Tag Archives: oral history

Radical Oral Histories

By: Amanda Knox, Assistant Archivist at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women

Dispatching from an unusually cluttered dining room in Attleboro, MA

Photo of Amanda Knox capturing the oral history of Diane Straker, Administrative Assistant at the Pembroke Center, in January 2020. Both are seated at a table with shelves of file boxes behind them.
Photo of Amanda Knox collecting the oral history of Diane Straker, Administrative Assistant at the Pembroke Center, in January 2020. Photo taken by Martha Hamblett, Programs and Stewardship Coordinator at the Pembroke Center.

When the Pembroke Center Oral History Project began in 1982 it was a way for women to ensure their stories would become and remain part of Brown University’s historical record. At that time, oral histories were largely discredited as scholarly sources. For the most part, anybody can “do” oral history; you really only need a recording device and someone willing to share their story. It was radical for the alumnae to believe their stories were valuable. It was radical for the Pembroke Center Archives and the Brown University Libraries to add those stories to the collections and make them available for research. It was radical for the Pembroke Center to change the name of the project, formerly known as Brown Women Speak, in order to be more inclusive and steward stories from trans and non-binary members of the community. Today, it feels radical to continue our oral history work through the COVID-19 global pandemic and fight for racial justice.

To date, Mary Murphy, the Nancy L. Buc ’65 Pembroke Center Archivist, and I have collected over 40 interviews with students, staff, faculty, and alums, who have wanted to talk specifically about their experiences with the pandemic and subsequently about their experiences at the recent protests against racism and police violence. Over thirty of these interviews are currently on the Pembroke Center Oral History website, including interviews from Soyoon Kim ’19, Virginia Thomas ’20, and Sara Matthiesen ’15, all of whom have connections to the Sarah Doyle Center.

Soyoon thoughtfully discussed her work as a Program Coordinator for the Global Brown Center for International Students. She recalled a panel of health experts who initially were not concerned about the virus spreading out of Wuhan and she also recounted assisting international students with their transitions off campus. At the end of her interview, Soyoon said, “I myself, Soyoon Kim, feel very lucky and privileged and so grateful for the support, the network of support that I have at Brown, in my physical vicinity with my housemates, with my partner, and with family back home.” After her interview, I was left with these words and the reminder to recognize and appreciate the outstanding community I am also privileged to have.

To that end, Virginia Thomas addressed concerns about the trajectory of higher education and the strength and resilience of the students in her “Queering Oral History” course. We had a wonderful conversation about interviewer-interviewee dynamics, the ways in which socially distanced interviews can impact the story an interviewee shares, and the power of capturing LGBTQ history through individuals’ stories. When I asked her what she would want listeners to know tomorrow and 50 years from now, she said she wants them to know they’re not alone. Members of the LGBTQ+ community can often feel alone and isolated on the best of days. Under today’s circumstances, these feelings can be and are exacerbated. Virginia reminded me to think beyond myself and my own feelings, to reach out to friends and those acquaintances who were about to be friends before we all had to part, in order to do my part to reduce suffering. 

Additionally, Sara spoke about her experiences as a professor and as an activist during this time. She commented on protests she participated in, media coverage of the pandemic, states’ legislation on access to reproductive healthcare, and rights and resources for essential workers. She emphasized that “every political effort and social movement was fighting for a thing that seemed impossible until it wasn’t.” This is another statement I have not been able to forget since interviewing Sara at the beginning of May. Making it through this pandemic may seem impossible, but one day it will just be something that we all did. At one point, it seemed impossible for oral histories, particularly those from women, trans, and non-binary people, to be recognized as legitimate records. Today it is my charge to actively collect them and make them available, in part because they are in such high demand.

Over the course of my time at the Pembroke Center I have listened to well over 200 interviews. Many, like Soyoon’s, Virginia’s, and Sara’s, have left a lasting impact on my heart and my mind. My hope is that you, too, will listen to these stories from members of your community, find inspiration from them, and know that your use of them is a radical act.