Everyone has a story, and for more than 20 years I have been working in communications for social change and listening to workers tell theirs. Piece workers on Long Island, doormen in Manhattan, security guards in D.C., office cleaners in Pittsburgh, 9/11 first responders at the World Trade Center, registered nurses on Staten Island, and many others have shared some of their experiences with me. And, in turn, I have helped to share their stories in the dozens of magazines, newsletters, reports, and campaign materials that I have written, art directed, and project managed as a part of collective efforts to help working people win workplace rights, improve conditions on the job, and have a greater say in public life. My current and recent clients include 32BJ SEIU, Amalgamated Bank, the Building Service 32BJ Benefit Funds, Freelancers Union, the New York Preservation Archive Project, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and The Rockefeller University.
I am most interested in our shared efforts to make the world a more just place. I studied oral history (and in May 2015 earned an M.A. in it from Columbia University) because I wanted to learn the newest methods in the oldest of traditions: listening to people share their experience. Life stories are about understanding the past, to be sure, but they're also about shaping the future. Oral history helps ordinary people (Studs Terkel called us the "etceteras") put ourselves directly on the record. That by itself is important, but listening to life stories also is a way to imagine a brighter day and sharing those stories is a way to push for change.
One of the things I love about oral history is that it’s communal. By definition, you can’t work alone if your work is about listening to people. In this way, oral history mirrors all efforts at social change and, of course, life itself. It’s not only better with other people, it’s impossible without them. Social justice may be a forever project, but together we can keep bending that arc of history while we find strength in one another and have some fun as we go.
On the subject of fun, I recently was the storyteller at a conference at the U.N. on sustainable energy for all; I am a member of the Field Research Team of The Civilians, which uses interviews to create original theater; and I am on the board of the New York Labor History Association, which is dedicated to remembering working-class history and using that history to inform efforts to make the present better. I also have a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers University and, with funding from the National Science Foundation, I used union records to write about the community orientation of the garment workers' unions in 20th century New York. After that, I chose to be in the activist world rather than keep studying it.
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Top photo: A visitor listening to an audio story from "Paying Respects," an oral history project about Hart Island by Leyla Vural at "Then, Now, Next: Oral History and Social Change," an interactive multimedia popup exhibit curated by the students and faculty of the Oral History Master of Arts Program at Columbia University, April 2015.