by Allison Corbett
A year ago, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, I found myself in a gloomy Washington DC, bleary-eyed and downcast, on the eve of the National Women’s March. I was overwhelmed by our political situation. I wondered what on earth I should or could do to push back on the hate and regressive policies that came with Trump’s election.
As protests spread throughout the country and crowds of people swarmed JFK to shut down Trump’s Muslim ban, I was far from my New York City home and far from any of the ostensible sites of resistance featured on my newsfeed. I was shuttling between my parents’ home in Virginia and other parts of the country, conducting interviews for The Language of Justice, an oral history project that documents the stories of language workers and organizers that facilitate multilingual movement building.
I felt extremely blessed to be able to listen and learn from the stories of these narrators. In many ways I felt that I was right where I needed to be. Yet I was haunted by the contrast between the urgency I felt around the need for protest, political change, and resistance and the slow work that I was doing as an oral historian. In order to carry out this practice of listening and recording, I removed myself from these perceived sites of action. During the course of my interviewing around the country I became less itchy about all of the work that I was not participating in by virtue of doing this project, but I have continued to feel this tension. I wrestle with this question with renewed urgency—what is the role of an oral historian in working towards collective liberation?
This question necessarily asks us to examine our ideas of how change works. Healer, author, and movement facilitator adrienne maree brown suggests in her recent book, Emergent Strategy, that “What you pay attention to grows.” So what do we want to grow in our communities and in our movements right now? What does it mean to give so much energy to efforts born in reaction to this foul-hearted leader at the helm of our country? How does it shape our futures when we feel forced to respond to the pressure and pace of lightning-speed news, tweets, and executive orders?
It can feel like nothing we do will bring about enough justice quickly enough. But it is essential that we keep a dual focus and are able to think dialectically in this moment. We need (and owe much gratitude to) the people on the frontlines that are pushing back on the policies that are regularly being thrown at vulnerable communities, but we also need to be visionary.
As historical sociologist Immanual Wallerstein, asserts, “…people need to have less pain immediately.” Yet he reminds us, that that relief “doesn’t transform the world.”Lifelong thinker, organizer, and Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs says, “Every crisis, actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society. Going beyond protest organizing, visionary organizing begins by creating images and stories of the future that help us imagine and create alternatives to the existing systems.” It is precisely in this visioning process that we as oral historians can play a role. So the question becomes, how can we share stories, complicate narratives, and facilitate listening that assists in visioning to buttress the work being done on the frontlines?
At this year’s Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Minneapolis I was struck by the title of the plenary session, “Documenting Activism in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock.” What if instead of focusing our energies so much on declaring this the “Age of Trump,” we remembered that this is also the miraculous age of visionary movements? How can we, with our work as oral historians, lay the foundations for the world that we want to live in?
I was inspired to begin The Language of Justice because I believe that the work of creating multilingual movements models the world that I want to live in. Not only does having a multilingual space allow for the necessary work to get done by people in movements, it alters the way we relate to each other, our ability to listen to each other, thereby transforming us in the process of transforming our world.
Whatever form it takes, the work that oral historians do to advance positive social change and collective liberation should be rooted in the unique strengths of our discipline. There is no one path that is guaranteed to lead us to a more just future. The opportunities are countless and the entry points are multiple. As the saying goes, “to change everything, we need everyone.”