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.