By Daniel Kerr
The year 2020 has been a year of crisis, trauma and resilience. In his introduction to the edited collection, Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis (2014), Mark Cave leads off with a statement that feels more true now than ever before, “Crisis is a historical constant.” He continues, “Our thoughts are consumed by daily routine or captured by the next headline. What remains when the cameras turn away, and reporters go home, are individuals and communities in the process of redefinition.” Cave makes a compelling case that oral history as a methodology is well suited to explore this longer-term process of change.
That could not be truer today. With that said, the speed, pace and magnitude of crisis in 2020 have not only left communities in a state of redefinition, they have left our very practice and the Oral History Association itself in a transformed state. The OHA is in the midst of a major change, as we seek to expand our relevance and impact and further our mission and vision as articulated in our newly adopted Strategic Plan:
Mission Statement: The Oral History Association (OHA) is a dynamic crossroads of ideas and people, connecting and inspiring practitioners, and supporting their work to ethically collect, preserve, share, and interpret memories which foster knowledge and respect.
Vision Statement: We envision a world where a deep humanistic understanding of the past, developed through a process of listening and mutual respect, shapes a more inclusive and equitable future.
In our commitment to gather together in the midst of this pandemic, the OHA pulled together one of our most successful conferences to date with a near record number of attendees and presenters. The conference theme, The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle, could not be timelier. We heard repeatedly from the post-conference survey that the sessions were profound, impactful and field altering. Nearly every one of the sessions has been recorded and transcribed, creating unprecedented levels of access to all of the presentations. Those sessions will be available through Attendify through next summer.
We had huge numbers of volunteers who attended the conference for free and did a tremendous amount of work to host and edit transcriptions. Significant numbers of presenters followed our new guidelines on making PowerPoints and other visuals accessible. Almost every session had a live transcript and our feature sessions had live American Sign Language translation. We embraced our commitment to making the OHA broadly accessible and impactful.
While we remain dedicated to holding in-person gatherings in the future, we will need to be creative to find ways to use new tools to continue our commitment to making our gatherings as accessible as possible. With that said, our virtual success depended on the strong relationships we have built with one another over the years of gathering in person. While our avatars in Second Life may dance better, dancing together in real life requires much deeper levels of engagement.
Planning for annual conferences starts nearly three years prior to the meeting and begins in earnest a year and a half prior to our coming together. We are already well underway with our plans for 2021. Vice President Amy Starecheski, program co-chairs Nikki Yeboah and Sara Sinclair, and local arrangements co-chairs Gwen Etter-Lewis and Tracy McDonough are busy pulling together what promises to be an extraordinary conference focusing on the theme Moving Stories. It is time to work on your proposals and organize your sessions. At this moment, it is our preference not to hold an in-person conference. However, we need to work with the hotel that we have contracted with in Cincinnati to create an acceptable solution for both sides before we can make a final decision on the meeting format.
At the October business meeting, we passed our new Strategic Plan. Tomás Summers Sandoval Jr., Allison Tracy-Taylor and Cynthia Tobar are leading the Organizational Restructuring Task Force to look closely at our committee structure to see how we might organize the OHA most effectively to further the goals of the plan. We ask all of our current committee members to participate in this process, and we expect to start implementing these changes by March and formalizing them in the Constitution and Bylaws at our annual meeting next year.
We have a lot of heavy lifting to do to achieve our goals and would value your active participation. Please let us know if you are interested in participating in our current committees. We will find a place for you as our committee structure changes: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeSx8eNi2htvRQ0RgTq-ZKrSAOb–LJjekMLv5vpFlvUP2KFQ/viewform?usp=sf_link.
In January, we will move into our fourth year of a five-year contract with Middle Tennessee State University, which houses our executive office. Kris McCusker and Louis Kyriakoudes, our co-executive directors, have done a tremendous job and have dedicated countless hours of time to the OHA. Understandably, they have both decided that they want to focus on other projects after their five-year commitment ends. With their support, we will begin a search for a new Executive Office next year. We expect to put out a Request for Proposals in the late spring or early summer of next year. Until then, start thinking about whether you may be interested in being the OHA’s next executive director.
Immediately, we have a critical need for a new treasurer. Kristine Navarro-McElhaney, to whom the OHA will be forever indebted, resigned as treasurer because she now serves as the vice-president and president-elect for the National Council of Public History. Please consider applying to be the treasurer. The six-year position receives an annual stipend of $2,000 and is reimbursed for travel expenses to the annual meetings. Let us know right now if you are interested: https://oralhistory.org/2020/11/11/wanted-a-new-oha-treasurer/
As the planet around us is in the midst of great turmoil and change, we cannot stand by as spectators. Oral history, rooted in deep listening, empathy and open-endedness, is needed now more than ever. Grab your microphones, recorders, metadata synchronizing tools and editing software, and let’s get to work building a better world!