Counter-storytelling through oral history

Event Recap of Listening to History, 4/17/18

Driven by her passion for oral history and access, Joan Flores-Villalobos, a doctoral student fellow at the NYU Center for the Humanities, organized a panel of local oral historians to discuss the significance of oral history making and their specific projects around documenting personal stories.

For Cynthia Tobar, capturing oral history is a method of documenting social history and social justice projects. With her work on the Welfare Rights Initiative Project, Cities for People, Not for Profit, and Days of Resistance, Tobar documents activist organizations and communities.

Cynthia Tobar, Welfare Rights Initiative Oral History Project; Cities for People, Not for Profit: Gentrification & Housing Activism in Bushwick

These stories are “used to educate and empower,” Tobar said while explaining the role of oral history as a counter to deficit storytelling.

“[T]he notion of counter-storytelling […] is supposed to be amplifying and including marginalized participants, and can be used as a viable type of qualitative approach to enhance research status, analyzing challenges faced by activist groups.”

Cassie Wagler, a volunteer on the NYC Trans Oral History Project with the New York Public Library, emphasized the need to make these stories accessible to a larger audience:

“Archives of trans life and trans history are often not available to most trans people. They’re locked away in private institutions, they’re in libraries, but not available to most people at all.”

In making these personal stories accessible, the project is shared online with Creative Commons licenses. But Wagler also wondered, “how do you get to the point where people are pressing play?” As part of her work with the project, Wagler is producing podcasts as a method to showcase the stories in new forms.

Cassie Wagler, NYC Trans Oral History Project & Joan Flores-Villalobos, Ph.D. Candidate, African Diaspora History, NYU

With this project, the archive “is generated by a community… [it’s] a community documenting itself,” Wagler explained, emphasizing how developing such an archive with the community its capturing offers a sense of agency and empowerment. The panel’s final guest Charlie Uruchima found a similar impact in his work on Rimasun: Quechua Language Podcasts, a project developed with the NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Although the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, Quechua has been often marginalized and divisive. At the start of the project, Uruchima found it challenging to find willing interviewees. But the community of willing participants grew over time through word-of-mouth; it built on the momentum of interviewees feeling empowered to share their story in their own language — and wanting to hear others’ stories as well. Uruchima shared an anecdote of how one interviewee was particularly hesitant during her first interview, but later became the subject of a short documentary and started a Quechua collective in her community.

Charlie Uruchima, Rimasan: Quecha Language Podcasts

Following the project presentations, Tobar, Wagler, and Uruchima responded to questions from the audience that ranged from the impact of oral versus written history to questioning not just the access of the materials but who it given access to develop such archives. Hear the full event: