Most often, a philanthropic institution gathers and shares stories to help potential funders or other stakeholders understand its work, advocacy, or impact. It often collects these stories with an immediate end goal in mind. Success stories can encourage investment or demonstrate the institution’s impact on a discrete project or area of focus. Personal accounts of seeing something happen to someone or something can demonstrate the need for a proposed policy or service.
And sometimes funders and advocates gather stories without an advocacy goal or specific outcome in mind. A collection of oral histories, for example, can illuminate the complexity and multiplicity of personal experiences in a certain place or at a given point in time.
Voice of Witness is trying to portray contemporary human rights issues through oral histories, which can be argued is one of the more democratic and egalitarian forms of storytelling. The oral histories come from the men and women most closely affected by complex issues. It's a way not only to enrich public understanding around these issues, but also to humanize and complicate the issues further, in a good way. For example, what you thought you knew about Haiti, or about the situation in Sudan, or about people who live in public housing—these stories, these experiences are going to turn your understanding on its head or add a few shades of grey to what you thought you knew. Hopefully this will help us become better-informed citizens, and better advocates for human rights and dignity.
For more than two years, I have been gathering a wide range of oral histories from departing staff of the Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited-life foundation that will complete grantmaking by the end of 2016. Our goal is to offer a rich portrait of the foundation’s mission, work, and culture by capturing, curating, and amplifying the words of the people who have worked there. As Katie Butterfield, who recently left the foundation after serving as its communications executive, explains, “It’s important to note our unique and significant situation: Atlantic is limited life, and come 2020 no one will remain, and the history will be told by what has been preserved. This is a way to have the story of the foundation be told by the people who have led the work, and to have their voices and experiences be preserved beyond their own tenure at the organization and the organization’s overall lifetime.”
Dave Isay, founder and president of StoryCorps (an organization with which Atlantic has also worked to gather paired staff oral histories) has noted that oral histories are about mortality; they are often about how one wishes to be remembered. Yet the stories I am gathering are not about vanity or individualism. Rather, Atlantic staff members are encouraged to reflect on what they have learned, the knowledge they are imparting, and how working at the foundation may influence their future. The interviews are helping departing staff reflect on their role within the institution, and within the larger philanthropic community.
Every interview will be archived in its entirety. As lok notes, this process renders oral history egalitarian, “because you have to preserve the integrity of what someone said and how they said it.” More immediately, though, we have been editing the interviews into short compilations that are showing to all staff members. Gathering and sharing these videos is a tangible way of inviting staff members into a community that is co-creating the meaning of their experiences and reminding them that they are creating and sharing the organizational living legacy.
New Mexico State University Professor David Boje, known for his groundbreaking work in the area of narratives and organizations, approaches storytelling “as interplay of retrospective, now, and prospective sense-making.” in that spirit, Atlantic Philanthropies’ oral history project is about articulating the past and present of the organization, and about influencing the future. Atlantic staff members (and, ultimately, anyone who reviews the foundation’s archived interviews) are invited to make collective sense of these experiences and develop clarity on the legacy Atlantic is creating and will ultimately leave behind. Oral history is the perfect tool for celebrating the multiplicity of voices that define a legacy and create new, legacy-worthy futures.