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    • Salon.com Interview with Dave Eggers and Mimi Lok

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      Some were mysteriously scooped up for crimes they had supposedly committed. Others lived in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans. Still others – like the teenager in East Harlem who woke up to find FBI agents with loaded guns in her family’s apartment — saw parents or spouses dragged away with little explanation. There are confounding and engaging stories from all over the world in the Voice of Witnessoral-history series McSweeney’s puts out, all of which try to give the rest of us a fuller and more human sense of what’s going on in the world. “To read a Voice of Witness book,” short-story master George Saunders says, “is to feel one’s habitual sense of disconnection begin to fall away.”

      San Francisco-based McSweeney’s has just put out a selection of its previous books – which include “Surviving Justice” and “High Rise Stories” — called “The Voice of Witness Reader.” We spoke to executive editor Mimi Lok and Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s founder and editor of the new volume.

      Read the interview here.

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    • I Am Not My Parent’s Mistakes: Stories from Children of Incarcerated Parents

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

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      Sophie Edelhart is a student at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. Sophie’s senior project centered on creating podcasts featuring oral history interviews with children of incarcerated parents. She partnered with Community Works and their program Project WHAT! for her project.

      Why Oral History?
      I first got interested in oral history when I was assigned a “This American Life” project in my junior year of high school. The assignment was to develop a podcast around a theme and use interviews, narration, and music to create a 10 minute long piece. My group decided to focus on our school. More specifically, my group focused on the tension between our mostly white, Jewish private school located in the middle of a predominately African American, low-income neighborhood. We learned a lot in the process just by going out and talking to people. We learned more than we intended to and I really fell in love with the process of interviewing.  I particularly took to the editing part of the project and piecing together a narrative with multiple voices. It made me want to continue to try and do more with the medium, so when it came time to come up with my senior project, I decided to make a podcast. I find oral history appealing because having someone talk about their experiences in their own words provides a dimension to storytelling that I think is essential to understanding someone’s own perception of an event. That’s really invaluable when you’re trying to empathize with someone and learn new things.  

      Podcasts + Oral History
      For the past two years I’ve been a Mayoral Appointee on the San Francisco Youth Commission, a body of 17 young people who advise the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on issues affecting youth in San Francisco. Last year, I was chair of the Youth Justice committee, which is a specific issue-based committee that focuses on youth in or affected by the justice system. It was through that position that I began to work with Project WHAT. Project WHAT is an organization composed of children of incarcerated parents who advocate for better policy and services aimed at the children and families of those who are incarcerated. During our yearlong partnership with them, I got the opportunity to hear some of the youths’ stories. It made me realize how pressing these issues are, how little attention they get, and how important it was to hear those stories from the youth themselves. It was then that I decided I wanted to try and find some way to get these stories out in the world, so I decided to make a podcast.

      I chose the medium of podcasting because I think, as opposed to other mediums, it really requires the act of just listening. Listeners have to focus on the words being spoken instead of on visual aids or explanations. Podcasts are especially conducive to oral history for that reason. I feel the goal of an oral history is to help others listen and truly hear what another person has to say; podcasts require people to dedicate their attention to the storyteller.

      When I decided that I wanted to make a podcast, I began looking for resources to help me with the interview process as well as the editing process. My advisor, Roni Ben-David, put me in contact with Claire Kiefer from Voice of Witness. I met with Claire at the beginning of my process and she gave me a ton of advice on conducting interviews and making questions. She really helped me realize that my goal as an interviewer was to guide conversation, not dictate it.

      Not Just a Number
      The most interesting thing that I learned during this project is that no two experiences are alike. I interviewed five youth and all five had different personal experiences. Parental incarceration definitely carries some stigma, and people assume certain things about what that experience must be like. Some youth wanted to rebuild their relationship, some didn’t. Some youth knew their parents before their incarceration, some didn’t. Some youth feel their parent’s incarceration heavily impacted their life, some didn’t. Going through this process, working with Project WHAT, served to humanize and contextualize not only the experiences of having a parent incarcerated but also the parents themselves. I only hope that others feel the same.  

      While I can’t speak for the youth of Project WHAT directly, I believe that having the ability to share their stories puts the spotlight on them as individuals rather than being a number in a statistic. Given the current state of affairs, children of incarcerated parents aren’t often given the space or mainstream attention to tell their stories. This project gave them the medium to speak about their experiences and I hope that they found it as valuable as I do.

      Always Empathy
      For budding oral historians, I would say to trust your instincts, don’t be shy, and approach every interview with empathy. Always empathy. Your job is to provide a space where someone can share 100% of themselves and the world as they see it. The more you try and understand where they’re coming from, the more potential you have to learn.

      Click here listen to Sophie’s podcast, “I Am Note My Parent’s Mistakes: Stories from Children of Incarcerated Parents”

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    • Voice of Witness June Education Update

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    • Knowing Nothing: Curiosity in Oral History

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

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      Joell Hallowell is a writer, editor, and experimental filmmaker living in San Francisco. She was an interviewer and assistant editor of Underground America (Voice of Witness 2010) and is currently working on a VOW-related project with the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. She’s co-edited several oral history books, including Lawfully Wedded Wives (Spuyten Duyvil 2013) and Take Me to the River (Heyday Books, 2010). Her most recently finished project is a book of poetry and photography, Shadowed: Unheard Voices (The Press at CSU Fresno 2014) and she is currently compiling another oral history project in collaboration with Heyday; the personal stories of California preservationists, restorationists, and conservationists.


      My first experience in the realm of oral histories was as a videographer. For several years I stood silently behind the camera, listening to great stories and observing the oral historian’s techniques as together we collected over sixty video interviews based around one central issue. I was in the wide-angled position to observe what worked, and what didn’t; when the interviewer missed an opportunity, when impatience arose on his face, when he’d glance at his watch, check his notes, peak out the window as a car passed by. I cringed at every missed opportunity, every un-followed thread. As I prepared and edited the videos, I gradually began to understand that the least successful interviews were those in which the interviewer knew too much about his subject—he’d been to that restaurant, known that family. He’d heard a similar story before.

      Inadvertently, I spent those years learning to be an interviewer, but when it came time to set out on my own I thought it might be wise to pursue a more academic understanding of the oral history process. The highest rated how-to book on Amazon was dry and flat, with rules and suggestions that didn’t reflect what I’d learned in the field. The concept of collecting conversations was never mentioned, but that’s what I wanted to do. I was one of those kids who begged to sit at the grown-ups’ table, for the sake of their stories. I gobbled up every detail of my parents’ childhood and their youthful adventures, and loved when inexplicable laughter was connected to the terrifying symptoms of my grandparent’s decline.

      Driven by inquisitiveness, I’ve become a pretty good listener, but it’s difficult to maintain a spirit of curiosity when you know too much. After interviewing dozens of fishermen along the San Joaquin River, I’d learned about local fishing holes and soon found it difficult to maintain my sense of wonder. Once I’d heard all about the same “secret” riffle twenty times, it was impossible to ask again: “Where is that? Why do the fish congregate there?” Instead, I had to ask for something new every time, something that I was still curious about: “Who took you there the first time? What was his story?”

      I’ve recently interviewed a series of disconnected narrators: a man who’s dedicated his life to preserving copies of obscure 16mm film noir; the first undocumented student to be accepted into UCSF’s medical school; a man attempting to preserve the ruins of a wool mill near a mission in Solvang; the woman who founded the California Oak Foundation; and a transgender honor student at U.C. Berkeley. In all of those interviews it was easy to bring my natural curiosity to the process. I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the challenges of the transgendered, had absolutely no appreciation for film noir, and no real knowledge of oak trees—I was able to remain fascinated throughout many hours of interviews. I asked naïve questions, expressed my bewilderment, and dug deeper into the narrators’ worlds, well past the subject we’d met to discuss. We had naturally flowing conversations in which I admitted my ignorance, inserted uninformed opinions, and laughed inappropriately. But sometimes even the least informed interviewer will know too much. After 15 years and hundreds of interviews, I now follow these simple guidelines, all contrary to popular opinion:

      Strive to know nothing about your subject. Don’t plan any questions. Don’t bring a list. Arrive with no ideas, no opinions. Don’t think ahead, don’t set goals. Forget who you are. Pretend you are somebody else, somebody who has never visited Oklahoma, never shot a squirrel, never stepped on a rattlesnake. If you’ve heard a story like this before, put it away. If you’ve ever fished from a river, forget the feel of the tug on your line. If you know anything about fighter jets, erase all familiarity. Un-remember that you’ve ever read Jack London. Let go of all that you believe to be true.

      There’s something she’s never told anybody, and she might tell you. You want to hear a secret, to hear another secret. If you’ve seen his face before, the deep lines and creases, the pond-shaped brown spot across his cheek, don’t mistake him for your grandfather. You don’t know this man.

      Let yourself believe that you’ve never been there before. Don’t say: “I was there once with my mother, have you tried their ginger cake?” Instead say: “What happened there?” Say: “And then what happened?” Say: “Tell me more.” Say: “Really?” Say: “Wow.” Be ready to hear terrifying details. Be ready to let yourself laugh.

      Always record your interview, but never take notes. Never look down, never look out the rippled window and wonder what she might say next. Don’t worry that he hasn’t gotten to the point, made a case, made you cry. Let her tell you all about what it feels like to drink from a trough like a cow, and once she’s told you her story, ask her to tell you again. If you’ve ever been thirsty, take a sip of your water now and forget what thirst tastes like. Always bring water to an interview, a glass for her and a glass for you. Then say: “Really?” Say: “Then what happened?” Say: “Wow.”

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    • 10th Anniversary Benefit: Photo Set

      Narrator Ashley Jacobs shares her story via Skype at Voice of Witness’ 10th Anniversary Benefit at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

      Thank you to everyone who joined us last week for Voice of Witness’ 10th Anniversary Benefit! The evening was full of thought-provoking stories and inspiring conversation, beautiful music, and friends old and new. We hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did. Click here to see the full photo set on Facebook. Photos courtesy of Becky Remmell of Snap-Shoppe.

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