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.

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.

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

“Unheard Voices” Workshop


We’re headed to an oral history training! Today through Friday, we’ll be attending a four-day workshop in San Francisco to learn how to best bring our interviewees’ stories to Small Stones.

Emily has admired and taught with Voice of Witness’s books for years. (They’re the folks running the workshop). We’re terribly excited, and plan to provide updates to the blog as the week goes by.

Oral History Resources: Voice of Witness


Over here at Small Stones, we are busy with our own oral history project (come talk to us!), and one place we love to go for resources is Voice of Witness. Today, here’s a look at what they offer for educators.

First up: a webinar series on conducting oral history projects with students. Registration is required, but resources are available to check out now. We particularly like the resource guide “Listen Up: How to Plan Your Oral History Project.” At the top of the PDF is a list of excellent examples of other projects, notably some from high school students.

Also available, as a free download (or for purchase as a physical book): a teacher’s guide, The Power of the Story. You’ll find curricular material that can be used with Voice of Witness’s oral history collections, material that stands alone, and guides to creating your own oral history project.

From the foreword, written by William Ayers and Richard Ayers:

Oral history can be a truly revolutionary pedagogy. Because the work is propelled by questions instead of answers, it liberates students from the dull routines of passively receiving predigested in- formation. Instead, they become actors in constructing history and contributing substantively to the trajectory of the curriculum. They invent and experience the method of science, proposing explana- tions of the world, and then investigate to test the truth or to modify their explanations.

Students can approach the work as artists, filled with creativity and inventiveness, generative mistakes and sparkling epiphanies. Teachers can learn to take an attentive and supportive backseat, after sufficient preparation, and watch democratic education emerge from projects that the students themselves have learned to own. Through these projects, the stories that have been hidden, sup- pressed, and ignored begin to take center stage, and the real dimensions of one’s community and its struggles burst forth and grab the mic. This is why oral history, in form and content, can become a central project of social justice in our classrooms.

Finally, if you’d like your training in person, and you are able to be in San Francisco, consider VOW’s Annual Summer Oral History Training. We certainly are.


Oral History: An Introduction


We often think of history as big events—think battles, coronations, explorations—that’s observed impartially, recorded faithfully, and carefully preserved in libraries and universities for later generations. But history is as much about the lives of every day people as so-called great events, and we all can play an important part in preserving our own, and our community’s, history.

And these days, it’s hard not to feel as though we are all in the process of making our own contributions to history.

Over several posts, we’re going to present materials for learning about oral history, great examples of oral history that students can easily access, and methods for incorporating oral histories into the classroom. We’ll even focus in on how students can take their own oral histories and preserve their communities’ stories.

To begin, two organizations doing incredible work in this field.

Storycorps, frequently featured on various NPR programs, has been helping people interview each other since the first story booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 2003.

Their mission is simple:

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.

The site is beautifully organized, making it easy to find educational materials, locate a story booth and make a reservation to conduct your own interview, or simply listen to a curated selection of stories for the week. Right now the front page is filled with stories about love, and you can take your pick: two immigrant New Yorkers, one from the Dominican Republic, one from Pakistan, discussing how they first met twenty-five years ago while working together at a hotel; a woman who grew up in Georgia in the 1940s telling the story of her love for another woman that she could never fully experience; and two sets of identical twins reminiscing about how they met and fell in love, with each other.

There are also several thematic collections.

One of the things we love most about using Storycorps material in the classroom is the way students react to hearing people describing their own history, in their own voices. Since there are no visuals, listeners can focus in on the language people use and the way they describe their lives. There are few other ways we’ve found to make recent history so vivid.

Voice of Witness is another wonderful place to begin with oral histories. They seek out, record, and “amplify unheard voices” in a series of books that range from stories from a Chicago housing project to undocumented immigrants living in the United States to incarcerated women to survivors of Burma’s military regime.


Voice of Witness (VOW) is a non-profit that promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice. Through our oral history book series and education program, we foster a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of human rights crises.

Our work is driven by a strong belief in the transformative power of the story, for both teller and listener.


Voice of Witness was cofounded by author Dave Eggers, writer & educator Mimi Lok, and physician Lola Vollen. Eggers originated the VOW book series with Vollen in 2005. In 2008, Lok transitioned Voice of Witness to a 501(c)(3) organization and established its education program.

For over ten years, VOW has illuminated human rights crises in the U.S. and globally. Our oral history book series has amplified hundreds of seldom-heard voices, including those of wrongfully convicted Americans, undocumented immigrants, and people in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Colombia.

Our education program serves over 20,000 people annually. Our oral history pedagogy has been used to train a broad range of advocates for human rights and dignity, including educators, writers, journalists, attorneys, and medical doctors.

Take it from an educator; I’ve used VOW material in the community college classroom myself, and I can’t speak too highly of how students respond. And if you’re going to be at AWP this year, check out their panel (and then tell me how it was!):


When/Where: Thursday, February 9th, 2017 from 4:30-5:45 pm in Room 202B, Level Two
Moderator: Dave Eggers
Speakers: Mimi Lok (Executive Director, Voice of Witness), Jennifer Lentfer (Director of Communications, Thousand Currents), Lorena (VOW narrator, Underground America)