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Learning to Listen and the Importance of Being in the Background: Levi Brown ’24 at the Oral History in the Liberal Arts in Yellow Springs, Ohio

In 2011, a mass of protestors joined together in Zuccotti Park just outside of the Wall Street stock exchange with one major thing in common: the goal of fighting the 1% and calling out the people on Wall Street for controlling our lives. The news of the original protests spread across the nation and, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Americans and people throughout the Global North picked up the imagery, tactics, and message. They were plastered all over social media and the impressionable freshman in high school that I was became enthralled.

Having been founded by anarchists, the movement that became known as Occupy Wall Street had no leadership and was regularly accused of having no direction or specific message. In reality, it had a collection of messages and I remember watching the live streams in the middle of the rain where the founders were running soup kitchens and tent cities for the homeless as protestors elevated their community members’ voices together. Everything from David Graeber promoting his then-new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, to liberating Palestine, the origins of the BLM movement, opposing Monsanto’s GMO patents, and controversies of the Iraq war were all messages I was exposed to through Occupy.

One tactic they used that always stuck with me was how they elevated each others’ voices during meetings. A person would volunteer to not speak and instead only watch for hands to raise. They would then ‘stack’ these people in order to decide who would speak first on a topic and the surrounding community (composed of the several thousand people living in the Zuccotti Park tent city at the time) would collectively repeat each sentence the speaker said to work as a makeshift megaphone for the entire park to hear. This is how the Occupy movement would voice their opinions to journalists, make decisions on when to fall back to the police, and decide how to raise funds for food and shelter.

When someone is interested in politics and activism, I think they all spend a good chunk of time imagining themselves as some kind of hero on the forefront of a mob of people, leading a message or directing a movement. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough of us—and I am certainly included in this—ask ourselves how to elevate the voices of the unheard and build group cohesion. We spend too much tie wanting to argue or disagree or put our own spin on a topic. We think of ourselves as a part greater than the whole, which is why oral history is so important.

The Oral History in the Liberal Arts (OHLA) program is a division of Antioch College dedicated to taking advantage of our most recent technological achievements to document as extensively and accurately as possible for future historical records the personal accounts of as many living people as possible. As described on their website, OHLA is “an undergraduate research framework for community-engaged teaching and learning using oral history and digital scholarship.” They support digital projects across the Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance, curate tutorials and resources, and offer training.

Being able to document an individual’s first-hand account without any rephrasing or manipulation by the interviewer has to be one of the single most important innovations in history since writing. Because of the age of information, YouTube, cellphones, voice-to-text programs, etc. we have the ability to preserve perfect windows in time and almost completely isolate and account for any possible second-hand bias. Through oral history, the individual can have their exact phrasing perfectly preserved for generations to hear regardless of if they’ve been taught to write, read, or code. The interviewer will have their expectations and biases saved as well. This is what the Oral History in the Liberal Arts is all about: creating these time capsules of all kinds of groups of people and events both big and small by getting the most detailed and accurate accounts of what is happening in the world as we live it. Think of all the different nuances in speech, phrasing, specific emotions used, and slang that can be conserved and reviewed for generations to come.

Through my time at OHLA, I’ve been privileged enough to hear a wide range of interviews from across the country with many varying perspectives. Learning how to elevate these voices as a form of behind-the-scenes activism has been both humbling and a pleasure. We can all find ways to fight the good fight without trying to be the only voice in the room and by spotlighting the unheard. Doing this co-op has led me to teach myself some minor bits of coding and a great deal of WordPress, has improved my grammar by leagues, and most importantly has helped me develop better abilities to educate myself.

My job is to index and transcribe these interviews to then be posted to the OHLA website and stored in a database where they can then be accessed as sources by anyone and everyone, whether academics or hobbyists. Topics have ranged from Antioch students protesting racism and seed preservationists across the country to quilt-makers in West Virginia and exploring indigenous Mayan textiles in Chiapas, Mexico.

I’ve definitely learned a lot from listening to these projects, but what I’ve valued the most is learning the importance of listening.

Photo credit: https://ohla.info

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Levi is currently an Antioch College student of Political economy in the class of 2024. He works as the Digital Archives Coordinator where he assists the director of the Oral History in the Liberal Arts program for the Great Lakes Colleges Association, Brooke Blackmon Bryan, where they provide technical support and aid to over 60 Mellon-funded research projects employing interview methodology and digital tools for community-based learning. He specifically offers technical support and project management. His interests include, History, Political Science, Sociology, and Psychology.

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