The power of oral history: lecturer emphasizes role of the past in social justice

Amy Starecheski believes that oral history can “change the world.”

She visited the college Monday to present on the importance of oral history and its many uses. Co-Director of Oral History MA Program at Columbia University, Starecheski discussed oral history’s usage in social justice movements. She began her talk by asking the audience to turn to the person or people next to them and find one thing they all had in common and one thing that was different between them. Audience members then shared similarities and differences found between their groups.

“Oral history in the way that I was trained to do it is a research practice that comes out of an academic, library-focused, historically grounded methodology and way of thinking about the world. But over the course of the 20 years that I’ve been working with oral history I’ve come to realize that that is really only one part of a much larger set of history-making practices and all different kinds of ways of talking about and learning about the past,” Starecheski said.

Starecheski then provided various examples of how oral history has been used as a “tool for social justice work.”

The first oral history project she shared described a project from the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Making and Saving History at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. According to Starecheski, the project came about because UNC Chapel Hill was encroaching into a historically black neighborhood and people were being displaced. When some of the faculty at the university became interested and wanted to be supportive, they started working with people in the community to develop a response and started off by doing oral histories.

“The people in the neighborhood started to become more consciously self-aware of the tools they already had for organizing and the history that they had of successfully organizing and the importance of particularly their civil rights history,” Starecheski said.

According to Starecheski, the people conducting the project were able to use the oral history interviews to help communicate with people back at the university.

Another project Starecheski shared was called Rural Organizing Voices, which she described as a project from the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), a grassroots organization that works out of rural Oregon.

“They brought in an oral historian to do interviews with long-time members to help create a process for passing on the decades of knowledge about how to successfully organize in rural communities to a new generation of activists,” Starecheski said of the project.

Starecheski then showed a video in which a member of ROP told a story about an organizing effort that involved white women and Latino men working together as security on a project.

“A bunch of middle-aged white lesbians and a bunch of Latino men are not going to be able to get along and do security on this work, and that was the first thought in my head… and I was wrong. It was a beautiful experience,” said the subject of the interview in the video.

The talk from Starecheski was sponsored by the Friends of Skillman Library, the Lafayette College Queer Archives Project, Women’s & Gender Studies and the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium Mellon Grant.

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