June, 2011

  1. Cambodian-American Community of Oregon Oral History Program

    June 16, 2011 by admin

    The following is an interview with Sophorn Cheang and Mardine Mao, co-directors of Cambodian-American Community of Oregon’s oral history project. CACO, formed in 1989, organizes many educational, cultural and social programs. For their oral history project, nineteen young Cambodian-Americans interviewed their elders, many of whom are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. They produced a 36-minute documentary film from their interviews.

    NOHA:  Did you videotape all the interviews?
    CACO:  All the interviews were videotaped at our producer’s studio. Each interview took about 1 to 2.5 hours.

    NOHA:  Where are you storing your collection?

    CACO:  We are in the process of finishing up all the raw material and getting the DVDs to the participants. We have yet to have a physical location to store these collections, but are hoping that we can transcribe the interviews and have them available on our website for researchers and archives.

    NOHA:  Will the collection be available to the public? For instance, to independent scholars?

    CACO:  The 36-minute oral history documentary film is available now for purchase on our website. As we mentioned above, we are hoping to transcribe the raw material and have them available publicly soon. [Note from NOHA: If the CACO website is still under construction when you read this, copies of the film are available directly from Sophorn for $15. Email her at ]

    NOHA:  Is your collection phase ongoing?

    CACO:  At this moment, we are not conducting any more interviews. However, we continue our outreach to the public through public screenings, and discuss the film at high schools, colleges and universities, community partners and neighborhood associations. One of our purposes is to encourage other communities who have faced similar oppression to take actions and raise awareness within their own communities.

    NOHA:  How old were your youth interviewers?

    CACO:  They ranged from 13 to 30 years of age.

    NOHA:  What effects has the experience of interviewing had on the youths?

    CACO:  In lieu of trying to answer this question ourselves, as directors of this project, we asked one of the young adults that did the interview, and below is her comment which we can safely say is a good representation of how the others feel:

    Kimberly Im, CACO Interviewer:  Being a part of the OH project was something I am so glad I signed up for. It was an amazing experience for both myself, my sister and my mother. I already think of my mother as wonder woman and my hero, but with this project it just makes me think even more of her, if that was even possible. I would highly suggest that all communities no matter what race, age, religion etcetera, take part in a project like this because everyone has their life stories and they should be told. 

    Learning about her struggles and her life story makes me put things into perspective. I am so grateful for all the things I have in my life, and for everything that she did to give me the life that I have now. Being a child raised in the posh lifestyles of the US, I have nothing to complain about or be sad about. I worry about things that are trivial compared to things my mother was worried about. She feared for her life, her family’s life. She had no food to eat, no safety, nothing. The experience robbed her and her other community members of that. She lost her childhood and the innocence that I got to have freely and without struggles. 

    Being a part of this project opened my eyes. It made me more compassionate and aware. I am closer to my mother after this. Tears were shed that day, hugs were given and love was spread because of this project. I also have such a strong respect for all of the members that participated in this. It was a hard thing to talk about and bring up, but it seems to only positively affect all those that were involved. Sharing a story can mean so much, and I thought that I had heard it all, but my mother brought up things in that interview that I was unaware of and was blown away by. In these genocide/war stories, the sharing part, I feel, although very hard, is cathartic. All these memories and gut-wrenching images that were suppressed and held back because of the fear and the suffering. But it seemed that once it was let go and shared, positive energy was also released. The youth and the offspring of all the survivors should be grateful for everything their parents/grandparents did for them. I am so thankful for my mother and my father for fighting so hard for life so that I could have mine. I am truly blessed and this project let me see that. 

    Everyone in this project was strong and wonderful. I am so proud to be a part of the OH project. I think it is and was a beautiful thing! 

    NOHA:  What about the effects on the elders who are telling these painful stories?

    CACO:  While some were able to let go and got the burden out of their system, some were just telling on the surface and still holding back and find it hard to open up completely.  For those who were able to open up completely and let go of their pain, they felt a sense of relief and were glad that they were able to get it out and able to share with their children. In these cases, we see that healing is beginning to take place.

    NOHA:  What would you like people to know about Cambodian-Americans?

    CACO:   We are many things, but more importantly we are survivors. We survived one of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity. We survived the language, cultural and other barriers; we survived the berry picking and being on the welfare system and most noticeably survived being far away and in a foreign land. While some of us are still struggling to deal with painful pasts and still dreaming to reach the American dream, many have called America home and made the American dreams; but not without hard work and sacrifice. Many young adults held numerous jobs just to make ends meet, in some cases going to school and providing for their family at the same time. Many elders are stuck at home, lonesome, by themselves while their children are either in school or working.  Some of the things we value most are family and education. You can ask any Cambodians around middle age what they value the most; you’ll hear something like, “my kids getting good education and my mom being well taken care of.”  Or if you ask an elderly person, you probably will get an answer something along these lines, “to see my grandchildren get a good education and to take care of his/her family when they grow up.”

    While Cambodian-Americans are known to the mainstream population as the children of the killing fields, we’d like to be known as survivors and people who call America home, and people who have made a considerable contribution to America vitality. Many went on to be professionals, business owners and scholars. We also feel encouraged to see some of our youth going on to colleges and top universities. We have continued to see parents and community groups work relentlessly to empower our youth to live a productive life and become successful individuals. We hope that this documentary film will continue to inspire the younger generation to value America freedom and liberty and to work hard to make a meaningful life for themselves and their family.

  2. An Interview with Senate Historian Donald A Ritchie

    June 2, 2011 by admin

    This contribution is from Matt Simek, NOHA member.

    During a recent visit to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, I was fortunate to spend some time with Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, former president of the Oral History Association, and council member of the International Oral History Association.   Among his books are the widely used manual, Doing Oral History, now in its second edition, and the Oxford Handbook on Oral History.  As senate historian, he and his staff conduct an oral history program, among other responsibilities of the office. 

    I asked Don for a few thoughts on his experience with “doing oral history” and thought his observations were worth sharing with other NOHA members….

    Do you have a “most memorable” interview? 

    DR:  All of my interviews have been memorable in some fashion, and they’ve given me an opportunity to meet some fascinating individuals and learn a great deal from them.  But one that stands out in particular was with Christine McCreary, the secretary who integrated the Senate cafeteria in 1953. On her first day, she asked her senator, Stuart Symington, where she could eat lunch, and he sent her to the cafeteria without realizing that it served only white staff members.  She described the consternation on her arrival, and how one of the cafeteria staff pushed a plate out so fast that it sailed past her and broke on the floor.  With everyone looking at her, she simply got another plate.  “And then I went back the next day, and the next day, until finally they got used to seeing me coming in there and then there was no more problems with that.”  There is no written record of the segregation of dining facilities on Capitol Hill, but McCreary’s interview provided a vivid account of the atmosphere that existed in the era before civil rights legislation. Her interview is on the Senate website at .

    What is your current project?

    DR:  The Senate Historical Office continues to conduct life review interviews with former senators and staff.  Among the individuals I have recently interviewed are a senator who was appointed to fill a vacancy during the last Congress, a party floor secretary, and a staff aide to three former senators.  We try to do a cross-section of people involved in the Senate, everyone from the committee clerks and parliamentarians to the barbers and telephone operators, to leave a record of how the modern Senate has functioned.

    What is the ultimate value of collecting and preserving oral histories from “ordinary” citizens?

    DR:  Everyone has a story to tell. Those at the top were involved in high-level policy decisions, but the “ordinary” members of the Senate’s community keep the daily functioning of the institution from becoming a distraction to the policy makers.  Many of the recent interviews have dealt with technological innovations, and how computers and teleconferencing abilities have facilitated (and in some cases complicated) the legislative process.  Any institutionally or community based oral history project should plan to do a cross-section of interviews with those at all levels, from managers to staff, if they want to understand how things really work.

    What are the most common errors of amateur oral historians?

    DR:  Learning how to frame questions and then listen to the answers are harder than most people expect.  Good questions should never presuppose the answers, but should be open-ended enough to allow the interviewees to speak their minds.  Listening also requires a great deal of concentration, to catch the unexpected responses that prompt follow-up questions.  

    How should oral history interviews be preserved in the digital age?

    DR:  Oral history has been recorded on every possible form of recording devices, many of which no longer exist.  It’s important to place the recordings in a library or archives that can preserve the originals and make copies available for research. Transcribing interviews will better assure both their preservation and their use.

    What are some ways to evaluate whether an interview is worth keeping?

    DR:  Adam Smith asserted that the real value of anything is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.  If you’ve gone to the trouble of collecting the materials–and have worked to maintain the basic oral history standards–then you have an obligation to preserve them for future researchers. The interviewees will not be around forever, and your interview may be the only record that person leaves behind.  Interviews that may initially seem disappointing may have different meaning and worth to future researchers, because other evidence will have shed new light on the matters being discussed.  But interviews that lack deeds of gift to establish copyright may severely reduce the accessibility of that material for other researchers.   (Note:  The internet offers many examples of interview consent forms and transcript release forms that can easily be adapted to your specific needs.  MS

    Will a third edition of Doing Oral History update changing technology?

    DR:  The first edition came out in 1995 and the second in 2003.  Between those years, the digital revolution occurred and affected almost every phase of conducting and preserving interviews.  Only the basic human element of doing an interview remained unchanged.   Technology has continued to evolve at a fast clip, particularly the use of the Internet to make oral history more available on a worldwide basis.  Oral historians have also grown even more creative in the ways they package and present interviews to the public.  I have collected a great deal of material for a new edition and am beginning to put it together.  I am eager to hear from users of the book about issues and items they would like to see in the next edition. 

    (Don Ritchie can be reached by writing .)