- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Zaheer Ali, director of Lawrenceville’s Hutchins Center for Race and Social Justice, has been elected to serve on the national council of the Oral History Association (OHA), the leading national organization of oral history practitioners since its founding in 1966.
According to the OHA, oral historians “gather, preserve, and interpret memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” It is both the oldest type of historical inquiry (predating the written word), and one of the most modern (now using 21st century digital technology).
“I’m very excited to begin my tenure on the OHA national council. My responsibilities will include serving as the council’s liaison to the OHA Education Committee that has the mission of promoting the use of oral history in the classroom and I look forward to the ways this work can support and benefit faculty and students at Lawrenceville,” said Ali.
For nearly two decades, Ali has worked as an oral historian collecting, preserving, interpreting, and sharing life histories, testimonies, memoirs, and narrations of people from all walks of life. He has interviewed hundreds of people, including public figures, private citizens, activists, artists, educators, students, business leaders, politicians, community organizers, and clergy members, as well as people of different ages, faith traditions, nationalities, sexual orientations, and racial, ethnic, and gender identities.
Ali came to oral history many years ago as a historian in search of primary sources that could help tell the stories of communities that were marginalized, ignored, and/or silenced in traditional archives.
“What I found was so much more than sources to cite: I encountered and was drawn to a whole field devoted to not only amplifying voices, but also grounding that work in ethical practices that honor and respect the humanness of those voices and the experiences they narrate,” he said.
Ali explained that his experiences as an oral historian have profoundly shaped his approach to teaching and his theory of social change. “As an oral historian, I am guided by three beliefs: everyone has a story to tell, everyone has the capacity to tell their own story, and everyone deserves to have their story not just heard but listened to,” he explained.
According to Ali, oral history holds the promise of increasing historical knowledge, building our capacity for story telling, and being in community through narrative immersion and sharing. Whether around the Harkness table in class or through the Hutchins Center for Race and Social Justice, these principles can inform how we think and talk about race, and how we advocate and work for social justice.
On November 17, Ali will co-lead a virtual program for educators as part of Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History’s professional development series, based on their Muslims in Brooklyn project, which Ali directed when he was employed there. The series will focus on how educators can use oral history and archival materials to explore issues of identity and belonging.
“My work with the OHA will be, I hope, just the beginning of the many ways we can draw on the knowledge, methods, and ethics of oral history to not only foster a greater sense of belonging, building, and becoming, but activate that sentiment for social change, here and beyond,” said Ali.
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