Everyone has a story, and I have always loved to listen to the rich tapestry of experience that people share if given the chance. That’s why after more than 20 years in the labor movement, I returned to school to earn an M.A. in oral history at Columbia University. I wanted to learn the newest methods in the oldest of traditions: learning about the past by listening to people. Today, I conduct oral history interviews that focus on the unique knowledge we each have about the places, communities, and experiences that matter to us. I interview to build archival collections for future researchers and I edit interviews (into short films, audio pieces, and written pieces) to share them with a broad audience.
As of this writing (April 2019), I am conducting an oral history project about neighborhood change in New York City’s Upper West Side for the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District. And in an ongoing oral history project for The Rockefeller University, I am interviewing preeminent scientists about their lives and the ideas that informed their groundbreaking work. I edit each four-to-five hour interview into a short film intended for the public.
I was a member of a small interview team for the Stonewall Oral History Project (funded by the National Park Service) that has just completed several months of interviewing LGBTQ New Yorkers about their lives and the evolution of the gay rights movement in New York. Some of my other work has included interviewing neighborhood activists in working-class communities and communities of color for the New York Preservation Archive Project; three weeks (in 2017) in Sligo and Donegal, Ireland, interviewing two dozen folklorists, musicians, craftspeople, and historians for a series of cultural audio tours; and interviews with key figures in the workers’ rights movement for the Service Employees International Union and Amalgamated Bank.
I also speak at conferences and conduct oral history workshops. A roundtable on editing oral histories that I was part of and a talk I gave at the “Dangerous Oral Histories” conference in Belfast were written about this year. And the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College selected my 2016 piece on ethical listening as a “favorite essay.”
Oral history is, to me, a small d democratic tool. The very act of listening attentively to people, be they what Studs Terkel called “the etceteras” or leaders in their fields, recognizes that we’re all makers of history with something worthwhile to share. 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. Life stories can nurture empathy and help us build a shared vision for the future. They can be instruments of insight into what a place, time, or set of ideas were once like. They can be a record of change. And no matter how hard things may have been, by capturing the full scope of a person’s life, they also can be a record of good times and, even, fun.
On the subject of fun, I was the storyteller at a 2016 conference at the U.N. on sustainable energy for all; for three years, I was an interviewer for 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, used union records to examine the community orientation of the garment workers' unions in 20th century New York.
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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.