• Author John Freeman Interviews "Palestine Speaks" Editors

      Now up on McSweeney’s, John Freeman’s interview with the editors of Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation

      We wanted to do justice to the people who had taken so much time to share, not only very difficult stories with us, but also their humor and insight…As Americans, it’s tempting to shrug our shoulders and say what’s happening in Israel and Palestine is too complicated to engage with, but the truth is we’re major players in the conflict and we believe becoming more informed can only help everyone involved.

      Read the full interview here: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-interview-with-the-editors-of-the-new-voice-of-witness-book-palestine-speaks-narratives-of-life-under-occupation

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      Thank you to everyone who donated to our “Fund it Forward” campaign. With support from our community of donors, combined with a triple match from The Germanacos Foundation, we were able to raise over $47,000 for our oral history book series and education program. 

      If you’re wondering about Jamal, the Palestinian fisherman whose story was featured in the campaign, we just received an update from the editors of Palestine Speaks:

      We caught up with Jamal at the Gaza seaport in January 2015, in the midst of a bitter cold snap. He told us that the summer of 2014 was the hardest time he remembers in Gaza.

      “I didn’t leave my house during the war, as no place was safe. I was relying on humanitarian handouts to feed my children, and my house was damaged by the nearby airstrikes.”

      In July, four of his young cousins were killed in an airstrike while playing on the beach—a tragedy documented in international coverage of the conflict. Jamal’s boat was also destroyed in strikes. “I bought a new one, but I can tell you that this war has totally changed my life for the worse.”

      Still, on the day we spoke to him, the January cold snap had brought schools of sardines closer to shore. His catch that day was the largest he remembers in some time, and he estimated that it would be worth enough to feed his family for at least three months.

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    • Can We Teach Empathy?

      Editor’s Note: The bi-weekly blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.

      By Alisa Del Tufo

      Can we teach empathy? I have been exploring this question for most of my life. In 1991, I conducted an oral history project with 45 women who had been abused by their partners. The experience convinced me that empathy is born in that space where people truly share and listen to each other. As an educator, I wondered: How do we enable people to listen deeply? And how can we moderate those experiences so that they nurture empathy?

      Alisa Del Tufo, center, with storytelling workshop participants

      Questions about our empathetic capacities have interested humans for centuries. Today, we understand that human beings are actually wired for empathy, with vast networks of neuro-transmitters and mirror neurons supporting positive connections. However, our capacity for empathy is as much the result of our experience and practice as it is of our genetic makeup. Educators can enable this experience and practice. Some key elements in my own teachings include: 

      1. Safe Space: The environment supports my ability to be present, to listen deeply and to feel heard. I know that I have the power to share, keep private, or take back any part of my story.
      2. Deep Listening: I feel truly heard and not judged. I know that the act of sharing my story itself takes precedence over the final product.
      3. Reciprocity: Rather than one person holding all the power, the experience of storytelling is mutual; everyone has skin in the game.
      4. Continuity: I recognize the larger purpose for which my story is shared and that my story “belongs” to something bigger than myself.
      5. Action: An action highlights my connections with others in a shared world that needs our energy to make it a better place.

      We learn empathy when we experience connectedness and surface shared values. To that end, I started an organization, Threshold Collaborative, which designs learning opportunities and experiences to promote empathy. We piloted a project called A Picture is Worth in a high school in Reading, Pennsylvania. Although the students were initially resistant and nervous, they explored powerful life experiences that they had never shared, either because of shame or the belief that no one would be interested. What they once felt ashamed of became a source of solidarity and energy for action.

      Of course, a single class or even a personal experience might not increase someone’s “empathy quotient.” But I am convinced that, if we want to teach empathy, we need to first find and create opportunities that allow people to feel and share it. Oral history and story sharing offer meaningful ways to do just that.

      Alisa Del Tufo is the founder of Threshold Collaborative and an Ashoka Fellow. She works at the nexus of practice and policy with the goal of ending violence in the lives of women and girls and addressing other deep social challenges. She has authored two books on domestic violence and child abuse, taught at several colleges, and consulted with individuals and organizations using community engagement strategies.

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    • Story Behind "High Rise Stories" Cover Image Featured on NPR


      In 1993, photographer Patricia Evans took this photo of 10-year-old Tiffany Sanders. Almost 20 years later, Tiffany saw her photo on the cover of our book “High Rise Stories” and got in touch with Evans. This is the story of what happened in those intervening years. Check out this very cool multimedia project from NPR on the story behind this amazing photo here.

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    • A Tale of Two Everyday Heroes

      Editor’s Note: The bi-weekly blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.

      By Lisa Thyer

      Like any good English teachers, my colleague Mary and I were always looking for new ways to engage our students. Oral history seemed like a powerful tool: it would bolster our curriculums with non-fiction writing, allow students to engage with texts on a primary source level, and push them to practice listening, speaking, writing, and editing skills. More than anything, we were drawn to the social justice emphasis of oral history. At the very least, we reasoned, oral history would show our students that the skills we teach in our classrooms are only as valuable as the tasks to which they are applied.

      What we didn’t bargain for was just how far outside the classroom this lesson would extend.


      (English teachers Lisa, Mary, Amy, and the district Superintendent celebrate the grant that enabled them to invite Voice of Witness to their school) 

      After Voice of Witness Education Program staff conducted a workshop at our school, Mary and I asked our students to apply the empathetic interviewing skills they had learned. They conducted interviews and wrote an oral history essay about an Everyday Hero; those people whom Langston Hughes defined as, “The living heroes who are your neighbors—but who may not look or talk like heroes when they are sitting quietly in a chair in front of you.”

      Although the students enjoyed the project, it seemed like any other assignment until we received an email from a student after the passing of his grandfather: “When the class was assigned the interview project at the beginning of the semester, I interviewed my Grandfather. I am glad I did too, because I now have his whole life story because of it. My Grandfather really enjoyed reading that essay. Also, a good friend of the family read it at his funeral for me. Everyone loved it. I am glad I had the opportunity to do that project. So thank you for it.” 

      Our student’s simple thank you underscored the genuine impact of oral history in the classroom: personal connections to people and their stories can change us. Sadly, this realization took on a new meaning for me personally when Mary was hospitalized in the spring. After being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that required a liver transplant, Mary contracted an aggressive infection while awaiting her transplant and at the age of only 33, she lost her fight with her disease. Mary’s loss was devastating. Our students lost a beloved teacher, our school lost one of its most dedicated and passionate faculty members, and I lost one of my closest friends. In dealing with her loss, the students and staff turned to stories for comfort. We shared stories about Mary, her influence, her wisdom, and her love for education and life. 


      (Mary and Lisa)

      In memory of Mary, and in response to the outpouring of stories that helped to bring us together to heal, our school is in the midst of creating our own unique oral history project. What started as an isolated idea among a small group of students and teachers in the English and History departments has become a school-wide initiative. Thanks to the support of our principal and administration, we have begun to plan an oral history collection that seeks to foster empathy by building a connection between our history and our future as a diverse school and community. Ideas include interviewing staff, former students, and community members about their experiences of September 11th (when our school gained national attention for protecting our Middle Eastern students in the face of hate crimes), or the overwhelming student and staff response when Hurricane Katrina displaced a Stagg teacher’s family.

      And, of course, we plan to include the stories of those touched by amazing teachers like Mary. Perhaps, as we remember the legacies of those who came before us, we can also support one another as we build a stronger future. 

      Lisa Thyer is an English Teacher at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois.

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