Changing My Perspective: Save Mount Diablo and the Study of Oral History

Andrew Deakin is a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in political science. He enjoys backpacking, reading, and tending to his vegetable garden. He was an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program intern with the Oral History Center in spring 2022, during which time he worked on a podcast for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Andrew
Andrew Deakin, OHC URAP intern

Last fall, combing through undergraduate research positions, a post caught my eye. The Oral History Center was looking for undergraduates to work on a podcast documenting the history of the conservation organization Save Mount Diablo. Finally! I was astounded that a research opportunity could indulge so many of my interests: journalism, history, podcasts, public policy, and, of course, my love for the outdoors. After reading the project description, I knew I would apply. Funnily enough, it wasn’t until I had my interview for the position that I learned exactly what oral history is. Since working on this project, I’ve developed an appreciation for a discipline that, frankly, I didn’t even know existed until recently. I found oral history to be an exciting, unadulterated way to engage with the past. Instead of reading from a dry, unappealing textbook, I learned to experience history through the recorded lives of individual people. Although one person’s perspective doesn’t always offer a complete historical picture, it’s invigorating to witness lived history through the personal experience, and sometimes life story, of another person.

         One interview in the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project that I made a deep personal connection with was with long-time supporter of Save Mount Diablo, John Kiefer. Like most of the interviews I reviewed, John’s began with his childhood. John was born in 1934 in Menlo Park. He was raised in a rural environment. For John, Menlo Park was “Pure, pure country. Try to grasp a vision of not very many homes, and most of the homes that were there were built in the late 1800s. There were some newer ones that had been built in the thirties and forties and fifties—that was new.” Maybe I have a romantic view of a rural childhood, but I couldn’t help but envy this aspect of John’s upbringing. I grew up in suburban Orange County, California. Try to grasp a vision of many identical homes, most built in the last 30 years, that are spread evenly like butter over what once must have been pristine Southern California chaparral.

Later in John’s interview, he put my experience into words. John said, “The average person, unique and marvelous, [isn’t] connected to nature.” John calls this modern experience of feeling disconnected with nature “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which he thinks “is a serious problem among our youth.” I’m thankful that as I grew up, I was a member of my local Boy Scout troop where I garnered my love for the outdoors. We often went camping in Caspers Regional Park, and I had the chance to spend time camping and backpacking in the Anza-Borrego Desert, Zion National Park in Utah, and Catalina Island. These experiences were especially transformative for me, and I fostered some of my strongest friendships while in the outdoors. John’s interview gave me a historical perspective to realize that the way I and many people of my generation are raised is novel, and perhaps not healthy either. John does amazing work combatting this issue, and I found his tenacity to get youth involved in the outdoors inspiring.

After a stint in the military, John decided he wanted to travel. For John, his decision was simple. He remarks, “I had a yearning to travel, and so I had gone to school with a few good friends from Central and South America, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the place for me.’” John’s retelling of his early adulthood was informative of my own experience. I, too, yearned to travel and, much like John, set my eyes on a foreign country somewhat arbitrarily and decided I would spend this summer there. I’ve been taking French courses and enrolled in the French Department’s summer abroad program in Paris. It was heartwarming to hear John recollect so aptly what the archetype of young adulthood is. John reminisces, “So what was that period of my life about? Well, it was, in fact, like the fable…where one leaves home with a bag of clothes…in search of the holy grail, which simply means…to start to experience who you are beyond your family.” John’s retelling of his young adulthood relieved some doubts I had about treating this period of my life so whimsically. John’s interview taught me it’s okay to take risks and to find myself while I’m still young. John’s existentialist philosophy really stuck with me, and I thank him and the process of oral history for leaving me with that. In the end, John applied his love of nature to his work with Save Mount Diablo. I hope that, given John’s experience, I will be able to apply my own love of the outdoors in my future work.

I’m honored to have partaken in the production of the Save Mount Diablo podcast for its fiftieth anniversary. It’s a historical practice I never considered, and I’m left with new tools to better understand history going forward. It was refreshing to do work on a tangible product, something that has real value and will be consumed by a wider audience. Learning about the lives of all the wonderful people who work for Save Mount Diablo gave me both a historical framework to understand the land conservation in the East Bay and the personal wisdom from these peoples’ life stories. This project informed me about the process of podcast production and storytelling, something I thought I might enjoy, but never had the chance to pursue. Although John’s interview impacted me the most, we did not use much of his material for the podcast. Deciding which quotes neatly weaved into the narrative we were telling taught me how to tell a compelling story and when to cut content when necessary. Now, as the semester is ending, I understand the processes, some difficult and some exhilarating, but all satisfying, to produce this kind of media. It has given me the experience to determine where I might go from here and if I have a future working in the media. I thank the Oral History Center and my URAP mentors, Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes, for this fulfilling and incredible opportunity, and I hope this research opportunity continues for future undergraduates to discover the joys of oral history.

Find the interview mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.


Growth and (Re)connection: My Experience with the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project

Anjali George is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in Sociology. She enjoys reading, dancing and being in nature. She was an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program intern with the Oral History Center in spring 2022, during which time she worked on a podcast for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Anjali
Anjali George, OHC URAP intern

When I joined the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project offered through The Oral History Center’s Berkeley Remix podcast, I really did not have any idea what I was doing—I had no experience in oral history, very little knowledge of Save Mount Diablo and no understanding of podcasts beyond the fact that I enjoy listening to them. Yet, I knew immediately that this was something I deeply wanted to do. Despite my lack of experience, I have always been fascinated by the practice of oral history and the importance of documenting and sharing history in a way that is accessible to the public. From what little I knew of Save Mount Diablo at the time (a land trust and conservation organization in the East Bay), I felt drawn to its mission and values, and I knew I wanted to be part of this effort to celebrate and preserve its history through the podcast.

 As I worked through the Save Mount Diablo interviews that had been compiled for this oral history project, I learned so much more about the organization and environmental conservation in general, as well as about myself and my own relationship with the environment. I think what I initially found compelling about the organization was its focus on fostering education and community in order to sustain its more physical goals, like fundraising and land conservation. Ted Clement, who has been Save Mount Diablo’s executive director since 2015, had so many insightful thoughts and experiences that he shared in his interview. Hearing him speak about how the climate crisis, at its core, is “a materialization of our very poor relationship with nature,” very clearly put the organization’s education branch into perspective. Ted explained that the widespread disconnect between people and nature calls for an entire cultural realignment, which is where education comes into play. After stepping into his role in the organization, Ted immediately prioritized education as a primary goal, so that the broader community can start to transform its cultural values and develop a healthier, more meaningful relationship with nature. He spoke of earth-centered cultures, in which nature is considered sacred, placed “at the center of the value system.” Listening to Ted’s interview, it became clear that Save Mount Diablo is more than just a land trust and conservation organization—its efforts to spread awareness and educate the public, coupled with its desire to connect people to nature and to one another, make its work so much more impactful in creating sustainable change.

 Even with my lack of oral history experience prior to this project, I have always found it so crucial to understand history in general, not only to learn from the past, but also to preserve it. And in that sense, I have a deep admiration for the practice of oral history and the way it preserves and passes along different histories, especially regarding topics and perspectives that often get overshadowed or overlooked. Working with Ted’s interview—as well as all of the other interviews that had been conducted—really reinforced the importance of oral history for me, in the sense that hearing the history from those who actually experienced it adds so much more depth and understanding to the story. On the more technical side, I hadn’t previously understood the complexities of creating a podcast—or more broadly, even taking primary sources and turning them into a developed, cohesive story. By listening to the interviews and reading through the transcripts, I quickly began to recognize what pieces of information were important to get across to the audience. From there, I learned how to develop a narrative that conveys the relevant information while also speaking to the audience and making them care about the story. Even the thought process that goes into crafting a compelling story—drawing on charismatic speakers, finding quotes that are both significant to the story and also entertaining to hear, summarizing information that might be too dense or nuanced for an audience to bother sitting through—there are so many small details to take into consideration to be able to turn those initial interviews into a finished product. 

I learned so much more than I could have expected from working on this project—about working with primary sources and creating a story, about environmental conservation, about myself and how I want to move through this world—and I’ll continue to carry this experience with me and apply it in other aspects of my life and my learning. I’ve learned how to look at any given information and pull out the important themes, how to string different stories together to paint a broader picture, how to think about what appeals to an audience and how to make them care. Even outside of a storytelling framework, these skills easily transfer over to different parts of my life, from critically analyzing academic content to carrying conversations in my daily life. Moreso, hearing Save Mount Diablo’s history and accomplishments, even hearing how its relationship with nature and conservation efforts has changed over the years, has genuinely inspired me to rethink my own relationship with nature and what I can do in my own life to reconnect with the natural world around me. In this tumultuous time, with the pandemic and the increasing severity of the climate crisis, I think it is very easy for people to feel hopeless or to feel like the damage done is irreversible. However, I believe documenting Save Mount Diablo’s history and its accomplishments is an important reminder that there are people on the ground putting in the effort, doing the work that needs to be done, creating change and making a real impact on the climate crisis. I think this podcast can be not only a celebration of Save Mount Diablo’s work, but also a source of hope and motivation for the listening audience to persevere and to keep doing our part—no matter how big or small—and I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to have taken part in this project.

Find the interview mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.


Merritt Price: Building the Design Department at the Getty

Merritt and Teddy
Merritt Price and Teddy Getty at the opening of the “J. Paul Getty Life and Legacy” exhibition, September 24, 2016. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

I’ve been interviewing for the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project for several years, and it is a continual pleasure to learn about employees and operations across this large organization. But rarely do I come across a longtime employee whose work for the Getty Trust has taken them across departments, programs, and even physical sites. This is what made my interview with Merritt Price so unique. In fall 2020, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with Merritt Price, the former head of the Design Department (now Museum Design Department, 1995-2020).

Merritt Price is the former head of the Design Department (now Museum Design Department) at the J. Paul Getty Trust, which he ran from 1995-2020. Price grew up in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, and moved to Toronto in 1980 to attend the Ontario College of Art (now Ontario College of Art and Design). Price worked for several design firms in Toronto, including starting his own practice called Tangram, before accepting a position with the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1990. He began his work with the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1995, founding what was then the Exhibition Design Department. 

Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

When Merritt Price joined the Getty in 1995, he needed to build the then-Exhibition Design Department from the ground up. This involved defining the Department’s work as not only about aesthetic concerns like text labels and display cases, but also about a larger visitor experience—where museum goers walk and sit, and how they interact with the space. As such, Price assembled a multidisciplinary team to create “one-stop shopping” for design at the Getty Trust. 

In thinking about why it was important for the Getty to establish the Design Department, rather than rely on design consultants, Price explained, 

“I think it’s also noteworthy that working in-house at a museum, as opposed to being in a consulting office that might be doing design for museums or galleries, that you have a different perspective, because you’re right in it and you’re in it all the time. It’s a little bit more laboratory-like where your work product is right there outside the door in the gallery. You can walk through it, you can see visitors using it.”

Over the twenty-five years he worked at the Getty, Price and his team handled designs for major projects in the organization’s history. Indeed, Price’s first task included design work for the Getty Center, which opened to the public in 1997. In addition to addressing gallery spaces, Price also created a wayfinding system with signposts to orient visitors on the large Getty Center campus. He later worked on the redesigns at the Getty Villa. 

Price and his team also designed for exhibitions across the Getty Trust, including Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, Foundry to Finish: The Making of a Bronze Sculpture, and Michelangelo: Mind of the Master. However, Price was particularly involved in the exhibition J. Paul Getty Life and Legacy, for which he pitched the concept and led a team of curators in creating content. Listen as he explains the idea behind the show:

I have a background in museum work, and I felt confident speaking with Mr. Price about his vision for museum spaces and the practical necessities like spacing around pedestals. However, I still learned a great deal about technical innovations, as well as the impact of design both on exhibitions and on the other spaces in which visitors use—from trams to gift shops to restaurants. This interview was both personally enjoyable and is a great source of information about the construction and redesign of the Getty Center and the Getty Villa.

To learn more about Merritt Price’s life and work, read his oral history transcript here. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.


Shirley Chisholm, Women Political Leaders, and the Oral History Center collection

By Mollie Appel-Turner

On Jan 25, 1972, Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, representative for New York State’s Twelfth District and the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, announced her candidacy for president. With this announcement, Chisholm became both the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination and also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The UC Berkeley Oral History Center has several interviews that address Chisholm’s trailblazing candidacy. In addition, the Center has numerous interviews with other ground-breaking female politicians.

Shirley Chisholm speaking at microphone.
Shirley Chisholm thanking delegates, Democratic National Convention, Miami Beach, Fla., 3rd session (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular.”
— Frances Mary Albrier

Frances Mary Albrier was a woman of numerous accomplishments. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she was an indefatigable opponent of racism, a civil rights activist from the 1920s onward, the first woman elected to Alameda County’s Democratic Central Committee, as well as the first black woman hired by Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. She founded the East Bay Women’s Welfare Club, and her efforts led to the hiring of black women teachers in the Berkeley public schools. Albrier discussed Chisholm’s then-recent candidacy when she was interviewed in 1977 and 1978 as part of a series on women political leaders.

Frances Albrier on sidewalk with picket sign
Frances Albrier leading picket at corner of Sacramento and Ashby, 1939. (Photo: Berkeley Plaques)

Mrs. Chisholm pioneered when she ran for Congress in New York as a black woman. Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular, and it wasn’t popular for a black woman in the East or anywhere. Now, when Mrs. Chisholm ran for president, she did it again. She’s pioneered the way for [others]. Eventually, we’ll have a woman president of the United States. Those doors have been opened. People had looked at her and they’ve talked about a woman running for president. They heard what she had to say. It will be much easier for the next woman who has the ambition to run for president to do so.

Janet West was also interviewed for the women political leaders series, focusing on her work as a Santa Barbara Board of Education member. In the multi-interview volume Women in Politics Volume II, West spoke about how her experiences as a parent influenced her desire to run for office, and both motivated and informed her decisions as a board member. In her 1972 oral history, West discussed the significance of Chisholm’s then-contemporary candidacy:

I think if you’re talking about a large political office, people have the idea that you know, a woman couldn’t stand up under the pressures and maybe couldn’t take all that guff or whatever it is. I think we really have to overcome that type of thing and I’m not sure how many votes Shirley Chisholm will get just because she’s a woman, certainly not because she’s black but because she’s a woman and I don’t think people really feel that a woman can do all that hard work. It’s a lot of hard work.

Professor Harry Edwards joined UC Berkeley’s department of sociology in 1971. He conducted scholarship in the area of sociology of race and sport and is also renowned for his involvement in the famous Black Power salute on the victory podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In “Harry Edwards: An Oral History,” he discussed his early life and upbringing in addition to his role as a scholar-activist, his time at Berkeley, and his work as a consultant to national football and basketball teams. When he was interviewed as part of the UC Berkeley African American Faculty and Senior Staff oral history project in 2005, Edwards spoke of Chisholm with both the knowledge of a contemporary and the perspective of a sociologist. Edwards discussed Chisholm’s extraordinary independence:

Closeup view of Dr. Harry Edwards at University Hilton. Photo dated: June 12, 1984.
Harry Edwards, 1984 (Photo: Toru Kawana, Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library via Calisphere)

Shirley Chisholm, first of all, she had one phenomenal liability, and what I call it is the Stevenson syndrome. She was extraordinarily bright. She was extremely intelligent. That’s a phenomenal liability in the convention of the American political scene. She also had an independence to her that put her outside of the authoritative black leadership influence and control circle. The authoritative black leadership influence and control circle tried to get her not to run. They did not feel that it was “time” for a black woman to step out and run for President. She ran without the endorsement of the NAACP, without the endorsement of the Congress of Racial Equality, without the endorsement of SCLC, without the endorsement of Operation PUSH and Jesse Jackson. She ran on her own.

Shirley Chisholm is one of many women politicians discussed in the Oral History Center’s collections. The Oral History Center contains a wide variety of interviews on women in local, state, and national politics. For more on ground-breaking female politicians, the Oral History Center’s Women Political Leaders collection contains interviews that cover almost the entirety of the 20th century, from the suffragists onward. Interviewees include March Fong Eu, the first Asian American woman in the United States to be elected to a state constitutional office; Helen Gahagan Douglas, the first Democratic woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; and Hope Mendoza Schechter, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and an activist for both the labor movement and the Mexican American community. The Oral History Center continues to preserve the histories of women leaders in the political sphere and is currently conducting new interviews with female political leaders in the Bay Area Women in Politics and California State Archives projects. For those who wish to learn more, a good place to start is the Oral History Center’s Women in Politics podcast, which has episodes on a variety of important female political leaders of the twentieth century — at the local, state, and national levels — including Francis Albrier.

Mollie Appel-Turner
Mollie Appel-Turner

Mollie Appel-Turner joined the Oral History Center as a student editor in fall 2021. She is currently a fourth-year history student with a concentration in medieval history.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.


From the OHC Director: The Gift of Being an Interviewer

The Gift of Being an Interviewer

From years of listening, I’ve learned that we all want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard.

After close to nineteen years with the Oral History Center — ten of those years serving in a leadership role — I have decided to hang up my microphone and leave my job at Cal. As with any major life transition, reflections naturally pour forth at times like these. I’ve been keeping track of these thoughts in hopes that they might prove interesting to others who have spent so many hours interviewing people about their lives or those who are interested in oral history writ large

For me, learning and practicing oral history interviewing has been a gift. It has made my life richer, allowed me to access insights about human nature that otherwise might have been hidden from me, and offered me the opportunity to see people as the individuals that they are, freed from the stifling confines of presumed identities and expected opinions. 

At OHC, interviewers typically work on a wide variety of projects. We often interview about topics in which we do not already have expertise and thus must develop some fluency with something new to us. Because we contribute to an archive that is to serve the needs of an unforeseeable set of current and future researchers, we naturally interview people who have made their mark in very different fields. This means that we interview people, sometimes at tremendous length, who are not like us and whose life stories and ways of thinking might be very different from our own. There is a well-documented tendency among oral historians to interview our heroes, people whose political ideals jibe with our own, people who can serve protagonists in our histories, people whose voices we want to amplify. At the Oral History Center, this bias is not paramount — rather, we strive to interview people across a broad spectrum of every imaginable category. And while we almost always end up very much liking our interviewees, they need not be our personal heroes and are not required to share our opinions; they only need to be an expert in one thing: their own lives and experiences. 

man and dog
Martin with Daisy McFurpants at Dillon Beach, beginning his first “gap year”.

This way in which we do our work has sent me wide and far and exposed me to a profound diversity of ways of looking at the world. And this multiplicity of perspectives has informed, challenged, engaged, astounded, and, frankly, remade me again and again over the past two decades. It is this essential facet of my work that I consider a gift to my own life.

After having conducted approximately 200 oral histories, ranging in length from ninety minutes to over sixty hours each, I find it a tad difficult at this point to highlight some interviews and not others. Whenever I get asked (as I often do): what was your favorite interview? I used to wrack my brain, endlessly scrolling through all of those experiences, but now I usually just say, “my most recent oral history.” I offer that up because the latest one typically remains most fresh in my own (not always so robust) memory — it is the interview that still retains much of the nuance, content, and feeling for me and that’s why it is “the best.” Still, I want to offer up a few examples from some of my oral histories to show how interviewing has influenced the way I live in the world. 

Moving beyond my comfort zone

I arrived at OHC in July 2003, first spending a year on a fellowship in which I was given the opportunity to finish my book manuscript, Contacts Desired (2006), and then in July 2004 I started as a staff interviewer. My areas of expertise were social history, the history of sexuality and gender, and the history of communications. My first major oral history assignment? A multiyear project on the history of the major integrated healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente. Not only was this topic well outside my area of expertise, it also was not intrinsically interesting to me. But this was a new job and a big opportunity, so with an imposing hill in front of me, I decided to climb it. The project went on for five years and during that time I conducted most of the four dozen interviews. The topics ranged from public policy and government regulation to epidemiological research and new approaches to care delivery. I was sensitive to my inexperience with the subject matter so I hit the books and consulted earlier oral histories. I worked hard to get up to speed.

Just a few interviews into the project I had what might be considered an epiphany. After years of studying historical topics that were familiar to me, even deeply personal, I was pleased to discover something new about myself: I loved the study of history and the process of learning something new. Period. With this newly understood drive, I pushed myself deeper into the project and, I hope, was able to be the kind of interviewer that allowed my interviewees to tell the stories that most needed to be told. As it happens, along the way, I learned a great deal about a topic — the US healthcare system — that is exceedingly important, extraordinarily complex, yet necessary to understand. When the push for healthcare reform burst through in 2009 and 2010, I felt informed enough to follow the story and to understand the possibilities and pitfalls endemic to such an effort. In short, if one is open to the challenge, oral history can significantly broaden one’s horizons, educating one in critical areas of knowledge (from the mouths of experts!), and it might even make one into a more informed citizen. 

Questioning what I thought I already knew

The Freedom to Marry oral history project was in many ways the opposite of the Kaiser Permanente project. First off, I could rightfully consider myself an expert in the history of the fight to win the right to marry for same-sex couples and the broader issues surrounding it. After all, I had written a book on gay and lesbian history and had personal experience with the movement when I married my partner in February 2004. Moreover, in graduate school and in preparation for writing my book, I had closely studied the history of activism and social movements. I had gone into this project, then, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what the story would be and what the narrators might say on the topic: this would be another chapter in the decades-long fight for civil rights in which activists engaged in protest and direction action, spoke truth to power, and forced the recalcitrant and prejudiced to change their minds. 

From fall 2015 through spring 2016, I conducted twenty-three interviews with movement leaders and big-name attorneys, but also with young organizers and social media pros; I interviewed people in San Francisco and New York, but also in Maine, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Oregon. What I learned in these interviews not only made me greatly expand my understanding of the campaign for marriage equality, these interviews also forced me to revise my beliefs about social movements and how meaningful and lasting social change can happen (I write about this more here). As a result of this project, I came to believe that some forms of protest, especially violent direct action, are almost always counterproductive to the purported aims; that castigating people with different ideas and perceived values is wrong and likely to produce a long-term backlash; and that in spite of our differences of opinion on contemporary hot button social issues, the majority of people cherish similar core values — values that bind rather than separate. The interviews demonstrated that by focusing on the shared values, rather than hurling epithets like “homophobe!” or “racist!” at your opponents, the ground is better readied for future understanding to grow. The history I documented surely is more complex than this, but these observations are true to what I found and are a necessary part of the reason this particular movement succeeded as well as it did. Through the Freedom to Marry oral history project, I learned to question the accepted public narrative and even what historians think that they knew on a topic. I recognized that openness to new ideas is a prerequisite of good scholarship. I recognized that most of all I needed to listen to what the oral history interviewees said and to compare that to what I thought I already knew. As a result, I learned to not let what I thought I already knew determine what I could still learn. 

Telling a good story

The oral history interview is a peculiar thing. As ubiquitous as interviewing seems today, from StoryCorps on NPR to countless podcasts featuring interviews around the world to articles in the biggest magazines, the classic oral history method as we practice it at OHC is still quite rare. For our interviews, both interviewer and interviewee put in a great deal of effort in terms of background research, drafting interview outlines, on-the-record interviewing (often in excess of 20 hours with one person), and review and editing of the interview transcript. As a result, our interviews are almost always excellent source material for historians, journalists, and researchers and students of all stripes. But what moves an oral history from “good documentation” to something more is often the quality of the storytelling. Certainly some people, as a result of special experiences, have more fascinating stories to tell than others, but everyone I’ve ever interviewed has many worthwhile stories to tell: from formative family dynamics while young to the universal process of aging. 

The difference between a competently told story and an engrossing one isn’t necessarily the elements of the story but the skill and verve of the storyteller. To hear Richard Mooradian, for example, speak about his life as a tow truck driver on the Bay Bridge and tell what it’s like to tow a big rig on the bridge amidst a driving rain storm is, yes, to learn something new but, more, it is to gain insight into a personality and the passion that drives that person to do what he does. I eventually learned (maybe I’m still learning) that when someone begins a story — and I know now the difference between a question being answered and a story being told — it is time for me to shut up, actively listen, and be open to the interviewee to reveal something meaningful about themselves. After years of helping, I hope, others give the best telling of their own stories, I started to think about my own stories, both the stories themselves but also how they have been told. I’ve come to think that these stories are nothing less than life itself: they are the emotional diaries that we keep with us always and, if we’re good, are prepared to present them to friends and strangers alike. From years of listening, I’ve learned that most of us want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard. This is a deeply humane impulse and I like to think that nurturing this impulse is at the core of what I’ve learned to be of true value over the past two decades.

These three lessons — openness to moving beyond your comfort zone, questioning what you think you already know, and telling a good story — are not necessarily profound or new. For me, however, they are real and as I return to them regularly in my work and personal life, they have been transformative. They have been a gift. The world of knowledge is massive. Learning something new is a key part of this gift. I’ve long recognized that we live in a world of Weberian “iron cages,” siloed into separate tribes. Listening to my interviewees challenge accepted wisdom inspired me to buck trends, forget the metanarratives, and break free from those cages confining our intellect and spirit. Stories are the most precious things we can possess. Create many of your own and share them widely – and wildly. After close to nineteen years at the Oral History Center, I am departing to do just that: to focus on living new stories and ever striving to tell them better. 

Martin Meeker
Oral History Center
Director (2016-2021)
Acting Associate Director (2012-2016)
Interviewer/Historian (2004-2012)
Postdoc (2003-2004)


T is for Topsy-Turvy: Our interviewees describe when things went haywire

It’s been a topsy-turvy couple of years. But it’s not the only time in recent memory that the world’s turned upside down. As the Omicron variant has once again derailed our path to normalcy, I decided to search the Oral History Center’s collection to see what our interviewees have described as topsy-turvy. Referencing the trivial to some of the most challenging times in recent history, those who used the adjective included household names like Chief Justice Earl Warren and California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, as well as artists, urban planners, venture capitalists, and Rosie the Riveters. Topics raised include the rise of Hitler, atomic weapons, the Great Depression, educational equity, campaign finance, messy houses, and downtown San Francisco. Here are the results. 

See below for a detailed description of how to search our collection by a keyword like topsy-turvy.

Mannequin crumpled over broken furniture in a test house after an atomic explosion
Mannequin after the Operation Cue atomic blast, 1955 (Photo: National Archives)

The rise of Hitler

Betty Hardison: Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project

“The world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly.” 

During World War II, Betty Hardison worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyards for the department responsible for repairing ships damaged during Pearl Harbor. Here she reflects on why she gave up her dream of university and journalism and took her first job.

Betty Hardison
Betty Hardison

When it was time to go off to school, I sold my clarinet and I went to Armstrong Business College in Berkeley. . . . It no longer exists, but it was a very prominent business school at the  time. I took secretarial and all phases of business. But at that time, then, the world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly. . . . Journalism was a strong goal. I had been editor of the yearbook and things like that, so I thought that I wanted to go to the university and take journalism. But then with the world being turned upside-down, I went for my first job.

Related discussion within the interview: educational expectations for women, life in Calistoga, California during the Great Depression

Downtown San Francisco

Robert Riley: 1988–2000 Curator of Media Arts, SFMOMA 75th Anniversary 

“He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad.”

Three screens on a wall with blurry images of street scenes
Steve McQueen’s “Drumroll” on display (Photo: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art)

Robert Riley, the curator of media arts for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recalled the inspiration for artist Steve McQueen’s work, Drumroll. McQueen had visited San Francisco during the exhibit of his work, Bear, in the early 1990s. 

When he was in San Francisco, he experienced the hurly-burly, topsy-turvy development of the downtown—there was a lot of construction when he was here. There was traffic mayhem. . . . He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad. He work-shopped an idea here of putting a camera lens into the drain hole of a striped orange construction barrel, which he borrowed. He’s a large man. He decided to start pushing the barrel down the street and just telling people to look out.

Related discussion within the interview: acquisition of Steve McQueen’s work, Bear; the development of Drumroll 

Atomic bomb testing

Jean Fuller: Organizing Women: Careers in Volunteer Politics, Law, and Policy Administration

“Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?”

Jean Fuller, director of women’s activities of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1954–58, was present at an atomic bomb test explosion in May 1955, dubbed Operation Cue. Conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission outside of Las Vegas, the test was designed to determine how the blast would affect people (represented by mannequins), food, and various structures. Looking at before and after photos of a test home, Fuller discusses the results with her interviewer, Miriam Stein. 

Jean Fuller in coveralls leaning on a sign that says Civil Defense Administration
Jean Wood Fuller, 1958 (Photo: Federal Civil Defense Administration/Internet Archive)

Fuller: Now, here’s the before scene of that living room where we saw the man all topsy-turvy. As you see there were draperies and there were Venetian blinds. Now, had they had the draperies pulled completely across, the blinds probably would not have done quite as much damage but they were only as people normally leave them.

Stein: Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?

Fuller: No, he was upside down here someplace.

Stein: That’s right. He was hanging over a chair.

Fuller: Yes, but he undoubtedly would have been dead.

Related discussion within the interview: detailed account of the atomic test

Campaign finance

Earl Warren Sr.: Conversations with Earl Warren on California Government

“Some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy.”

Earl Warren, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and also received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was governor of California and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Here he discusses campaign finance with his interviewer, Amelia Fry, and an editor from Doubleday and Company, Luther Nichols, who was assisting Warren with his autobiography.

Earl Warren painting
Official paining of Earl Warren as governor of California

Nichols: I think Alioto spent half a million dollars—

 Warren: More than that.

 Nichols: It came out to something like six dollars a voter — six dollars a vote—

 Warren: Well, I’ll tell you. Of course, it’ll go along that way and then some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy. Now, you take that fellow who was elected—was it governor or senator—in Florida this year [1971]. He was a little country lawyer, Chiles, his name is— He’s a little country lawyer, he had no money of any kind to spend, but he told them he was going to start in the north of Florida and was going to walk clear through the state making his campaign. And, by George, he did. He’d arrange every way that— To start in the morning where there was a television station, and they’d pick him up there, say something about him, and he’d always stop at a television station at night. [Laughter] He got publicity that way and never spent a nickel on it, and he went all through the state, and he beat the whole outfit. [Laughter]

 Fry: And he got all that free TV time!

 Warren: Oh yes, he got all that free TV time.

 Fry: He must have had a million dollars of TV time!

 Warren: [Laughter] And never paid a dime for it!

Related discussion within the interview: decision to run for governor, campaign finance

Education

Justice Cruz Reynoso: California Supreme Court Justice, Professor of Law, Vice-Chair United States Commission on Human Rights, and 2000 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient

“Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting.”

Cruz Reynoso, who received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was the first Hispanic California State Supreme Court justice. Here he reflects on race relations and parental involvement in schools.  

Cruz Reynoso
Cruz Reynoso (Photo: UC Davis School of Law)

I will tell you a story because it turns things topsy-turvy. I may have told you about this. I was invited to go speak on a Saturday to a parent-student group in a school in the Los Angeles area. When I got there, I noticed that practically everybody involved was Spanish-speaking, and a great majority of the kids there were there, but the leadership of the PTA and practically everybody in charge was Latino. So I asked, “Is this an entirely Latino school? Do you have some other folk?” And they said, “Oh yes, about 20 percent of our students are Anglo.” And I said, “Well, where are the Anglo parents?” And they said, “We don’t know. We keep inviting them; they just don’t come.” I was bemused because I have heard that story told a hundred times about Latino parents by Anglo parents, “You know we keep sending these notices. They don’t come. They must not be—” They don’t say this, but the implication is “they must not be interested in education or must not be interested in their kids.” Well, I just said, “Maybe you ought to do something more so they feel comfortable when they come to these meetings and so on.” Something is not quite right when 20 percent of the parents don’t come to a Saturday function that is supposed to be good for everybody. I don’t know what they have done right or wrong, I really don’t. I nonetheless have the absolute sense that they haven’t done enough. Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting. And we as human beings are smart enough to be able to figure things out on how to make those folk feel more comfortable and so on.  

Related discussion within the interview: affirmative action generally, and in particular at UC Berkeley

Venture capital partnerships

Paul Bancroft III: Early Bay Area Venture Capitalists: Shaping the Economic and Commerce, Industry, and Labor Landscape

“Others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today—I don’t mean today, but up until recently.”

Paul “Pete” Bancroft was an early participant in the venture capital industry and president, CEO, and director of Bessemer Securities Corporation. Mr. Bancroft also devoted considerable time to The Bancroft Library, which was founded by his great grandfather, Hubert Howe Bancroft. 

Paul Bancroft
Paul “Pete” Bancroft

It finally evolved, unfortunately, to the point where the venture capital partnerships were investing so much money that with the fees they were getting, the 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the assets, that they were making more money that way than they were on the profits that were being made when the investments were sold. It meant that they were really starting to lose sight of really making money on the companies they were investing in. Which is why Arthur Rock and others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today— I don’t mean today [2010], but up until recently.

Related discussion within the interview: venture capital partnerships, CEO salaries, Bessemer Venture Partners

The de Young Museum. . . and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jim Chappell: Directing the Resurgence of SPUR & Urban Planning in San Francisco

“Who can hate a baby seal?”

Jim Chappell is a retired urban planner whose forty-year career focused on intertwining environmental conservation into urban design. As the director of the nonprofit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), he helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Here he discusses design and structural problems with two California landmarks.

Jim Chappell with San Francisco Ferry Building in the background
Jim Chappell

The de Young Museum harkens back to the Midwinter Exposition of 1894, and then opened as the de Young Museum in 1895. It grew topsy-turvy over the years and was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In fact, they built a steel exoskeleton around it to keep the walls from falling down. It had never been a great museum in terms of collection or building. And they are related. . . . 

The [Monterey Bay] Academy was three or four years behind the de Young, so they got to learn from the mistakes, or at least knew what they were going to be up against when they started. Like the de Young, it was a building that had grown like topsy and was a mess of a building even before the earthquake. And then in the earthquake, pipes broke, which isn’t very good if you’re an aquarium. . . .

A baby seal peaking up out of the water
A baby seal

So in March 2000—this was three-and-a-half years after the first de Young bond vote—there was an $87 million bond on the ballot for the Academy. They needed 66 2/3 percent “yes.” They got sixty-seven. Phew. Just sneaked by. It was a different call than “old art.” It was “kids.” Their poster for the “yes” on the measure was a baby seal. Who can hate a baby seal? 

Related discussion within the interview: California’s proposition system, the adaptability of Golden Gate Park, and the evolution of parks and recreation since the 1800s.

Some other references to topsy-turvy

The Great Depression

You see, you had a topsy-turvy country.” Karl Holton, first director of the California Youth Corrections Authority, in the oral history collection, Earl Warren and the Youth Authority.

Art 

“I am  astounded  by  the  energy  of  her  construction  machinery  in  the  landscape, the  ‘topsy-turvy,’  earthquaking  quality  she  accentuates  in  her  paintings  of  San  Francisco  streets,  and  the  destruction  of  the  cumbersome Embarcadero  Freeway.” Nell Sinton: An Adventurous Spirit: The Life of a California Artist

Organizational turmoil

“Then, after a little over three years there, when things went topsy-turvy at DuPont Merck, I called Bill and asked, ‘Got a job left there?’ So that’s when I came back to Chiron, in ’94. It was an interesting period.” David W. Jr. Martin: UCSF Professor, Genentech Vice President of Research, and Beyond

The music industry

“The whole job pays 1500 bucks, this is a seven-piece band, but it cost $500 to rent the piano. So the piano is making three times what any of the musicians are making. This is how things have gone. The world, everything’s topsy-turvy. The priorities are all askew. So this is the kind of stuff we’re facing.” Jazz musician John Gill in Turk Murphy, Earthquake McGoon’s, and the New Orleans Revival.

A house in disarray

“We arrived in the most topsy-turvy mess of things in that house.” Ursula Bingham: A Lady’s Life: New England, Berkeley, China

How to search for a keyword like topsy-turvy

You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. From our home page, I entered topsy turvy in the search box and clicked search. (I did not get a different result with/without a hyphen.) There were 18 total results, including when the interviewer used the term or it appeared in an introduction. 

Screen shot of search box

When you get to the results page, you might not initially see any oral histories. This is because the “full text” feature is off by default. On the results page, toggle on “Fulltext search.” A number of oral histories will populate on that page in a list. Please note that sometimes I get better results when I change the default “all the words” to “partial phrase.”

Screen shot of results page showing "full text off"

 

Screen shot of results page showing full text on

Screen shot showing partial phrase

From the results list, click on any oral history. The next page will provide information about the oral history, such as interviewer, publication date, project, and so on. That page also enables you to read or download a PDF of the oral history. Without downloading, I entered the word “topsy” into the oral history search feature and selected “highlight all.” Then I just clicked on the arrow to be taken directly to the word. Repeat clicking on the arrow to see all examples of the search term within the oral history. 

Screen shot of search within the Oral HIstory

Jill Schlessinger is communications director and managing editor for the Oral History Center. She received her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials, including our podcasts and articles, are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.


Objectivity and Subjectivity in Oral History: Lessons from Japanese American Incarceration Stories

Sari Morikawa is an intern at the Oral History Center (OHC) of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a Mount Holyoke College history major with a keen interest in American history.

Sari
Sari Morikawa, c. 2021

This fall, I had an opportunity to work on the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project (JAIN) with OHC interviewers Amanda Tewes, Shanna Farrell, and Roger Eardley-Pryor. For this project, I identified oral history interviews discussing Japanese American incarceration during World War II in the OHC’s collections. Later, I compiled and constructed an annotated bibliography for the team, as well as for future researchers. At the same time, I engaged with and acquired knowledge of basic oral history theories and methodologies. Through this project, I had a chance to reflect upon the idea of intersubjectivity and contemplate how this concept plays out in a real oral history project. This entire experience caused me to wonder how my own subjectivity—including my background as a Japanese woman and not an American citizen—might influence how I interpret and share these oral history narratives on Japanese American incarceration.

For the first phase of my internship, I engaged with prominent oral historians’ scholarly work and learned basic oral history methodologies and practices. In particular, the idea of intersubjectivity struck me. In oral history, intersubjectivity means that both the interviewer’s and narrator’s subjectivity, or identities and lived experiences, impact their interpretations of memories and shape the interview they co-create. In particular, Kathleen Blee’s article, “Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan,” was very influential for me. In this article, Blee sheds light on the idea that historians need to grapple with how to tell people’s stories while considering their own social identities and perspectives, especially when they disagree. After briefly discussing the author’s main argument, Amanda asked me a question, “Do you think history can be objective?” This question struck me. At that point, I believed that objectivity in history was important to avoid romanticization of the past. For example, in order to justify the incarceration plan, the U.S. federal government conceptualized Manzanar as a “holiday on ice” and shared this interpretation with the general public. As a result, some of the oral history transcripts demonstrate (particularly white) narrators’ misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Japanese Americans incarceration. Thus, I believed that history should be neutral to prevent romanticization. Yet, my views on objectivity and intersubjectivity changed as I started writing the annotated bibliography and engaged more with oral history theory and methodology. 

By the beginning of October, we started working on an extensive annotated bibliography. I identified oral history transcripts which discuss Japanese American imprisonment during World War II. It turned out Japanese Americans’ incarceration experiences were too diverse to generalize. It was wonderful to see that narrators who discussed the incarceration ranged from formerly incarcerated deaf family members to the War Relocation Authority officials to a fisherman who delivered fish to incarceration centers. I recognized how diverse their voices are and realized that the stories that we tell are not objective at all. Thus, history cannot be objective. For example, some formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans expressed their bitter feelings that life in incarceration camps was shocking and traumatizing. Some of them, like Nancy Ikeda Baldwin, even said that these experiences decreased their performance in school after their incarceration. On the other hand, others said that the incarceration camps were enviable experiences. One generation later, Eiko Yasutake confessed, “I was kind of a little jealous when you went to the camps, because that, for kids, was that side of it, that they were all together and kind of had that playtime if you will.” In fact, so many photographs from this time highlight Japanese Americans’ agency. Jack Iwata’s work uncovers Japanese Americans hosting beauty pageants, emphasizing Japanese Americans’ power to make the most out of their circumstances. This wide array of recollections, even among Japanese Americans, confused me. However, it made me contemplate how I would utilize the idea of intersubjectivity to share this nuanced and complex history with people who don’t really know about these incarceration experiences.

Queen of Manzanar
Margie Midori Shimizu Hirashimal, “Queen of Manzanar.” The image of a beauty queen at Manzanar shows the resilience of the Japanese American community incarcerated there. Photograph by Jack Iwata, c. 1942-1945. Courtesy of Calisphere.

The question of how I would interpret these stories and share them with people who are unfamiliar with this topic led me to another question: how my identity as Japanese would impact interpretations of Japanese American incarceration. As a person who partially shares the same heritage and cultural background, I felt a sense of familiarity and interacted with interview transcripts with care. Encountering some of the Japanese words in oral history interview transcripts that don’t quite translate into English, such as ‘gaman‘ and ‘shikataganai,’ I felt a cultural connection to Japanese American prisoners. When someone discusses that formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans are hesitant to talk about their experiences, I recognize how Japanese culture made them react that way. My own subjectivity helped me grapple with these Japanese Americans’ incarceration stories. At the same time, I learned that I should also step back from my own subjectivity. Some of the Chinese and Filipino Americans’ transcripts on this topic allowed me to tackle this idea. Caroline and Frank Gwerder said, “[Filipinos] were fearful of what the Japanese might do.” These interviews reminded me of how Japanese imperialistic and super nationalistic policies and how they implanted fear on other Asian Americans and reshaped U.S. homeland politics. Since then, I felt more cautious about my national identity, in particular as a person coming from a country with this imperialistic past. That adage that “winners write history” nicely illustrates how imperialists write and rewrite history and leave behind the perspectives of marginalized communities. Recognizing this, I became to be more mindful about valuing the stories of incarcerated Japanese Americans.

Throughout this process, I realized that the inner dialogue between my identity, my interpretation of these oral history interviews, and how I would disseminate them to a larger audience is all subjective. Historians cannot avoid being subjective. In order to best reflect these interviews through my annotated bibliography, I would highlight their plight caused by the government’s racially discriminatory plan and Japan’s imperialistic military policy. Yet, more importantly, I would also emphasize incarcerated peoples’ agency and adoption of “gaman.” Utilizing my shared culture and history, as well as acknowledging the imperialistic past that my country made, I will utilize the oral history as bottom-up narratives to overturn the romanticized past.

Find out more about the oral histories mentioned here  from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.


Primary Sources: HistoryMakers Digital Archive

The HistoryMakers The HistoryMakers Digital Archive is an ongoing oral history project begun in 1993 to record, preserve, and disseminate the stories of African Americans and African-American led groups and movements. The interviewees come from a variety of fields and from across the United States. The high-quality video interviews are broken up into sections with brief summaries of the content, and each section is accompanied by a transcript. The resource can be searched by aspects of historical context, biographical themes, or qualities of the interview.


Enlisting Humanity by Uplifting the Voices Who Have Gone Unheard: Undergraduate Research in Oral History

Enlisting Humanity by Uplifting the Voices Who Have Gone Unheard

By Emily Nodal

Emily Nodal, UC Berkeley Class of 2022

Emily Nodal, UC Berkeley Class of 2022, is a Society and Environment major in the Rausser College of Natural Resources with an emphasis on justice and sustainability while minoring in public policy. In Spring 2021, Emily worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor in the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library and earned academic credits as part of Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. For her URAP project, Emily used oral history materials to create the video embedded below on “Environmental Justice, Systemic Racism, and Democracy.” She also suggested high school curriculum materials to accompany the video. Below, Emily shares the personal nature of her research.

For my URAP project during the Spring 2021 semester, I had the privilege of developing a high school curriculum on environmental justice utilizing the narratives and perspectives of those interviewed by the Oral History Center. This project was very personal to me because environmental injustice has become increasingly prevalent in my own community.

Amazon shipping hub in southern California. Photograph: Courtesy of Anthony Victoria, People’s Collective for Environmental Justice

I grew up in the Inland Empire, an industrialized region in Southern California inhabited predominantly by low-income communities of color, where consistently poor air quality and smoggy days felt like the norm to my peers and me. In recent years, the rapid development of Amazon warehouses and corresponding traffic congestion has exacerbated the environmental vulnerability of my community’s exposure to environmental toxins and their subsequent health hazards.

Efforts in 2020 to expedite delivery services for the online shipping boom wrought by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in dramatic expansion of Amazon’s shipping facilities while further enriching the multi-billion dollar corporation. Amazon’s development efforts have heightened shipping efficiencies and brought new jobs to these predominantly low-income communities of color, while also disproportionately burdening the already polluted region with negative amenities and toxic hazards. According to the Inland Empire-based “People’s Collective for Environmental Justice,” the more than 3,000 warehouses in the Inland Empire are all sited in the highest percentile for toxic emissions in the state and the populations living within a half-mile radius of the warehouses are 85% people of color. As someone who grappled with the realities of environmental inequity directly, I welcomed the chance to expand my environmental justice research into an effective, oral history-based high school curriculum.

While exploring the array of interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project archive, I felt drawn to the narrative of Aaron Mair, a leader in the environmental justice movement and a former president of the Sierra Club. As a prominent Sierra Club leader from the EJ (environmental justice) movement and the first black president of the historically white environmental organization, Mair vividly illustrated how we, as environmental activists, must understand our environmental well-being as linked inextricably to the social, racial, and economic well-being of all others. Mair’s oral history became the basis for the educational video I created.

Aaron Mair at his family homestead in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina in November 2018.

The ability of Mair and his family to endure the burdens of generational racism while at the same time upholding a connection to the natural world resonated with me and my own family’s experiences. Unlike the predominantly white leaders in the Sierra Club, many of whom began their activism focused on land and wildlife preservation, Mair’s lived experiences enabled him to see the cruciality of equitably uplifting all human and non-human stakeholders in conversations around environmental protection. He explained how his journey into the mainstream environmental movement came from his “family’s sense of home-place and a civil rights struggle, a migration struggle and pressure, dealing with the pressures of racism, while at the same time maintaining human dignity, but also maintaining a connection with their love of the natural beauty and wonders.

Although I grew up in a low-income household, my family also valued the outdoors and took me camping in nature, which created my deep connection to and reverence for the natural world. However, I found my own experiences vastly different from many of my school peers from similar backgrounds. Environmental scholars like Carolyn Finney and Lauret Savoy have explored why many black and brown kids, from a young age, come to believe that nature and environmentalism isn’t for us. For too many of us, natural places and spaces are financially and even culturally inaccessible.

My engagement with Mair’s oral history narrative, coupled with my own experiences, reinforced how that racial exclusion emerged out of environmentalism’s flawed beginnings. Like many other movements in United States history, campaigns and institutions for wilderness preservation, land conservation, and modern environmentalism have been historically white-dominated. Mair examined this harmful past by reflecting upon his own organization and its founders, including the notoriously racist early UC Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte. As Mair explained in his oral history, LeConte “believed that African-Americans and Native Americans were inferior and separate and distinct races. He believed in his theory of life, which is that whites had a natural order and a higher chain of evolution over all things. He preached a theory of dominion over all things as opposed to stewardship of all things.” The problematic ideologies of early environmental advocates like Joseph LeConte permeated into the early environmental movement’s limited range of diversity and exclusionary land management practices. As described by Mair “it was them imposing upon [the land] their white will.”

In his oral history, Mair also explained how the environmental movement’s history continues to plague 21st century environmentalism in fundamental ways. Mair noted how “othering” marginalized groups historically has created contemporary environmental crises, as exclusion from environmental spaces has prevented those groups from becoming valid stakeholders in land-use decision making. Throughout most of its history, American environmentalism detrimentally established a dichotomy between humanity and nature, therefore requiring all humans not seen as “proper” stewards to be excluded. Mair critiqued this shortcoming in traditional environmental organizations, including in the Sierra Club, as advocating for the exclusion of humanity from nature in order to “save” it.

David Brower (center) leads a 1966 effort to “Save” the Grand Canyon. Photo: The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

As Mair explained: “In the ‘saves,’ we create environmental organizations, and we become part of these clubs. And we think that the best way to protect land and nature is at the exclusion of humanity rather than the inclusion of humanity. It’s like building a fine Swiss watch and leaving out a master gear. And so, the ‘save’ organizations and their notion of preservation is missing a critical element, which is humanity, and humanity as a steward within that relationship. We should not be outside of it. Integral to the protection is our harmony with it… To me, that is like the story of the Yosemite Valley, how the First Nations were cleared out of the Yosemite Valley to protect it, even though they lived there for thousands of years… When humanity is relegated to being viewed as dirty or polluted in the eyes of the environment by other men, we lose something. That is indeed a crisis.”

The curriculum I created for this URAP project focused on environmental justice because if people of color remain socially, culturally, and economically  disabled from accessing environmental spaces, then we will never be able to meaningfully contribute our widely diverse perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and solutions to the world’s escalating crises of climate change. Again, Aaron Mair articulated the need to expand and democratize marginalized communities’ access to environmental activism by his re-framing of the Sierra Club’s core mission to “enlist humanity.” Mair explained how “fundamentally in the United States as you enlist humanity in the United States, it’s through our democracy. It’s empowering our democracy. It’s empowering our humanity… And this is a huge linking of environmental rights, civil rights, voting rights, linking the fact that environmental [justice] is a function of a healthy democracy in civil society. The … fusion of the civil rights, environmental rights, and labor rights efforts really jived with our efforts to save humanity. Because if we’re going to talk about [how] to enlist humanity to save the planet, we have to tap and show humanity how these things are all connected.” Through his foundations in environmental justice, Mair understood that, to truly combat environmental degradation, the environmental movement must enlist people from historically oppressed, disinvested, and environmentally polluted communities.

Similarly, for my own community’s fight against environmental racism in the Inland Empire, vast populations of local community members must be mobilized to combat a multi-billion dollar corporation’s toxification of the region. Exploring Mair’s insights helped me realize how efforts in my own community require an intersectional approach of labor justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. Building enough pressure to combat the Inland Empire’s warehousing boom demands solidarity against the leading drivers of inequity and vulnerability. Although local community members will lead the fight, we must also enlist wider populations from a diversity of disciplines, localities, and demographics since the climate implications of Amazon’s warehousing boom also impacts our environment on a much wider scale. Amazon’s 2019 carbon report revealed that the global corporation “emitted 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year,” an increase of 15% from 2018. I expect those numbers to rise even further due to the shipping boom brought upon by the global pandemic.

My reading of Aaron Mair’s oral history reiterates how radical change that finally prioritizes the well being of people and the natural world requires a wide range of collaborations between stakeholders on a wide scale. The mainstream environmental movement, the environmental justice movement, the labor justice movement, and the racial justice movement must learn to overcome ideological divisions, embrace their intersectional interests, and take unified action against structural trends that inherently create inequitable and unsustainable conditions. As Mair said, “The mutuality of all of us, depending upon all of us, our survival is dependent upon our neighbors. It’s dependent upon all the creatures, all the things within this planet. But our stewardship of those relationships, we don’t have the luxury to hate our brother, hate our sister. We don’t. And we don’t have the luxury to destroy and deplete all the ecosystems, because at the end of the day it is humanity that’s in the balance.”

I hope my curriculum development for this URAP project will contribute to education that expands minds and inspires change. For too long, people of color have been excluded from meaningful participation in environmental issues that directly impact the health of their children, families, and communities. By empowering and uplifting the voices of people who have often gone unheard, I hope we can more effectively come together as equitable stakeholders and participants in the movement for a more just and sustainable world.


Stars and Scars: A Historian’s Lessons from 9/11

by Christine Shook

Christine Shook is an independent historian with over a decade of experience in oral and public history. She earned her master’s in history from California State University, Fullerton in 2010. Her previous positions include Museum Assistant at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Exhibits and Collections Associate at the Tahoe Maritime Museum, and Historian and Assistant Vice President at Wells Fargo’s Family & Business History Center. 

September 11, 2001 was an incredibly surreal day. Never a fan of mornings, I awoke late on the Pacific Coast, turned on the TV, and found some sort of devastation unfurling in the east. I didn’t know what had happened. The newscasters had temporarily moved on from the footage showing the planes hitting the World Trade Center and were instead discussing the rescue efforts and fears that the buildings surrounding the towers might collapse. Terrified and utterly confused, I turned to the Internet for answers and first saw the footage of the second plane hitting the towers, and learned about the four planes that had crashed. I spent the next hour bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tv in an attempt to discover what I missed while staying on top of the latest events. It felt like one of those days when the rest of the world should have paused while this thing worked itself out, but that wasn’t the case. I had to go to work. I tamped down the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty I was experiencing, put on my  work uniform, and prepared to face the public. 

As a  recent high school graduate, I worked the closing shift as an attendant at a swanky hotel spa in Dana Point, California. The spa was relatively empty that day. The only exception was a  couple from New York who found themselves stranded in Southern California. Unable to fly home or contact any of their friends and family, they came to the spa hoping to find a much needed distraction from the things they could not control. They didn’t stay long. 

Later that night, the rest of the spa staff and I spent the hours until closing in one of those drab back rooms that only hotel staff sees, adjusting the antenna on a radio so that we could hear the latest news. As I sat listening to the radio waiting for updates about these attacks on 9/11, my mind transported me to sixty years in the past to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I began to wonder if Americans in 1941 also experienced this atmosphere of angst, remorse, anger, and uncertainty. The events of December 7, 1941 led to years of war and sacrifice. Was that where we were heading? 

St. Paul's Cathedral
Located across the street from Ground Zero, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a place of respite for first responders and recovery workers. The banners seen here in this photo from December 2012 are a few of the many messages of support that once lined the chapel’s interior.

I was not the only one pillaging the past in search of answers about an uncertain present. Politicians, pundits, pastors —  everyone seemed to be making the same comparison to Pearl Harbor, and deriving strength and certainty from the virtue with which America responded to that particular wrong. A common message seemed to be: History has taught us that America is good, so our response will follow suit. Of course, I knew from the stories of family and friends that things were more complicated than that. My grandfather earned medals for his participation in WWII but no one in my family has them today. The physical and psychological wounds with which he returned inspired him to throw those medals into the Atlantic Ocean upon receipt. As a grad student in history, I read Stud Terkel’s “The Good War” and discovered more stories like my grandfather’s that casted doubt on the flawlessness of the conflict and the glorified way in which Americans remember it. The United States’s response to 9/11, the realities of war, and the uncertainty of government actions have similarly affected people in a variety of ways over the past twenty years. While the exact failings of the response to that day vary according to political parties, few think that the United States has handled things with the storied righteousness with which it started. 

My own observations and lessons about 9/11 over the past two decades have been heavily influenced by my work as a historian. For the past six-and-a-half years I helped ultra-high-net-worth families examine their historic roots in search of values and lessons that they could apply to today — using the past to guide future choices and investments. When I first began this work, the message we offered clients was always one of hope: your family not only survived X, it eventually thrived financially. There’s value to that narrative of resilience, of course, but also a danger in overconfidence. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a promising trend where family members — especially those from younger generations — want to know more and more about the hard and uncomfortable truths from their past. They appear to recognize their ancestors as flawed people with cautionary tales that accompany the celebratory. 

I can only hope that this willingness to look at cherished personal histories with a critical eye will expand to include the national narrative. Perhaps the next time America faces another crisis like 9/11, the stories of people like my grandfather, who rejected a jingoistic narrative, won’t be overlooked in order to provide quick answers to the question: what now?