Oral history as both a methodology and as a practice seeks to document the stories, memories, and viewpoints of the people left out of archives and official records. As many marginalized groups and individuals can attest to, it is a rare experience to accurately represented official records are seen by some as objective and factual sources of information; however, these records are shaped by wider societal and economic conditions and are largely designed to prop up the dominant system’s ideology and agenda. Oral history has long been the primary form of historical documentation for many cultures across the globe; the written record’s accession to being regarded as superior to oral communication was largely concomitant with European colonization. The 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in oral history emerging in parallel with the civil rights movement and anti-colonial struggles. During this time, Paul Thompson and Alessandro Portelli concentrated on the history of working class people and movements in England and Italy respectively. Through their work, and the work of others, oral history demonstrates and documents the complexities of historical events; establishes working class, racialized, and other marginalized peoples as historical actors; and shows how the memory and interpretation of historical events are negotiated and change over time.
Today, groups like the Inheriting Resistance project created by the No One Is Illegal collective in Vancouver exemplify how oral history projects not only document political struggle but also create space for self-reflection and learning from each other. This kind of information and action is crucial to a movement’s vitality. In large part it is this self-reflection and storytelling that animates future struggle. The following roundtable brings together oral historians from across North America in a discussion of their work, experiences, and reflections on the practice of oral history.
Nassim Elbardouh is a member of NOII (Vancouver-Coast Salish Territories) and is one of the main interviewers in the NOII project Inheriting Resistance.
Sarah Loose is the director of the Rural Organizing Project Roots and Wings Oral History Project in Portland Oregon, a project which documents, analyses and shares the history of grassroots and progressive organizing in Oregon’s rural, small town, and frontier communities.
Dan Kerr, formerly a squatter in New York City, has worked on oral history projects with the unhoused since 1996. He is currently an Associate Professor at American University and a founding member of the Homeless Voices Amplification Co-op, which is facilitating the DC Employment Justice Research Project.
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