What would it be like to fly halfway around the world on a non-stop flight from Newport, Oregon to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland aboard a C-17 Air Force transport plane with a small crew of environmentalists, veterinarians, and an internationally famous 21-foot long, 10,000 lb. orca “killer whale”?
Detailed answers to that question and much, much more can be found in the Earth Island Institute records, a newly processed collection now open to researchers at The Bancroft Library.
Earth Island Institute is a Berkeley based non-profit conservation group founded in 1982 by David Brower that acts as an incubator to support a global network of ecological and social justice projects working to conserve, protect and restore the environment. Born in 1912, Brower entered the University of California at Berkeley at age 16 with a plan to study entomology, but due to financial pressures had to leave school by his sophomore year.
Located in the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley, you may have walked by or visited the LEED Platinum rated building, read the Earth Island Journal publication, or be familiar with Earth Island’s work going back to the late 1980s on the dolphin-safe tuna campaigns. Those campaigns helped to heighten awareness of dolphin by-catch mortality levels during purse seine net and drift net fishing practices for tuna fish, reform marine mammal protection laws and establish the dolphin-safe tuna labels.
One of Earth Island’s other major projects began in 1994 after the film Free Willy was released by Warner Bros. and brought worldwide attention to the plight of captive marine mammals everywhere, although especially for the orca “killer whale” known as Keiko who starred as Willy. First captured off Iceland in 1979, Keiko was owned by Reino Adventura, a theme park in Mexico City, Mexico during the film’s production. After Earth Island Institute, numerous animal welfare groups, environmentalists and children from around the world rallied to free Keiko, Reino Adventura agreed to donate him to the newly formed “Free Willy Keiko Foundation” for a program of rehabilitation at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport for eventual release back to the wild.
What happened to Keiko from then on is now in the historical record and up for research and debate. Although Keiko was released back into the wild, first into the Iceland sea pens in September 1998 and then into Iceland’s open waters, he died off the coast of Norway in December 2003 from pneumonia and possibly hunger, having lost the ability to fish for himself after being held captive so many decades. Since 1961, hundreds of killer whales, or orcas (actually a type of dolphin) have been captured and used in theme parks to entertain, and some would argue to educate, the public on the beauty and wonder of these magnificent beings.
As of 2018, there are approximately 60 captive orcas and countless dolphins and other marine mammals being held and used for entertainment at theme parks primarily in China, France, Japan, Russia, Spain and the United States. And yet, captive orcas are certainly not the only killer whales in harm’s way. As evidenced in a number of recent studies, films and news stories – orca populations in the wild are dwindling at rapid rates as declining fish stocks, marine pollution and other factors like increased shipping traffic have caused them to be at extreme risk for extinction. The time to learn about orcas, marine mammals, the greater ecosystem of our world environment and how we can improve life for all creatures of the land, air and sea is now!
The processing of the Earth Island Institute records is part of a two-year NHPRC-funded project to process a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading repository in documenting U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
Environmentalists make terrible neighbors, but great ancestors. – David Brower
It would be difficult not to notice a common thread of diligent, dogged persistence across the broad spectrum of environmental justice activism. This tenacity, coupled with a long view of the world and a whole lot of hard work, is what makes for some of the most successful environmental justice campaigns.
While success cannot be measured in one brief moment or win where environmental issues are concerned, each victory adds to the larger picture of global environmental awareness and health of the planet. Multiple stories of such environmental justice grit can be found in the collections at The Bancroft Library and one collection in particular is the newly opened records of Arizona Toxics Information.
Focused primarily on environmental concerns in the Arizona/Mexico border region during the 1970s through 1990s, Arizona Toxics Information was founded by conservationist Michael Gregory in 1990. The collection also includes materials collected by Gregory before Arizona Toxics Information was established when he worked with the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter and grassroots environmental groups. Gregory had been employed by the United States Forest Service in the early 1970s and had witnessed the spraying of herbicide 2,4,5-T in national forests while he was stationed at fire outlook towers. 2,4,5-T is one of the main components of Agent Orange, which had already been banned for use in Vietnam due to its known harmful health effects and birth defects. From there, Gregory set about to research, collect information, write articles and lobby to end the practice of herbicide, pesticide and insecticide spraying in national forests and range lands.
In addition to the fight for pesticide use awareness and regulations, Arizona Toxics also ran several successful campaigns to shut down the Phelps-Dodge Corporation’s Douglas Reduction Works (copper smelter), the ENSCO hazardous waste management facility (PCB incinerator), and to improve the overall air and water quality of Arizona. As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Environmental Plan for the U.S.-Mexico Border Area and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were being drafted in the early 1990s, Arizona Toxics Information lobbied and organized grassroots groups on both sides of the border to share information and rally for a multitude of environmental commitments in the agreements. These commitments included providing the public the “right-to-know” about pollutants being released from factories on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, regulating maquiladoras (factories in Mexico that are generally owned and operated by foreign companies which assemble products often to be exported back to the country of that company), and developing emergency disaster plans to respond to hazardous waste accidents.
The current status of NAFTA casts some doubt on the future of these agreements. The opening of the records of Arizona Toxics Information provides timely documentation of hard-won environmental justice victories on the US-Mexico border.
The processing of the Arizona Toxics Information records is part of a two-year NHPRC-funded project to process a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading repository in documenting U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
The Oral History Center is pleased to release a new life history interview with leading winegrower Phil Freese.
Philip Freese is a co-founder and co-owner of Vilafonté, a South African winery that produces varietal red wine. Freese was born in 1945 in Indiana. He was educated at Purdue University (BS) and University of California Davis (PhD) where he studied biochemistry. He left the field of biochemistry to pursue a career in the wine industry in 1978, first working as vineyard manager for a CalPlans vineyard in Napa County and then, beginning in 1982, as a winegrower for Robert Mondavi, eventually becoming Vice President of Winegrowing. In the 1990s he started both a wine consulting firm, Winegrow, and, with his wife winemaker Zelma Long, the winery Vilafonté in South Africa.
In this interview, Freese discusses the following topics: upbringing and education in science; early career as a biochemist; the evolution of the California wine industry from the 1970s through the 1990s, with a special focus on Napa Valley and viticulture; the multiple facets of viticultural practice and research, including the definition of “winegrowing”; the North Coast Viticultural Research Group; Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1980s and 1990s; vineyard consulting practices; the wine industry in South Africa from the 1990s through the 2010s; and Vilafonté Winery in South Africa.
This interview will be engaging to anyone interested in wine from the lens of science, farming, or just sheer pleasure. Freese was one of the American pioneers of the idea of winegrowing, or the notion that wine is made primarily in the vineyard, less so in the cellar — that to make good wine, what you need first and foremost is quality grapes. So, Freese discusses in great detail the history of learning better viticultural practices from irrigation to vine canopy management.
Martin Meeker, Oral History Center
The Oral History Center is pleased to release our life history interview with famed civil liberties lawyer, Marshall Krause.
Marshall Krause served as lead attorney for the ACLU of Northern California from 1960 through 1968 and subsequently served as an attorney in private practice where he continued to work civil liberties cases. Krause attended UCLA as an undergraduate and graduated from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley School of Law after which he clerked for Judge William Denman and Justice Phil Gibson.
In this oral history, Mr. Krause discusses: his upbringing and education, including his time at Boalt Hall; clerkships with judges Denman and Gibson and how those experiences influenced his progressive political outlook; his tenure as ACLU staff attorney, including many of the cases he worked; his experiences arguing several cases before the United States Supreme Court; his perspective of the San Francisco counterculture of the 1960s; and his professional and legal career after leaving ACLU in 1968, which included arguing additional cases before the US Supreme Court.
This oral history is significant for any number of reasons, but it especially worthwhile for anyone interested in the current state of battles around the freedom of speech — from obscenity through political speech — and how these were decided in the courts in decades past, establishing the precedents under which we live today.
The Bancroft Library is pleased to announce the completion of the “Japanese American Internment Sites: A Digital Archive” which includes important historic materials from our archival holdings that are now available online.
The project was generously funded as part of the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program and includes approximately 150,000 original documents from the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records (BANC MSS 67/14 c). The records represent the official documentation of the U.S. War Relocation Authority. Existing from March 1942 to 1946, the WRA was created to assume jurisdiction over the relocation centers, administered an extensive resettlement program, and oversaw the details of the registration and segregation programs.
“We are very grateful to The National Park Service for funding the digitization of these important historical documents.” said Mary Elings, Assistant Director and Head of Technical Services at The Bancroft Library. “We hope researchers will find the content informative and that we will see new digital scholarship emerge as a result of this material now being available in digital form.”
The project builds upon two previous grants conducted between 2011-2017 to digitize 100,000 documents from the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study and 150,000 original items from Bancroft’s archival collections including the personal papers of internees, correspondence, extensive photograph collections, maps, artworks and audiovisual materials. Together, these collections bring the total number of digitized and publicly available items to about 400,000 and form one of the premier sources of digital documentation on Japanese American Confinement found anywhere.
The Japanese American Evacuation & Resettlement Digital Archive website, http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/jacs provides context to this rich and substantive digital archive, and directs users to collection guides on the Online Archive of California and curated searches of digitized objects on the Calisphere website.
This project was funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Thérèse Bonney aboard the S.S. Siboney, en route to Portugal, 1941. BANC PIC 1982.111 series 3, NNEG box 49, item 19
Pioneering war correspondent and Cal grad Mabel Thérèse Bonney (1894-1978) was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by the French government, and the Order of the White Rose of Finland for her work during World War II. Her photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and Carnegie Hall during her lifetime. Her work on children displaced by war spurred the United Nations to create their international children’s emergency fund, UNICEF, in 1946, and inspired the Academy Award-winning film The Search in 1948. Yet in the canon of female war photographers that includes contemporaries such as Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and Toni Frissell, Bonney rarely receives mention. Bonney was a renaissance woman whose life deserves further study, and her collections at the Bancroft Library are ripe for discovery. Manuscript Archivist Marjorie Bryer has processed The Thérèse Bonney papers, and Pictorial Archivist Sara Ferguson has digitized over 2,500 previously inaccessible nitrate negatives from the Thérèse Bonney Photograph Collection.
While living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, Bonney modeled for fashion designers like Sonia Delaunay and Madeleine Vionnet, and became friends with many of the most famous artists and writers of her day, including Raoul Dufy, Gertrude Stein, and George Bernard Shaw. In 1924 Bonney founded an international photo service that licensed images acquired in France for publication in the U.S. She was often dissatisfied with the images she distributed, and this inspired her to take up photography herself. Bonney wrote about, and took photographs of, many of the artists and writers in her life throughout the twenties, thirties, and forties.
PHOTOJOURNALISM AND WAR RELIEF EFFORTS
Bonney photographed throughout Europe during World War II, focusing on the effects of war on the civilian population. Her photographs of children were particularly moving and resulted in her most famous work, the exhibit and book, Europe’s Children. Bonney was actively involved with relief efforts after the war, particularly in the Alsace region of France. She also founded a number of organizations dedicated to promoting friendship between citizens of France and the United States, and improving Franco-American political relations. One effort, the Chain d’Amite, encouraged French families to open their homes to American G.I.s; another, Project Patriotism, inspired airmen who were shot down in France to help the families that had rescued them. Project Patriotism eventually spread to other European countries, including the Netherlands. Marjorie’s father-in-law, Peter, was a teenager when Germany invaded the Netherlands during the war. He was sent to live with relatives in the Dutch countryside so he wouldn’t be conscripted. One of Peter’s most moving stories was about the American pilot his family hid when his plane crashed on the family farm. Bonney’s papers include many poignant letters from U.S. soldiers and, while processing the collection, Marjorie wondered what this airman from Brooklyn might have written about his experiences with his Dutch “family.”
LOVER OF CHEESE
Bonney’s many interests included food and cooking. She and her sister, Louise, wrote a guide to Paris restaurants and a cookbook, French cooking for American kitchens. Her papers include her research on cheese, which she referred to as “Project Fromage.” Series 7 of Bonney’s papers include meticulous notes on various cheeses from France and the Netherlands, “technical” correspondence about cheese, and materials related to tyrosemiophilia — the hobby of collecting cheese labels.
EVERYDAY PEOPLE AND LIFE DURING WARTIME
Bonney documented daily life during wartime across Europe. She recorded entire communities — their families, customs, and industries, their artists and politicians, their schools, and their churches. Her papers and photographs show not only the horrors of war but the hope and perseverance of those who lived through it.
NOW AVAILABLE AT THE BANCROFT LIBRARY!
Newly digitized portions of the pictorial collection include Series 6: France, Germany 1944-1946. This series includes photographs of concentration camps Vaihingen, Buchenwald, and Dachau; Displaced Person camps; Neuschwanstein Castle; and Hermann Göring’s Collection of art looted by the Nazi’s. It also includes many images of the heavily bombarded town of Ammerschwihr in Alsace, France and war relief efforts there. Future digitization efforts will focus on Series 3, Carnegie Corporation Trip: Portugal, Spain, France 1941-1942. This series consists of images taken while on a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to document the effects of war on civilian populations. It includes images of military personnel, civilian industries, and Red Cross operations. Famous personalities pictured in this series include Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Georges Roualt, Gertrude Stein, Philippe Petain, Raoul Dufy, and Aristide Maillol.
Bonney’s papers help contextualize her photographs. They include correspondence; personal materials; her writings (autobiographical and articles about others); and her files on World War II, Franco-American relations, art, fashion, photography, and cheese.
Both collections are open for research:
— Marjorie Bryer and Sara Ferguson
This month, we’re bringing you a special edition of our From the Archives department. Below are interviews, all available in the OHC archives, recommended by each of us. Enjoy digging through the crates!
Martin Meeker’s pick:
Andre Tchelistcheff: Grapes, Wine, and Technology. Some lives in our collection of interviews are just profoundly interesting, and well worth digging into. This might be because of difficulties surmounted, achievements recognized, or simply the quality of the telling. Our 1979 oral history with Andre Tchelistcheff reveals one such life that ticks all of those boxes. From his birth in Russia in 1901, through his harrowing escape during the Revolution, to his years in France studying viticulture, and his decades quite literally remaking California’s wine industry, Tchelistcheff lived a remarkably influential life while remaining rooted in his passions throughout.
Roger Eardley-Pryor’s pick:
J. Michael McCloskey (Mike McCloskey), “Sierra Club Executive Director and Chairman, 1980s-1990s: A Perspective on Transitions in the Club and the Environmental Movement,” conducted in 1998 and published in 1999, is the second oral history with Mike McCloskey as part of the Sierra Club Oral History Project. Mike, a longtime leader in one of the largest environmental organizations in the United States, discusses the Club’s growing pains associated with an upsurge in membership amid Ronald Reagan’s anti-environmental actions in the early 1980s. Today, in lieu of modern assaults against environmental protections, Mike’s oral history sheds light on ways environmentalists managed those challenges and even expanded their purview to international issues.
Amanda Tewes pick:
Paul Burnett’s pick:
I choose nurse educator and clinical nurse Angie Lewis, who worked at UC San Francisco during the early years of the AIDS crisis. In Lewis’ interview, we really hear what it was like to first learn of this then-unknown disease that was killing gay people in San Francisco in the early 1980s. But we also hear touching stories of the mobilization of community and medical support for those who were suffering from AIDS.
David Dunham’s pick:
David Blackwell: African American Faculty and Senior Staff Oral History Project. Named after an esteemed mathematician and the first African-American tenured professor at Cal, David Blackwell Hall opened this fall to honor Professor Blackwell. Read more about his pioneering life in his oral history, part of our African American and Senior Faculty Oral History Project.
Todd Holmes’ pick:
I’d recommend Francis Mary Albrier: Determined Advocate for Racial Equality. This oral history captures the extraordinary life of one of Berkeley’s most prominent citizens, from her leading role in fighting discriminatory hiring in the City’s schools and businesses to desegregating the famed Richmond Shipyards. Moreover, through her oral history, you get a clear view of the many unsung citizens that organized communities of color to collectively push for change.
Shanna Farrell’s pick:
When I was first learning how to conduct longform interviews, I drew inspiration from Willa Baum, former director of the Oral History Center. She was an amazing interviewer, and her oral history interview provided insight into who she was, what drove her, and how she built the reputation of our office.
OHC Director Martin Meeker shares his work with the Oral History Association to update its core documents outlining best practices and ethical standards for the field. The committee, which Meeker is a part of, is seeking feedback through which is open for public comment through October 12, 2018.
Every decade or so, the Oral History Association (OHA) has convened a group of oral historians to examine, reconsider, and, often, redraft its core documents outlining best practices and ethical standards for the field. When Todd Moye assumed the presidency of OHA last fall, he announced that just such a project would be a key feature of his term. Soon a task force of fourteen members, including the excellent chairs Sarah Milligan and Troy Reeves, was established and a series of online meetings commenced. I was honored to be asked to serve on the task force and was very happy to work alongside so many accomplished scholars and dedicated oral historians.
Working fairly intensely for about nine months, the task force ultimately drafted six documents. Of those six, four are key. These include: Core Principles, Statement on Ethics, Best Practices, and what the committee is calling “For Participants in Oral History Interviews.” All of the documents are available for everyone to read online and the comment period remains open until October 12. Members of OHA will have the chance to give an up or down vote on the proposed new documents at the business meeting during upcoming OHA annual meeting on Saturday October 13.
As a member of the task force and as a deeply committed oral historian, I want to encourage everyone to engage with these documents both now and when, presumably, they are adopted. Unlike some previous iterations of these documents, the 2018 editions basically offer a full scale rethinking and rewrite of what came before. While there was much useful and insightful material in the previous versions and they served the organization well for years, many task force members thought that those documents both attempted to do “too much” and “too little.” I think that means that there were some pretty detailed prescriptions that were difficult to apply widely (“too much”) and yet much of what was written was a bit too vague and thus was difficult to implement in specific settings (“too little”). The current task force sought to remedy this, and we certainly hope that readers today agree.
The task force wrestled with a number of other questions that are either new or have become newly important over the past decade (the current version was adopted in October 2009). Not surprisingly, technology is at the top of the list. One way in which we attempted to deal with continuous technological innovation was to think about the universal questions and issues that the new innovations have summoned. In other words, we avoided getting into the weeds and writing specific instructions for the situation today because we know things will continue to evolve, and at a rapid rate. Although oral historians have long been aware of the potential challenges and needs that come with interviewing across lines of difference, there is certainly a greater sensitivity to “privilege” today, and the task force kept these concerns foremost when doing our work. But as with technology, we attempted to be open and not write the document so that it speaks only to one type of difference, privilege, or associated challenge, and instead provided guidelines and insight into the best way to handle sensitive relationships in a variety of situations.
When you read the documents, I encourage you to read first Sherna Berger Gluck’s “Introduction,” which provides a useful and tidy history of these documents over the decades, thus putting the newest versions in context. I think I can speak for my fellow task members in saying that we hope the work that we’ve done is received well and is seen as useful and valuable for, perhaps, the next 10 years.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
by Shanna Farrell
Trauma comes in many forms. So does the way we process this trauma, and the way we express it. For me, as an oral historian, this translates to how I conduct interviews and how I prepare for them. For the next couple of months, I’ll be reflecting on this for the OHC’s Field Notes section of our blog. I began this discussion in September, talking about a project that I’m working on with the Presidio Trust, a former U.S. Army base-turned National Park on the northern edge of San Francisco near the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re interviewing people who were involved in, or related to, the Presidio 27 mutiny that occured on October 14, 1968. Events in honor of the 50th anniversary will take place the weekend of October 13th and 14th at the Presidio.
Special care needs to be given to interviews that focus on trauma, as do the pre-interviews. The same rules do not apply for trauma-centric pre-interviews and the process must be flexible. Even just the idea of sitting down for an interview to recount these memories can be anxiety producing. It’s important for the interviewer to keep this in mind and be willing to adapt, or even abandon, their normal practices.
I was confronted with this recently for an upcoming interview. The narrator, who has been interviewed before for a book, agreed to participate in our project. During our first pre-interview, which I conducted with Presidio Historian, Barbara Berglund Sokolov, he expressed uncertainty about his memory and his ability to recall certain events. He was upfront about an illness that he lives with and the impact it has had on his life. He was specific about areas that he did not want discuss, which we noted and will respect.
He viewed this pre-interview, which lasted for about two hours, as the first of several. He requested that we put the interview outline together and mail it to him. Once he reviewed it, we would meet again to talk about the content. This is not normally how I operate. I usually have one meeting with a narrator wherein I schedule the interview. But, I needed to be flexible here, especially if I wanted to build rapport, create trust, and help cultivate a setting where he feels comfortable sharing his story. So we agreed to his request for multiple meetings before the actual interview.
Barbara and I put together interview outlines shortly after the first pre-interview meeting and mailed it off to the narrator. A couple of months passed until we met again. This time around, he seemed much more relaxed and comfortable. Though it was clear he hadn’t read the outline, we took no offense. We understood that he needed to read it in the company of others to discuss these memories and become more comfortable with doing the interview. This meeting lasted for another couple of hours, at the end of which he expressed his desire for more time. We agreed, because we wanted to ensure that he felt agency in the process.
Before the oral history interview, the three of us will have met at least three times. There will be more time spent doing pre-interviews than the actual interview. And this is okay. It may not be what I’m used to, but it feels right to allow the narrator his space to share his story on his terms. This is another form of shared authority, one of the many reasons that I feel so compelled by oral history. Our flexibility in the process will not only strengthen the interview, but hopefully it will allow the narrator the most support.
Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary.
The event, which will feature a conversation with editors Mateo Hoke and Taylor Pendergrass (and special guest!) moderated by the OHC’s Shanna Farrell.
We kick off at 6:30pm in the Logan Multimedia Center. There will be complimentary drinks and books for sale.
Editor (and J-School alum) Mateo Hoke took some time to speak with us about this project, his second with Voice of Witness. Hoke and Pendergrass began the project in 2014, which focuses on the experience of incarcerated people who were subjected to solitary confinement, and features twelve narrators. They interviewed some narrators over twenty times, and exchanged emails and letters with other for over two years.
Q: How did you get interested in oral history? When did you start to use it as a method in journalism?
My interest grew out of my reporting work. From early on I was interested in long interviews, and giving people the space to free associate and really tell their story in their own words, in their own way, with their own mannerisms and ways of speaking coming through. The first long interview work I did was in college.
On 9/11, after the towers fell, I went to a fire station and sat with the firefighters. We just sat and watched the news together, while I wrote down what they said. Honestly they didn’t say much. Everyone, including myself, was in shock and pretty quiet. But taking the time to sit with the firefighters, rather than just calling and asking for quotes, offered much more in terms of insight and emotion. It wasn’t oral history work, but it showed me early in my reporting career that spending time with people gave them the chance to settle in and talk more openly. Not long after that I started a reporting project with Cate Malek, who I later co-edited Palestine Speaks with, about the daily lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in Boulder. We were just a couple of undergrad j-school cubs but we put in the time and work to show up and really listen. We spent days with people, and would go back and back and back to follow up. The whole thing took eight months to research and write. We didn’t call what we were doing oral history work—it was very much journalistic—but it was planting the seeds for long-form interview based reporting. Later I started doing long-form literary interviews. I’d read an author’s entire body of work, then talk with them for hours about their writing, sometimes recording for the better part of a day. So from all of this interviewing grew an interest in oral history. Once I linked up with Voice of Witness in 2010 is when I really started to go into interviews thinking not just with my journalism training, but with oral history practices in mind too.
Q: How did you become interested in the prison system?
I’ve been friends with Taylor Pendergrass since 2003. And when you’re friends with Taylor, you’re going to hear perhaps more than you want to know about the dehumanization and racism that defines the US prison system. Even before he was out of law school he’d dedicated his life and his work to reshaping the so-called corrections system, so his influence played a role in me wanting to learn more from people first-hand about what goes in in our prisons and jails. Reading and music played a big roles as well. I’ve also spent a lot of time talking with people experiencing homelessness in both my personal and professional life, and the issue of homelessness is directly tied to prisons and punishment in the US, so I was coming at it from multiple routes and wanting to learn as much I could, not just about solitary confinement, but about the lives people lead before they enter the carceral system, then once they’re in the system, what they experience during months and years in isolation.
Q: Prisons can be tough to gain access to as a civilian. How were you able to gain access to the narrators in Six by Ten?
It’s important to note that prisons and jails are designed to be difficult to gain access to. Those in charge do not want stories from inside getting out, so they make it prohibitively difficult to do substantive interviews with people inside. I was able to visit two of our narrators in prison, in Michigan and California, but was not able to conduct quality interviews during these visits, so we wrote to each other, and conducted our ‘oral history’ interviews via writing, which brings up interesting conversations about oral history methodology when people cannot be interviewed in person. We also worked with a law clinic at Yale. The team there conducted powerful interviews with one of their clients who is incarcerated in Connecticut.
Q: How did you build rapport with your narrators? Were there any techniques that you used that were particularly successful in your interviews?
I’d like to think my technique is the same no matter who I’m interviewing. Listen. Be kind. Don’t judge. Open ears. Open heart. Open mind. And a bullshit meter that’s on high alert.
Q: What were some of the common themes that emerged from your interviews?
Two things. The first common theme that haunts me is the trauma that so many of our narrators experienced as kids. There have been studies done that link childhood trauma to incarceration in the US, but I didn’t really understand that relationship in three dimensions until I listened to narrator after narrator describe their childhoods to me in intimate detail. Hearing how so many grew up in abusive environments really brought home how our society fails kids long before they end up in prison. When kids grow up in abusive households, they learn that authority figures can’t be trusted. When young people of color are harassed, or threatened, or assaulted by police, they learn authority structures can’t be trusted. And when kids grow up in communities plagued by violence, they often learn that violence is an inherent way of life, rather than a choice that can perhaps be avoided. So when we fail to keep kids safe in their homes and in our communities, then lock them up in juvenile hall when they naturally repeat these cycles of violence, we’re just pumping generation after generation of young people into systems of aggression and incarceration. Trauma is passed down generationally. Don’t let anyone tell you different. At some point our society must decide to break the cycle, and heal these traumatic wounds, rather than blindly punish those who experience the effects of trauma.
The second common theme is simply the outright brutality of locking human beings in isolation. This book offer a raw and unflinching look at what happens to people when they’re pushed up to and beyond their breaking points. The amount of unnecessary suffering that is happening to people in these dark corners of American prisons and jails is haunting.
Q: This is your second book with Voice of Witness. How did Six by Ten differ from Palestine Speaks?
Six by Ten is a wholly American book. As I say in my introduction, this is a book about America. It’s a window into the soul and psyche of our culture. The process of interviewing and gathering narratives was obviously very different. Less trekking through the desert for this book. No trips to Gaza. But in a way it was more difficult to interview people here than in Palestine. Those who are locked up in the US are difficult to interview. And those who are out of prison do not have it easy. They are often caught in cycles of poverty, homelessness, and re-incarceration, while sometimes simultaneously managing mental illness and/or the traumatic effects of incarceration, including the effects of solitary. They’re struggling to survive in a culture that all but casts them aside. Jobs are especially scarce for the formerly incarcerated. Housing is difficult to obtain and expensive to maintain. Many people go into the system at a young age and come out institutionalized, broke, often unmedicated, and without the resources to get on their feet. If they don’t have family support, they can literally be struggling just to survive. Narrators would disappear, or be incarcerated, and we would spend immense amounts of time and energy to track them down. Each book was challenging in its own way, but this one in a uniquely American way.
Q: What do you hope the impact is of Six by Ten?
We hope that people read it and begin to comprehend the torture and dehumanization that’s happening everyday throughout the US in our prisons and jails, in our juvenile detention centers and immigration facilities. We hope that people realize how damaging this is for our communities when people return from incarceration worse off than when they went in, and then question what they can do to help fix this broken system. We hope they vote in their local elections for candidates that promote prison and sentencing reform, especially in local district attorney and judge races. I’d personally like Jeff Sessions to read it and sit down to an interview with me. I’d like to know he cares enough about this country to actually listen to those inside our prisons and jails, and is brave enough to have a conversation about what he thinks our society gains by continuing to allow the outright torture that’s happening everyday in isolation units throughout this country.