Editor’s Note: The blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.
VOW summer 2017 interns Phillip Reid and Mary Kearney-Brown hold copies of our newest books.

Each summer, Haverford College and Voice of Witness partner on an internship program for up to two of their students. This year, Phillip Reid and Mary Kearney-Brown came to join us for ten weeks, during which they celebrated the release of two new books and attended our summer training, Amplifying Unheard Voices. We are terribly sad to see them go, but look forward to the new adventures that await these bright young minds! We’ve asked them to reflect upon their time with us this summer and they’ve graciously shared lessons they’ve learned.

“Everyone has a literature inside of them.”

This quote by Anna Deavere Smith poignantly captures the powerful learning experience that we had as Voice of Witness interns this summer. Through oral history, we were able to develop our ability to see the literature in everyone around us. In addition to engaging with moving narratives from VOW books, we also treasured the opportunity to hang out with the VOW staff and hear all of the generative, hilarious, and sometimes strange stories that each of them has to tell.

Here, we would like to reflect on the wonderful lessons we have learned from Mimi, Dao, Erin, Cliff, Natalie, and Claire, who have been our guiding teachers and warm friends.

On their second day, the interns got to celebrate the release of Chasing the Harvest at Green Apple Books.

Phillip’s Reflection

A week before my arrival in San Francisco, education associate Erin Vong sent us an introductory email which asked us to think a little bit about the expectations we had for our internship experience. Referring back on that communication now, I can confidently check off all of the goals I had mentioned.

Given my personal interest in conducting oral history, I entered the summer eager to deepen my understanding of the diverse skillset that goes into developing VOW narratives. Thanks to managing editor Dao Tran, Mary and I had several exciting opportunities to transcribe and edit for ongoing VOW book projects. As a transcriber, I was incredibly inspired by all of the moving stories that I heard directly from the narrators.

With little previous experience working in education, I was looking forward to completing projects that would help me consider oral history as a teaching tool. VOW’s education team helped us adopt a teacher’s perspective and engage with oral history in an entirely new way. Writing curriculum for VOW books refined my ability to think critically and globally about the specific injustices found in VOW narratives. As a participant in this years’ Amplifying Unheard Voices training, I gained a new understanding of the many impactful ways we can use oral history in the classroom.

Interning at Voice of Witness redefined my understanding of communications work in the nonprofit sphere. Both Erin and former resource and development associate Natalie Catasús provided essential lessons on maintaining an effective and consistent organizational presence online. After drafting numerous posts over the course of the summer, I feel like a social media pro!

A creative accordion book from the summer training the interns attended.

Mary’s Reflection

As we began this internship, Phillip and I hoped to be immersed in the process of producing books and curriculum, and to develop a better understanding of how to preserve the integrity of the narratives and honor the intentions of the narrators represented.

These hopes were continually fulfilled throughout the course of the internship. For example, writing discussion questions was an amazing opportunity to reflect on all of the different narratives which VOW has produced, and really allowed me to understand the nuance of effective storytelling. This process also gave me such a profound respect for the narrators, and made me feel connected to oral history in a really emotional way.

Phillip and I also engaged with and observed the complete editorial process. We had the opportunity to transcribe and rough edit interviews for several books currently in progress, and to read the manuscript of one book that is in the final stages of editing. This internship has taught me so much, and I think that being so immersed in empathy-based storytelling and oral history has influenced how I want to engage with the world more generally. I will hold on to the idea of everyone as an authority and “having a literature inside of them” in how I think about listening to people, and to really honor the value of every individual’s story.

Phillip and I want to extend immense gratitude to the VOW team for the incredible amount of support and attention they gave us during our time here, and for their commitment to social justice and illuminating human rights issues. Having the opportunity to observe the the team’s passion for the work they do has been such an honor, and has inspired us in how we think about the work we want to do going forward.