The Oral History Center has had a productive year, and interviewed many people. Here’s some of our favorite moments from our 2018 interviews. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
Of the dozens of revelatory, challenging, or even hilarious moments in my interviews this year, I find it difficult to highlight just one. But I keep coming back to this moment in my interview with famed ACLU attorney Marshall Krause. Krause defended a number of individuals charged with obscenity in San Francisco in the 1960s, including Vorpal Gallery owner Muldoon Elder for putting Ron Boise’s erotic Kama Sutra sculptures on display. While recounting the story, Krause mentioned that he had one of the artworks in question, so I asked him to bring it out to show on camera. I then asked him to provide the kind of defense he did in the courtroom in 1964. Krause’s sensitive, insightful, convincing words made it obvious why the jury acquitted Elder of the charges, thus giving Krause and the cause of the freedom of expression a victory.
My favorite interview moment of 2018 occurred when I interviewed Bay Area herbalist and aromatherapist Jeanne Rose. In the 1960s, Rose was the couturier for bands like Jefferson Airplane and was very plugged into the local rock and roll scene. During one of our sessions together, Rose recounted her experience at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, when an agitated audience of about 300,000 erupted into violence. Rose watched the chaos from above the crowd, but still recalls the strong emotions from that day. Hearing about the event firsthand reinforced how scary and chaotic the events must have been for concert goers. Interestingly, Rose marked this concert as “the end” of rock and roll.
had started an underground called the Werewolves. We spent quite a bit of
time on that for the first few months. I don’t think we ever found any. We
once raided an outfit that were presumably Werewolves. I don’t remember
what happened to them, except that we sort of used movie techniques to make
the raid, coming through the skylights.
My favorite moment this year was interviewing Professor James C. Scott at his farm in Durham, Connecticut. The Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University, Scott is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our time, producing an unparalleled corpus of books over the last 50 years on peasant politics, resistance, and state governance, which today are standard reading across a host of disciplines worldwide. Yet in the interviews, we get a glimpse of the unassuming human being behind the books as Scott discusses the two principles that have always underpinned his approach to academic work – principles he stresses . The first: “Don’t ever be afraid to be an army of one in a crowd of a hundred,” a philosophy of independence he came to embrace during his Quaker education as a young man. The second: “If you’re not having fun, what the hell are you doing?” For those who know Jim Scott, the latter is certainly an oft-quoted remark he has extolled to colleagues and graduate students for decades. Spending the weekend at his farm, I quickly realized that those principles were not just lofty ideals, but words he lived by, and I would be wise to do the same.
My favorite moment this year was during an interview with WWII Veteran Lawson Sakai, who is in his nineties, for the East Bay Regional Park Parkland Oral History Project. Sakai’s parent immigrated from Japan, making him Nisei, or second generation. He spoke about needing to flee California to avoid internment, and the role that farming in the Central Valley played to rebuild the Japanese community in the aftermath. Driscoll Farms was just getting started and needed help growing strawberries. They recruited Japanese farmers, asked them to farm the land, and split profits with them 50/50. After hearing how Driscoll helped many people get back on their feet after losing everything in the wake of Executive Order 9066, I scoured my food history books and didn’t find any information about this. I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden historical gem.
Interviewing Aaron Mair—the 57th president of the Sierra Club and the Club’s first African-American president—provided my favorite interview moments this year. We conducted Aaron’s initial interview session at the Hagood Mill Historic Site in the upcountry of South Carolina. As his family’s genealogist, Aaron has the 1865 records of his enslaved great, great grandfather Zion McKenzie’s emancipation from the Hagood family. Before interviewing at the Hagood Mill site, Aaron and I visited the humble, un-fenced cemetery of his enslaved ancestors, whose rough, uncut gravestones lay just outside the Hagood family’s iron-fenced grave site with grandiose tombs and Confederate soldier crosses. Later, during his interview, Aaron recounted his ancestors’ remarkable stories from slavery to freedom and their purchase of farm land that remains in Aaron’s family today. His family’s narrative, from human dominion to sustainable stewardship of land, informs Aaron’s ideas on environmental responsibility. And it helped inspire Aaron’s initiatives as Sierra Club president to unify activism for environmental rights with civil rights and labor rights. Aaron takes seriously Sierra Club founder John Muir’s admonition that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Mair and Eardley-Pryor
by Todd Holmes
Today, courses on the Mexican American experience can be found at nearly every college campus across the nation. In an academic environment long entrenched within the mold of Western Europe, such curriculum is nothing short of a miraculous testament to the diversification of American education. Indeed, the subject has its own journals, national organizations, student groups, academic departments, and specialized degrees. Yet fifty years ago, the discipline of Chicana/o Studies—as the field of study became known—was just taking shape and, above all, struggling for legitimacy.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discipline, the OHC initiated the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project. Led by Todd Holmes, the project documents the historical development of the field through in-depth interviews with the first generation of scholars who shaped it. Holmes began working on the project in the fall of 2016 with the initial step of putting together an advisory council composed of Chicana/o scholars from around the country. Based on the council’s recommendations, over 25 prominent scholars were selected to be interviewed—scholars whose pioneering research and innovative work played a significant role in building the discipline over the last five decades. Holmes then commenced an ambitious fundraising campaign, going directly to the home universities of the featured scholars. To date, the project has received generous support from a host of academic institutions, including the University of California Office of the President, California State University Office of the Chancellor, Stanford University, Arizona State University, and the University of Texas at Austin.
The interviews will offer an important look at the formation of Chicana/o Studies, as well as the experiences of those who built it. Such areas of discussion include their family background, undergraduate and graduate experiences, and academic career as faculty members. With most—if not all—of these scholars standing as the first in the families to attend college, and certainly among the first cohort of Mexican American graduate students and faculty, their experiences highlight the evolution of the field, the diversification of higher education, and the long struggle that underpinned both. Moreover, the interviews trace significant shifts within the field of Chicana/o Studies over the decades, and how the field expanded from college campuses in California and Texas to a nationally recognized discipline of study.
All interviews are slated to be completed by the summer of 2019. When done, they will be featured on a dedicated page of the Center’s website. Moreover, the oral histories will form the heart of a documentary film, tentatively titled, Chicana/o Studies: The Legacy of A Movement and the Forging of A Discipline. The OHC is thrilled to make this foray into film and collaborate with veteran producer Ray Telles and others in this exciting effort. Stay tuned for further updates in 2019!
First Generation Scholars
Norma Alarcón (UC Berkeley)
Tomás Almaguer (San Francisco State)
Rudy Acuňa (CSU Northridge)
Mario Barrera (UC Berkeley)
Albert Camarillo (Stanford)
Martha Cotera (UT Austin)
Antonia Castaňeda (St. Mary’s College)
Edward Escobar (Arizona State)
Juan Gómez-Quiňones (UCLA)
Mario T. García (UC Santa Barbara)
Deena González (Loyola Marymount)
Richard Griswold Castillo (San Diego State)
Ramón Guitierrez (University of Chicago)
José E. Limón (UT Austin)
David Montejano (UC Berkeley)
Emma Pérez (University of Arizona)
Ricardo Romo (UT San Antonio)
Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith (University of Arizona)
Vicki Ruiz (UC Irvine)
Ramón Saldivar (Stanford)
Rita Sanchez (San Diego State)
Rosaura Sánchez (UC San Diego)
Carlos Vélez-Ibáňez (Arizona State)
Emilio Zamora (UT Austin)
Patricia Zavella (UC Santa Cruz)
For more information on the project, its participants, and to view the film’s trailer, visit the project page..
We recently caught up with one of our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute alums, Alec O’Halloran, who recently published a book that was influenced by his work with us. His book, The Master from Marnpi, is based on oral history interviews. O’Halloran reflects on his work, his time with us, and the release on his book.
Q: How did you first come to oral history?
I don’t have a ‘first’ recollection. I’ve always been interested in stories and in the 1990s (in my forties) I was drawn to the larger story of Aboriginal art and history in Australia, which I knew very little about. This led to reading autobiographies and biographies of Indigenous people, as well as attending art exhibitions etc. Oral history interviews were often quoted in stories about Aboriginal artists, particularly older people from remote parts of Australia that most of our population knew very little about.
When I began researching the life of an artist whose work I admired, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, I found out he had done two recorded interviews in his language, Pintupi, a decade before he passed away (1998). I found those interviews – or their translated transcriptions – fascinating! What a life he had led… so different to mine. Those interviews motivated me to look around for more oral history work that engaged with Aboriginal artists in particular.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the project you were working on when you attended the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute.
I attended the Institute in 2010, in part with support of a travel grant from my institution, The Australian National University in Canberra, where I was undertaking a doctoral program in Interdisciplinary Studies. My thesis project was the life and art of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. I had a rough draft of his life story by that stage, and I was mostly preoccupied with assembling the chronology of events, rather than comprehending his character.
Q: How did your work benefit from the Summer Institute?
One thing I still remember from one of the guest lecturers was about ‘listening and hearing’ when working with recorded interviews. And with so many conversations with fellow participants about each other’s projects, I realised I was not fully engaging with the materials I had at hand. So, I when I returned home to Sydney I took a more rigorous approach.
I went back to the original recordings of Namarari (one audio, one video), and the transcripts, and tasked myself to see and hear more than I had before. To not only track events and incidents and the chronology of his life story, but to look beneath and between the lines and sounds for character and personality traits, for nuanced references to culture, to allusions to relationships with other people. I said to myself, ‘These two interviews are like gold, I need to use them to the fullest’. So the Institute motivated me to be much more dedicated to the oral history component of the biographical research about Namarari’s life and art. This certainly improved the quality of my writing when I was integrating Namarari’s voice into a wider story that involved multiple voices and archival sources.
Another outcome too. Oral history as a data-making history-creating method became more important to me. I don’t think I was an expert practitioner, so I tried to improve the quality of my interviewing work. This involved better planning of interviews and better conduct as the interviewer. Also, I saw that I had an opportunity to contribute to the field in a meaningful way.
The region where Namarari lived is called the Western Desert. It occupies a vast swathe of Central Australia. (Bigger than Texas!) My field work took me to that region, first by air to Alice Springs, and then by four-wheel drive (essential for the outback gravel roads). I realised I could do additional oral history work outside my specific research project as part of my travels. During 2011-13 I was awarded two oral history grants by the Northern Territory Government, which I applied to producing two community oral history reports: for the desert communities of Mount Liebig and Kintore. I interviewed some twenty Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and submitted a report, and deposited the interviews with the Northern Territory Archives Service in Darwin. I hope that one day a community member or researcher will come along who wants to write a local history of those places and find those interviews… they can then serve a good purpose. Importantly, but sadly, some of the people I interviewed have passed away.
Q: What’s the status of your project now?
My project, to produce an authorised biography on the life and art career of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, is complete! The master from Marnpi was released on 7 September 2018.
See my website for more information www.alecohalloran.com
Q: How did your biography, The Master from Marnpi, benefit from the use of oral history?
Namarari passed away in 1998, before I started my research, so I never met him and I could not interview him. This contrasts sharply with the majority of Aboriginal artist’s biographies in recent decades in Australia – they are invariably deep collaborations between the author and subject.
My narration of Namarari’s life story is based on his testimony: two interviews recorded in Pintupi, in 1989 and 1992, each conducted in the Western Desert by non-Aboriginal researchers who had travelled there for that purpose (and to interview other Aboriginal people of the area).
Thus it is his (translated and transcribed) voice that runs through the chapters. The many gaps are filled, where possible, with other oral history interviews I did with his relatives, and with art advisers who worked with him across his art career (1971-1998). I also drew on other oral histories, both my original interviews and from the archives, to enrich the narrative, applying more details to local histories of place, and shining a light on prevailing attitudes and circumstances that Namarari and his Aboriginal countrymen found themselves in. Where possible, I added salient photographs from a wide range of archives to illustrate what was referred to in the text by people who were ‘there at the time’.
Q: You have some visual components in the book, like maps. How did you weave visual elements with oral history?
The non-text items are: maps (of Australia, and the Western Desert region where Namarari lived), diagrams (eg, the Aboriginal kinship system), tables (eg, Namarari’s annual art output from 1971 to 1998), photographs of people, places (eg, desert scenes, Namarari’s house), and art (primarily his paintings).
The visual components serve to show the reader something of what the story-teller (eg, Namarari or his relatives) was talking about. If it was an important water-source location from his childhood in the 1930s, I would include a photograph. If it was a settlement where he lived in the 1950s, I would look for appropriate pictures from that era. Unsurprisingly there are many more useful photographs from the 1990s than the 1950s.
I applied a policy of sorts to the inclusion of images: it had to illuminate something in the text, rather than being a decorative piece to fill a space. I sometimes juxtaposed images to make a point, such as two artworks that had a subtle feature in common.
Q: What kind of projects do you draw inspiration from?
I have really been preoccupied with my book for several years, so I haven’t been looking for extra inspiration. When I was doing the biographical research I drew inspiration (and understanding) from reading Indigenous autobiographies… they often had the raw truth of historical circumstance from the mouths of those who experienced events and situations and policies.
By Amanda Tewes, OHC interviewer
In last month’s midterms elections, a wave of diverse women swept into political office across America. From local school boards to Congressional and gubernatorial races, women showed up this November. While many may point to this result as the culmination of women’s dedicated activism since 2016, in places like the Bay Area, well-established political organization helped pull women candidates over the finish line.
On Tuesday, November 13th, one week after the polls closed, OHC staff and local political buffs met at The Ruby to discuss the historical and contemporary role of political women in the Bay Area and to help kick off the Women in Bay Area Politics Oral History Project. The event featured a panel discussion with political consultant and Close the Gap California founder Mary Hughes and San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim. From their combined years of experience, Hughes and Kim shared insight into what it’s like being a woman in Bay Area politics.
One great question from the audience asked the panelists about how women balance family obligations and political careers. Hughes recalled overhearing a recent conversation in which a woman was praised for waiting to run for office until her children were older. Hughes was dismayed to realize these double standards still existed for women in 2018, and noted that men do not face similar criticism. Similarly, Kim explained that her office is full of working mothers, and that while this was a challenge to balance at first, it also has helped productivity during normal work hours.
Hughes also reminded the audience that while women’s campaign successes are nearly on par with that of men, the struggle often occurs when trying to convince women to run for office in the first place. Even when they are extremely qualified, some women need to be asked more than once. Hughes praised Kim for continuing to run and participate in politics, even after setbacks. She explained that dusting yourself off and trying again is important in order to push toward gender equality in political office.
The stories Hughes and Kim shared reinforced the need to document the histories of Bay Area political women in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes. Now is the time to undertake this endeavor to celebrate and learn from Bay Area women who have shaped local and national politics.
Please help us out by suggesting women narrators whose political work has been unsung! Which stories about women in politics aren’t making it into the historical record?
To support the Bay Area Women in Politics Project, visit ucblib.link/givetoOHC. Please note under special instructions: “For the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project.”
If you would like to learn more about the project, please contact Amanda Tewes at email@example.com.
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.
Hailie O’Bryan, OHC Student Worker
Hailie O’Bryan, one of the student workers at the OHC, attended the 2018 Rosie Rally Homefront Festival in Richmond, California in August. She tells us her first Rosie Rally, what she learned, and what we can learn.
My name is Hailie O’Bryan and I am a student worker at the Oral History Center. My recent experience at the Rosie Rally has undoubtedly been one of the biggest highlights during my time at the OHC.
When I first joined the OHC staff a little over a year ago, I was instantly introduced to the
Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project that was being managed by David Dunham. While for I did very little work that was directly related to that project during my first several months, I heard the project mentioned several times a day. When I began to work on the OHC’s interviews, I was mesmerized by the significance of them, something that I had never truly considered before. These documents took stories straight from the mouths of living legends and immortalized them in the archive. Needless to say, when I was finally brought on the work on the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project, I was unimaginably excited. I would get to read, listen to, and watch someone give a first hand account of an era I had always held a deep fascination for.
I was not let down. The stories and accounts that I have been exposed to are unlike anything else I have ever experienced. These men and women have such an amazing energy about them that it almost flows from their oral histories. I began to do more work with the Rosie project, namely organizing and taking inventory of the database, syncing audio and video, and indexing and sequencing video interviews, exposing me to many different people with different stories.
When I was given the opportunity to represent the OHC at the 2018 Rosie Rally Home Front Festival in Richmond, CA, I was elated. I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter herself (or, my interpretation because I unfortunately do not own coveralls) and spend the day with my coworkers telling people about the wonderful interviews, including the unveiling of synced video interviews or the entire Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project database which is going to be done by the end of this year.
At one point in the afternoon, the names of surviving Rosies were announced and they came onto a stage. I was awed by the fact that I was looking into the face of living, breathing history. My coworkers shared my sentiment because when I asked OHC student worker Gurshaant Bassi about her opinion of the rally, she said, “The rally brought history into being. It is essential to read the stories of the women who broke down the barriers we all benefit from now.” Aamna Haq, another one of my OHC co-workers, also shared this opinion. “It was a wonderful experience to learn about the importance of the Rosies in the World War II Era and the role they continue to play in the modern women’s empowerment,” she said.
Gurshaant and Haq are absolutely right. Given the progress of women’s rights since the 1940s, it is important to acknowledge and remember that women did not always have the same privilege as they do today. The Rosies laid the groundwork for woman’s role in the workforce. It is of tantamount importance that we remember the challenges they faced as they were doing this, especially as the years go on and we lose more of these amazing people.
I left the rally left feeling an enormous sense of gratitude towards the Rosies. After nearly 80 years, these women remain legends.To see them beyond the poster was an incredible experience for all of us.
Women still have much progress to be made, but by learning about the lives of these brave women we can remember that progress does not come easy. It is challenging but strikingly necessary. The Rosies chose to persevere amidst the pushback they experienced when they entered the workforce. We must do the same. In this way, the stories of the women involved in the Home Front Project are not of the fleeting past, but the stories of every woman having to prove their right to take space. In this way, we can recognize the stories of Rosies as our own. We are all Rosie.
Shanna Farrell, @shanna_farrell
Liam O’Donoghue is the host of the local history podcast, East Bay Yesterday. He tells the story of the region through baseball teams, earthquakes, grizzly bears, martial arts, activism, and music. We caught up with him recently to chat about how the show got its start, why history can help create empathy, and how he hopes to incorporate oral history. If you haven’t listened to the show yet, check it out on iTunes or head to his website.
Q: How did you get your start in podcasting?
My favorite aspect of journalism has always been interviewing people. I started my first ‘zine when I was 15 years old and published interviews with musicians from Chicago’s underground punk scene. Throughout my career as a print and online journalist, it always saddened me that 95 percent of most interviews never make it into the final article. I gravitated toward podcasting because the format allows interviews to really drive the narrative.
I started teaching myself basic digital recording and audio editing skills in spring of 2016 — mostly by watching tutorials on YouTube and reading “how to” articles on sites like Transom.org. I launched the first episode of East Bay Yesterday in September 2016 and have published nearly 40 episodes since then.
Q: What got you interested in East Bay history?
I started noticing a pattern: whenever I would talk to a longtime East Bay resident, they would always tell me incredible stories that I’d previously been completely unaware of. It made me realize the need to capture, share and celebrate these histories. Because of the rapid displacement of elders and people of color in the East Bay, I felt a huge urgency to devote myself to this project. The kinds of stories I want to collect are slipping away every day.
At the same time, there’s a big influx of newcomers to the East Bay, so I felt it would be useful to present local history in an accessible way. One of the effects of gentrification can be the erasure of previously existing cultures, so a goal of the podcast is to educate recently-arrived residents about what was here before they arrived.
A rather sad and ironic complaint I’ve often heard from longtime Oaklanders is that their new neighbors look at them like they — the Oakland “natives” — don’t belong. For example, I interviewed a Black man who had been using his front yard as a place to practice his martial arts for several decades. After white people started moving onto his block, somebody called the police on him and said he was “threatening.” My hope is that newcomers will have more empathy for longtime Oaklanders if they get to know them better, which is something the stories on my podcast strongly encourage.
Q: What are some of the reoccuring themes that you’re finding in your research?
The old cliche about “history repeating itself” is so true. There have been so many times that I’ve read old newspaper articles that feel like they could’ve been written yesterday. For example, the kind of language that’s being used to describe Oakland’s current boom is eerily similar to predictions about Oakland’s economic destiny in articles from the early 1900s or World War II or the first dot-com bubble, etc. Of course, most of these grandiose predictions fizzled out, which leads to some interesting conclusions when considering the outcome of this current cycle.
Another common theme is longtime residents’ apprehension about newcomers. The racial and socioeconomic dynamics vary, but any time there’s a large influx of people, the locals usually aren’t very thrilled. Some of this is attributable to racism, like when thousands of African Americans moved to Oakland seeking jobs during the World War II industrial boom. However, white “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression were also vilified by many Oaklanders.
Q: How have you developed your podcast production process?
It’s an ongoing learning experience! I’m constantly trying to improve my craft by listening to shows like How Sound, a podcast about “radio storytelling,” reading books like Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, and hanging out with other people in the Bay Area’s extremely friendly and supportive world of audio/radio producers. Getting to co-produce a story with the nationally-syndicated NPR program Snap Judgement was a big help because it finally allowed me to see “how the professionals do it.” It was my first time recording in a real studio instead of my bedroom.
Q: What kinds of archival material have you used?
My shows are usually built around original interviews, but I’m always really excited when I get to incorporate archival audio, because it adds a whole different vibe to the story— like the listener is really travelling back in time. Here are a few examples:
-In the episode about how living in Berkeley was one of the most transformative times in the life of Richard Pryor, I incorporated clips from his (short-lived) KPFA radio show and from his local standup comedy routines.
-In the episode about the Cypress Freeway collapse in West Oakland, I used audio from the California Highway Patrol’s radio communications describing the post-earthquake conditions, calling for emergency backup, etc.
-In an episode about the Oakland Community School, which was established and run by the Black Panther Party, I used a short clip from a 1977 TV documentary featuring this quote from Huey Newton: “They used to serve cookies at the primary school, but if you didn’t have money, you had to put your head on your desk until the other kids were done. I thought that was a problem. At the Oakland Community School, everybody eats.”
Q: Have you used any oral history interviews? How do you plan to incorporate oral history as you move forward?
There’s been surprisingly little coverage of Berkeley’s status as “America’s first sanctuary city.” For my research on that topic, I relied heavily on oral history interviews conducted by Eileen M. Purcell for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Specifically her interviews with Rev. Gus Schultz and Bob Fitch, who were both pivotal figures in this movement are now deceased.
More recently, I used interviews conducted by Sue Mark, a local artist and historian (although she prefers the term “cultural researcher”), for an oral history project about Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. She used these interviews to produce a short documentary a few years ago, but most of what she recorded had never been shared. I was honored and excited that she gave me her tape and transcripts to create an episode of East Bay Yesterday based on these interviews.
Moving forward, I’m extremely interested in incorporating interviews from the Oral History Center into future episodes of East Bay Yesterday. I’m a bit intimidated by the vast scope of your archives, but I’ve got a few ideas that I’m starting to explore…
Q: What’s your favorite thing about digging into East Bay history?
I love meeting people that I probably never would have met if I wasn’t making this podcast. For example, I was recently invited into the clubhouse of the East Bay Dragons, one of the world’s oldest Black motorcycle clubs. Getting the opportunity to sit down and have a long, emotional, enlightening conversation with a few of their members was an incredible experience.
Q: What are the top three episodes that you recommend for a new listener?
Besides the episodes I’ve already mentioned, these three are a few of my favorites:
- “The queen of the West Coast blues”: Sugar Pie DeSanto serves up sweet & spicy stories
- “This strange monument”: The story behind one of Oakland’s most prominent abandoned buildings
- Lenn Keller and the roots of the East Bay’s lesbian of color community
Q: What podcasts are you listening to?
- Scene on Radio
- The Bay (KQED’s daily news show)
- 99% Invisible
- Bay Curious