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.