now we have a useful identification for BANC PIC 1932.001 Vol. 85:296—ALB:
Not all of the items get this depth of attention, but this is one example that is worth the extra time. It’s been difficult being away from collections and researchers for over a year, but there is no shortage of online content with minimal identification, so there’s gratification in taking this time to make improvements.
Scholars from many fields will be interested in narrators who recall their experiences with Juneteenth
“Juneteenth was usually two days of real fun. . . . For those big picnics, people would come from Dallas, Fort Worth, well, just from miles around. I would think hundred miles or two hundred miles. . . . That was a time of reunion when all the families would come back.”
So remembers Selena Foster, the daughter of sharecroppers from Cherokee County, Texas, who was interviewed for the Oral History Center’s On the Waterfront: Richmond, California Oral History Project. Foster went on to recall the barbecues, the ice cream, the best food she ever ate, the festivities, and the large family reunions.
This is the first year that Juneteenth is being observed as an official national holiday. Juneteenth commemorates that day on June 19, 1865, when union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and formally announced that slavery was over and enslaved people were free. The Oral History Center has three interviews with narrators who talk about Juneteenth. While the references to Juneteenth in these interviews are brief, they reveal something about each narrator – the pride of starting the first Juneteenth parade in Richmond, California; the happy memories of family reunions in Cherokee County, Texas; and the involved approach of a teacher with her preschool students’ families.
Beyond that, scholars from many disciplines will find much of interest in the oral histories of these three women from three different backgrounds, all of whom landed in the Bay Area. Scholars studying everything from African American history to urban development, women’s history, community history, demographics, early education, higher education, theater, migration, the World War II home front — the list goes on — will find something in these oral histories to enhance their research.
Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Margaret Wilkerson: A Life in Theater and Higher Education
Margaret Wilkerson was interviewed as part of the UC Berkeley African American Faculty and Senior Staff Oral History Project. A scholar of theater with a focus on Black women playwrights including Lorraine Hansbury, Wilkerson served as chair of the UC Berkeley departments of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and African American Studies, and also served as director of Berkeley’s Center for the Study, Education, and Advancement of Women. In her oral history, Wilkerson discusses her childhood in an integrated community in Los Angeles, her life experiences, scholarship, and administrative work in higher education on behalf of equity and access.
Wilkerson, together with fellow UC Berkeley alum Lamarr Ferguson, organized the first Juneteenth parade in Richmond, California. It started as a small event through a local church, and was expanded to an annual citywide event through the City of Richmond that still takes place. Wilkerson recalls the first fair:
[We] picked up the kids and brought them down, and taught them about Juneteenth, and did makeup on their faces and things like that, and then took them back home. We had sent fliers out, delivered fliers in the neighborhood to let people know what was going to happen on that day and that we’d like to take the kids. We came down and they let us do it because we all lived in the neighborhood and they all knew us. I felt very proud that we did that for a couple of years and then after we stopped doing it, the City of Richmond picked that up and began to have a city-wide Juneteenth celebration.
Selena Foster: A Longtime Richmond Resident from Cherokee County, Texas
Selena Foster was interviewed as part of the On the Waterfront: Richmond, California Oral History Project. Born in 1916 in Texas to sharecroppers, Foster migrated to California in 1944, where her husband found work with the Kaiser Shipyards. Foster started out making donuts at a diner and soon after launched her own restaurant. In her oral history, Foster discusses her childhood in Texas, religion and church life, discrimination, housing, early Black families in Richmond, and Richmond’s development.
Foster details her childhood experiences in Cherokee County, Texas, and in that context recalled how important Juneteenth was in Texas and to her family. She remembers her family’s celebrations of the holiday:
Now, the Juneteenth, which is going to be celebrated here in Richmond this week, we had every year back there. That was one of the big celebrations in the middle of the year. Juneteenth was usually two days of real fun. The one day was getting everything ready and putting up the carnivals and then the big day of the celebration. My grandfathers all barbequed, and several other men that I know of there. They made their pits in the ground, unlike today. They would kill the cattle themselves. They would kill the beef off and wash it down and hang it and whatever they’d do to it, they say to tenderize it.
Then they would cook all night for two or three nights. That would be some of the best meat I ever ate in my life. And they had no ice and refrigeration. They would put the meat down in the well to cool it, to keep it from spoiling. That’s the way my grandmother used to do her butter.
So, for those big picnics, people would come from Dallas, Fort Worth, well, just from miles around. I would think hundred miles or two hundred miles. You would get to have that big reunion. That was a time of reunion when all the families would come back. My birthday, incidentally, is the twentieth of June. I always had a birthday party. I got ice cream for my birthday.
Sharon Fogelson: Rosie The Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project
Sharon Fogelson was interviewed as part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Oral History Project, in partnership with the National Park Service. Born in 1943, Fogelson was a preschool teacher and later head teacher with the Pullman School in Richmond, California. In her interview Fogelson discusses the changing demographics of Oakland and Richmond, where she lived and worked, in the several decades after WWII, as well as segregation and poverty in Richmond, shifts in federal funding for schools, early education, teaching methodology, standardized testing, and gender discrimination.
Fogelson talks about Juneteenth in the context of building rapport with the parents of her students. She explains that she would relate to parents through discussions of holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Juneteenth. Fogelson specifically references Richmond’s annual Juneteenth fair, the one that Wilkerson had founded.
If there was an event in the community, like they would have a Juneteenth fair at Nicholl Park, I would ask them, did they go to that? And if they haven’t been, next year they should try to make it a priority, because it’s a really exciting affair to go to, for your children, because there’s things there about your own culture. So we just talked about everything. If you make what some people call small talk with people, and they sort of get to know you, they start to build a trusting relationship with you. So then if something isn’t going right in their family, they feel more comfortable saying, “Do you have a couple minutes I could talk to you?” Because you don’t threaten them. They feel sort of like you’re almost a friend. So I’ve always found that you make conversation with whatever the parent is interested in talking about, and how important—
I don’t think sometimes people in education realize that a casual relationship and that daily interaction that you have — it’s something in elementary through high school — teachers don’t have the opportunity to do that.
These oral histories provide a glimpse into how the holiday of Juneteenth was valued and celebrated. Even more, the three narrators who recalled Juneteenth have much to share about the pressing social issues of their day — and ours.
You can find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Just type a name or key word and click “search.” To ensure a full text search, on the next page scroll down and toggle on the button that says “full text.” If you’re interested in African American history in particular, see our related collection guide, A Host of Hidden Gems: Interviews with African Americans throughout the Oral History Center Collection. You can also visit all our collection guides and our projects page to find oral histories on specific subjects. We have oral histories on just about every topic imaginable.
The Oral History Center has been conducting a series of interviews about SLATE, a student political party at UC Berkeley from 1958 to 1966 – which means SLATE pre-dates even the Free Speech Movement. The newest addition to this project is an oral history with JoAnn Fowler, who was a founding member of the organization in the late 1950s.
JoAnn Fowler is a retired Spanish language educator and was a founding member of the University of California, Berkeley student political organization SLATE in the late 1950s. Fowler grew up in Los Angeles, California. She attended UC Berkeley from 1955 to 1959, where she became active in SLATE and served in student government through Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC). After completing a master’s degree at Columbia University, she worked as a teacher, mostly in Davis, California. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
I have previously written about the contributions of women members of SLATE and their sometimes complicated feelings about gender roles in this student political group. Fowler, however, did not feel that being a woman was not an obstacle for her in SLATE, and her interview includes memories of her own role in shaping the organization.
Fowler recalls being an outspoken SLATE member from the start. At her first meeting with the group in the fall of 1957, she recalled being overwhelmed by the advanced political theory many of the group discussed, and by one faction that she perceived “wanted to sit around and talk these things to death and not try to take any kind of action.” She felt that in order to be politically effective, the group had to take another approach:
I’m very verbal, I’m not shy at all, I speak right up, I don’t care, I have nothing to lose here. I say that, “You have to do something within the campus, you have to work within the campus. If you want to get all these things done, you have to get elected and do things on campus.”…So that’s the position I take, and that’s the position that Pat Hallinan takes, and so we win over the majority of these people…
Perhaps Fowler’s greatest contribution to the group was that in the spring of 1958 she ran for and won a position with ASUC on the SLATE ticket. This made Fowler and Mike Gucovsky the first SLATE members to have a voice in student government at UC Berkeley, and being able to affect progressive political change from positions of campus leadership was a key goal of the group. In speaking of her campaign platform, Fowler remembered:
If you were to name anything, we ran on all of it, but not all of that could be addressed during the campaign. Basically, it was: freedom of speech was addressed through [being] against the [House] Un-American Activities Committee and also by the relationship between professors and the students that should be confidential and the anti-Loyalty Oath. Then there was civil liberties in the South; in Berkeley with that housing ordinance that came up for vote; and on the campus that no fraternity or sorority should discriminate.
She continued discussion of that ASUC campaign, saying:
This was encouraged by Mike Miller. I didn’t mind running—that was going to be great—but I did mind speaking to big groups. I hadn’t had a lot of experience doing that, so he encouraged me to do that. I went around only two nights that I remember, and it was only to men—I never spoke to women—and only at the co-ops. That was my background; I’d come out of co-ops. I’d go in at dinnertime and I would speak for two minutes, maybe somebody introduced me and maybe somebody didn’t. I’d speak for two minutes to those very immediate concerns that I thought would be very appealing, and I would have this overwhelming applause. But I felt that anybody, any woman could have stood up there and gotten this overwhelming applause, because that’s the kind of applause I felt it was. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. I don’t know who else spoke there. I don’t know if men spoke there, if other independents have reached out, I have no idea.
Even after she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1959, the lessons she learned from SLATE stayed with her. While living in Davis, she worked at a Hunt’s tomato factory, where she attempted to organize the office workers. Later, she headed the Davis Teachers Association, supporting a raise in teachers’ salaries. These organizing efforts didn’t always succeed, but Fowler saw them as part of a larger political project she’d been passionate about since her time in college. She explained, “But I did my bit, and so without SLATE, I wouldn’t have…tried, no, I wouldn’t have tried.”
Reflecting on how her involvement with SLATE impacted her life, Fowler observed:
I think it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never would have been as politically aware. I didn’t have that background, I didn’t take political science, I didn’t take sociology; I took economics, I took psychology. I never would have been as aware or as active as I was, I wouldn’t have had a group. When I lived in an apartment, I didn’t have a social group or I didn’t have—you were going to come on campus and leave campus because you certainly didn’t meet too many people coming out of that lecture hall of 500 people. I’m glad I have that experience, very much so. It was a good time in my life.
To learn more about JoAnn Fowler’s life and political work, check out her oral history! Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
As a continuation of our work for the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative, Dr. Bridget Cooks and I conducted a series of oral history interviews with the conceptual artist Charles Gaines. This interview was the first of several exploring the lives and work of Los Angeles-based artists, and celebrates Gaines’s extraordinary artistic contributions.
Charles Gaines is an artist specializing in conceptual art, as well as a professor of art at California Institute of the Arts. Gaines was born in South Carolina in 1944, but grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Arts High School in Newark, graduated from Jersey City State College in 1966, and earned an MFA from the School of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. Beginning in 1967, he taught at several colleges, including Mississippi Valley State College, Fresno State University, and California Institute of the Arts. Gaines has written several academic texts, including “Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism” in 1993 and “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought” in 2009. His influential artwork includes Manifesto Series, Numbers and Trees, and Sound Text; and he exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2015. Gaines is the recipient of several awards, including Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013 and REDCAT Award in 2018. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Hearing about Charles Gaines’s upbringing was especially helpful in framing his approaches to art. For example, he spoke about his mother’s influence on his life–particularly her musical inclinations. Though Gaines concentrated his early artistic studies on the visual arts, he also had a passion for music, eventually becoming a professional drummer. This connection to musicality and music theory features prominently in his conceptual works like Snake River and Manifestos. Indeed, in his Manifestos Series, Gaines turned the text of political manifestos into musical compositions based on a system he devised. He recalled, “Unconsciously, I began thinking about music as a kind of mathematics and this connection with text and language; I began to see the connection to language and systems.”
Further, Gaines shared about his exploration of conceptual work in the 1970s, and his consequential transition from an abstract painter to a conceptual artist:
Well as I said, those big abstraction paintings turned into these process-oriented works, and so that work demonstrated an interest in a systematic approach. It was a part of my research. I was looking for an alternate way of making work that was not based upon the creative imagination, was not based upon subjective expression.
This transition period also coincided with an eighteen-month sabbatical from teaching at Fresno State University from 1974 to 1975, when Gaines, his wife, and infant son moved to New York to explore his professional art practice. He recalled of the conceptual artists he met there:
But I did at that time, during that time in New York, become much more familiar with conceptualists, with what the conceptualists were doing. At that time, it provided a context for me. It was just before I started working with numbers but I was working with systems already, and so I felt that it’s true that, of anybody, my work, the language of my work fits best with those conceptualists.
Another major theme in Gaines’s interviews was his many years teaching art at colleges across the country, including the challenges of teaching at what he deemed conservative institutions. Despite these challenges, Gaines always looked for ways to mentor his students by not only helping them improve the quality of their work, but also by sharing his own insights into how to navigate the art world. He explained:
The thing I would always give my students advice about is that you can’t control career. That’s something that you shouldn’t even be thinking about. You should only think about the work, and you should also think about exhibiting the work, which I think is different from a career. You need to show people the work, so you make the work and try to get people to see it. In that process, something might happen, you can’t make it happen. In almost every story about how careers get kicked off, it’s because you happen to be at a right place at the right time, and somebody who matters notices something, and then things sort of roll into place…Ultimately, it’s the work that’s going to get you the exposure.
In addition to his own works and teaching career, Gaines has also made many important contributions to the art world through his theoretical writing and curation of exhibitions. In 1993, he co-curated Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism with Catherine Lord at the University of California, Irvine in 1993. This show, and Gaines’s catalog piece, explored racism in the art world by displaying Black artists’ work alongside reviews from (largely white) art critics, and questioned how and why they misread this work. Of this important exhibition, Gaines explained:
Well, I chose artists who were actively producing in the art world, and known to people. In a couple of cases, I showed a couple of people who were at an early part of their career, like Renée Green, for example, just started her career. But there were other people like Lorna Simpson and Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, were completely well-known. The fact that they’re well-known artists was important to me because it allowed me to underscore this point that I was making: that is that there’s not much writing on the work of artists, even if they’re well known. The writing that there is [is] marginalized around the idea of race. The writers who wrote about [them] often thought they were writing positively about the work. They didn’t think that the way they approached the work was, in fact, marginalizing.
To learn more about Charles Gaines’s life and work, check out his oral history interview! Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
New Sierra Club Oral History Project interview:
As a young lawyer, Tony Ruckel was just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday when, in the spring of 1969, he brought the nation’s first litigation under the 1964 Wilderness Act to the US District Court for Colorado. Ruckel and his plaintiffs—among whom included veterans from the US 10th Mountain Division, a wilderness guide, a local outfitter, the Town of Vail, Colorado Magazine, two local conservation organizations, and the Sierra Club—all believed the definition of wilderness set forth in the 1964 statute aptly described the acres adjacent a primitive area near Vail that the US Forest Service had proposed to sell for logging.
At the time, Ruckel had just moved back to Colorado, where earlier he had earned his undergraduate degree in Anthropology with an emphasis in Archeology due to his summer work at Pueblo Indian archeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park. Ruckel had returned to Colorado from Washington DC, where, in the 1960s, he marched in Civil Rights demonstrations, witnessed other historic events, and earned his J.D. from George Washington University Law School. It was in DC where Ruckel first joined the Sierra Club upon learning the Club was fighting against a government proposal to dam the Grand Canyon. By 1969, upon returning to Colorado, Ruckel represented the Sierra Club in court and in 1970 won his first major environmental law case, Parker v. United States (US District Court for Colorado, 1970). With that victory, Ruckel helped established an important legal precedent that ultimately enabled the designation and preservation of vast tracts of wilderness all across the United States.
Soon after, Ruckel founded and became director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF), one of the nation’s first public interest environmental law organizations, now named Earthjustice. From 1972 to 1986, Ruckel worked as the Rocky Mountain Regional Director and staff attorney for SCLDF, with responsibilities for litigation on areas stretching from the desert Southwest through the Northern Plains, including several of the nation’s premier national parks. Ruckel’s legal campaigns with SCLDF included battles against coal-fired power plants and resisting placement of a nuclear waste repository near a national park that could have threatened the downstream drinking water of the Colorado River from Utah to southern California.
Later, from 1990-1993 and 1996-1998, Ruckel was elected to and served on the national Sierra Club’s board of directors, which included his terms as Secretary, Treasurer, and from 1992 to 1993 as President of the Sierra Club. Additionally, through his service on the Sierra Club’s Investment Advisory Committee, Ruckel helped pioneer for environmental non-profits their financial investment in non-extractive industries. Throughout all of these endeavors, Ruckel advocated passionately for the protection of public lands and wilderness areas, while also regularly exploring those lands. Ruckel became an avid long-distance runner and is a rare mountaineer who has summited all fifty-four of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
In his oral history, part of the renewed Sierra Club Oral History Project, Ruckel discusses all of the above and more, including his family history, the exciting early years of environmental law, as well as organizational tensions between the national Sierra Club, the Sierra Club Foundation, and SCLDF. Tony Ruckel and I recorded his fifteen-hour oral history over five interview sessions in September 2019, all at his home in Denver, Colorado. I am delighted to now share his 369-page transcript here, which includes photographs from some of Ruckel’s ascents of 14,000-foot summits throughout Colorado.
Tony Ruckel’s oral history is significant for those interested in environmental history and United States history, particularly for his work helping pioneer the field of environmental law and his legal efforts in the 1970s to halt the construction of massive fossil fuel and nuclear energy projects in the Southwest. Additionally, from 1963 through 1968, Ruckel witnessed and participated in several historic events in Washington DC, including marching to the Lincoln Memorial and standing less than 100 yards from Dr. Martin Luther King during his immortal “I Have a Dream” address; standing in line for hours on a wintry November night waiting to pass President Kennedy’s catafalque in the Capitol Rotunda; attending Supreme Court arguments presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren; as well as seeing significant parts of northeast Washington burn upon Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968.
Ruckel’s oral history also makes substantive contributions to the Sierra Club Oral History Project. In the late 1960s, for instance, Ruckel played a formative role expanding the Sierra Club’s East Coast activities. But most importantly, as the founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office for SCLDF, Ruckel played a significant role establishing and shaping the early evolution of environmental law. His narration here on friendships and legal campaigns with other pioneers of environmental law—like David Sive, Jim Moorman, Phillip Berry, Michael McCloskey, Richard Leonard, Leland Selna, Rick Sutherland, Beatrice Laws, and others—complements and supplements several existing interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project. And with regard the Sierra Club’s contemporary campaigns to combat climate change by ending the extraction and use of fossil fuels, Ruckel’s narrative of his legal battles against the Kaiparowits and Intermountain power plants reveals the Sierra Club’s surprisingly deep roots to move “Beyond Coal” several decades before that campaign’s formal designation. Additionally, as a nationally elected leader on the Sierra Club’s board of directors in the 1990s, Ruckel oversaw challenges to the Club’s organizational finances and relationships vis a vis the Sierra Club Foundation and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. During his time on the board of directors, Ruckel also made significant contributions to ways that Sierra Club finances are invested, accumulated, and presented publicly.
Lastly, Ruckel’s oral history compliments The Bancroft Library’s significant collections related to the Sierra Club. In preparation for his interview, I read carefully Ruckel’s own book about environmental law and his career in it: Voices for the Earth: An Inside Account of How Citizen Activists and Responsive Courts Preserved National Treasures Across the American West (Samizdat Creative 2014). Ruckel kindly donated a copy of his book to The Bancroft Library’s permanent collection [Call number TD171 .R83 2014]. Additionally, just prior to Ruckel’s interviews, it so happened The Bancroft Library made publicly accessible numerous additions to its already large collection of Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund Records (BANC MSS 71/296 c, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund Records, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley). The existing collection already included agendas, minutes, reports, clippings, financial reports, dockets, new matter forms, notes, and subject files, mostly pertaining to SCLDF’s now-infamous Mineral King litigation. In late July 2019, in preparation for Ruckel’s oral history, I met with Lisa Monhoff, the project archivist who processed The Bancroft Library’s new additions to the SCLDF collection. Monhoff explained how the new records range from 1967 to 1995 and include environmental litigation cases from more than 30 states and the District of Columbia, as well as amicus briefs for numerous cases, including some for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Ruckel then highlighted the following archival collections that complement sections from his own book on those topics, all of which he and I discussed during his oral history: Series 1: Administrative and Operational Files 1970-1991, Carton 3, folder 6: River of No Return Wilderness (Idaho) 1973-75, also covered in Voices for the Earth, pages 94-99; Series 3: Additions Received in 2009 1967-1995, Subseries 3.1: Environmental Litigation 1973-1995, Carton 9, folder 11: Colorado – Pitkin County 1991, also covered in Voices for the Earth, pages 116-121; Series 3: Additions Received in 2009 1967-1995, Subseries 3.1: Environmental Litigation 1973-1995, Carton 13, folders 14-15 – Circle Cliffs, Trans-Delta Oil and Gas 1973-1981, also covered in Voices for the Earth, pages 33-38. During his oral history, Ruckel and I discussed all of those topics and many more, including his work on cases related to managing the Grand Canyon (see Voices for the Earth, pages 49-65) and his efforts against the creation of a nuclear waste repository proposal next to Canyonlands National Park (see Voices for the Earth, pages 195-212).
Tony Ruckel’s gregarious nature and his storytelling made conducting his oral history a pleasure. The few days Ruckel and I shared together in September 2019 made me wish I could have joined him around the campfire out in some of the wilderness areas he helped preserve through his pioneering legal career. With the addition of Tony Ruckel’s oral history, the Sierra Club Oral History Project now includes accounts from well over one hundred volunteer leaders and staff members active in the Club for more than a century. Varying from only one hour to over thirty hours in length, these interviews document aspects of the Sierra Club’s diverse activities and concerns over the years, including protection of public lands and wilderness areas; attending to the “explore and enjoy” aspects of the Sierra Club’s mission through its robust outings program; safeguarding water and air quality; promoting sustainable energy and progressive climate policies; and working toward environmental justice. The full-text transcripts of all interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project, including this interview with Tony Ruckel, can be found online at the Oral History Center website.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
H. Anthony (Tony) Ruckel, “H. Anthony (Tony) Ruckel: Sierra Club President 1992-1993, Pioneering Environmental Lawyer with Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2021.
by Annabelle Long
Annabelle Long is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center. She worked with Shanna Farrell during the Spring ’21 semester. Annabelle is a third-year History and Creative Writing student from Sacramento. She works as a conduct caseworker in the Student Advocate’s Office and enjoys going on long walks in Berkeley. You can find her on Twitter @annabelllekl.
The pocket of Berkeley bounded by Telegraph and Shattuck avenues is generally considered to be quiet and uneventful. Colorful Victorian houses line the blocks, gray apartment complexes full of Cal students loom over sidewalks, and telephone lines crisscross over each other, dividing the sky into irregularly sized rectangles and diamonds. I spend a lot of time in this part of Berkeley. I have my favorite houses, my favorite trees, my favorite views in every direction. I have my favorite alleys and blocks and moments in its history. I can’t pick a single favorite former resident, but Zona Roberts is high on the list.
Zona existed in Berkeley as a mother before she existed here as a student. She lived with her sons Ed, Ron, Mark, and Randy in a pale green house she rented on Ward Street, a few blocks west of the hustle and bustle of Telegraph Avenue and a few blocks east of Shattuck. I often walk by her old house. It’s blue now, with red front steps, and it sits unassumingly behind a fence overgrown with flowers in the springtime. When Zona moved in, she had a ramp installed in the back to allow Ed to get inside. Ed Roberts, Zona’s eldest son and a political science major at UC Berkeley, was the first wheelchair user ever admitted to the school, and virtually nothing in the city was wheelchair accessible when he arrived on campus in 1962, including his mother’s home.
The green house, as it came to be known, acted as a sort of safe haven for the Roberts family and their friends. It was a family home for the community, not just Zona and her sons.
“It was a neighborhood of older families who’d lived there, a neighborhood of single-family homes, mostly, or two flats,” Zona said of the area, “The neighborhood was just changing as some of the older folks were dying off and some were moving away. A few younger people were moving in, but it was more or less an established neighborhood. But because of the racial composition and students in Berkeley, no one cared who went in and out of my house. The kids who came in or the Black students who visited and some lived, for a while, with me. There was no threat to their lives. There were none of those issues. It was just like a breath of fresh air to me. It was so nice not to have to worry about what might happen. I remember that vividly.”
Zona, by all accounts, was an unflappable person. When she and her sons came to Berkeley, she was a recent widow, and had been Ed’s primary caretaker since he contracted polio and became a quadriplegic in 1953. She was a fierce advocate for all her sons and their needs and disliked being told what to do—she, as a learned expert in their likes and needs, felt that she knew best.
UC Berkeley promised a new world of opportunity for both her and Ed, when previously, his disability had meant neither of them was optimistic about what the future would hold, and her role as mother and caretaker left little room for imagining a life outside their home. But Berkeley was different; here, Ed was a student and leader, and eventually, so was she. In her oral history, when the conversation veered away from her time in Berkeley, she’d direct it back with references to the green house. The landscape of her college experience seemed to define it. She became acquainted with Berkeley alongside and behind Ed.
“One of the first days when I had taken Ed across and through campus, he was in a pushchair those days. He was quite tall and quite thin. We were going down into Faculty Glade and I had a hold of the back of his chair. It began to slip a little bit and I ran into a tree sort of deliberately to stop the chair, just the side of it, into this tree because I felt I was going to lose it. I don’t know whether my hands were sweaty, or the place was wet or what was happening. I think I finally learned how to do it backwards, where I’d walk down the hill backwards. I had better control.”
This anecdote, in my mind, speaks to the essence of Zona Roberts: ever present and adaptable to the needs of her son, caring and thoughtful, in the heart of Berkeley.
“In my senior year, I’d visit Ed up at Cowell. I remember one of the first times I walked through campus carrying my books, walked by Strawberry Creek, walking up to Cowell instead of coming in the station wagon from home or coming over to visit them. Here I was walking across campus on my way between classes and going up to visit and smiling a broad smile that I was now a student at Berkeley, also, and very proud of myself, and loving the campus and Strawberry Creek coming down through the middle of it. There’s some beauty in that Berkeley campus,” she said.
This feeling of reverence for Berkeley—for the atmosphere of casual intellectualism, for the exciting possibilities of being a student, for the sometimes-unbelievable natural beauty of the campus—is one I am intimately familiar with. I can only imagine how those feelings would be magnified for Zona, who, as a middle-aged widow and mother of four, never thought she’d live in Berkeley or become a student.
Zona was immensely proud to be a Berkeley student and to be Ed’s mother. She encouraged his involvement in activism and saw herself as an important backer of the disability rights movement; she saw herself as, first and foremost, an important backer of Ed.
“I saw my role at the office [UC Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living] as it became known as I did in Ed’s life, pushing Ed in front and being behind him,” she said of her involvement, “This was a place for people with visible disabilities to be visible, to be out in front. I found myself being in a supporting role, seeing that the office functions were going as smoothly as possible, seeing that there was food and heat and counseling and open doors and open access to information from us to the university and from the university to us. But somehow, we were in this together and it was a part of a wonderful movement. The time had come, and we were in the forefront of the movement and we were told this from all over the world. That was a glorious feeling. Hard work and glorious feeling.”
Zona Roberts worked hard to be the best mother she could be. Eventually, that meant becoming an integral part of a movement that was so much larger than any of them individually. If Ed Roberts was the father of the disability rights movement, Zona was the grandmother. She worked in the Center for Independent Living for years after its founding, and remains active in disability rights activism today, years after Ed’s death and well into her one hundred and first year of life.
I imagine the learning process of her activism was similar to learning to walk down the hill next to the Faculty Glade backwards, or modifying the old green house on Ward Street to make it accessible: sometimes slow-going, and certainly not without error, but always more than worth the trouble.
by Annabelle Long
Annabelle Long is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center. She worked with Shanna Farrell during the Spring ’21 semester. Annabelle is a third-year History and Creative Writing student from Sacramento. She works as a conduct caseworker in the Student Advocate’s Office and enjoys going on long walks in Berkeley. You can find her on Twitter @annabelllekl.
I watched the 2020 documentary Crip Camp to get a sense of Judy Heumann, the disability rights icon and architect of a movement that created a more accessible world. I had only recently read her oral history, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, and I was eager to learn more about the woman behind the words on the page. When she is first shown in the film, she is doing what I’ve learned that she does best: leading a group. She has a big voice and a bigger grin, and talks campers through their options for dinner later in the week. She’s already thought it through—she considered veal parmesan, but found the veal to be too expensive, so next on her list is lasagna, the suggestion of which elicits both cheers and groans from the crowd. She offers everyone a chance to make their case, and then takes a vote. Lasagna wins—barely. This vote, in its consequences, probably meant very little to Judy and very little to everyone else. But in my mind, it makes one thing clear: Judy didn’t make any decisions without considering and consulting the group. She cared what people had to say, and she listened. And so campers had lasagna, and eventually, thanks to her activism, disabled Americans had laws to protect them.
Crimp Camp provides a snapshot of the disability rights movement through the lens of Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled children and teenagers that opened in upstate New York in 1951. Each summer, about 120 campers moved in for four to eight weeks. The camp, despite often being credited with changing the lives of its campers, had immense financial struggles and closed its doors in 1977, leaving its legacy in the hands of the many campers who passed through. Judy contracted polio and became paralyzed at 18 months old, and for every summer from ages 9 to 18, she was one of those campers. She credited her time at Jened with shaping her approach to activism and life generally.
Jened resembles the woodsy summer camps of my childhood, but it had more of a Summer of Love aura about it—the rec room was boisterous and the softball games were passionately played, but at Jened, counselors were hippies, campers fell in love, and the bunkrooms and mess halls overflowed with eager conversations about the state of disability rights and the world. It was in those conversations, Judy would go on to say, that she learned to listen to a group, lead a group, and speak as a part of a group. To Judy and the other campers, Jened was more than a camp: it was a place to be fully and truly oneself, a place to try out new politics, and often, a place to meet close friends and lovers (Judy even said she never dated outside of camp). It almost seemed sacred.
Jened is both a moment and an enduring feature in the history of the disability rights movement, and Crip Camp seeks to understand it as both: as a physical place, where people gathered and grew, and as a concept, a memory and idea that endured well beyond the summers it operated. Oral history, as a practice, seeks to accomplish something similar. It draws on memories of particular moments, the feelings that make something worth remembering, and unites those memories with broader historical narratives to give a complete picture of a life and a time. But I can’t help but wonder—what does it mean when a story continues after the taping is done? When the end of the recorded narrative turns out to be the midpoint of a real and full life?
Judy Heumann’s oral history focuses on her time UC Berkeley, where she received her master’s in Public Health, and the 504 sit-in of 1977, which she was critical in organizing. For 25 days, Judy and well over 100 disabled people occupied the San Francisco office of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and demanded enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which stated that no institution receiving federal funding could exclude people on the basis of their disability. Judy’s activism in 1972 was critical to getting Section 504 written in the first place, and she and other disabled people were tired of it being completely unenforced—schools, cities, and buildings were still inaccessible despite the law’s promise. Schools lacked elevators to allow disabled students to get to their classrooms; sidewalks lacked defined dips in the corners and thus often forced wheelchair users to take inconvenient, circuitous routes to their destinations or left them stranded. In response, disabled people occupied government buildings across the country in protest. The San Francisco demonstration was the longest lasting and arguably the most successful, largely thanks to the motivating force that was Judy Heumann.
In Crip Camp, Corbett O’Toole, a disabled activist and one of Judy’s contemporaries at the Center for Independent Living at UC Berkeley, said that “we were more scared of disappointing Judy Heumann than we ever were of the FBI or police department arresting us.” This was because Judy served as the central organizing force of the occupation—she held down the fort, ensured people’s needs were met (no easy task when many occupiers required around-the-clock physical assistance), and negotiated with government figures to advance the cause. I’d be scared to disappoint her, too.
There’s no debate about her status as an organizing powerhouse. In the early days of the disability rights movement, everyone in her orbit seemed to recognize that she had a knack for getting people together, getting people to listen, and perhaps most crucially, getting people to act. Mary Lester, a staff member at the Center for Independent Living spoke about Judy in her own oral history and credited her with the movement’s expansion.
“Judy was the one who brought in deaf services and was the one who always wanted to expand the population we were serving. She was pushing us in those directions to broaden the coalition. She was a networker supreme,” she said, “Judy wanted to push CIL as far as it could go in terms of being a model and being a pioneer and bringing all of the different disability factions, if you will, together.”
Judy was meticulous and thoughtful in her activism; no stone went unturned, no idea went unexplored, and no voice went unheard.
“We had the civil rights aura, but we had the facts,” she said of the Independent Living Movement, which she helped develop in Berkeley, “I mean, I think the civil rights aura without the facts actually doesn’t get you where you need to be. But the facts without the civil rights perspective doesn’t necessarily get you there either.”
Berkeley, as a city and community center, played a critical role in shaping the 504 sit-ins and the disability rights movement more broadly.
“Well, you know Berkeley is a small community, period. And many of the people certainly at that time were activists. And you lived on the same block with somebody, or a couple of blocks away,” she said, starting to laugh, “And that’s just the way it is. It’s a town.”
UC Berkeley was to Judy and her friends what Jened had been to them in their youth. Crip Camp gets at this: many of Judy’s friends from her camp days eventually made the same westward journey that she did, and ended up in and around the UC Berkeley community. There, they took the community they’d built in upstate New York and turned to activism. Jened taught them the importance of their community; Berkeley taught them how to fight for it.
Judy Heumann recorded her oral history with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center in 2007, decades after her time at Camp Jened and some of her most well-known organizing efforts. Since then, she’s lived nearly another decade and a half—enough time to feature in an Oscar-nominated documentary, host a podcast, produce a research paper on improving media representation of disabled people, publish a memoir, and work on advancing disability rights internationally as a special advisor to President Obama in the State Department.
She spoke about her international ambitions and hopes for the disability rights movement in her oral history, before Barack Obama was even the Democratic nominee for president; before there was even an inkling that her role as his special advisor on international disability rights would ever exist. In this way, oral history provides us with a window into her mind, a snapshot of a moment in the unfinished history of the disability rights movement. This, perhaps, is part of the value of an oral history conducted before the end of someone’s life—it reveals the in the moment motivations and thoughts behind future actions, and is definitionally more than just temporally distanced reflection or speculation about how and why something occurred.
Judy Heumann at the 2021 Academy Awards
In the same way that Crip Camp sought to capture multiple dimensions of Camp Jened and its legacy, looking at Judy Heumann’s oral history in light of the more recent years of her life allows for a complex and interesting portrait of her and her accomplishments. As a history major, the people I study often never lived to see the worlds that they created, so it is especially wonderful to know that Judy Heumann saw the disability rights movement from its inception to a piece of storied history behind the world as we know it now.
“But you know, you walk up Telegraph Avenue, you go to Rasputin’s, and you see this history of the disability movement, and the owner of the store proudly displaying history of the disability rights movement on a building,” she said in her oral history, “You see, I go into a restaurant yesterday and there are two young disabled people coming in from Berkeley sitting down and having lunch together. The waiter’s moving the chairs out, and I’m like, oh, I guess two people in chairs are coming. And these things are natural now, because there is such a large number of people here that the community itself has become more accepting. It’s normal.”
I am a student at UC Berkeley and I live a block from Telegraph Avenue; between me and Judy’s tangible legacy sits a sidewalk that slopes down at the corners for wheelchair access. The world is not perfectly accessible, and there is still much to be done to ensure that disabled people’s rights are protected, but I like to think about how my normal is the product of Judy’s life’s work.