‘Historians will continuously discover unexpected in their research – if they talk to women’

Scholars from Concordia and the University of Strathclyde emphasized intersectional feminism at this year’s oral history Summer Institute

Smiling woman with long, tied-back hair, a ruffled scarf, grey top and black leather jacket.Cynthia Hammond: “Oral history is a project of listening in the present to people’s memories of the past on behalf of a future world that will better understand those experiences.”

Affiliates of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) and the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow recently met for a collegial exchange about new research in the field.

The virtual Summer Institute, which took place from June 7 to 10, was the third time the two centres have come together. This year’s gathering included workshops on digital mapping, filmmaking and virtual reality.

The theme of the COHDS/SOHC Summer Institute was Embodied Stories: Gender, the Body and Oral History, which guided the focus of the 16 short papers presented by students, scholars and affiliates of the two organizations.

Though this was the first time the exchange was done virtually, co-organizer Cynthia Hammond, Concordia and art history professor, says it unfolded seamlessly thanks to Concordia’s 4TH SPACE.

‘Not all scholarly events need to be in person’

As former director of the COHDS, could you walk us through your experience of organizing this year’s summer institute, given the context of the pandemic?

Cynthia Hammond: Meeting virtually was a very different beast! But after a year’s delay, I think everyone was very ready to go ahead with the event, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. What surprised me was how well it went, and how seamless an online event can be. But I ascribe this success 100 per cent to COHDS’s collaboration with the team at 4TH SPACE, who are complete pros.

Something I really liked about having a virtual conference was the lower impact on the environment. This is something that the scholarly community must begin to grapple with: our impact on climate change through flights to other countries.

International travel is one of the most cherished aspects of being a scholar, and there is a lot of research that must still be done in person, but not all scholarly events need to be.

What were the key findings of the papers presented by this year’s 16 scholars?

CH: What I gathered from the scholarly presentations was that oral historians continuously discover the unexpected in their research, no matter the subject, if they talk to women. For example, Leyla Vural presented her research on trans women activists who were at Stonewall, who have not been well remembered as part of that watershed moment in LGBTQIA2+ politics.

And Nancy Tapias Torrado shared incredible research about her interviews with Indigenous women human rights defenders in Central and South America. This group, which is usually presented as vulnerable and persecuted, is in fact made up of extremely successful leaders who are making powerful change in and for their communities.

The research-creation programming, including the two workshops and two conversations, underscored the fact that listening is a crucial aspect of research and creation that aims to transform the world.

In Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro‘s conversation with Julie Ann Carpini, we learned that being listened to, in the context of restorative justice processes and oral history interviews, was a key factor in her healing from violence. It also contributed to her finding the strength to become an advocate and activist on behalf of other survivors.

Can you share more about your experience working with 4TH SPACE?

CH: It was a total pleasure. They helped the COHDS team to envision the event as online only, but worked with us to ensure that the “in-person” spirit of the institute was still fostered. They had great ideas about curating an oral history research-creation breakout room – which was ultimately curated by COHDS coordinator Emma Haraké – and helped us to plan social time in the breaks and following each day’s sessions.

How did you come up with this year’s theme?

CH: It was a carryover from my last year as lead co-director of the COHDS, when I established an orientation for all the public events of the centre, called Listening on Behalf of Feminist Futures.

My inspiration was twofold: first, I was motivated by the idea that oral history is a project of listening in the present to people’s memories of the past on behalf of a future world that will better understand those people’s experiences.

Second, I was moved by the long tradition of feminist work that is geared toward understanding the past in the present, so that the future will be more just, more inclusive and more egalitarian for all.

I was supported in this vision by a great group of women who volunteered to be part of an advisory committee for this year’s programming: Barbara Lorenzkowski, associate professor of history; PhD student Zeina Allouche; community affiliate Sandra Gasana; PhD student Eleni Polychronakos; ; postdoctoral fellow Rajni Shah; former COHDS coordinator Stéphane Martelly; and undergraduate student Samantha Leger.

I’m grateful to everyone for their input on this important year of events. It was the first time that the COHDS featured a year of intersectional feminist programming, and I’m very proud of that.

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