Voice of Witness is a nonprofit that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, they record narratives that depict human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men, women and children who experience them. Voice of Witness was co-founded by author Dave Eggers, who helped shape the creation of the Fund’s First Person Stories series. Here, he shares his thoughts on the power of stories to help progress social change.
Why have you turned to oral history as a way to connect people to important social justice issues?
There are a bunch of reasons. First of all, from a reader’s standpoint, first-person narratives have a unique immediacy and power. There’s really nothing as direct and electric as hearing one person’s voice describing clearly and powerfully what they’ve seen and done. That direct connection with a reader enables the narrator to explain their place in complex sociopolitical environments in a way that third-person nonfiction sometimes can’t. To understand the plight of undocumented workers, for instance, I think every reader needs to walk a few miles in their shoes, to see the world through their eyes. So that’s how the reader benefits. On the other side, many of the social justice crises we face here in the United States and around the world are about people not having a voice. By sharing the first-person narratives of undocumented immigrants, wrongfully convicted prisoners and political refugees, Voice of Witness seeks to allow those who are ignored, marginalized and stripped of their humanity to finally tell their stories. The goal is to allow them to be counted and named, to have their identity reclaimed through storytelling.
What do first-person stories offer that’s different from how issues like immigrant rights normally are covered in today’s media?
The media is always limited by space and attention span. If they’re covering Zimbabwe in the TV news, it’s for 15 or 20 seconds, and it’s about the broader issues—political maneuvering, recent crises, that kind of thing. So the consumer of media reports gets a flyover view of the events. But oral history really puts you on the street level. And I think these narratives, by walking the reader through the events, step by step, clarify history in a way that some media reports struggle to.
What makes a good first-person story?
The first thing we encourage our interviewers to ask is “What was your childhood like?” We’re determined to represent the whole person and their whole life, so we start from the start. Otherwise the narrator can feel violated—that the only interesting thing about themselves is the fact that they were victimized. On the reader side, including the narrator’s whole life—or moments from his or her whole life—helps engender understanding and connection. A good story offers something that all of us can relate to. It introduces us to someone we can empathize with, even if they are very different from us in terms of their background or where they’re from or the language they speak or the conditions of their life.
What changes have you seen resulting from the first-person stories you have published?
Again and again we see narrators who feel empowered and self-possessed after telling their stories. It’s actually a process of reclaiming the narrative of your life. When we published our book about exonerated prisoners in the U.S., the narrators wrote to us saying that it was the first time their story had been told accurately and in full. That’s a big deal, especially to someone who’s felt wrongly accused or misunderstood. To finally have their narrative reclaimed—it’s very powerful. Even life-changing. In Underground America, we interviewed a man in San Francisco named Roberto. He’s an American whose family has been torn apart due to some of the more draconian immigration policies. After he published his narrative in the book, he said, “It was a relief. You feel like you’ve let go of something stressful. Like, one piece at a time, you’re lightening the burden you’ve been carrying on your shoulders.” Yasir, a narrator in Patriot Acts, our forthcoming book on post-9/11 injustice, said, “I hope people my age, or Muslim-American youth, can use me as an example to understand what their rights are and how to assert them—to be confident in what they are doing.”
How has your Voice of Witness work changed the way you think about these social justice issues?
Every time I think I know an issue, I find, after reading someone’s first-person narratives, that I didn’t know it at all. I read about immigration issues every day in the newspaper, and I know dozens of immigrants, but the depth and scope of these stories far surpassed anything I knew. I think for anyone who reads the narratives in these books, oral histories provide a far deeper understanding of any issue, historical event or crisis. They bring it back to a fully human place, where we can connect and empathize and, one hopes, act.