POSTCARD FROM THE US
OHA 2018 HIGHLIGHTS
In October, 750 oral historians, including many IOHA members, gathered in Montreal to learn, debate, socialize, network, and inspire each other at one of the most successful OHA conferences ever, and for the first time, at a meeting location outside the United States. The conference theme: Oral History in our Challenging Times.
Attendees experienced a blend of Canadian sense of order and Montreal’s flair for life in this world-class city on the St. Lawrence River. Our host institution, The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) (link: http://storytelling.concordia.ca/) at Concordia University, coordinated a program of live artmaking, installations and sound performance that showcase the diversity of Montreal and Quebec. For example, Medicine Bear Singers and Drummers, an Indigenous drum group made up of local students, welcomed us at the opening reception, and the exhibit “Here I Am in Montreal,” featured young immigrants talking about physical objects of significance and the emotional stories attached to them.
The conference consisted of presentations in multiple formats: workshops, plenary sessions, paper sessions, roundtables, workshops, performances and a keynote address.
Presentations spoke to the conference theme, Oral History in our Challenging Times, from various perspectives, including women’s rights, public health, migration, and working with victims of trauma. Here is a summary of the events that stood out for me. Numbers refer to the event number assigned in the program. (http://www.oralhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Final-Finished-2018-Conference-Program.pdf. For a tweet by tweet account by attendees check the #oha2018 Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/hashtag/oha2018).
Members of the Minnesota Opioid Project (#131) conducted a roundtable discussion on “listening our way through the crisis.” The group shared with their experience and led a discussion on how to collect oral histories in the midst of a crisis, how oral history can compliment activism, and how to represent individuals’ stories with compassion and sensitivity. The #MeToo Movement was discussed in at least two presentations, a paper session titled #MeToo: Oral Histories of Sexual Violence Harassment (#138); and a roundtable, “The OHA and Oral History in the Age of #MeToo” (#118), opening the door within the oral history community for the difficult discussions around boundaries of sexual conduct. Another challenging theme that affects every attendee is the effect of climate change around the world. The paper session titled Climate Change (#148) featured the observations of oral historians around North America of climate change evidence at the local level.
Much attention was given to post-interview oral history, including curation, access, using oral history for advocacy, and the new technical and ethical issues that arise in the digital age. Workshops were held on “Oral History and Podcasting” (#003), “OHMS and Bilingual Indexing” (#004), and “How to Make Great Aural History with the Best Sonic Ingredients” (#006), and “Community Organizing Basics for Oral Historians” (#005). The Metadata Task Force (#015) presented
their ongoing work on the identification of metadata elements for oral history, collecting feedback from participants with fun group exercise. Finally, Rob Perks, director of the British Library oral history program and Doug Boyd, Director of the Nunn Center for Oral History discussed “Archives, Risk and Online Access to Oral History” (#129), raising important questions about unmoderated online access to oral history interviews, the archivist’s responsibility in monitoring access, and the murky path in determining guidelines and best practices.
Many considered the keynote address by Dr. Leyla Neyzi, Anthropologist and Professor at Sabancı University in Istanbul, Turkey, (#091) the capstone event. Neyzi’s project, “Young People Speak Out: The Contribution of Oral History to Facing the Past, Reconciliation and Democratization in Turkey,” includes oral history interviews with and conversations between Turkish and Kurdish young people from 2011-2012. She began by describing her experience as a signatory of a 2016 petition condemning state violence against the Kurds, the Turkish state’s ongoing violation of its own laws and international treaties, and the repercussions she and other academics are facing doing fieldwork in Turkey. (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/judicial-harassment-academics-peace ). Her account is a harsh reminder to those of us practicing oral history in safe environments, that many of our colleagues around the world, including many IOHA members, are facing moral, ethical and physical challenges as well as concerns for their own personal safety and that of their narrators.
Oral historians work hard during the day and live the good life before and after conference sessions. The early risers among us started the day practicing yoga with Teresa Bergen, then moved on to grab our favorite coffee drink before sessions began. First-time attendees were invited to a get-acquainted breakfast sponsored by OHA. For an afternoon pick-up many of us headed to the Juliette et Chocolat. After hours, oral historians socialized at receptions, including the IOHA reception at Mckibbin’s Irish Pub, and later headed into the city for dinner, drink, and dessert. My favorites are the Greek-themed restaurant Café Molivos for a quiet dinner with wine, or the more casual Persian themed Café Aunja for tea and sandwiches.
On my cross-country flight home, I had plenty of time to reflect on the conference. My musings all took me back to the very apt conference theme, Oral History in our Challenging Times, more relevant at the time of the conference than when the title was decided upon, and even more relevant today. Six weeks later, as I sit at my desk in the San Francisco Bay Area, housebound due to the hazardous air quality from the 200,000+ acres burning in my state of California, the challenges increase. Natural disasters. Elections. Gun violence. Brexit. Irresponsible politicians. Vulnerable populations at increasing risk. Challenges to legitimate journalism.
Oral historians can view these increasingly challenging times as an opportunity to practice what we do best: giving voice to the voiceless, documenting big ideas at a granular level, and preserving interviews for the historical record. IOHA, as an international organization of oral historians, is especially equipped to tackle these challenges by drawing on the wisdom, expertise and cultural knowledge of the membership in order to support each other in the challenges that lie ahead. Let’s rise to the occasion as a group.
Mark your calendars for next year’s conference which will take place in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the heart of the American West, October 16-20, 2019, (http://www.oralhistory.org/annual-meeting/) The theme is “Pathways in the Field: Considerations for Those Working In, On, and Around Oral History. The deadline for submitting proposals is February 3, 2019.
 It should be noted that the conference took place just days after the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf) came out with revised figures for the acceleration of global warming, and the Hurricane Michael struck the Florida coast.