Listening Without an Agenda

By Betty Fang

April 18, 2018

Listen without an agenda. This is one tenet of Voice of Witness’ framework on Oral History.

Or as Angelica Salazar says at CDF-CA: listen to understand, not to respond.

To explore precisely this mantra, six youth and staff staff caravanned to Joshua Tree two weekends ago for CDF-CA's first ever Storytelling Retreat. Youth from both our Beat The Odds Scholarship Program and Long Beach Action Scholars Program participated in this three-day pilot training built upon an oral history practice that seeks to subvert historical power structures that define and narrativize ‘history.’

Against the Saturday morning backdrop of youth galvanizing across the country against gun violence for March for our Lives, CDF-CA youth explored peer narratives from the 'I Am Possible’ youth leadership development advocacy campaign, intergenerational writing through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and oral history through the eyes of Lorena, an advocate and narrator in Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. CDF-CA youth discussed their observations on the lack of racial and gender diversity in STEM and law careers, transcending external expectations and self-imposed limitations, and valuing the models of entrepreneurial excellence that are flourishing in their own communities.

As narrators, youth engaged in introspective free-writing and were invited to share and reflect on their memories. As editors, youth conducted audio-recorded interviews of each other, painstakingly transcribed the interviews—word for word—and edited the transcripts to preserve the narrator’s story and authentic voice. Youth were challenged to listen and to inquire deeply of their peers. In the end, they heard their voices reflected back to them in narrative form.

Youth walked out of the retreat as oral historians, both as editors—entrusted with the weight of their peers’ stories—and as narrators—torchbearers in writing and speaking on their own lives.

In the words of Maria Luisa Gonzalez, Long Beach Action scholar: "We don’t often have opportunities in our communities to talk to people close to us when we are sad. Being in the desert — we were somewhere safe. It was just us in that moment. I was out of my comfort zone, creative, open to listening and sharing. When asking the narrator questions, I could envision how the person felt at that moment when they were 12 years old—that was transformative for me. In the past I have shared stories about my family; in the desert, the story I shared was different, but also more open and free. The story I shared was powerful." 

Let us continue to hand over the mic, step aside, and honor youth voices and experiences as they are and as they come.