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Social Justice Task Force Commission Summary and Recommendations Report

Recommendations for Social Justice Oral History


The Oral History Council commissioned a Social Justice Task Force (SJTF) to better serve vulnerable communities and assist practitioners seeking to improve ethical and procedural standards that center the narrator. This report serves as a framework to clarify the meaning of social-justice-centered oral history and its practice from start to finish.

The SJTF composited a committee of oral historians who reflected diversity in race, gender, sexuality, age, region, and institutional/non-institutional affiliation. These participants translated their professional experience into a set of principles that embodied a more nuanced and complex outline of models for ethical practice. Although this outline appears to focus on a “social justice” format, it is important to acknowledge that it reflects the central nature of oral history work.

The Social Justice Task Force was guided by several essential questions which helped support its exploration of social justice oral history. What does it mean to conform oral history to those we study? How might our procedures, methodology, and intent change if we operate in conversation with the guiding principles of vulnerable communities and activists platforms? What does it mean to stop avoiding how oral history work is political, particularly with regard to social justice groups, and simply embrace this reality and act accordingly?

The SJTF answered these questions by first defining Social Justice Oral History by ethical and procedural focus on the narrator (concerns, vulnerabilities, and desires) and by a consistent effort to co-create and share power by upending notions that authority mostly resided in the interview process and its finalized outcome for future researchers. This recentering process required 1) enhanced listening that includes the interview and conversation beyond the interview, 2) redirection away from institutionalized ideological frameworks, 3) expanded community definition, and 4) extended accountability.

Power did not disappear with the disciplinary trend towards adopting interviewer-controlled principles of shared authority. Oral history demands interviewers listen to our narrators and communities. Additionally, SJTF defines listening as both shared story and project co-participation, requiring that interviewers and project leaders ask community members if they want inclusion within structure, preservation, access, usage, text, and multiple other areas of processes hidden and not hidden in oral history creation.

Enhanced listening nullifies academic monopoly. It centers the beliefs and/or needs of vulnerable communities over the interests and suppositions of “normalized” institutional practices. Academic acceptance, institutionally-driven oral history projects, funding fixation, preservation expectations, and researcher interest must be subordinate to community stipulations. Ethically-centered oral history projects avoid extraction, exploitation, and entrenched power structures. This extraction includes aspects of shared authority that are not actually shared but rather operate as preconceived and preconstructed interviewer/researcher-centric precepts. These researcher-centric precepts reflect in multiple ways, including permission forms that define narrator stories as secured contracts of ownership. Instead, community collaboration is a continuing relationship with an expectation of lifetime respect, active partnership, and lifetime free access with the narrator involving the life cycle of the interview.

The centrality of community collaboration directed SJTF’s considerations in defining community. The Oral History Association defines community as a group of individuals who share a collective geographic space, experience, or level of ownership of the content being shared. SJTF members, however, recognize the essential need to intentionally address vulnerable communities within these definitions to acknowledge the rights of persons impacted, connected, referenced by, or ancillary to oral history participants. The Belfast Project case demonstrates the obvious and pernicious dangers of narrowly defining constructs of community to active project participants. In this case, vulnerability should not solely have been a consideration for the individual narrator, but to all persons who knew, worked, and lived with the narrator. In this case, and reflected in much social-justice-centered work, vulnerability is collective as much as it is individual, and collaborators/power sharers must be active in raising questions of third-party representation and be prepared to respond to the residual factors which impact the extended community.

Finally, SJTF considered the question: What are oral history ethics without accountability? Lawsuits against Boston University forced the institution to protect the Belfast Project archives, thereby forcing a level of accountability to protect the participants. Yet, to a certain extent, the institution landed in this position because it ignored how oral history is touched by political realities. SJTF sees accountability as a protective pre-measure for vulnerable communities or cases that may involve state or societal harassment and violence. Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ communities are example groups which grapple with issues of protection around identity and activism. Some storytelling can make groups further vulnerable to surveillance, harassment, and other forms of violence. As oral historians, we must enter this work with that consideration, understanding potential consequences, and having transparent conversations with narrators and community members about this with their safety and well-being at the center. Additionally, this decision-making occurs within the context of an evolving relationship and that changing social and political contexts and concerns may invite a revisiting of these decisions.

Fundamentally, we believe that oral history must not only center the narrator, but that oral history work itself must be transformed and guided by the most vulnerable. Social-justice-based oral history reminds us to enact ethical oral history. As asserted by task force member Sherrie Tucker,

“We seek narrators not from the idea that their stories must be included in the historical record, but that the paradigms that excluded them in the first place are challenged and reshaped as a result.”


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE ORAL HISTORY

INTRODUCTION:

Recommendations follow a similar structure to Oral History Association’s Principles and Best Practices documents. The SJTF is not fanatically attached to this formula but utilized the most familiar framework to the institution’s online instruction and arrangement. It is important to note that SJTF views social justice oral history as much a process as an ideological standpoint. This process starts before a project idea and inculcates within project outcomes space for fluidity, flexibility, and timelessness. To that end, these categories are not hard boundaries.

BEFORE THE INTERVIEW:

Outreach/Relationship Building:

Outreach may take many forms, but interviewers should avoid moving from idea to implementation with little attention to relationship cultivation. Interviewers should also formulate and sustain a consistent relationship. Interviewers can build relationships with community members over an extended period or train community members to be their own oral historians. If interviewers lack such extended relationships, it is incumbent upon each person to immerse themselves in the literature, community, history, and/or culture of the designated narrators.

The outreach and relationship building process must address community concerns that oral historians authentically collaborate and work for mutual benefit, and it must clearly communicate to interviewees and other participants that oral history is not a transactional experience in which an interviewee gives and an interviewer receives.

Informed Consent:

Informed consent plays a key role in ensuring transparency. Here we suggest a more full-bodied approach to informed consent. This includes mutual understanding, review of privacy/access, shared power, and rolling consent, all of which are detailed below. However, it’s also important to recognize that not all communities view the consent process, particularly the utilization of forms, as acceptable format for establishing agreement or partnership. In these circumstances, oral historians and institutions must work with vulnerable communities to determine how to formalize oral history usage and preservation.

Mutual Understanding:

Narrators may not share similar notions about oral history, terminology, and/or the processes around its creation, usage, and preservation. This must ALL be explained, including but not limited to verbal description or written glossary of terms. (See attached for example template.)

Project Background Information:

Funding: Corporate, academic, and philanthropic funding shape oral history projects. These funding sources can direct narrator focus, geographical location, political impact, and bring up many other issues that create power conflict between funder, institution, narrator, and interviewer. Narrators and oral history project participants should be informed of participating funding entities involved in projects.

Project: Interviewers should provide professional, experiential, and project background and should inform narrators of intended and potential usage.

Outcomes: Interviewers should review with narrators possible unintended third party outcomes, dangers, or complications. They should also discuss preservation process and detail short- to long-term access options for interviewees.

Privacy and Access:

Narrators need a precise understanding of what access to their interview will look like, as well as consideration given to any third parties discussed within the recording. Anyone conducting or storing oral history interviews should take practical steps to guard interviews from unauthorized uses. Interviewers should also provide explanations on the security and preservation protection measures in place for interviews.

Shared Power and Rolling Consent:

The standard Deed of Gift both inherently assumes that the item should be given away rather than being a shared enterprise and presupposes a shared definition of “gift,” dictated by the receiver versus the giver. A narrator-centered oral history agreement shares power. Additionally, it follows a praxis of “giving” that is neither fixed nor an instrument that obviates the interviewer or institution from further responsibility to the narrator. SJTF recommends incorporating a higher degree of shared power along with what SJTF member Amaka Okechukwu termed “rolling consent.”

Rolling Consent:

The rolling consent restructures the fixed nature of the permission form by inserting a checks- and-balances that reestablishes or changes consent as requested by the narrator. These circumstances might occur, for example, due to technological and exhibition decisions not referenced or explained in the earlier mutual understanding. A changing social and political context may also influence a decision to limit or expand interview access. Outreach is repeated and reconfirmed.

Participatory Power:

Shared power introduces a thorough partnership, highly focused on narrator decision-making and concerns. This full-bodied agreement might exercise participatory power in multiple areas, including:

  1. Co-constructed consent and preservation form
  2. Automatic shared copyright
  3. Co-determined interview usage (rolling consent requires reconfirmation for interviews utilized outside mutual understanding)
  4. Co-created access levels centered on narrator, narrator family and associates, community, and then researchers
  5. Co-admittance (no firewalls) to all interview forms/outcomes for narrators, heirs, and other designated parties

DURING THE INTERVIEW:

Interviewers should review mutual understanding expectations, avoid jargon or academic rhetoric, and provide a copy of glossary terms related to the shared consent for the narrator’s records. (See attached template.) They should also give primary and secondary contact information should the narrator have immediate or future questions.

The narrator may share information which they initially intended to exclude. Interviewers should always make the narrator aware that aspects of the recording can be withheld temporarily or permanently, and they should remind narrators of the process for opening or closing private information.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW:

Interview Notes, Time Log, Transcripts:

Interviewer notes contain both the reflections of the narrator and the presumptions and/or assertions of how the interviewer understands the conversation. Though these materials are normally considered confidential and the possession of the interviewer, they ignore how the interviewer might act to usurp or ignore the narrator’s own understanding of themselves and what they say. Narrators should receive a copy of audio, transcript, associated notes, time log, and proposed index to allow for clarification, challenge, and alteration to incorrect or unclear information or perspectives. While interviewers may wish to highlight or focus on a particular subject matter, the incorrect structuring of the log outline might mislead the researcher about narrator’s point, focus, or intent.

Preservation

Decisions regarding preservation and archiving practices occur before the interview. Follow-up after the interview involves confirmation of these choices and a review of access policies both long-term and on a revolving basis. Considering that circumstances change for both parties (oral historians and institutions), a framework should be created which allows for free accessibility despite changes among persons or spaces.

Interpretation 

Other considerations include opening projects to community collaboration on interpretation, dissemination, and presentation of oral history interviews. Considerations should also include how oral history projects operate not only to preserve history but as a working tool for aiding community efforts for social justice.

Protective Considerations:

Surveillance and state or institutional retribution present complicated legal and ethical challenges to interviewers, institutions, and narrators. After narrators are informed of these possible implications, the interviewer and institution should address the issues of access, record keeping and disposal procedures, identity protocols, confidentiality protections, etc., and they should be addressed within the context of mutual understanding and participatory consent. Protective methods might include:

  1. Collection Restriction- limiting or closing collections for a specified period of time.
  2. Digital firewalls – This may require specific data security procedures to ensure that the information cannot be accessed, except by the oral historian or other authorized parties. Narrators should feel empowered to ask about security measures that may be employed during and after the oral history project if their interviews are online.
  3. Explaining that oral historians and archives do not have any special legal privileges or protections to withhold information about criminal activity. In the event of a subpoena, the institution would be obligated to turn over any records or information in its possession.
  4. Using pseudonyms. In such cases, the oral historian should use only the fictitious name when referring to the narrator during the interview or in any related materials, such as transcripts, notes, finding aids, or publications.
  5. Reviewing project release dates and considering embargo time frames to reduce potential harm.
  1. Discussing protections for potential impact on family members, references, associates.
  2. Limiting public marketing.
  3. Setting aside protocols for disposal and destruction of materials utilized for harassment of interviewees.
  4. Providing legal assistance/consultation for individual participants left open to political harassment due to oral history interview raids.

Sustained Relationships

If moving on to other projects, the interviewer should consider returning to former narrators or inviting them to events for other successfully completed oral history projects. This can also include community member requests for the researcher to participate in public and private work (events, consulting, formal and informal opinions on matters). Some of their asks may be contingent on the “after” rather than the “during” of an interview.

CONCLUSION:

The SJTF does not presume to offer a comprehensive approach to social justice oral history. Instead, we reframe oral history to embody the spirit of resistance reflected in/by those whose story we presume to preserve. We think about what it means to not only do oral history on social justice but also to do oral history in the spirit of social justice, in shared power and accountability.

Special thanks to our reviewers: Wesley Hogan, Malinda Lowery, Nepia Mahuika, Sarah McNamara, and Yuri Rameriz. Final thanks to Voice of Witness, the New Zealand Oral History Association, and Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change, whose ideas and spirit of true oral history are reflected in this document.

Submitted by Co-Chairs:
Nishani Frazier and
Cliff Mayotte

and

SJTF Committee Members:
Anne Balay
Christy Hyman
Sarah Loose
Sarah Milligan
Amaka Okechukwu
Sherrie Tucker
Tara White