Oral history project examines Madison’s activist past
By Emily Genco | Tue, 07/24/2012 - 6:31pm
Unlike cards and comics, stories are ephemeral. They don’t linger in attic boxes accruing value, and can’t be shelved for posterity wrapped in cellophane sleeves. They aren’t even written down. Oral histories live and breathe, a collage of emotions and facts pasted together to create memories.
Madison has plenty of them.
To preserve these stories, a core group of five Madison residents and their taskforce of volunteers have begun recording and archiving oral histories shared by local activists in an effort called “Radicals in Madison: An Oral History Project.” The Madison Info Shop and Rainbow Book Cooperative are also partners.
Although the oral story-telling tradition is as old as history itself, the project is using new media platforms to record and package the information. The interviews will be recorded, transcribed and posted as podcasts on the project’s website, and the Madison Info Shop and Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative’s websites. Additional copies will be donated to the UW archive collection.
“Through media you increase accessibility, so people can read, hear or interpret the story in different ways, however they want to, and however fits their needs best,” said Molly Khan, one participant in the project.
Historical accounts of activism are “silenced,” because they are often overlooked by mainstream journalism and are not as accessible as other types of political history, said Colin Gillis, a UW-Madison lecturer and one of five people spearheading the effort.
The idea for the project grew organically out of two separate efforts, one chronicling activism against the proposed Crandon Mine, and the other, advocacy related to the Madison Tenant Union.
Gillis first became interested in recording activists’ stories during the protests against Act 10 last spring.
“We felt that a lot of the activists on the ground during the uprising just didn’t know about some of the activism that had already taken place in Madison,” Gillis said. “So there were a lot of really practical lessons that contemporary, younger activists could learn from their predecessors.”
Gillis began recording the history of the Madison Tenant Union, an effort he called “An Oral History of Madison Radicalism.”
“[The project] was created to be a history of left-wing political activism for activists, by activists,” said Gillis.
Meanwhile, a UW library studies student, Mel Nicholas, became interested in collecting oral histories after drawing inspiration from other activists’ experiences during her own advocacy efforts.
During the summer of 2011, Nicholas and other members of the Madison for the Penokees group worked to halt proposed mining in the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin. The group lacked an engaging reference source, according to Nicholas. They learned instead from activists’ experiences in opposing the Crandon Mine, which began when Exxon Mobile proposed a zinc-copper ore mine on tribal lands in Crandon, Wis.
“We had a huge book that would have been hard to consult with. We wanted [to hear] the stories of activists that had fought against the Crandon Mine,” Nicholas said.
When Gillis and Nicholas each heard of the other’s work, they decided to collaborate to increase the impact and longevity of their efforts.
“One reason that these projects merged so well, we’re focusing on the history of two past struggles that are very much relevant to today,” Gillis said.
Oral history project members can be found discussing sources and interview techniques in Rainbow Book Cooperative on West Gilman Street. They have collected seven interviews so far, and going forward, they plan to record and archive stories about the anti-war protests and the first Mifflin Riots.
Oral history gives members of massive, collective protests the opportunity to reflect and celebrate their individual engagement, Khan said.
“I think one really important thing that you get from oral histories that you don’t get from other sources of media is that everyone’s story is important, because you don’t have to write it,” she added.
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