From the OHC Director:
The staff of the Oral History Center wishes everyone a happy and productive 2020!
After a long winter’s rest for the Berkeley band of oral historians, this year has jumped off to a running — and even wild — start.
For one, we have begun the unveiling of our lengthy life history interview with four-term California Governor Jerry Brown. Done in partnership with KQED Public Media, this oral history also serves as the first interview conducted for the relaunched California State Government Oral History Project, a project of the Secretary of State. Read more about the interview background and context — or the interview itself. Here’s the page that serves as clearing house for all information about and coverage of this important oral history
We are in the final phases of preparing a number of new interviews for release in the coming weeks and months, including new releases for our projects with: the Sierra Club, the East Bay Regional Park District, the Presidio Trust, San Francisco Opera, the founders of Chicano/a Studies, and the Getty Trust African American Artist project.
Along with our usual oral history work, we are preparing for our annual Introductory Workshop (Leap Day! February 29th) and Advanced Summer Institute (August 10–14). Applications for the Introductory Workshop and Advanced Institute are both now open.
Come back in February for a more substantive column from your’s truly. Until then, back to that reservoir of unread emails!
Martin Meeker, Oral History Center Director
“Jerry Brown, I found, to be a man with a largely unwavering set of core values and principles who sometimes appears to choose contradictory ways in which to express those drives.”
— Director Martin Meeker, Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, reflecting on his experience interviewing Jerry Brown
Inside the Jerry Brown Oral History
There are very few individuals who are what might be called a “shoe-in” for an Oral History Center life history interview. Governor Jerry Brown is one who easily qualifies. Brown’s career as an elected official began in Southern California in 1969 when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and then continued for nearly the next fifty years through a succession of high offices; in 2018 he concluded his record fourth term as governor.
In forty hours of interviews, there are at least three main areas of study of the life of Jerry Brown, and politics much more broadly, that might be impacted by the contents of this interview from today’s vantage point: the historical trajectory of key social and political issues; the influence of creative and unique ideas upon Brown and his agenda; and what might be called the philosophy of realpolitik — of how politics really works, at least according to Brown.
The Jerry Brown oral history was made possible by funding from the State Government Oral History Program, A Project of the California Secretary of State, State Archives.
Dive deeper into the political life of Jerry Brown through the Jerry Brown oral history.
“20 Shades of Jerry Brown” UC Berkeley Podcast
“We had 20 interview sessions, and I would say that in those 20 interview sessions, we had 20 different shades of Jerry Brown,” explains Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker in UC Berkeley’s 9-minute Fiat Vox podcast, “Berkeley oral history project reveals 20 shades of Jerry Brown.” Get a taste of the oral history — hear Brown talk about the medfly invasion, Linda Ronstadt, and politics past and present. Martin Meeker provides insights into this “extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful, self-critical, broad, and sweeping oral history.”
Jerry Brown Interview History
For the historians at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, the question was not, “Should this interview be done?” but rather, “How might it be done at all?” Get the inside story about the making of this riveting 40-hour oral history from interviewer and Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker.
California State Government Oral History Program
The Jerry Brown oral history is a part of the State Government Oral History Program and is the cornerstone of the re-launch of the program under California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. All of the oral history materials (recordings and transcripts) will be deposited with the California State Archives and available to users through their website as well.
Read the transcript of the 40-hour oral history. In this oral history, the following topics are discussed at length: family background and upbringing; education, religion, and friendships; the political career of Pat Brown; college, seminary, and law school; California statewide elected offices, including Governor of California; campaigns for elected office, including for US President; election reform; taxation, budgets, and deficits; law, the courts, and criminal justice reform; immigration; the environment and climate change; education reform, charter schools, and higher education; Oakland, CA; popular culture, journalism, and political campaigns; political philosophy, theories of governance, and applied politics.
KQED Forum Podcast Featuring OHC Director Martin Meeker
Politics was the family business. The Democratic party was tribal for Brown. Listen as Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker, and KQED interview partners Scott Shafer and Guy Marzorati, talk about the unique political perspective and interviewing style of Jerry Brown.
KQED Podcast: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown
From KQED: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown brings listeners the wisdom of the former Governor, Mayor, and presidential candidate. The Oral History Center’s Martin Meeker and Todd Holmes, and KQED’s Scott Shafer, interviewed Brown for more than 40 hours, covering the former governor’s life and half-century in the political game – and Brown has some lessons he’d like to share. Premiering January 8 with hour-long episodes on KQED 88.5 FM every Wednesday at 8pm through January 29.
In 2017, the Getty Center initiated the exhibit Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, a multi-gallery art exhibition throughout the Los Angeles area that showcased the interconnections between Latin America and the Los Angeles. In its continuing partnership with the OHC, the Getty Trust sponsored oral histories with a few of the artists featured in the year-long exhibition. David Lamelas was one of the selected artists.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1946, Lamelas would earn international recognition over his career as one of the leading pioneers of conceptual art. He graduated from the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1963 and soon became a key member of the Instituto Torcuatro di Tella, a group that stood at the center of Argentina’s avant-garde scene. With political turmoil on the rise, he left Argentina in 1968 to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, stopping along the way to represent his home country at the famed Venice Biennial. There his installation, The Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels, garnered wide praise and attention, introducing Europe to the themes of time, communication, and media that Lamelas would explore in much of his work in the decades to come.
Over the next fifty years, Lamelas continued to push the boundaries of conceptual art. From photography and installations to an impressive array of films, he continually found new ways to explore the topics of media and popular culture, as well as his favorite themes of time and space. He also has continued to be a “citizen of the world,” often splitting his time between Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Europe. Indeed, such travel offered ample inspiration for his work. It also made him a fitting choice for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA exhibition.
This year’s annual meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA) was hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah, where we caught just a glimpse of the region’s famed winter season, but were kept warm by invigorating discussion of oral history best practices and challenges.
At the OHA conference I was especially impressed by the number of panels on doing oral history with indigenous people. In the roundtable session “Native American Stories of Peoplehood,” panelists grappled with how they incorporated oral tradition from their indigenous communities into oral history. It left me with a good reminder: narrators’ histories do not necessarily begin at birth, and their ancestors may play a large role in how they frame their own lives. One audience question from this session also asked when and how to include proprietary information about tribes in oral histories (i.e.: sacred stories, songs, ceremonies). One panelist remarked that this complicated area is something to review with both narrators and tribal elders. And yet, even when not interviewing in indigenous communities, it is important to discuss parameters for interviews long before pressing record!
Another highlight was the keynote speaker Isabel Wilkerson. The session was standing room only as Wilkerson spoke about her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Wilkerson walked the audience through her process of finding and interviewing individuals whose life experiences humanized the stories of the twentieth-century Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, Midwest, and West. I groaned in sympathy as she recalled difficulties in finding narrators. But most importantly, I was drawn to Wilkerson’s understanding that oral histories are precious and time-sensitive products that often need to be prioritized over extensive archival research. I, too, have lost narrators before being able to interview them, and I have often wondered what stories they could have told to change the historical record as we know it. In short, Wilkerson validated the work of oral history, and reminded us that the most important work oral historians do is to help others tell their stories, especially when they change how we view the past.
After attending sessions on making oral history a sustainable career, I walked away from this year’s meeting with an even greater sense of the importance of building a community of oral historians beyond the academy and formalized training programs. Often it is the practitioners on the ground who best connect to under acknowledged individuals with important stories to share. So, as an interviewer with a seat of privilege, my questions to other practitioners are: how do we support oral historians working in the field? How do we further democratize oral history? I look forward to continuing these discussions next year in Baltimore!
Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land.
In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.
The first episode of the season dives into public use of the park. Since the district was formed in 1934, it has acquired 125,000 acres that span 73 parks. The episode begins with the role that one special volunteer-turned-employee played in convincing ranchers and landowners to sell their property to be preserved by the park district. Without the work of this man, and others like him, the public would not have access to this land. This includes the local equestrian community, whom we hear from in the rest of the episode, exploring how the district became a haven for horse lovers.
All episodes feature interviews from the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. A special thank you to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District. This episode includes interviews with Judy Irving, Don Staysa, Judi Bank, and Becky Carlson All music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Dorica Theme” and “A Palace of Cedar.”
To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.
A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, Beverly Ortiz, and Brenda Montano
The following is a written version of the episode.
There’s 730 photographs in this collection. Pelicans, waterfalls right in Tilden. I didn’t even know there were waterfalls in Tilden.
Yeah, that looks like something out of Yosemite, not in downtown Berkeley.
Yeah. Taken in February 1986. Aerial shots of the city. This is incredible. It’s quite the collection
We’re looking at the Oakland Museum of California’s website and that’s producer Francesca Fenzi you hear in the background. The page we have open looks a bit like an Instagram account — rows and rows of beautiful landscape photos. There’s aerial images of Tilden park, shots from Pleasanton Ridge, the Black Diamond Mines, Mount Diablo. All bay area landscapes. All taken by a man named Bob Walker.
Right. Bob Walker started out—he came west from the Midwest. He came west basically just for an adventure.
That’s Judy Irving, a documentary filmmaker who met Bob in the 1980s.
He started out taking pictures and walking his dog. His photographs are still on the wall at the park district headquarters. [They were really impressed with his photographs.] They’re fabulous.
Judy met Bob when she was making a film about the greenbelt for the East Bay Regional Park District. She saw a few of his photographs, and knew he was perfect for her project.
I went over to his apartment on Clayton Street in the Haight, and on his wall were two framed photographs that he had taken in the East Bay parks, hills and trees, in the fall and in the spring. Beautiful, same frame. I’d been wanting to do seasonal special effects in this greenbelt movie. I wanted to do spring, and six months later I wanted to do fall, and I wanted to try a long, long dissolve between the two. This was something that nobody else had tried. I just thought it would be beautiful, and in the East Bay parks with their fabulous, golden rolling hills, you could film a scene in the dry fall and watch it green up in the spring. All these things are in, now, the greenbelt film. It’s our seasonal special effects sequence, and Bob Walker did most of them.
By the time Judy found Bob, he was like the East Bay’s equivalent of historic photographer Ansel Adams. Bob had spent years photographing the natural bay area landscape, and was now an expert.
He had a good sense of where things were because he had been there. He had these huge maps, and he’d come home from every trip and he’d make little marks and little pinpoint areas.
He also cared deeply about the land. He’d take people like Judy, who were interested in his work, on walks through the scenery of his photographs.
He got so active, he would take folks to an area that he thought should be bought by the park district. Everybody would fall in love with this area, and then he’d give them postcards to write to the district. They would be stamped already. They’d write them. He started his own lobbying campaign to get these places bought.
This was Bob’s sales pitch: Isn’t this place beautiful? Wouldn’t you like to see it preserved? Help me make this public land.
And it worked.
He was always positive. He was always civil. He did make a lot of friends in the East Bay and he was responsible for a lot of land being purchased.
At the time, much of the land Bob photographed still belonged to private ranchers. But Bob’s charm, and the fact that he was constantly taking photos, made him unlikely allies.
He would go to the ranch house, he’d knock on the door, and he’d say, “Hi. I’m Bob Walker. I just took a picture of your ranch.” Or, he would do an aerial at that same beautiful time of day, of their land. They’d look at it and say “Wow, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I recognize that.” He’d say—I’m really shortening what his rap was—but, he’d say, “You really love your land, don’t you? You’d love it to continue to look like this forever, wouldn’t you?’ And they’d say, “Yeah. Come on in, have a cup of coffee.” He’d say, “Well, you should really consider selling your ranch to the park district because then it would be this way forever, and it would be a legacy. It would be your legacy and you could be proud of that.”
Little by little, Bob was collecting bits of land for the growing park district. Eventually Bob Doyle, the park supervisor in charge of purchasing new land, decided to hire him on as an official contractor.
Bob Walker just was constantly telling Bob Doyle, this ranch is for sale, that ranch is for sale. He was out there, walking around with his dog, and he often knew what was for sale before Bob Doyle did. So, that was Bob. He was really intense and focused.
There was a reason for Bob’s urgency.
He was in a hurry because he had known since 1985 that he was HIV positive. And so, he was on a roll. He wanted to save as much land as he could before he got sick. He just knew that the clock was ticking, and I wish I had that kind of fire under me all the time because I saw how much he got done.
I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”
In this episode, we’ll be exploring the connection between public and private land, and the communities that have formed out of this relationship. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.
I’m a Bay Area resident, but, like Bob Walker, I’m a transplant. I’m from New York, and I rode horses growing up. When I moved here six years ago, I was looking to start riding again. I began with a Google search. The first thing to pop up was a stable in Las Trampas. Right in my backyard.
I was surprised to learn that there was a stable so close to me, a short drive from my house in downtown Berkeley. I didn’t even need to cross a bridge to get there!
It turns out I’m not the first person to have thought about this. For 85 years, since its founding in 1934, the East Bay Regional Park District has become a sort of urban safe-haven for horse people.
Like Bob Walker and myself, Judi Bank was a transplant to California. She moved here in the 1960s. And, like me, she had been riding horses since she was a little girl.
Horses are very special creatures. …They all have personalities, and they’re all different, and they’re just wonderful creatures.
She made her way to the East Bay, where she rode her horse, Bucky, behind the Oakland Riding Academy, which was owned by another Bob – Bob Lorimer.
He had people boarding there who wanted a jump course. He had some sort of arrangement with East Bay Regional Park, but they basically went to the hill behind the Oakland Riding Academy. You’d sign a release. You’d pay him ten dollars. He’d give you the key, and you could go up there.
Eventually, Bob Lorimer moved, leaving the Riding Academy behind. That’s when Judi had an idea.
It was about that time that we needed a facility for this regional rally.
She wanted a place to hold a type of horse show called a three-day event.
Originally it was the test of a military horse, and there are three phases. One is dressage, which is fine control of your horse, and that would demonstrate that you could control your horse in a parade and in other maneuvers. Then the big part of it was cross-country, where you would go across rough terrain, you would jump strange fences, to show that the horse was bold and brave and fast, and would be a good field horse. You finished up on the same horse in the ring with knockdown fences, and that would show that the horse could represent this country in horse shows. Your whole score is compiled from the three phases, to get to the horse that had done the best overall.
She reached out to the park district.
We made arrangements with East Bay Regional Park to use it for a week.
A week turned into another week, and then another. Judi and her equestrian friends struck a deal with park district.
We went up there with the pony club parents, and we kind of cleaned up some of the fences. We brought in portable stalls that come in units of twenty, ten stalls on either side, and we put two of them on the longer court, and we put one out on the shorter court, so we were able to handle as many as thirty horses.
This newly improved area became known as the hunt field.
While the hunt field was being built, another mid-West transplant was discovering the wonders of horseback-riding in the east bay parks.
When I came out here, we looked for someplace where I could rent horses, and we found Las Trampas Stables, which is in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Park. They had a program where people could volunteer, clean stalls, feed horses, and trail guide, and get to go out riding.
That’s Becky Carlson. She moved to Alameda in 1983 during her enlistment in the Navy. She quickly began to volunteer at Las Trampas, the same place that popped up in my Google search.
Becky took every opportunity she could to get out and ride on her horse.
Casey, actually. She was a six-year-old quarter horse,
She and Casey went on long trail rides, exploring remote areas of the park district.
Well, Las Trampas actually had a number of set trails. They went out the Valley Trail and back along the Creek Trail, they went up Bollinger Trail and around on the hill, or up to Elderberry and down the center.
She volunteered with Las Trampas for 17 years, part of which was spent on the mounted patrol.
Malary Anderson was the police officer who was organizing that at the time.
Malary set up a series of obstacles for riders to pass to ensure that their horses could handle situations that might come up while they were patrolling the parks.
Malary insisted that it start off that everyone who is in the patrol first had to pass her entrance test with their horse. You had to open and close a gate. You had to pick something up, not necessarily from the ground, but somebody had to hand you something and you had to hand it back, from both sides of your horse. You had to mount and dismount from both sides. You had to do a trail ride with Malary, and do trail obstacles that were there, hills, doing hills in a safe manner, go up and down, going under trees and through brush, and that kind of stuff. She put down a tarp you were supposed to walk over, to go by the nasty plastic bags. You had to load and unload in a trailer. As she’d find things, she’d add them or take them away and whatever.
Becky tried to get another one of her horses, Whiskey, used to these obstacles.
What got me interested in that was my little Morgan. He needed a job. He needed a job badly. My little Morgan would never walk on the blue tarp. He looked at it and he said, “I don’t know what’s under that. I’m going around it,” and he walked around it.
Becky remembers the first time they took the test.
Whiskey, he failed. He failed miserably the first time we tried. She had plastic bags on a stick, and she was waving them, and he just went, cowabunga, goodbye, [laughs] said, “I was not going to be anywhere near that.”
They ended up passing the second time around, and together becky and whiskey patrolled desolate areas of the park.
If we went into Anthony Chabot we’d generally run into people, because that’s in Oakland and lots of people using that park. But, Las Trampas, unless you’re down in the valley, you very rarely see anybody, which is another reason for us to be there, because we were letting the park know what was going on in that park. There are places in Las Trampas I have been that I swear there has never been a ranger there.
While Becky was keeping an eye on remote parts of the park, Judi Bank was making progress on the three-day event with the park district.
I worked with East Bay Regional Park to make the jumps safe. I found telephone poles. We capped all of these stone structures either with a railroad tie or the telephone poles, and the wall we couldn’t do much about, so we made that an oxer, which means that we put a rail in front of it and a rail behind it so that the horse would jump the rails and not the wall. There was a nice variety of jumps up there. We had ditches. We had water jump. We had post and rail. We had banks. It was a great, fun place.
Judi had designed the jump course while her friends were recruiting riders to compete on it. They got sponsored by a couple professional organizations like the Metropolitan Horseman’s Association and the United States Combined Training Association. With this support, the events were official.
Never underestimate a small group of dedicated people.
These events brought together equestrians from all over the east bay.
I think at one point, Contra Costa County had the most concentrated number of horses [laughs] in the state, or something like that.
Riders like Judi and Becky had brought horse culture in the East Bay from a casual past-time to formal sporting event. But they weren’t the only ones embracing equestrian life. Horse sporting culture had begun to mingle with the existing ranch culture of the East Bay.
Don Staysa grew up in Livermore in the 1950s and remembers his first introduction to ranch animals.
Livermore, at that time, was basically an agriculture town, other than the rad lab, the Lawrence Laboratory. It was all farms and ranches surrounded the city. There was the stockyards, where they used to load the cattle on the trains, were right down on Main Street now, where Safeway is. That was all stockyards. We used to play in them when we were kids. I can remember the cattle coming in and every boy in the world was sitting on fences around like blackbirds, trying to see what was going on, look at the cowboys and the ranchers.
Don was fascinated by ranch life. His first jobs were picking hay, mending equipment and feeding animals.
I always worked outside with my hands. Nothing very glamorous; fixing fence and cleaning out stalls, but stuff that needed to be done. That’s basically was my childhood.
Don’s old school, raised on hard work. As he got older, he channeled the lessons of his early ranch experiences into another tough job: in the U.S. Marine Corps. He enlisted before meeting his wife Lynn.
Lynn’s brother was an amateur bull rider, a very good bull rider, and he talked me into coming to some jackpot rodeos with him. I don’t know if it was as luck would have it or bad luck would have it, I rode the bull and I really liked the excitement. It had flashes of the Marine Corps in it to me; the excitement, the adrenalin high. I thought, well, I’m going to take up this sport. I started riding amateur and jackpot bull riding.
Don hadn’t owned horses or cattle growing up, but he was used to being around them, and now he threw himself into rodeo culture.
Rodeo cowboy is a way of life. Rodeo cowboy and a ranch cowboy are to different things. Now it’s more prevalent, the distinction between them, than it was then because a lot of rodeo cowboys were ranch hands also. But, the rodeo has become a professional business, and now the cowboys—and I’m not saying that they’re not ranch hands, some of them—but a lot of them are just great athletes that participate in the sport.
And, in terms of athletics, Don was pretty good.
I thought maybe I could be good enough to make a living out of that. I talked to some big name cowboys, to one champion cowboy, “Would you take a look at me? I think I can make it on this, but I need you to tell me, give me the heads up, because I’m not going to continue to break my body up and not make a living.
He asked an older bull rider to watch and level with him. Could he do this?
“You know, you can win some money and you’ll do good around here in the smaller venue, but you can’t make a living off of it.”
It was a hard moment for Don, but one he’s grateful for looking back. Bull riding is a brutal sport, filled with broken bones and torn muscles — or worse. And he and Lynn were just starting a family.
I quit riding bulls, because I didn’t need it for that. I wanted to make a living which is probably why I can still walk. [laughter]
Don’s bull riding days may have been done, but that didn’t mean he’d given up on rodeo culture. He decided it was something he wanted to preserve for future generations.
I had rode in Livermore and knew some of the board members and ranchers that were on the board at the time, and so, I became a volunteer there at the rodeo.
Don joined the Livermore Rodeo Association — which got its start in the early 1900s.
During World War I, the Red Cross put a toll on each city that they had to pay a certain amount of money to provide the services for the boys over in France and Germany. Our town was small; a little agriculture town. They didn’t have any money. They put on a rodeo to raise the money, and that’s how our rodeo started.
Don loved that story — and that the mission the rodeo association represented. It was a way to raise money for the country, build community, and preserve local heritage.
We’re carrying on the tradition of what the rodeo was started for, and that’s important to me. We’re also providing history. We’re giving little kids a chance to see what the West was a little like, you know? They get around the animals, and we have our rodeo set up that there’s petting zoos, there’s contact with the cowboys and cowgirls, and it just—it’s a good way to give kids a different aspect of what life is, and I think it’s important to continue, especially when you’re getting into a bedroom community where you don’t get out, you don’t get to do this stuff. We give them a chance.
I can relate to this. Growing up, horses gave me a chance to get outside, build skills that shaped my identity, and become more confident in myself. It also gave me an opportunity to bond with horses, which are special animals. When I interviewed Judi Bank, she also said something that I could relate to.
Horses are wonderful animals for young people to learn how to take care of them, to groom them, to take care of them, to learn how to ride.
Talking to Judi and Don, I realized that it isn’t just about his or my or her childhood. They’re trying to preserve the lessons of animals, and land, and history for generations to come. The Livermore Rodeo just celebrated its 100th year anniversary — but Don says the work can’t stop there.
Well, everybody for the last twenty-five years have been working towards the 100th rodeo. I, on the other hand, have been working for the 101st rodeo, because the 100th is important, but what’s more important is that there’s a 200 year rodeo. I won’t be around, but I’ll be observing it, and I’m hoping that that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve worked for. I want my great grandsons and granddaughters to someday sit there on the rodeo grounds and say, “My papa used to be in this.” That would be worth every minute of the work I ever did. That’s what I’m hoping for.
The park district is now 125,000 acres and home to 73 parks. There’s hiking trails, there’s swimming pools, there’s camping grounds, and of course — there are riding stables.
Now, when I look at the landscapes in Bob Walker’s photographs, I picture horses dotting the hills. It makes me understand why this land was so sacred to him, and why he cared so much about preserving it.
Bob Walker succumbed to HIV in 1992 at the age of forty. But not before he helped the park district buy almost 40,000 acres of land. A month before he died, the park district renamed a section of the Morgan Territory “Bob Walker Ridge,” his favorite place in the district. His efforts in land preservation laid the groundwork for much of what we see in the park system today. He put it best in an interview for “After the Storm”, a book featuring his photographs.
“Find something outside yourself that is yourself,” Bob said. “Then devote yourself to it with all of your heart.”
Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and me shanna.
it features interviews with Judy Irving, Judi Bank, Becky Carlson, and Don Staysa that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!
by Shanna Farrell
During the first few months that I was settling into life in the Bay Area after moving across the country, I often listened to WNYC, a New York City-based radio station. One morning, as I was riding my bike to work, the host of their call-in show, akin to KQED’s Forum, announced the upcoming segment.
“What was better back in the day?” the host asked. “It’s an oral history of nostalgia, starring you. Tell us about what you think was better from a previous era, why you miss it, and whether you think it’s better because of nostalgia, or because things were, empirically, better back in the day. Call us or post below.”
My heart started to race. This call out felt so personal. They had gotten it so wrong. I pulled over and dialed their number. A producer answered, unaware of their error.
“I just heard your next segment is on the oral history of nostalgia,” I said. “But that’s not oral history.”
Confused, she asked me to explain what I meant. It was October of 2013, and I was fresh off earning a Master’s Degree in Oral History. I had spent a year taking method and theory classes, learning about what defines the discipline, exploring its boundaries. I had my interviews critiqued, my questions workshopped, and had been pushed to dig deeper into my research, all in the name of preparation. This felt dismissive of the work that we oral historians put into our interviews. It devalued the time (and money) that I’d put into my degree, and the job that I had just landed at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center.
As I tried to explain what oral history is and how what they were doing in this segment wasn’t it, I realized it would be impossible to fit into a two sentence elevator pitch. There’s so much that defines oral history, that makes it unique, distinct from other methods, that I could feel myself having trouble reducing it to something easy to pitch, just as they had to listeners.
Looking back on that moment, I wish I would have said that oral history is defined by the planning, the transparency, the collaboration, the recording, intersubjectivity, the preservation, the legacy. I wish I would have said that it could take weeks to carefully research and write an interview outline, hours to build rapport, and months to complete an interview series. I wish I would have said that it takes practice to craft questions and to listen in stereo, picking up on the things that aren’t said, and to be comfortable sitting in silence.
After I hung up the phone, I thought about why they called this segment “oral history.” I’m still thinking about it. The term became popular when magazines started running vox populi style interviews weaving together soundbites from different people to create a narrative. They ran pieces about the about the making of a movie, like Jurassic Park, or a TV show, like The Simpsons. Later, it became a household term when StoryCorps partnered with NPR to bring us our Friday driveway moments, produced from a carefully edited interview excerpt. Lately, it has seeped into literature. More and more, I see “oral history” to describe a work of memoir, creative nonfiction, and even fiction. Recently, I was reading the Sunday New York Times book review section and they positioned a new memoir as “part oral history, part urban history.” I couldn’t wrap my head around what this meant. How was it oral history? Had the author done interviews? How was this different from a regular memoir? And lately, I’ve seen a few journalists refer to themselves as oral historians without seeming like they have a solid understanding of what the term means, aside from it involving interviews.
Where does this lack of understanding stem from? Why is the term “oral history” battered around so easily? When did it first get misappropriated? The origin of the Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair versions are relatively straightforward, descending from the Jean Stein-style books like Edie: American Biography, which is constructed from interviews with people who knew Edie Sedgwick after her death in 1971, or books that recounted musical eras, like We Got the Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen (which also served as my first introduction to oral history when I was in high school) or Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. As for where the rest of it came from – like the recent trend in literature – it’s anyone’s guess.
I’m not the only one who has been noticing this trend. In 2014, the anonymous user @notoralhistory joined Twitter. For a while, they tweeted examples of people labeling articles or projects as oral history that were, indeed, not actually oral history. They now promote examples of oral history and engage in conversations around best practices. There are practitioners who also tweet bad examples of oral history, using #notoralhistory, which are often amusing, and then maddening, and then amusing again.
The problem with these mediums is that they can’t accomplish the same things that actual oral history does. These narratives just provide soundbites, while oral history gives us much more context. They don’t include any audio (or video), so we lose the ability to connect with a human voice. They are highly edited, whereas oral history allows people to speak in their own style. They are usually layered with other voices, instead of giving someone individual space to fully narrate their own story.
The link in @notoralhistory’s bio takes you to the Oral History Association’s website, to the page where they define oral history. Here, they share a quote from Donald Ritchie’s book, Doing Oral History. He writes:
“Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interviews are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”
Oral history can accomplish so much. It gives us insight into the past, hearing directly from the people who lived through various moments in history. By archiving the recordings, we can listen to how narrators tell their stories, and gain insight into why they told it this way. We can put a human face on history and learn from those who came before us. And, when oral history is done right, through careful preparation, research, and recording, we can ensure that these people are not forgotten, their stories not reduced to a soundbite.
It is with similar intention that we are devoting many of our articles this month that revolve around the boundaries of oral history. You’ll hear from us about our experience doing oral history and what makes it different from other disciplines and methods. We hope you follow along.
This project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes.
Nineteen ninety-two has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” a phenomenon in which a wave of women candidates swept local and national races for public office. California led this charge by becoming the first state in American history to be represented by two women senators—Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And since 2016—after a presidential election that provoked heated debate about gender discrimination and sexual harassment—many women stepped up to the challenge of engaging even more visibly in the American political system. Since then, organizations like Emily’s List and She Should Run reported record-breaking numbers of women who wanted to make their voices heard by running for public office.
And yet, 1992 was not the beginning of women’s political activism, but rather the culmination of decades of organization encouraging women to get involved and run for office. For generations, Bay Area women have built the foundations of political activism that span neighborhood organizations to support networks. And their stories inform our present.
In order to document these stories, I am developing the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project to record the history of these local women and their impact on and journeys through politics. The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley continues to preserve stories about California politicians, but this project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes. Documenting political engagement outside of traditional political venues will capture more stories about women in politics and a more diverse array of stories.
For instance, the pilot interview for this oral history project is with Mary Hughes, a Bay Area political consultant. In her interview, Hughes explained that “in politics and in political consulting, you either win races or you don’t. If you don’t win, no one hires you. If you do win, everybody wants to hire you.” Hughes’s successful career in the Bay Area spans decades and highlights the prominence of women in national politics. And though she does not wish to run for office herself, Hughes sees her role as someone who can best serve her community by managing the election process for political candidates—especially other women. Hughes’s recollections are an example of the kinds of stories that will drive this oral history project.
These long-form oral history interviews survey Bay Area political women’s backgrounds in and passion for political work through self-reflection. This format allows for comparisons between various avenues of political activism—like organizers and elected officials. It also reveals the importance of networks and mentors, and the impact they have had on women in the Bay Area political scene.
As engaged citizens, we need to know more about these women who helped create a space for themselves in Bay Area political life. Who are these women and what are their stories? From neighborhood organizations to national campaigns, what is the range of political activism in which these women engage? How has being a woman been a challenge or an asset to their political involvement? How have these women been working in the background of political life for generations? How does living and working in California affect political opportunities? What kind of political power do these women wield locally and nationally?
As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, conducting oral histories with women activists and politicians in California’s San Francisco Bay Area will help shape the national narrative about women’s historic, current, and future roles in American political life. Further, gathering firsthand stories will help inspire and instruct a new generation of politically engaged women.
In addition to collecting primary source materials, The Oral History Center shares its collection with the general public through interpretive materials—like podcasts—and educational initiatives. Recording the contributions of these impressive Bay Area women—political fundraisers, organizers, and elected officials—through life history interviews is the first step in developing curriculum for workshops that cultivate young women’s political leadership. These workshops will use oral histories as a tool to foster civic engagement across the political spectrum, as well as to help develop confidence and skills of future women leaders. We also plan to create a podcast, a series of public forums, and a museum exhibit featuring these interviews.
We are currently raising funds for this project, and need your help to undertake the expansion of this ambitious oral history collection. You can support this project by giving to the Oral History Center. Please note under special instructions: “For the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project.” To learn more about this project, please contact Amanda Tewes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-666-3687.
Amanda Tewes is an interviewer with The Oral History Center and specializes in California history and political culture.
The Oral History Center is a research program of the University of California, Berkeley. The OHC helps preserve contemporary history by conducting carefully researched video recorded and transcribed interviews. As part of UC Berkeley’s commitment to open access, archival copies of the audio/video and transcripts are placed in The Bancroft Library and are publicly accessible online.
Eleanor Naiman is a rising senior at Swarthmore College majoring in History. This past summer, Eleanor worked with historian Amanda Tewes of the Oral History Center on the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project. As an intern, Eleanor researched the contributions of women to Bay Area politics and assisted Tewes with her interviews. Here, Eleanor reflects on her internship experience in the Oral History Center.
Eleanor Naiman, 2019
There is a science to professional oral history. From start to finish, the interview process requires meticulous attention to detail and respect for technique, form, and skill. When an OHC historian sets off to conduct an interview, be it a conversation with a Bay Area political consultant or with a Connecticut anthropologist, she does so equipped with heavy black bags of tools and folders and parts that, to the untrained (read: intern) eye, might seem better suited for the high-tech activities of a secret agent than the practice of oral history. And yet, each cord, mic, form, and gadget plays an integral role in the interview process.
Over the course of my summer as an intern at the OHC, I’ve become better versed in this highly technical science of capturing a story. I’ve learned how to identify a potential narrator and with which forms to ask for her consent. I’ve spent long hours researching the entirety of her life, creating an outline of its twists and turns and of the people with whom it has come into contact. I’ve become a convert to the practice of the “pre-interview,” a conversation that allows the interviewer to check her facts and flesh out her timeline.
Even the intimidating black tool bags have become familiar. I’ve learned to unfold a tripod to just the right height. To angle a camera towards my narrator’s left cheek, framing her head from hair to collarbone and obscuring her lapel microphone. I know how to initialize an SD card; how to stop recording, then press power; and how to make the light in the room warmer or cooler based on the narrator’s proximity to a window. My technical skills are far from perfect, and it often takes me about five times longer to set up equipment than it should, but my fumbles and mistakes only reinforce my newfound appreciation for the complex science of oral history.
And yet, if oral history is a science, it is also an art.
I have learned that oral history, at its root, relies not on the positioning of the camera or the placement of the mic but on the strength of the trust carefully built by both historian and narrator during weeks of exchanges and phone calls preceding the interview itself. This trust is not quantifiable; a relationship, it turns out, is harder to assemble than a camera tripod.
I have learned how to speak my narrator’s language, repeating the terminology she’s used to reinforce her sense of ownership of her life stories. I know to follow the flow of her memories, asking open-ended questions that evoke the feelings she experienced in a time or place. I try to understand how my own biases inform my questions, and to consider how intersubjectivity influences the relationship my narrator and I can build. I have learned to listen more deeply than I ever have. Perhaps most importantly, I know to allow my narrator to guide our conversation as an equal partner in this history we’re creating together.
This summer I have become a techie and a philosopher, a stickler for spreadsheets and a careful listener, a more confident camerawoman and a historian never so acutely aware of all that she does not know. In short, I have become a scientist and an artist: an oral historian.
I first encountered oral history in my master’s program in history at California State University, Fullerton. I chose the program because it had strong public history training, but in my research about the school I discovered the pedagogy included something called “oral history.” I scratched my head at that, but added that information to a laundry list of graduate school problems labeled: “I guess I’ll figure it out when I get there.” After all, I wanted training to be a museum curator – and nothing else.
Things didn’t go according to plan.
My introduction to oral history was immediate. In my first public history course, a fateful assignment meant I needed to lead a small group discussion about oral history as historical evidence and as practice. My sense of oral history at the time was pretty limited to oral tradition: elders informally sharing knowledge about the past. My group consisted of undergraduates and graduate students who also had little to no experience with oral history, so we set out to discuss: what is oral history and what is its value to public historians?
We debated the reliability of oral history, given its dependence on memory and subjective experiences. We talked about how differing approaches to transcription shade researchers’ experience with oral history source material. We also questioned whether oral history had a place in public history writ large, or if it should be a separate discipline. And yet, we all agreed that it was important to record people’s life experiences, that their stories are inherently valuable.
I began the assignment deeply skeptical of oral history, but at some point during this discussion I found myself defending the practice because of the value of these alternate stories. In part, public history springs from an activist tradition hoping to recover pasts not about white male leaders, but of the everyday and everyman. With that framework in mind, I ended up posing the question: is oral history the most egalitarian practice in public history?
My argument was that much of the time museum exhibits are the result of so-called experts communicating history to the public; it’s an expensive and laborious process that doesn’t always involve the people who witnessed the history presented in the exhibit. But oral history, it’s different. At its core, oral history involves two people sitting down to chat using potentially inexpensive equipment to record their conversation. This process takes place outside the Ivory Tower and requires talking – and really listening – to people in your community, people whose lives and expertise have often been under acknowledged or completely overlooked. In theory, oral history can invert the power structure of just who is the expert. Unlike the rest of the historical profession, oral historians don’t just study the past, they help shape documents about the past by interacting with the people who lived it.
It was during this initial assignment about oral history that I began to question where oral history fits with other historical evidence. I eventually concluded that oral history is different from other text-based sources because it comes with a set of complications about collecting the information. And yet, oral history is also different because sharing human experiences through oral tradition is a powerful tool in making sweeping historical narratives personal and relatable – this connection to the past is difficult to achieve through census records.
It was through these discussions and further exposure to the value of first-person interviews that I finally resolved my questions about how oral history relates to public history. And oral history has become an important mainstay in my toolkit in my career as a public historian.
The Library recently acquired the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, a collection of unedited, primary source interviews with survivors and witnesses of genocide and mass violence. The bulk of the testimonies included relate to the Holocaust, as collecting these was the original purpose of the project. Now the archive has expanded to include testimonies from the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the Armenian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, the Guatemalan Genocides, the ongoing South Sudan Civil war, the Central African Republic conflict and anti-Rohingya mass violence in Myamar.