This Editor Wants to Bring Social Justice Stories From Unheard Voices to Your Classroom

Voice of Witness Education Director Cliff Mayotte brings oral history to your classroom. He wants your students to read the personal narratives of people impacted by injustice—and tell their own stories, too.

Voice of Witness (VOW) advances human rights by “amplifying unheard voices.” The nonprofit organization publishes oral history and personal narratives of real people who have experienced injustice to help students understand current human rights crises.

Its Sharing History Initiative introduces oral history and social justice storytelling to under-resourced classrooms and communities around the United States by providing educators, storytellers, and advocates with free books and culturally relevant curricula. Each year, VOW also publishes a new book with free lesson plans in its oral history book series that focuses on human rights issues and movements. The complete oral history collection, plus a host of more books, lesson plans, and projects, is available on the Voice of Witness website.

For the 2019-20 school year, Voice of Witness’ Sharing History Initiative is offering free sets of Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, a culturally relevant book that addresses the safety and rights of immigrant communities in the U.S. Each set also includes a copy of Say It Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Storytelling. Apply by June 30.

Cliff Mayotte is the education program director for Voice of Witness. Cliff has taught at numerous Bay Area high schools and arts organizations over the past 30 years, including serving as a former education director for the Tony-award winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He is the editor of The Power of the Story: The Voice of Witness Teacher’s Guide to Oral History, and co-writer and editor of Say It Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Storytelling. Cliff is an avid cyclist and loves spending time with his family and working in the garden.

 Cliff spoke with YES! about Voice of Witness. His answers have been condensed and lightly edited.

What inspired the Sharing History Initiative, and why is it important to you? What makes this initiative unique?

VOW started the Sharing History Initiative in 2015 to provide free books and educator resources to underserved public schools and community nonprofits. We were committed to reaching teachers and students in non-traditional learning spaces, such as detention facilities, adult education programs, and nonprofit advocacy organizations that are part of our “narrator communities” —communities whose stories are represented in our book series. Our oral history resources urge students to “take history personally,” to investigate the world through the personal experiences of other people and reflect on their own backgrounds and experiences. Students have told us, “I really feel like someone is speaking directly to me,” and, “I can relate to these issues now in a more human, relatable way.”

This year’s Sharing History selection is our latest book, Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, which aims to counter damaging rhetoric and “othering” of immigrants.  We’re also including a copy of our recent oral history methodology, Say It Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Storytelling, to accompany Solito, Solita. It offers great tools to turn up the volume on unheard student voices.

What do you want students to take away from these lessons and stories? What do you want them to know and do, and are there any ways to assess this?

The way history is taught in so many schools creates a disconnect between the content and students’ own lives. Questions such as, “What does this have to do with me?,” need to be transformed into, “What choices would I have made?,” and, “What is my relationship to these issues?” We want our books and curricula to encourage students to think critically about history and to place themselves within an ongoing historical narrative. We also want students to be able to say, “I am a part of this story.” This is especially true for students that have been marginalized, including English language learners.

Whether or not the students reading our books have direct experiences with the issues at hand, we hope that our books can “meaningfully complicate” the way students think about social justice issues. After reading Solito, Solita, we heard many high school students say, “I thought I was pretty clear about immigration issues, and now I’m not sure what to think. This issue is way more complex than I thought.”

Students develop their speaking and listening skills through oral history.  We’d like to see their creative literacy cultivated, too, as they shape their projects into photo essays, podcasts, live performances and more. These projects can be assessed using project-based methods, which tend to be more flexible than standard assessment models and leave room for student self-assessment and reflection. Finally, we encourage teachers to evaluate classroom culture before and after our lessons. Evaluating empathy is not straightforward, but you can ask, “Have I noticed changes in how my students show mutual respect and how they speak to each other?” You can also request that ask students to report back on how their empathy now extends beyond the classroom.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to use this collection?

I encourage teachers to nurture trust in their classrooms before engaging with Solito, Solita. This will help students (and teachers) feel more comfortable relating to personal narrative—both from the book and from the stories of their classmates and families. The Solito, Solita curriculum includes resources for building a safe and brave classroom community.

What additional resources do you recommend?

The Faraway Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham, is a deeply reported, accessible and moving chronicle of contemporary migration.

Home is a Human Right: A Series on Immigration, a recent documentary series by Brave New Films.

“Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth,” an academic article by Tarro Yasso from Race, Ethnicity, and Education, a biannual peer-reviewed academic journal covering ethnic studies.  

What’s your story?

My story—and teaching— is rooted in narrative storytelling. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I would spend hours looking at maps and creating adventure stories. In high school, I channeled my storytelling energy into acting. From there, I drifted into directing because, as a director, I felt I could better utilize my passion for music, photography, and visual composition. I wanted to surround myself with as many forms of storytelling as I could!

My introduction to oral history was through Stud Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. I was doing research for a play that was an adaptation of Terkel’s book. The stories in the book blew my mind, and I decided to put the text onstage instead of the play adaptation. That was the oral history portal for me, which led to more teaching and creating that combines art and social justice. Eventually, this path led me to Voice of Witness and, nine years later, the work here continues to inspire me.

Interested in more inspiring content from educators? Check out our other interviews:

Rethinking Schools’ Bill Bigelow and educator Tim Swinehart on the nation’s first comprehensive climate justice literacy policy

Cleary Vaughan-Lee of Global Oneness Project, which uses film and photo essays as its lens on humanity

Riki Ott of Ultimate Civics on how to take action to reclaim democracy.

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