Oral History and Social Justice

By Shreya Ramineni

Despite their public availability, oral histories are not necessarily familiar to an average undergraduate college student. But they can illuminate issues on campus and document larger-scale social and historical movements. From Presidential Archives to the stories of feminist and disability rights activists, oral histories have continued to provide individuals and communities with a chance to depict the various facets of their experiences. The goal of these projects is to expand knowledge and to provide people the chance to tell their stories, thereby deepening social understandings. This purpose resonates with me as I continue to work with oral histories, and I am confident that oral histories can work as instruments of social change.

As new oral historian, I did not anticipate the complex politics around conducting them and transcribing them. I had the ability to experience being both an interviewer and interviewee, and explored the layers of each position. It allowed me to notice a power dynamic; however, it was not what I expected. In some interview styles, the interviewer has the power to shape the narrator’s responses to fit particular narratives. Yet with oral histories, the semi-structured interview style allowed me to feel a sense of empowerment as a narrator. In a way, the narrator is the one leading the story. While the interviewer guides how the story fits into a larger project, the narrator is in control of how the story plays out. On the other hand, I felt different pressures as an interviewer. I realized that it is difficult to achieve balance between telling the narrator’s experiences and formulating a narrative that can advance the point of this project. Although I was an interviewer, most of my job actually entailed listening to the narrator. Every word and every action of an oral history interviewer can shape how interviewees respond to their questions. I quickly realized that an interviewer’s silence is the key to unlocking the best stories. By only jumping in when necessary, interviewers can truly grasp the narrator’s most valuable insight. Furthermore, transcription and its politics surprised me; I did not realize how much social influences could hinder my ability to highlight the narrator’s own subjectivity throughout the whole process. I learned to recognize how power within the interview dynamics as well as the influences on myself when transcribing, can twist the narrator’s empowerment into a format complicit with social oppressions.

As a tool for social change, oral histories can raise awareness of structural oppression. Some of the oral histories we explored within the project included those of activists in the disability rights movement. The work of these activists is apparent in the accessibility policies that we see everyday, but the stories of these activists are not well known.  After reading the oral history transcripts of activists such as Ed Roberts or Judy Heumann, I understood the importance of the disability rights movement in a more personal sense; it hammered home to me that their activism was not a choice but a necessity. It allowed me to hear a personal account of their lives, one that changed the way I perceived accommodations from things taken-for-granted around me to structures that serve not only as a source of empowerment but also as a reminder of the disability rights movement. Additionally, within the scope of our own project, oral histories serve as a method to connect social experiences to scientific and medical phenomena. They support the interdisciplinary study of chemical sensitivities and environmental illnesses; by shifting the focus from understanding chemical exposure in the isolation of scientific inquiry, oral histories instead remind the public that chemical sensitivities and environmental illnesses affect people. These stories attest to the links between chemical sensitivities and the choices society has historically made that tie chemical products and human lives together, as well as the hardships in separating them.

It is my hope that CSW can use our oral history project in order to transform the effects of chemicals in our everyday lives. By hearing personal accounts through oral histories, by understanding the role of power within them as well as within society, I have learned so much about how empowerment can create change. Throughout this quarter, I have gained a better understanding of how chemical sensitivities can manifest and affect an individual in a multitude of ways. As we continue to move forth with this project, I would like to find better ways to create narratives that could contribute to new implementation of chemical regulation policy.

Shreya Ramineni is a UCLA Undergraduate Students studying Human Biology and Society. She is a member of the 2018-2019 Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Group.