The Power of Oral History: Personal Narratives Take Us Deep Into the Human Rights Stories Hidden Behind the Headlines

When people tell their own stories, history is written from the bottom up.
Microphone photo by Alexis Fam

Photo by Alexis Fam.

In Dave Eggers' 2006 novel, What Is The What, young Valentino Achak Deng is forced from his village in Sudan and crosses hundreds of miles of desert—with thousands of other children—on foot. Every moment, they are in danger of being snatched up by militias or wild animals. They are the "Lost Boys" of Sudan—and Deng is a real person.

Eggers met him years later in Atlanta, where Deng had settled, and agreed to help him write his story (which went on to become an international bestseller).

Later, on a trip to Sudan with Deng, Eggers met more survivors of genocide and slavery. He told Smithsonian Magazine that the interaction left him asking, "What about them? What about their stories?"

Invisible Hands Cover

Click here to order Invisible Hands from Voice of Witness via The McSweeney's Store.

That experience led Eggers and a partner, Lola Vollen, to found Voice of Witness, a nonprofit organization that publishes oral history collections documenting global human rights crises through the prism of lived experience: the survivors of Burma's military regime, people displaced by the drug war in Colombia, and wrongfully convicted prisoners in the United States, for example.

Voice of Witness, whose books are published by Eggers' popular McSweeney's Books, believes those who have lived through human rights abuses have authority over their own experiences. They lend a platform to people whose stories are usually told by others—journalists, human rights workers, or government reports.

When I talked to executive director mimi lok, I called this unique perspective a lens; she called it a "pair of superhuman glasses" that invites us beyond the same old dominant narratives, to the raw material of human experience.

Last year, Smithsonian honored Voice of Witness with a 2013 Ingenuity Award for "Upending the Narrative of the Great Man of History": recording history from the bottom up.

The latest offering is Invisible Hands: Voices From the Global Economy, a collection that goes "behind the scenes of the global economy" to uncover the violations it masks. We hear from narrators around the world whose lives have been affected—often devastated—by agriculture, garment, electronics, and mining industries; narrators who have remarkably transformed their experiences of abuse to take on the very industries that harmed their communities.

lok hopes to show readers—including the many students who engage with Voice of Witness oral histories through its education program—how they're connected, often invisibly, to exploitation and abuse. She also hopes those connections will help them see how they're linked to real people. The narrators of Invisible Hands are mothers and fathers; teenagers and widows; artists and activists; hard workers who take pride in what they do.

The real connective tissue of oral storytelling, lok said, is empathy.

mimi lok photo courtesy of Voice of Witness

YES!: Invisible Hands is such an ambitious work that takes on a daunting and complex problem. Why approach these issues through oral histories rather than through the lens of a journalist or expert?

mimi lok: I think that it's because of that words—lens. We don't often experience and engage with stories and human rights issues through the lens of people who actually lived through them. Normally it's through the lens of a scholar, activist, or pundit.  All of those things have their value, but we wanted to lift up the authority of the perspectives of people who were going through it.

The views of the situation of the people who were most closely affected by it are often the ones who are least heard from. When you don't have that perspective you're missing a big chunk of understanding about that particular issue. You can't look at it from the top down; it has to be from the bottom up.

Historically, oral history has been considered one of the more egalitarian forms of storytelling because you have to preserve the integrity of what someone said and how they said it. It's a really powerful way to counteract the dominant narrative around an issue or situation.

YES!: The act of interviewing for these stories, and then sharing them with the world, must be quite sensitive. How do you approach it?

lok: The way that we've developed it has a lot of emphasis on building relationship and trust with each narrator. We ask them about their whole life, not just to have them describe the incident of abuse. To us, that's not the most interesting thing about that person. These are real people—they're complex individuals that we can all empathize with.

We feel successful when we see a high school student or a reader who thought they knew about this particular situation quite well, and then they read someone's story about it—and it complicates their thinking, in a good way.  Someone who's otherwise seen as a statistic suddenly becomes someone that you can identify with and are rooting for.

YES!: And what does it do for the narrators?

lok: Just the fact of being listened to without judgement and being believed is incredibly powerful for a lot of these people, who oftentimes have had their story taken away from them. Someone else has been telling their story to them.

YES!: You've talked about the role of oral histories in disrupting the established narratives. When I read the book, it struck me that you seemed to have set out to investigate stories of people victimized by a human rights violation, but ended up with a collection of people who had come into their own as activists. The stories here are mostly those of people taking agency in their own lives—not the usual fare for human rights reporting. To me, that felt like disrupting the established narrative. How else did this come up for you?

lok: When we were making the book, a lot of our assumptions were tested. The book was first conceived to be about labor rights as the most dominant set of issues connected with the global economy.

All these other things came up like environmental rights and land seizures and health. We ended up including people whose position in the narrative wasn't as a laborer, but as someone who had a peripheral position in relation to the actual workplace. But, the actions of a company or a large farm really impacted them. Our frame of reference got incredibly more complex and broad.

But I think the main assumption that we want to challenge is that these are things that are happening to people "over there" and it has nothing to do with me. I think there's a disconnect—you can identify as an activist for human rights via doing certain actions that benefit this group over here or support these rights over here, and then be completely disconnected from the human rights story behind this pair of jeans or the cell phone I'm using.

The word "invisible"—there's no other word for it.

YES!: It sounds like what you're saying is that not only does your approach to the book change the narrative of people being victims rather than survivors with agency, but it also invites readers to challenge their own role in the global economy. It's an invitation.

lok: Yes! It's an invitation. When you have the opportunity to engage with people on a human level there's something really inspiring—that they can tell their story is a sign of resilience and hope. A lot of these narrators—especially the garment workers—they've become really strong activists. I hope that's an inspiration for readers as well. Its not just a triumph of the spirit. There's real strategy, real alliance-building going on. So that's possible for readers too, to find out how they can be part of that work.

YES!: Is there any particular story from this new collection that really hit you?

lok: Nasiba's, from Uzbekistan. Her children, along with many other schoolchildren in Uzbekistan, are taken out of school to work in the fields and pick cotton, and they're supervised by their teachers and have to sleep in the schools. That was something we had never conceived of before. All of the other narratives, I had some sense these kinds of things were going on. Not this one. I knew Uzbekistan was a big supplier of cotton, but I had absolutely no idea that children were being pulled out of school to pick cotton. That stayed with me.

Also, Kalpona's story is just such an engaging and rich story—going to work at twelve and then being part of her first strike at fifteen. Her voice is so lively and warm and there's humor—she's self-depracating. She's just comes across as a real person and we get to see her childhood and teen years and being with her abusive husband and forming the BCWS [Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity]. She's a complete badass.

The first time I read a complete draft of that story I remember putting it down and feeling so in awe of her. There are some stories you finish reading and think, God that was difficult, or, I'm really angered by that. But Kalpona's—I was in awe of this human being and wanted to be her best friend. To someone who only had formal education up the age of twelve, she's found her own way to educate herself. I love the fact that she makes no qualms about when they were first organizing and no one had any idea what their rights were, no one had any idea how to organize themselves. They muddled their way through it. [You can find part of Kalpona's story here, and the full version in the book].

YES!: I like what you said about the value of including the whole story rather than just the abuse; not letting this one violation define life. You really get to see that it shapes life, but there's so much more than that.

lok: Yeah, people make a life in spite of all this.

I really liked Ana Juarez, the garment worker from Mexico. I like what she said about the pride that she takes in her work: "I made that pair of jeans. I'm proud of that."

That's something that doesn't always get highlighted.

Voice of Witness is celebrating its 10th anniversary in May. Click here for more info.