An earlier version of this explanation — which is not original, but a distillation of what I’ve learned from many people over many years — appeared first on the website of the Texas After Violence Project, where I worked from 2007 – 2011. – virginia raymond
“Oral history” is one way to describe what we do, but we don’t see ourselves as “taking” or “collecting” oral histories, as though stories were things, objects that we go out and “get.” Yes, the process of oral history, or listening to narratives and recording them, often produces material things — transcripts of words, tapes, DVDs — but the process of the work is more important than its products.
We encourage people to speak their own truths.
We encourage communities to practice listening.
What the process of telling stories can do for us
People who survive difficult transitions or oppression — including migration or immigration discrimination, poverty, disrespect, violence or the loss of a beloved person — may experience a sense of radical disempowerment. Such events remind us that we are not fully in control over our own lives. Often, the legal processes that follow an act of violence reinforce people’s feelings of powerlessness. Such radical disempowerment, combined with grief, may under some circumstances, in some people, give rise to feelings of despair.
The act of telling a story can be a small reclamation of control in a person’s life. While we have limited control over what happens, we can claim more control over how we respond to events and what meanings we make of these events. Reflecting on traumatic events, telling stories or fashioning narratives, can help us discover or rediscover meaning in our own lives.
Stories are not magic. They cannot “fix” anything, they cannot undo irrevocable loss, and they cannot bring back someone who has died. Stories can, sometimes, for some people, contribute to the process of moving through grief toward the future. Picking up pieces of a radically altered or even shattered life, arranging the bits into a new mosaic, can help a person reconstitute herself or himself.
While telling stories, and experiencing someone listening carefully, may provide some relief and sense of control, these interviews are not counseling or therapy.
Listening for change
Sometimes we debate. We argue or give speeches, espousing one view or another. We “make good points” and people already disposed to agree with us applaud.
Sometimes we explain our own moral, religious, or ideological principles. Our strongly held personal beliefs, whatever they are based on, are important to us, but rarely move anyone who doesn’t share these beliefs and assumptions.
Sometimes we are silent, not knowing how someone else feels, or knowing that we disagree with one another, and not wanting to get into an argument.
Moving from debate to understanding
When we speak from our own experiences, we offer new information. No one else has walked in our shoes. When a person shares her or his personal experience, she offers a gift: a new perspective, a different lens on the world.
Speaking from our own experiences, and listening carefully to other people’s personal experiences, shifts the nature of an exchange between people from argument to exploration. Writing about alliance building, Ricky Sherover-Marcuse (1938-1988) recommended that each person assume that she (or he) is the expert on her own experience, and that she has information that other people need to hear. In effective alliance building, each person speaks from his (or her) own experience without comparing his suffering or trauma to those of other people (“Working Assumptions and Guidelines for Alliance-Building.”) Conversations in which people speak from their own experiences are more effective and constructive than those in which people make statements or, worse, generalizations about others.
Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller wrote a wise article, “Three strategies for successful conversations about Israel” that is useful for people trying to have effective conversations about anything. Saxe-Taller advises that people listen first, share information without trying to convince anyone of a particular course of action, and focus on personal experiences. If we follow her advice, we are likely to find ourselves taking part in more effective and constructive dialogue about other painful topics – such as violent crime and our responses to it.
If we want to understand each and other and move toward a just, joyful, and kind world, the question becomes: “How do we listen? How do we make it possible for another to break her silence?” Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978
Extending the possibilities of truth among us
Adrienne Rich explained that
When someone tells us a piece of the truth which has been withheld from us, and which we needed in order to see our lives more clearly, that truth may bring acute pain, but it can also flood us with a cold, sea-sharp wash of relief. . .
It isn’t that to have honorable relationships with each other, we have to understand everything, or tell each other everything at once, or that we can know, beforehand, everything we need to tell each other.
It means that most of the time we are eager, longing for the possibility of telling our truths to each other. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive. . That we feel strong enough to hear each others’ tentative and groping words. That we all know that we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between and among us.
The possibility of life among us.
– adapted from Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (1975).
Our work takes place at a delicate, fraught juncture of scholarship and intimate, even sacred, witnessing. At one level, we simply listen compassionately; on the other hand we document people’s lives, struggles, and accomplishments. It’s complicated.