by Martin Meeker; @MartinDMeeker
How do thoughtful, articulate, quiet people who have something to say get heard? In this day and age in which the loudest voices, the most outlandish ideas, and the most shocking stories get the greatest attention, is there even room for the longform, deep-dive oral histories that the Oral History Center produces? We certainly think that there is — actually, we’re pretty sure that not only is there a place for these interviews, but there is a real need for them. This leaves us with the question: how do we spread word of the remarkable interviews that we conduct? What’s the best way for people who could benefit from our work to learn about it and thus use it?
Since you’re reading this newsletter, you’re already in the loop and engaged with what we do (and we thank you for paying attention!). But we are also constantly examining the ways in which we attempt to connect and considering potential new avenues for outreach. Like most every organization today, we have a pretty robust social media presence. We use our feeds (twitter, facebook, instagram, youtube, and soundcloud) to announce the completion of new oral histories, to pay tribute to narrators who’ve achieved something or sadly passed away, or just to share things reasonably related to oral history which might interest our community. Have you engaged with us on social media? Are you interested in what we have to say? Do you think we might use it better? We want to know.
We try to extend our reach by hosting educational seminars and institutes, by speaking to classes and community groups, and by simply answering our emails (but we get a lot, so apologies in advance if I take a few days to get back to you!). We recognize that a 300-page oral history transcript is sometimes a difficult nut to crack, so we produce brief clips introducing folks to some main themes or interesting moments drawn from the interviews, and share these as widely as possible. We have begun producing podcasts and, soon, longer format videos to show ways in which the original recordings of our interviews can be used to create engaging and informative analytic pieces — and thus encouraging others to use our oral histories in similar ways. And, of course our transcripts continue to provide extraordinarily valuable, irreplaceable evidentiary bases to mountains of books, articles, and theses. What are other options that we might use to spread word of the remarkable interviews? How might the transcripts and recordings be used in novel and enlightening ways?
The big questions posed above are now being addressed head-on by our newly refurbished and expanded production/operations/communications team at the Oral History Center. As a result of a recent search to fulfill our “Communications Specialist III” vacancy, we hired two immensely qualified individuals. David Dunham, who has been on our staff for many years in other capacities, has assumed the new role of Operations Manager; Jill Schlessinger, who came to us from UCB Student Affairs, has joined us as Communications Manager. In addition to working as a team to make sure we continue our successful production of dozens of oral histories every year, Jill and David are tackling these very thorny questions focused on how to raise our collective voice so that the voices of narrators are heard and the content of their oral histories is widely known. Expect to hear more from us in the coming months as all of this comes to fruition. As always, we welcome your input and we’re happy to listen — you might say that’s something we do rather well!
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
The Oral History Center is pleased to announce our newest staff member, Jill Schlessigner. She joins our team as Communications Manager. We caught up with her recently to chat about her background in history, interest in oral history, and the projects that she’s most excited to embark on with the OHC.
Q: When did you first encounter oral history?
Schlessinger: As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I chose a senior thesis research course that was about oral history. I studied the field of oral history interviewing and research methodology and wrote an oral history thesis. I studied female college students’ attitudes towards abortion from the 1950s to 1980s. Interviewing people from different backgrounds and perspectives taught me a lot about the importance of solid preparation, not making assumptions, and keeping an open mind.
Q: You recently joined our team as a Communications Manager. What were you doing before the OHC?
Schlessinger: Before joining the Oral History Center, I was a content strategist in Student Affairs Communications at UC Berkeley. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of fields in my career — higher education, health care, human resources, technology — and I find working in education to be especially fulfilling.
Q: You have a PhD from UCB in History. What did you study?
Schlessinger: I studied US History at the turn of the century, with a focus on social history and women’s history. My dissertation, “Such Inhuman Treatment”: Family Violence in the Chicago Middle Class, 1871–1920, was an analysis of changing power dynamics and community intervention in middle-class families. Something interesting I learned was that many Chicago residents, without anywhere else to turn, pressured the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to address cases of child cruelty, and the Society ultimately changed its mission and name. The Illinois Humane Society became a pioneering child-saving organization. This is something that happened in cities across the country, and numerous animal protection agencies also expanded to protect children and other vulnerable people from physical cruelty.
Q: Which of the OHC interviews do you feel the most connection to, either because of your PhD or current interests?
Schlessinger: It’s challenging to choose just one project because the Oral History Center’s interviews touch on so many of our society’s most pressing issues. However, I would say I feel a connection to the interviews from the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front collection. The Rosies are an important part of women’s history, the history of World War II, and our local history here in the East Bay, and I’ve always found their stories inspiring. On a fun note, I helped break the Guinness world record for the most people dressed as Rosie the Riveter in one place! It’s wonderful that the Oral History Center is instrumental in preserving these voices.
Q: What projects are most excited to be working on?
Schlessinger: The team at the Oral History Center produces an enormous amount of important work. There are the oral history interviews, of course, which delve into the thinking of some of California’s — and the world’s — greatest pioneers and influencers. And the podcasts based on these interviews bring to life the experiences of our narrators and the causes they championed. The Center also conducts a number of educational programs, which reach beyond academics to support journalists, public historians, independent scholars, and others to deepen their interviewing and research skills. We also employ a small army of students who help us with video and transcript production, research, communications, and more. Without them, our historians wouldn’t be able to conduct so many interviews, and it’s wonderful that in turn we are also able to give our students meaningful research and work opportunities. I’m excited to develop a communications plan that helps the Oral History Center share all of this marvelous work, so that people are able to take advantage of everything we have to offer.
Q: How do we get in touch with you?
Schlessinger: You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from anyone who is interested in helping us share the stories of our narrators and the Center.
by Shanna Farrell; @shanna_farrell
When Spring rains shower the Bay Area, saturating the ground and greying the skies, we know it’s time for our annual Introductory Oral History Workshop. On Saturday, March 2nd, as raindrops beat against our stained-glass windows, we welcomed a group of forty to campus, where they they learned the nuts and bolts of doing oral history . They braved the wet weather to join us from all over Northern California , and even as far as North Carolina.
The oral history project topics of attendees varied from burlesque to the Third World Liberation Front, and from the mining industry to environmental conservation. However, we design our introductory seminars to be applicable for everyone. OHC Director Martin Meeker gave an overview of what makes oral history oral history. Paul Burnett and Roger Eardley-Pryor discussed the intricacies of project planning. Amanda Tewes and Shanna Farrell led a discussion on interviewing techniques. Burnett and Meeker shared recording tips and tricks, and Tewes and Todd Holmes shared potential uses of oral history drawing from a cadre of past projects.
The workshop also featured a live interview exercise led by Farrell. One of the workshop participants, Trisha Pritikin, volunteered to be interviewed by Farrell so other attendees could see an oral history unfold in real time. Eardley-Pryor then engaged Farrell, Pritikin, and workshop participants in a group discussion. Attendees shared their observations, asked Farrell about certain lines of questioning , and inquired how Pritikin felt sitting in the “hotseat.”
These workshops always prove inspiring for OHC interviewers, staff, and student supporters because we interact with attendees who share our passion for oral history.
Thanks to all of you who made the workshop so great! And if you missed it this year, we’ll see you next Spring in 2020!
Want more oral history training? Check out our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute. Email Shanna Farrell (email@example.com) with questions.
by Todd Holmes
As in so many professions, the evolution of technology continues to add new dynamics to the practice of oral history. Indeed, longtime veterans of the field have witnessed this development firsthand, as audio recorders transformed from the reel-to-reel setups which nearly required an entire tabletop, to digital devices that now can neatly fit in the palm of one’s hand. And with these changes came new dynamics in the interview process. Bulky equipment no longer encumbered the space between interviewer and narrator, nor did concerns about power sources, room size, or running out of tape.
Today, video recording has become standard practice for many in the field of oral history—a technological step that The Oral History Center took almost two decades ago. In some respects, the use of video could be seen as taking a step backwards, reintroducing a few of the same burdens in the interview process that developments in audio had solved. Yet on the other hand, video also opened up new realms of opportunity, enabling one to capture and preserve an interview in its totality and place both an audio and visual recording of the conversation into the historical record. And of course, among the many promising uses of such video recordings is a documentary film.
Conducting interviews that will be used in a documentary, however, again ushers new dynamics into the interview process, dynamics I began to experience firsthand. In 2016, I initiated the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project which sought to document the experience of the first generation of scholars who founded and shaped the academic discipline over the last half century. This past year, we decided to partner with film makers to put those twenty-five interviews into conversation in a documentary, tentatively titled Chicana/o Studies: The Legacy of a Movement and the Forging of a Discipline. Since joining the OHC, I had video recorded scores of interviews, and thus was no stranger to the practice of framing a pretty good shot. I paid attention to lighting, the triangulation of the camera with myself and narrator, and made sure to avoid the cardinal sin of having something in the background seem like it was sprouting out of the narrator’s head. Yet when the prospect of using these recordings in a film became a reality, I quickly realized that I had a responsibility to take much more time and care in the videography. A “pretty decent shot” was no longer good enough to do justice to both the film and the narrators featured in it. I thus began to more closely select the interview space, one that featured the best possible light and, above all, background. In the past I feared inconveniencing my narrators, often settling for a less optimal video shot because it was easier for them. Yet for the film, I now had to become assertive about the recording space. It was no longer out of the ordinary for me to rearrange a corner of someone’s office or living room, and spend 20 minutes or more staging the background using items from around the room, office, or house. In fact, at times I even brought my own staging materials when needed. At first blush, such procedures could be deemed more hassle than benefit—a sentiment I’m sure a fair share narrators likely held. Yet my answer to looks of “is this really necessary” was to reassure them of my simple aim: This is for a film, and I want you to look your very best.
When thinking of best practices for videography, I believe that simple aim stands at the center: To place the narrator in the very best position to represent themselves. Achieving that goal surely takes more time and care than just simply sitting down and pushing record. It requires being assertive about the recording space, taking the time to properly stage that space, and paying attention to the little details that, more times than not, we would all prefer to sidestep. Yet when done correctly, you will have a finished product that does justice to both the overall project and, most importantly, the narrators featured in it.
From the Oral History Center Director:
David Pearson, CEO of the winery Opus One, said it something like this: Burgundy and Bordeaux have a deserved reputation for making some pretty good wines, but what sets these two French wine regions apart from and above the rest are their storied histories of making quality wine for generation upon generation. The wine itself is not only improved because of years of trial and error but the meaning of the wine is deepened because of the value placed on it by the people who have made and drunk it over hundreds of years. Pearson’s explanation was one of the highlights, for me, of the voices heard at the recent annual meeting of Napa Valley Vintners (NVV). I was invited to attend because we at OHC have partnered with the Vintners to do an oral history project documenting the history of the organization on the occasion of their 75th anniversary this year.
Pearson’s point was not lost on the several hundred vintners and others associated with Napa wine at the January 17th meeting. With over 150 years of continuous winemaking in the valley, many vintners in Napa are fully embracing the multiple benefits that come from knowing one’s history: from appreciating the moments of triumph to acknowledging and correcting one’s errors, from learning something new (and retaining it) during every vintage to recognizing that history might add literal market value to the wine. These points were brought to life during the reception that followed in which most every vintner brought from their own cellars Napa wines new and old to be shared. Seeing the lineup of hundreds of bottles produced over nearly 75 years provided ample evidence of the continuity of this history. But having the opportunity to taste a 1958 Charles Krug cabernet or a 1964 Inglenook cabernet (the last year it was produced by the legendary John Daniel, Jr.), was a great thrill as the wines have aged gracefully, wearing their decades in the bottle like badges of honor. You could taste the history.
The Oral History Center played a key role in what I think was another highlight of the event. Our very own David Dunham produced a video to open the proceedings: Just after the lights went down in the auditorium, a deeply accented Italian-American voice bursts from the speakers and the audience quickly goes silent, and listens. The voice is of Louis M. Martini, the famed California-by-way-of-Genova winemaker who established his winery in 1922 (yes, in the middle of Prohibition). Martini also was a founder of NVV and in this clip, from an interview conducted by OHC in the late 1960s, he recalls the impetus to establish the organization: “To eat and drink!” In the video, Martini is followed by another NVV founder, Robert Mondavi, who recounts how their agenda expanded into sharing winemaking best practices, dealing with government regulation, and promoting Napa Valley around the globe. Sitting in the middle of that auditorium, I was captivated by the voices on the screen, and pleased that the assembled crowd appeared to be soaking it up too. And the message they heard was that great things are possible when sometimes very independent-minded people decide to throw in together, recognize common purpose, and forge ahead with a shared belief in the value of what they are doing.
These wine industry interviews recorded as many as 50 years ago are now being augmented by a new effort by the Oral History Center to document the history of the California wine industry. One part of this broader effort is a project of a dozen interviews looking at the history of NVV but I hope that we can build a bigger, broader project as well. As I conduct these interviews, it is not difficult to think about the role of the interviewer too. I am thankful that Ruth Teiser, the woman who conducted most of those early wine history interviews, saw the value of this topic and took the considerable time needed to ask the questions and capture the voices of these key figures. Most of her narrators are now gone but they still speak to our generation, and generations to come.
To help document this long, fascinating, and, yes, important history, we are actively seeking partners and sponsors, ideas and information. So, if this project sounds interesting to you and you want to help us make it happen, please contact me. Let’s sit down over a glass of wine and talk about the remarkable history of wine in California and the promise that lies ahead.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Sally Hibbard is the former chief registrar at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She grew up in San Diego, California, and studied art history at Occidental College in the 1960s and 1970s. Hibbard joined the Getty Museum in 1974 as the secretary to the curator of decorative arts, Gillian Wilson. She became the registrar at the Getty Museum in 1975, leading the Registrar’s Department until her retirement in 2014.
Sally Hibbard’s oral history interview opens a window into the early years at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the effect of Mr. Getty’s passing, and the various ways the organization has grown and changed over the years. Indeed, Hibbard was herself a changemaker at the Getty. She oversaw the development of the Registrar’s Department from a department of one to the backbone of the Getty Museum, with teams specializing in rights and reproductions, collections management, and exhibitions. She also directed the transition from paper to digital records for better management of the Getty’s collections and data.
In her role as chief registrar, Hibbard led the monumental task of moving collections from the Getty Villa to the new Getty Center in Brentwood in the 1990s. This initiative took several years and much planning. Listen as Hibbard recounts the first of these moving days:
Given its locations in the Los Angeles area, the Getty’s sites routinely face natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires. Hibbard participated in discussions about how best to protect collections in the face of these emergencies. Listen as Hibbard recalls emergency preparedness at the Getty:
Explore Sally Hibbard’s oral history and gain important insight into the history of the J. Paul Getty Museum!
Charles H. Warren and California Energy in the “Era of Limits”
Charles H. Warren, “From the California Assembly to the Council on Environmental Quality, 1962-1979: The Evolution of an Environmentalist,” an oral history conducted in 1983 by Sarah Sharp, in Democratic Party Politics and Environmental Issues in California, 1962-1976, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.
Over the past half-century, California’s electric utility companies have experienced waves of change, challenge, and crisis while producing power and earning profits for their shareholders. Most recently, the San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E)—one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the United States—began 2019 seeking chapter 11 bankruptcy protections in lieu of deaths and damages from destructive wildfires for which it may be liable. PG&E last declared bankruptcy in 2001 during the California energy crisis under quite different and convoluted circumstances, including the convergence of severe drought, high temperatures, and pricing manipulations derived from poorly designed deregulation of California’s energy markets in the mid-1990s. The energy crisis in the 1970s, however, stands out for its onslaught of economic, environmental, and political overlap, which left many businesses and policy-makers at a loss with how to cope and move forward.
By 1976, fuel shortages and forecasts of rolling blackouts from California’s utilities spurred then Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown to characterize the 1970s as “an era of limits.” From 1962 through that “era of limits,” Charles H. Warren served as a leading Democrat in California’s Assembly. Warren’s legislative response to California’s energy issues in the 1970s gained national recognition and led him, in 1977, to join President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Warren addresses all this in his oral history interview, recorded in the early 1980s. Amid new energy challenges facing California’s utilities today, revisiting Warren’s oral history reveals how one legislator in California’s Assembly confronted the 1970s energy crisis, sometimes supporting and other times challenging California’s powerful utility companies.
Most memories of energy in the “era of limits” trace back to October 1973 when Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in OPEC—the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—halted exports of crude oil to the United States and its allies. Arab members of OPEC initiated their embargo as punishment for American military support of Israel after Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against the the Jewish state on Yom Kippur. OPEC’s oil embargo lasted only from October 1973 through the spring of 1974, but it sent shock waves throughout the industrialized world. For one, the price of oil suddenly quadrupled. The U.S. economy contracted, throwing millions of Americans out of work, while those who kept their jobs saw minuscule progress on wages. As a member of California’s assembly, Charlie Warren played an outsized role in drafting California’s legislative and regulatory responses to the 1970s energy crisis. Yet in his 1983 oral history interview, Warren explained how California’s utilities expected critical energy shortages much sooner than you might expect.
A few years before the OPEC oil embargo, California’s electric utility companies warned state legislators of a separate impending energy crisis. Warren recalled, “during 1971, the major electric utilities in California, PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric, advised legislative leaders that unless the state took certain action, in the foreseeable future there would be shortages of electricity with resulting brownouts and blackouts of indefinite duration.” The problem, according to the utilities, was that regional and local governments in California made it increasingly difficult to site new and necessary power stations, particularly new nuclear plants fueled by uranium. In response, the utilities succeeded in passing legislation through the California Senate that would preempt the jurisdiction of local governments and regional agencies for siting new power stations. In the Assembly, that legislation came to the Planning and Land Use Committee on which Charlie Warren served. Warren and fellow committee-members feared the utilities’ energy forecasts but felt reluctant to approve legislation that removed local control for locating power plants and put it the hands of a new state agency, as requested by California’s utilities. The committee decided the issue required deeper investigation.
Warren found himself chairing a new subcommittee on energy that contracted with the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica to evaluate California’s electrical energy system and the utilities’ anticipated crisis. The Rand Corporation had, until that time, exclusive contracts with the U.S. military for complex systems analyses, especially scenarios involving global nuclear war. Yet Rand began expanding their research into the non-military policy area, and this contract with California’s state government afforded an early opportunities to do so. Warren’s subcommittee received the Rand report in October 1972, and as he recalled, “I was so startled by its findings that my life was changed.” Warren’s responses to this report reshaped regulation of California’s energy landscape and catapulted him to national attention as a legislative expert on energy issues.
The Rand report substantiated the utilities’ anticipated energy crisis. According to Rand’s analysis, California’s annual demand for energy was growing so rapidly—and was forecast to expand at similar rates over the next twenty years—that avoiding projected blackouts would require all of California’s then-existent electricity production to double every ten years. That is, the entire capacity of California’s electric output would need to completely replace itself every decade, all while maintaining its existing output. To make matters worse, the Rand report also noted how the traditional means of generating electricity with natural gas and low-sulfur crude oil were becoming increasingly scarce and more expensive (even before the OPEC embargo restricted the availability of crude oil and quadrupled its price!) Rand further reported that, in response to these anticipated challenges, California’s utilities planned to generate this additional energy with scores of new nuclear power plants. The utilities projected that, by the year 2000, an additional one hundred large power plants would be required throughout California, at least eighty of which they imagined would run on nuclear fuel.
Before deregulation of California’s energy markets in the 1990s, utilities operated as profitable, state-sanctioned monopolies. For California’s investor-owned utilities like PG&E and SoCal Edison, a surge of newly constructed power plants would not just meet the state’s rapidly growing energy needs, it would substantially boost the utilities’ bottom line. At the time, most Americans had limited knowledge or concern about nuclear energy. Indeed, most Americans in the early 1970s still believed nuclear power would provide energy too cheap to meter and do so without significant consequences. However, the Rand report expressed considerable apprehensions both about nuclear generator technologies and reliance on nuclear energy to the extent California utilities thought necessary.
In the spring of 1973, Warren initiated a series of California Assembly hearings on the findings in the Rand report. The hearings, Warren recalled, “were lengthy, time consuming, and adversarial.” But as a result, Warren learned a great deal on the deep economic, environmental, and political complexities involved in energy production and use. Among other things, Warren realized “it would be imprudent to rely on nuclear to the extent the utilities then planned.” Rather than endlessly construct new nuclear stations or build new power plants that ran on dirty and increasingly expensive fuels, Warren imagined a program of increased efficiency through energy conservation and efforts for alternative energy. Warren also realized, however, that the combined influence of California’s utilities and the public’s limited knowledge on nuclear issues made it “politically impossible to make a case against nuclear in order to justify a program of energy conservation and energy alternatives development.”
Instead, Warren drafted new legislation for substantial changes to state energy policies that, without mentioning nuclear power, relied on significant land use and water requirements for the siting and operating of new power plants. Overcoming his initial hesitations for a new state entity, Warren’s legislation proposed a new energy agency that would adopt conservation measures in all electricity consuming sectors; it would encourage the development of alternative energy resources, specifically solar and geothermal; and it would conduct independent energy forecasts for electricity similar to what the Rand report did. After some additional amendments, Warren’s legislation passed both the California Assembly and Senate.
By early Autumn in 1973, Warren’s legislation arrived on the desk of California Governor Ronald Reagan, who vetoed the bill. Within a few weeks, however, the OPEC oil embargo suddenly made energy a serious political concern. Reagan’s staff realized Warren’s bill had merit and regretted its hasty veto. The governor’s office soon contacted Warren to create a new policy together that would confront the energy crisis—a crisis that California’s utilities had in some ways anticipated. Over a period of several weeks, Warren began “extended negotiations with the governor’s staff, and with the governor personally,” as well as intense meetings with utility representatives, legislative staff, and state agency officials. Together, they produced what became known as the Warren-Alquist State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Act, or Assembly Bill 1575, which was markedly similar to Warren’s earlier bill that Reagan first vetoed.
California’s utilities disliked AB1575, but they supported it at Reagan’s insistence. “The governor’s support,” Warren remembered, “was at some political cost to himself. I recall a staff person who had been given responsibility for energy policy resigned and Lieutenant Governor Ed Reinecke who was campaigning for governor publicly announced his opposition. But Reagan kept his word.” With the governor’s aid, AB1575 moved through California’s Assembly and, by a margin of one vote, it found approval Senate in 1974. This time Reagan signed it, marking the nation’s first substantial legislative effort to confront the 1970s energy crisis—not through inefficient if profitable new power plants for utility monopolies, but through energy conservation, increased analyses, and pursuit of alternative energy sources.
The enactment of the Warren-Alquist Act in 1974 strengthened California’s leadership in the management and production of power. Among other things, the bill created the California Energy Commission, formally the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, which remains California’s primary energy policy and planning agency. It set forth state policies concerning the generation, transmission, and consumption of electrical energy and established a comprehensive administrative procedure for review, evaluation, and certification of power plant sites proposed to meet forecasted power demands. According to Warren, the bill was also “the first to challenge the policies of energy inefficiency of the utilities and to point out that energy planning by the utilities was devoted more to maximizing profits than to the public’s interest in a rational and reasonable energy program. It did this by establishing a state energy agency [the California Energy Commission] responsible for energy demand by forecasting, energy conservation and efficiency standards, development of alternative energy supply systems, and simplifying and shortening the process for siting power plants.”
Charles Warren’s oral history continues to outline his additional experiences drafting formative policies in the 1970s that reordered the ways utility producers and energy-consumers conduct business and use resources in California. In 1975, Warren helped draft the Utilities Lifeline Act, by which each residential user of electricity and gas in California would receive a minimal supply of energy at a discounted price but would pay a higher price for energy taken in excess of that minimum. In 1976, Warren drafted the Nuclear Safeguards Act, which still prohibits new nuclear plants from being built in California until the federal government establishes a permanent storage for high-level radioactive waste. Also in 1976, Warren drafted the California Coastal Act, which made permanent the California Coastal Commission’s mandate to enhance public access to the shoreline, protect coastal natural resources, and balance both development and conservation. Today, as California’s utilities struggle to adapt to climate change and to increasingly dynamic markets for energy production, reading Warren’s oral history unveils how one California legislator sought expansive solutions to energy issues and resource challenges during the 1970s “era of limits.”
by Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library
Charles H. Warren, “From the California Assembly to the Council on Environmental Quality, 1962-1979: The Evolution of an Environmentalist,” an oral history conducted in 1983 by Sarah Sharp, in Democratic Party Politics and Environmental Issues in California, 1962-1976, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.
OHC Advanced Oral History Alum Spotlight: A Q&A with Nicole Ranganath
Cal alum Nicole Ranganath’s documentary on California’s Punjabi community recently premiered on PBS. Currently an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Middle East/South Asia Studies at UC Davis, Ranganath joined the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute in 2015. She was working on a project about women in California’s Punjabi community, and looking to deepen her interviewing skills. Since then, her project grew into a documentary film, Walking into the Unknown, which features 24 life stories of women from this community. We caught up with her to discuss her use of oral history, the film, working with students on the interviews, and why the time was right to do this project.
Q: You joined us in 2015 for the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute. What initially brought you to the Summer Institute?
Raganath: As a Cal alum who worked at Bancroft library as an undergrad, I was already familiar with the great work at the Oral History Center. When I started planning my ambitious project documenting the history of California’s Punjabi community, I found the Summer Institute online and signed up!
Q: You were working on an oral history project about women in California’s Punjabi community. Tell us a little bit about the project.
Raganath: This is the first documentary that focuses exclusively on the untold stories of women in the Punjabi American community of northern California over the last 110 years. Walking into the Unknown features interviews with Punjabi women from diverse backgrounds about their lives, including growing up in India, marriage and family, journeys to the US, and their professional careers. Their extensive contributions to the Punjabi American community and the broader American society have remained invisible. The women also offer compelling eyewitness accounts of major historical events, such as the 1947 Partition, in which over 14 million people were displaced and over one million murdered in religious violence. The project is funded by a grant from the California Humanities, as well as support from UC Davis, Sikhlens and the Punjabi-American community.
What made the project even more poignant is that there was a very narrow window of time in which we could give women a platform for sharing their life experiences. In December 2017, we completed 24 life history interviews on film in Yuba City, Sacramento, Davis, San Francisco, Fremont, and San Jose in just SIX DAYS! Over the last year, the health of three of the elderly ladies was declined so rapidly that they would no longer be able to be interviewed, and sadly one woman passed just away last month.
Q: What did you learn at the Summer Institute that helped you develop the project?
Raganath: The Summer Institute offered a holistic approach to thinking through and planning every aspect of my oral history research. Two aspects of the SI stood out — [OHC Director] Martin Meeker’s help thinking through the agreement process between UC Davis and the partner community organizations, and brainstorming with other participants about their projects. I learned so much from my colleagues.
Q: The project grew into a documentary, Walking Into the Unknown, which features in-depth life stories of 24 women that were interviewed. What was it like to turn these interviews into a film?
Raganath: When I embarked on the oral history research, I didn’t initially intend to create a documentary. With the tremendous support of Sikhlens and the Punjabi community, I got the courage to try to create a documentary film. I’m partnering with the UC History/Social Science Project to integrate the film into K-12 classrooms throughout the state. I encourage other oral history researchers to harness the power of the film medium to share these compelling stories with the general public. I’m very passionate about informing the general public about the Punjabi community’s presence in our state since the 1890s. Most people think South Asians arrived recently in California since the 1970s, but this vibrant community helped build our agriculture, our economy, our railroads, and have contributed to every aspect of our public life. For instance, Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American, the first Indian American, and the first Punjabi Sikh to be elected to the US Congress (1956).
Q: How did you adapt the interviews for film?
Raganath: One of the greatest pleasures of this project was creating a summer seminar with 10 students (mostly female Punjabi undergraduates at UC Davis), but also a masters student and a high school student. The students helped translate and transcribe the interviews and within one month they created 800 pages of single-spaced transcriptions of the interviews. We also met each week during the summer to discuss our responses to the often highly emotional interviews with the women. The student feedback greatly influenced my editing process. I was very concerned with capturing the diverse experiences of older pioneer women while also engaging young people to take interest in this history. Editing all of the footage to a short program that is 26 minutes and 43 seconds was not easy! I also greatly benefited from feedback from the other Punjabi women on the planning team who grew up in Yuba City and who were the daughters of some of the pioneer women interviewed in the film — Raji Tumber, Sharon Singh, and Davinder Deol. In short, the editing experience wasn’t easy but the community collaboration and engaging students in the process really helped. The editing team at Sikhlens, especially Hansjeet Duggal, was wonderful to work with as well. The KVIE team also provided invaluable feedback, including Michael Sanford, David Hosley and Alice Yu.
Q: The film premiered at Sikhlens Film Festival in LA in November. What was the reception? Did any of the audience members discuss the use of oral history?
Raganath: The reception at the Sikhlens Film Festival was incredibly positive. Nearly 40 community members, including one of the key pioneer women (Mrs Harbhajan Kaur Takher) attended the premiere. I brought the women involved in the project on stage to honor them. Mrs Takher received a standing ovation.
On November 21, 2018, Walking into the Unknown was broadcast on our local PBS station, KVIE, on their Viewfinder show. You can watch it at kvie.org/viewfinder. The program will rebroadcast on KVIE in April and will be uplinked to other PBS stations nationally later this year. There will be a community screening at the Yuba City Sikh Temple on Sunday, March 17 at 2 pm on Tierra Buena Road. The film will also be screened at the UC Davis South Asia Film Festival on Saturday, May 4 at the International House in Davis. It was very touching to see these courageous women get publicly acknowledged.
Q: What’s next for you? How do you hope to continue using oral history in your work?
Raganath: For this project, I’m finishing part two. We’re in the middle of creating a “women’s gallery” on the existing UC Davis Pioneering Punjabis Digital Archive (pioneeringpunjabis.ucdavis.edu). These women’s stories, including video and audio clips, will be ready by June 2019 for anyone in the world to watch and enjoy. I’m also submitting an article about this project for publication. After that, I’m continuing my oral history work on a book about Sikhs who served in the British colonial administration in Punjab, Fiji, and Africa but then later settled in Yuba City, CA.
Image by Ana Portnoy, 2017
We are excited to announce the release of our oral history interview will William C. Gordon, lawyer, noir writer, and library supporter. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and attended college at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his law degree at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He worked as a lawyer in San Francisco for many years before becoming a mystery writer. He is the author of six books, including The Chinese Jars, King of the Bottom, and The Halls of Power, among others. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of libraries, and has made significant contributions to the Whittier High Library and to The Bancroft Library for their burgeoning California Detective Fiction Collection.
OHC Interviewer Shanna Farrell sat down with Gordon in 2017 to discuss his early life growing up in Los Angeles, his affinity for libraries, education and career in the Bay Area, and becoming a writer in his retirement.
We are pleased to announce the release of our interview with Paul A. Bissinger, Jr. Bissinger was born in San Francisco, California in 1934 to Paul Bissinger and Marjorie Pearl Walter-Bissinger. He was raised on Divisidero Street and attended the Town School. He attended high school at the Phillips Exeter Academy, attended college at Stanford University, and earned a graduate degree from the American Institute for Foreign Trade. He served in the Navy in the 1950s, which took him to Japan, Hong Kong, and Manila. He’s been a life-long patron of the arts, which began as a child. He has a passion for the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, which he has been involved with for many years, and his service was honored by a performance dedicated to him on his 70th birthday.
In his interview, Bissinger discusses his early life, education, time in the Navy, meeting his wife, Kathy, and starting a family, working for his family business, and commitment to the local arts community. He also talks about serving on multiple boards for arts organizations, including for the San Francisco Youth Orchestra and Asian Art Museum.