2016 Oral History Association's Annual Conference Review

    In late November, I attended an art opening that was hosted by the Ocean Conservancy.  I was lucky enough to meet a Policy Analyst who was hoping to gather stories from fisherwomen for her work with the Ocean Conservancy’s Fish Conservation Program. We quickly engaged in a conversation about how oral history and science can be mutually beneficial to the other, especially when it comes to building environmental/marine policy. During the course of our conversation, she pointed out several times that the Ocean Conservancy may soon not exist given the recent election. Because the election went the way it did, in this blog posting, I aim to reinvigorate the sense of hope that the 2016 OHA conference presenters had, especially for the role that oral history can have on the future of scientific research, policy, and sustainability. (There were so many incredible non-science focused sessions that were profoundly moving to me both as an educator and an oral historian.)  

    Closely following the news about the president elect’s transition, I am continually stunned about the grim prospects that many news outlets are predicting for the future role of science in the U.S. For example, in a recent Washington Post article entitled, “What will President Trump mean for science?,” several leading science researchers expressed grave concern: “‘There’s a fear that the scientific infrastructure in the U.S. is going to be on its knees,’ said Robin Bell, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and incoming president-elect of the American Geophysical Union.”  As such, it is no surprise that my new acquaintance from the Ocean Conservancy was concerned about the future.

    Just weeks before the election, I attended OHA’s annual conference in Long Beach. In particular, the roundtable, “Telling Environmental Stories” deserves a light upon which to shine, especially given the recent depressing predictions about the future of science in the U.S. The roundtable focused largely on the value of the ‘intersections” of oral and environmental history. The presenters explored what we can learn from oral histories that capture humans’ relationship with their environment in the past, present, and future. The oral histories which the presenters illuminated certainly evidenced the need to study climate change and it’s existence in relationship to people. Consequently, I have been long interested in fisher people’s oral histories about past ocean and fishery health, and today’s under abundance, which I think has the potential to help shape policy making about sustainable seafood and conservation.    

    Reflecting back on this roundtable, I urge this audience to consider the power of oral history as a tool to resist any political changes that degrade ethical, conscientious, urgent, and necessary research that is needed for our future survival in relationship to our environment.  The environmental changes that are indeed occurring, that both scientific research and oral histories show, will continue on their trajectories, whether a Trump administration believes it or not. So, we must continue to collect stories that capture our understanding of our environment. 

    The presenters impressively modeled such efforts.  A few highlights follow: Deb Anderson presented how small rural communities in Australia serve as resilient models of how to work together through climate change, even though farmers there are pushed to the limits because of drought.  Her work is featured in her book Endurance: Australian Stories of Drought.  Katie Holmes discussed how oral histories can “mobilize meaning in climate variability,” as she focused on some of her work in the project: Changing Landscapes, Changing People: Australia’s southern mallee lands, 1830-2012.  Meera Anna Oommen captured the memory of settlers in Kerala, India. Even as a conservation scientist, Oommen’s oral history project illustrates the importance of understanding “place-based sentiments, aspirations toward land,” and helps to “link solutions and begin dialogue” that is needed in conservation policy. Heather Goodall considered how oral histories can put the human role into biological studies and conservation. Goodall’s project, called Talking Fish explores how oral histories of fisher people are tied to the Georges river in Australia, which needed to be considered by scientists who are working to conserve the river and raise public awareness. Anne Valk collected oral histories that inspired a community to take action in cleaning up a degraded wilderness space, the Mashapaug Pond, in a small Rhode Island community. Each presenter found significant ways in which oral histories can invigorate scientific research, build community, and create effective policy. As I look back on my notes from the roundtable, these projects exemplified ways in which we as oral historians can engage a science-denying administration, the collective constituency, and scientists who are searching for new ways to make their research useful and impactful.   

    Let us remember the importance of oral history in our role as archivists, educators, artists, and scientists (to name a few). If science is on the brink, then let us collect stories from scientists to validate and perpetuate the work that has and is being done toward preserving and improving our environment. Let us also collect stories about humans’ relationship with their environment past and present, so as to document the vital ways in which the environment can work, ways in which we can be resilient, and ways in which we should rethink and heal the degradation that we have caused. We have an especially important job this year with new leadership in transition, and I look forward to gaining energy again at the next conference.

Organics Oral History Project: Two Samples from Paul Buxman at Sweet Home Ranch

After interviewing artist and farmer Paul Buxman and visiting Sweet Home Ranch, I was so inspired by his audacity and devotion to follow his heart in all branches of his life.  I am forever grateful for the experience that I had at the ranch and for Paul's generous storytelling.  

Please listen to the edited clips from our 7 hour interview this year.  Paul was a pioneer in the organics movement, but does not officially run an organic farm today.  He started California Clean and is an accomplished Plein Air painter capturing the beauty of the San Joaquin Valley in farm and nature.  

Paul gave his permission to house this on my website, but I hope that his interview in its entirety will be archived in a larger project which focuses on the History of the Organics Movement in a collection of interviews from the pioneers of the movement.   Though this project has been put on hold for several reasons, there is still great interest in pursuing such an important project to capture the voices who founded the organics movement. 



One of the beautiful rows of grass and trees at Sweet Home Ranch, abiding by California Clean standards. 

One of the beautiful rows of grass and trees at Sweet Home Ranch, abiding by California Clean standards. 

The following sample recounts the emotional story of why Paul Buxman decided to remove the use of pesticides from his farm.  

The following sample highlights some of Paul's reflections on how the Organics Movement started.

Why the Organics and Sustainable Food Industry Needs Storytelling

We face a loss of identity and history, as the pioneers of the organics and sustainable food movement grow older.

I taught for 10 years in Social Justice and English Literature at the college and high school level. Throughout this time, I worked with an organization called Facing History and Ourselves, whose premise for education is captured in a letter from a Holocaust Survivor.  In this letter, the survivor explains how she is suspicious of education, as she witnessed highly educated people performing highly inhumane atrocities.  Her letter is to educators charging them: “Teachers, help your students become more human.”  This has long stuck with me and become a mantra in my career as an educator—The big question is, how does one teach students to be more human, and in turn how do I become more human if I am their teacher?  I found the answer in oral history.  

Author's rendering of a Wax Cylinder recording device used for oral history collection. 

Author's rendering of a Wax Cylinder recording device used for oral history collection. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with oral history, or maybe you have heard of it and think of oral tradition (stories passed down from one generation to the next) oral history is the collection of stories through interviews. With interviews, oral historians preserve personal histories and amplify often unheard voices.  The interviews, or oral histories, are considered primary and secondary sources, they are documentations of history seen through the eyes of witnesses.  Often times the stories produced from oral histories offer stark contrast to the dominant narratives with which the populous is most familiar.  

Teaching my students how to conduct and produce oral histories, or reading or hearing oral histories, humanizes the statistics they study, the content of focus, and the news articles that flood the media.  Human statistics bear human stories—and this is the human connection that can build, dare I say it, compassion about overwhelming issues.  Not all oral histories have to capture human crises.  Oral histories illuminate what it means to be human.

After witnessing the transformational power of oral history in my students, I have become involved in several avenues which more concretely integrate oral history into the classroom because it is such a strong tool of learning that builds communication skills, literacy, critical thinking, and compassion.  A good immersion into oral history, either through creation of oral history projects or witnessing the stories as audience helps students to become more human.  

This immersion of storytelling and listening transfers similarly to adults.  One way to look at the importance of capturing oral history is to consider the concept of the “shifting baseline”, coined by Daniel Pauly.  A baseline is an original reference point, and when we don’t know our history this reference point, or baseline, shifts.  One good example that I have found in my personal work with oral history about fishing and fisheries, for example, is that many of today’s fisher people will reference 20-30 years ago, when the fishing was prominent.  This modern prospect compares the baseline of the 1980s and 90s, when you could more practically make a living off of fishing for King Salmon out of the Monterey and San Francisco Bays.  Fisher people of today’s era vividly recall the pains of the moratorium on salmon fishing that happened a few years ago.  But, were the 1980’s all that abundant at the same time when commercial agribusiness boomed with water rights, and dams stood tall over the fish trying to swim upstream?

If we shift the baseline and look at what the fisher people’s generational grandfathers harvested, we would consider the 1980’s a devastating time.  What did the the ocean look like in the 1800’s?  One fisheries historian, Tim Thomas, has been able to recover stories about the Monterey Bay being so full of salmon that it looked like it was paved in sliver.  Thomas describes some accounts of how salmon would literally wash up in waves onto the shore, where hundreds of nearby orcas would feed off the coast of Carmel near Point Lobos.  That memory, that personal story of what the fish was like several generations ago aught to augment our understanding of the baseline that we remember. If we could find fishery histories of centuries earlier, I am sure we would be dumbfounded.  It is all too easy to let flee the story of the last wild food (fish). 

When we enjoy Monterey today, we see beauty, perhaps without considering what it was like hundreds of years ago.  If we recall the old stories of fisher people and the fisheries that existed, it might help us to rethink how we care for our fisheries today, knowing the baseline potentials.  We might also find that modern small fleet fisher people and their recent histories and family histories can help us find an avenue to restoration of our fisheries before it is too late.  We also might better understand as consumers why wild King salmon can reach 24.95 a pound, as it is a valuable and now rare resource that should not be taken for granted.  Tracing the story of where our food comes from in modern stories of traceability and in historical tracings (especially the story of what organic and wild food existed before the era of industrialized food) may help us to remember the importance of our natural diets and a healthier ecosystem.  It also may urge us to return to a time when harvesting food was a human act of connecting to land and respecting resources with economic benefits.   

In another example, Allan Savory’s success with holistic grasslands management is completely dependent on the stories of the landscape and grasslands before drought degradation.  Savory found that tracing the herding and wildlife back to the baseline reality of hunters and prey was the way in which animals were natural stewards of the grasslands.  It didn’t take feed lots to feed the communities, but very regional and localized approaches to healthy protein, healthy land, and socially viable living.  

In consideration of the organic food world, there is a significant lack of oral history captured of the organics movement.  Many organic farmers today like my 25 year old friend Kenny Baker, who runs Lonely Mountain farm in Watsonville, CA with his family, are in many ways still pioneers of the industry.  However, his predecessors, who are still alive and kicking, have very different stories of how things got started and what challenges were faced amidst the backlash of commercial/convenient food production.  Kenny’s success today was built upon the audacity of his pioneer mentors. Luckily, there are community building opportunities at places like the Ecofarm conference, where the two generations may share histories and new ideas.

There is a great urgency to collect the stories of pioneers in the organics industry.  It is a contemporary food access, food justice, and sustainability issue that includes social, environmental, and economic ramifications.  Organics pioneers are still working, and I have found that many have been too busy, and many are still too busy, to invest their energies in the realm of recording their oral histories to preserve the legacy they built.  Their stories will illuminate for the people who consume organic products, or for those who ought to consume the products, the humane approach that organic food processors, farmers, distributors care enough to tend.  Stories can offer access points to productive dialogue to those in the industry.

Let’s be honest, if economics is what motivates consumers, stories are also the best marketing tool around.  If you look at Pacific Catch’s website, it is flooded with a "meet the fishermen" page of stories about the fishermen that harvest for this successful sustainable seafood organization.  It has been so successful that the owner, who is in his 20’s is interviewing with people like Allen Greenberg who has literarily written the book about the the history of the last wild food-in Four Fish, and his recent best seller.  

We even see this marketing approach in big commercial industry.  Safeway offers subtle implications that family farms are what fill their produce aisle.  Human stories of farming in some ways can be a way to greenwash, but what it tells us is that consumers want to feel a human connection to their food.  I think this can be done to a greater degree in this technological age.  Stories can be better amplified and distributed (even in small snippets of time) to motivate buyers to feel they are making a difference as they grocery shop.  

I think if done successfully and ethically, there is nothing wrong with using storytelling as a marketing approach. One of the most astonishing things that I have witnessed with seafood is that consumers I know want to buy sustainable seafood, but they can’t find a way to access it. Traceability is extremely cloudy.  Try asking a sushi waiter where the fish came from, or a steak house where the beef came from.  It is similar to organics history, before certification occurred: you could call an apple organic and people would buy it, regardless of the true traceability.  Consumers of seafood want to do the right thing, but when even sushi chefs are told that farmed salmon is wild, no one knows the difference except a keen eye of a fishmonger or salmon fisher person who can tell in a snap.  Stories can help trace our food origins, teach us about natural harvesting techniques, encourage sustainable practices, and help consumers to be confident in their purchases. 


Framing the "ongoing negotiation of meaning and action"

A few years ago, I met Rick Ayers in a meeting for the Educational Advisory Board for Voice of Witness. He is one of those people you meet who instantly inspires you to deconstruct your normal thinking and question your own day-to-day career moves.  After a discussion with him and the other members of the Board, I felt like I was released from the regimented standards of education that can too easily be accepted as an educator's sole mission.   After 10 years of teaching, I realized that I needed to reframe why I was an educator.  I needed to negotiate a new way to function within the structures of education that go unquestioned, while vigorously engaging my students in meaningful routes to becoming more human.  These routes were through oral history and the power of storytelling. 

In many ways, I would say that, like Ayer's explains of history, education is also, "An ongoing negotiation of meaning and action".  Ayers is a person who seems to live that participatory negotiation.  I am once again inspired by him in his blog entry, and am reminded to frame and reframe my projects in oral history: to challenge my own intentions through conscientious editing and awareness of the power dynamics that exist as an oral historian.  Below is a mere portion of his blog, which I highly recommend consuming! 

"In oral history, we celebrate the voice of the voiceless, we ask the interviewees to tell their own stories.  Oral history is radical because it seeks to reverse the traditional narrative voice of history, to look from the eyes of the oppressed.  This is all good, but even here we must be careful.  Because, as with documentary film, we still exercise great power in our ways of framing stories: in the voices chosen, in the introduction given, and most importantly in the editing of the transcript. 

 Students should absolutely do oral history and research projects in their own neighborhoods or anywhere.  But history is not just another conversation – it’s an ongoing negotiation of meaning and action."