Our Inspiration: Voice of Witness

An organization at the root of ethical storytelling

Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.

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Dragon in front of San Francisco Asian Art Museum, which kindly hosted the VOW workshop

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:

“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”

If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.

At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.

Our interview process is directly inspired by VOW’s work. If you think you might want to speak to us—or introduce us to someone who might—please do get in touch at smallstonesedu@gmail.com.

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Last day of class: Group photo at the Voice of Witness 2017 “Amplifying Unheard Voices” workshop

Storytelling

We’ve been musing about the direction Small Stones should take and one avenue we’re pursuing and deepening is storytelling. By that, we mean first-person narratives with a focus on the topics and themes we’ve been blogging about: discrimination, bias, racism, prejudice, and also the tools available to confront these.

Frequent readers will remember some of our oral history posts, including Oral History: An Introduction and Oral History: A Community College Assignment.

As we start developing interviews, we’ll share some resources pertaining to the storytelling process.

Today’s are from The Moth, a storytelling program that’s one of our favorite podcasts. First, three values The Moth promotes, which we offer in the spirit of “food for thought”.

  • We believe that processing experience through narrative can provide insight and agency
  • We believe that listening to stories can widen our perspective and help us realize what we have in common.
  • We believe that a community is strengthened when its members share stories with one another.

And next, some concrete tips for storytelling from The Moth. Keep in mind that The Moth is interested in oral story telling with a particular format, so some of the tips are specific to the genre.

“What to do

“Have some stakes: Stakes are essential in live storytelling. What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.
Start in the action.

“Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention: No: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain. But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.” Yes: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

“Know your story well enough so you can have fun!: Watching you panic to think of the next memorized line is harrowing for the audience. Make an outline, memorize your bullet points and play with the details. Enjoy yourself. Imagine you are at a dinner party, not a deposition.”

“…and what not to do

“Steer clear of meandering endings: They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start. Yes, bring the audience along with you as you contemplate what transpires in your story, but remember, you are driving the story, and must know the final destination. Keep your hands on the wheel!

“No standup routines please: The Moth loves funny people but requires that all funny people tell funny stories.

“No rants: Take up this anger issue with your therapist, or skip therapy and shape your anger into a story with some sort of resolution. (Stories = therapy!)

“No essays: Your eloquent musings are beautiful and look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won’t work on stage.

“About that (fake) accent: If your story doesn’t work in your own voice, or that of your people of origin, please consider another story. In our experience, imitating accents from another culture or race rarely works and often offends.”

By way of a bonus, here’s a recent broadcast from The Moth: Pam Burrell’s “My Unlikely Brothers“. Click the story name to re-direct to the story, which doesn’t have embed capability.

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(P. Burrell image by Jessica Taves courtesy of The Moth; featured moth image from“[Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle” (1765) via Flickr.)