The VOW Story Lab is the first phase of the newly-initiated VOW Story Fund, which provides storytellers working in the field of human rights with holistic support for oral history projects that amplify the voices of people directly impacted by contemporary human rights crises.

The Story Lab consists of a 3-month incubation period during which human rights storytellers will receive:

  • oral history training
  • editorial guidance
  • and a small project stipend to support the development of oral history narratives.

Select Story Lab participants will be awarded VOW Fellowships to support the full development of their project into a VOW book through the VOW Story Fund.

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We envision the VOW Story Fund as an ongoing opportunity for human rights storytelling.

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INCUBATING NOW

Editor: Jimmie Briggs

Since the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown during a fateful encounter with police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri has come to represent a nascent moment in the history of the movement for racial civil rights in America. Slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and others tied to Michael Brown’s killing are now part of a bigger lexicon of charged phrases meant to galvanize attention, mobilize action, and foment discontent.

Yet, Ferguson was a community in crisis long before Michael Brown’s birth. Since his death and the semi-regular community mobilizations recognizing it, the community continues to struggle with a pernicious trans-generational legacy of violence, trauma, and social paralysis.

The Ferguson Moment will return the people who live in and around the town to leading roles in their own story. Activists, pastors, police officers, sports coaches, elected officials, retirees, teachers, social service agents, academics, journalists who covered Michael Brown’s death and the community aftermath, as well as businesspeople who lost their livelihoods during civil unrest will all be represented. The project begins by asking: How and why did the history of Ferguson’s residents and Ferguson’s evolution as a community spark the public protests there in response to the death of Michael Brown?

Read a Q&A with the editor here.

Jimmie Briggs is an award-winning journalist and human rights advocate who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.

Editors: Steven Mayers & Jonathan Freedman

According to the Migration Policy Institute, “The number of unaccompanied children crossing the US-Mexico border increased 90 percent between 2013 and 2014.” The total number that crossed the border in 2014 is estimated at between 60-90,000 children. Many of these youth are held indefinitely within detention centers in the United States and sent back to their home countries, where they often face threat of death by gangs, as well as severe poverty.

During the civil wars, all sides committed atrocities. Thousands of refugees fled from Central America seeking asylum in the United States. In an escalating human tragedy many refugee children, who had witnessed massacres and atrocities, were relocated in gang-infested streets of Los Angeles. They developed fierce gangs of their own—18th Street and Salvatrucha—that terrorized the barrios of LA.  Hundreds of gang members were deported back to Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In impoverished homelands, the gangs have grown into full-scaled crime organizations that have kidnapped, blackmailed, killed and taken over neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Solito, Solita (Alone, Alone) aims to shed light on the ongoing abuses that tens of thousands of child migrants from Central America—particularly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—face every year while attempting to seek refuge from life-threatening conditions in their home countries. From extortion and the dangers they face hopping cargo trains, to their dreams for the future and the realities of their arrivals, we hope to bring to readers the stories of this largely unheard population of young migrants.

Read a Q&A with the editors here.

Jonathan Freedman is a journalist, author, and educator who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorials advocating for justice for undocumented migrants. Steven Mayers is a San Francisco-based educator and researcher who works with migrant communities as an oral historian and English professor.

Editors: Taylor Pendergrass & Mateo Hoke

America currently holds more prisoners, and more prisoners in solitary confinement, than any other country in the world. Popular perception is that isolation units house the United State’s worst criminals, violent prisoners who cannot be dealt with any other way. In reality, solitary control units are often filled with the most vulnerable prisoners—including the mentally ill, disabled, elderly, transgender individuals, and juveniles.

Though recent research has led to a better understanding of the short- and long-term ways isolation psychologically affects individuals, little information exists on the damage of solitary confinement that reaches beyond prison walls into homes and communities.

The narratives of Solitary Voices explore solitary confinement’s far-reaching consequences within the United States. The project begins by asking: Who is impacted by this practice, and how? With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Solitary Voices will tell stories that come from all facets of America’s solitary experiment, and offer readers an intimate look at the ways solitary confinement affects individuals, families, and communities throughout the country. Narrators will include men, women, and children who have experienced solitary confinement in the United States, family members of those locked away and unreachable, and prison staff who have worked in solitary units.

Read a Q&A with Taylor Pendergrass here.

Taylor Pendergrass is a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. Mateo Hoke is co-editor of Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Editor: Sara Sinclair

What is it like to be a citizen of a nation within another nation whose dominant social, political, and economic interests are fundamentally at odds with your own?

Native people have been moved off their land, assimilated, and even killed. Meanwhile, narratives in which indigenous peoples are invisible continue to facilitate their displacement. North American historical accounts too often exclude indigenous peoples, treating them as peripheral to the continent’s history. In reality, centuries of policies designed to demolish tribal governments and identities have left Native people throughout the United States and Canada reeling.

The stories in How We Go Home aim to open readers’ eyes to the myriad human rights violations experienced in Indian Country today. Narrators provide insight into reservation life: the connection between people and their ancestral lands; the collective heritage of displacement and forced assimilation carried in the people’s collective memory; and the on-going human rights violations rampant in Indian country. Despite the dire conditions that many Native North Americans live in, these interviews illuminate Native society’s incredible capacity for resistance, for healing, and for survival.

Read a Q&A with the editor here.

Sara Sinclair is an oral historian of Cree-Ojibway, German Jewish, and British descent, and a graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program.

A partnership with IDEX

Food sovereignty is the right to choose what food we eat, where it comes from, and how it is grown. It is an issue of fundamental rights and autonomy, but our current global food system, dominated by corporate-driven agriculture practices, pushes out small-scale farmers and aggravates our shared climate crisis.

Issues of food sovereignty are often framed by focusing on problems related to food production without offering many productive solutions. The story not being told is that men, women, and youth at the local level are creating ways to transform our food systems for the better. Around the world, these individuals are encouraging sustainable and organic food production methods, organizing to sell their products collectively for fair prices, and lowering costs while improving the quality and quantity of their yields.

Holding Our Ground: Voices for Food Sovereignty will explore lives that exemplify ways that swimming against the tide—for example, supplying and demanding healthy and sustainably-grown food—is possible for us all. Narrators include the leaders of grassroots, community-led projects and movements in South Africa and Zimbabwe, particularly women, youth, and indigenous people. They are not only directly impacted, they are the protagonists of the stories themselves, awakening their families and communities to the promise of food sovereignty.

International Development Exchange (IDEX) is a non-profit that has supported more than 500 grassroots, community-led projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Annually, IDEX’s partners serve approximately 1.2 million people in impoverished communities, including marginalized women, small farmers, indigenous communities, low-income urban residents, sexual and ethnic minorities, and youth.

 

Editor: Gabriel Thompson

“The life of a migrant farmworker can be punishing. I’ve interviewed families forced to squeeze into cramped and drafty garages, women who have been sexually harassed by supervisors, and children who have passed out in the fields from heat stroke. Wages for farmworkers average around $15,000 a year, and seemingly minor setbacks—a sprained ankle, a broken radiator—can quickly turn into emergencies.

The life of a migrant farmworker can also be joyful. I’ve seen men and women belt out songs at 5 am in a frigid bus, listened to others share jokes and tacos during lunch break, and interviewed a beaming lettuce worker who described, for more than an hour, the many factors one must consider when placing the initial cut to separate the head of the plant from its root. ‘It takes four or five years just to begin to understand lettuce,’ he told me.” —Gabriel Thompson, author and journalist

This project will embrace and explore this complexity, using the intimate perspectives of farmworkers—and those within their orbit—to reveal this largely ignored world. There is no shortage of issues: wage theft and sexual harassment; pesticide exposure and the lack of healthcare; the struggle to find affordable housing; the special vulnerabilities of the undocumented; the drought. The book will be guided by two overarching questions. First, how do these challenges impact, in specific ways, the lives of California farmworkers? And in what ways do farmworkers, despite such hardships, sustain themselves? Put another way: what formal support systems or protections are missing, and what informal systems have farmworkers developed in response? This approach avoids the too-common tendency to view farmworkers as a nameless mass of misery and to instead view them as one would anyone else—as people faced with unique challenges, but who do their best to get by, often displaying bravery, ingenuity, and solidarity.

Featured narrators will also include those who are intimately linked to farmworkers, such as growers, Migrant Education workers, and others.

Gabriel Thompson is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. He is the author of several books, and has written for Harper’s, New York, Slate, Mother Jones, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Nation.

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If you are interested in supporting a specific project, please contact our executive director Mimi Lok.