Oral History Makes Its Mark on Brooklyn (and Hopefully Trump)

NEW YORK—Julia Moran left the Dominican Republic days before her high school graduation, eager to start life in the United States. Decades later, the loss of her family and culture has remained her biggest sacrifice. But a recent project at Brooklyn College offers Moran—and others like her—a chance to recount that loss.

Julia Moran with her family. Photographer: Felicita Maynard

“I feel like I have something to leave to my grandchildren,” Moran said to an audience assembled in the theater of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum last November. She was referring to an interview her son, Elijah, conducted with her last year. The pair recorded themselves discussing Moran’s childhood, her immigration to the United States and her feelings about being Latin American in the U.S. today.

The interview was a final project for one of Elijah’s classes at Brooklyn College. “It took a class project to learn about the person who birthed me,” he said. Elijah told the Tenement Museum crowd, who gathered that day to hear from participants in Brooklyn College’s project, that he “could feel a real loss of belonging” in his mother’s story. As a result of the project, Elijah and his mother visited the Dominican Republic this past year and are planning a future family reunion.

The reflections of Moran and nine others are showcased in the latest exhibit of the Brooklyn College Listening Project, “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices.” It presents a small sample of more than 500 oral histories in the project’s archive, the product of four years of collaborative work by Brooklyn College faculty and students.

Since its initial event in November, “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices” has now expanded to tour the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Beginning in March and ending in September, the exhibit will be on display at four different campuses. And each will include work by the college’s own students.

As Brooklyn College’s first oral history initiative, the Listening Project operates as a “fluid collective” of interested professors and students, said Joseph Entin, founder and former director of the project. Beginning in 2014, it brought together faculty from various departments who chose to incorporate oral history projects into their courses. Students became the collectors and “active producers of knowledge,” Entin said, adding that the project has been able “to draw on the wisdom, expertise and everyday brilliance of people our students know.”

For Jessica Siegel, project director, the historical and community-based work of the Listening Project has potential political power. “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices” offers stories that call into question pervasive, often incorrect, generalizations. “Because so many of the stories are about immigration, we realized it had to push back against [President Donald] Trump,” said Siegel.

From the start of his bid for the presidency, Trump has used his Twitter account to express anti-immigrant sentiments. “Again, illegal immigrant is charged with the fatal bludgeoning of a wonderful and loved 64 year old woman. Get them out and build a WALL!” Trump wrote in 2015. Trump’s recent executive orders to decrease the flow of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers into the United States, and his continued comments on Latin American migrants specifically, influenced Siegel’s decision to highlight a few of the numerous immigrant voices found throughout the Listening Project archive.

The exhibit is built upon the idea that listening to the stories of those affected by closed borders and deportation can significantly alter these political and social climates, and it endeavors to tell the stories of an ever diversifying population of immigrants coming to the United States, especially New York. It joins a growing number of academia-initiated archives across the country.

“We are surrounded by this poison, but this exhibition gives me hope that people who aren’t immigrants get to hear these stories,” Siegel said to the Tenement Museum audience, many nodding in agreement. “The exhibit had to be about immigration. It had to push back against Trump.”

“We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices” seems, at first, to be a simple presentation of 10 double-sided canvas panels. As visitors navigate through the exhibit, however, they become intimately acquainted with New Yorkers of diverse immigrant backgrounds. They can view photo-essays of participants, read historical anecdotes that contextualize their struggles, and—most importantly— listen to the actual voices of those featured. The audio pieces are accessed using a smartphone to scan QR codes, which link to shortened versions of the subjects’ interviews—all of which were conducted in English.

Leah Shaw, sound editor for the Listening Project and one of the participants at the November Tenement Museum event, said she looked for “the moments and phrases that really hit you” in the interviews. She said she wanted the exhibit’s interviews to feel like conversations, which is why she left in moments of joy, reflection and humor among more somber instances of struggle and discrimination.

Arlinda Shehu. Photographer: Avery Leigh White.

“I remember the first thing we did: We went to a Dunkin’ Donuts. I feel like I could write a whole book about my experience at Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Arlinda Shendu, an Albanian immigrant interviewed for the project. But the colorful experiences with American food soon gave way to a sense of unsteadiness and conflict. “I wouldn’t be who I am without having immigrated to the US, but nonetheless I always felt a bit like an outsider. I feel in-between.”

The story of Jeffrey Verna, whose family is from Haiti, has visitors listening to his reflections on his mother, who ate baby powder to stave off hunger and worked “grinding” jobs to support the family once they were in the United States. Acknowledging his parents’ efforts, Verna says that living in America “gives me the freedom to be who I am. I am Jeffrey Verna, photographer.” His hearty laugh reverberates through the headphones.

B.G., with a cat. Photographer: Shanthony Exum

“B.G.”, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who remained anonymous for his own protection, had a friend narrate his feelings of vulnerability and exploitation in the current political climate. “Living in America as a Hispanic immigrant, you are basically a walking political statement. There is no way to deny that. Your perception of self is so much different from what it might be back in your country,” B.G. says. He calls his constant worry about economic and physical safety stifling. “You can’t actually process what you have, what you don’t have, what you want to have and what you think you can have.”

Knowing that the documentation was done entirely by students who have personal connections to the “narrators”—as daughter, sister-in-law or coworker—gives the exhibit an additional sense of life. “Our students inhabit the communities. They’re not outsiders; they’re insiders. That has always been crucial,” Entin, the Listening Project’s former director, said.

Post-It notes left at the first exhibit’s entrance conveyed a sense of empathy from visitors, Siegel said after reading through dozens of the small notes. According to Siegel, being able to “stand in front of the people, read about them, and hear their voice” makes all the difference in how visitors engage with the heavy political and historical themes present in all 10 stories.

The choice of oral history is crucial to the Brooklyn College Listening Project. Siegel believes that oral histories are “history from the bottom up.” “If you really want to know what is going on,” she said, “you need to talk to the participants.” By interviewing the “ordinary” people affected by immigration, the Listening Project hopes to present new understandings of what it means to “contribute to a history.”

“The role of the university is to dispense knowledge. The Brooklyn College Listening Project’s job is to turn that on its head,” Entin said. Instead, Entin continues, “the students educate us on campus.” For Entin, this means universities—government institutions— no longer monopolize conversations around immigration, but take a step back to hear from those directly affected.

Until the 1950’s, the oral history tradition primarily focused on the lives of the interesting, prominent and rich. But as civil and social movements grew, oral history was adopted as a way to preserve the struggles of everyday folk and to disseminate firsthand accounts of those movements. Della Pollock, professor of communications at the University of North Carolina, writes that, in the past few decades, oral history has begun to see its “radically democratizing potential.”

Siegel said the Brooklyn College Listening Project achieves this potential by focusing on “interviewing people who are not usually interviewed.” The success is in “helping these people tell their life stories” in a way that makes their voices feel significant and valued, Siegel continued.

Responding to the Tenement Museum moderator, Moran admitted that she was unsure about publishing her story. “At first, I kind of hesitated. Like, why me?” As she talked to her son about her childhood in the Dominican Republic, however, she became “very nostalgic,” and it motivated her to continue.

This is a common thread among all the interviews: the ties between interviewer and narrator showed how powerful the act of listening was to participants. Telling one’s story provided a sense of confidence and closure around struggle and trauma, Siegel said. Because of these experiences, Siegel has worked to expand the Listening Project.

Entin, who has remained a part of the project, agreed that expanding the scope of the Listening Project is essential, and also hopes to build a digital library of the students’ work. “If students across the system were engaged in collecting stories, you’d have this unbelievable archive of New York City and of the 21st century.”

“What we want to do is showcase the experiences of our students, and the families, the friends and the coworkers they’re connected to,” Entin said. “That is what the Listening Project is about. I think that, in the current moment, that happens to acquire a kind of political message, just by virtue of allowing and encouraging immigrants to speak and become complex human beings through that act.”

At the end of Moran and Elijah’s talk at the Tenement Museum, Moran wished that the oral histories would bring people closer, increase acceptance and teach others to “have more patience with people,” citing the struggles she has with her accent. “Take [us] as we are, as immigrants.”

Elijah nodded in agreement. “I hope people learn the resilience of immigrants. They never do it just for themselves,” he said, adjusting in his seat and glancing back to his mother. For information on “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices” exhibitions, go to

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify that Brooklyn College Learning Project organizers did not seek to politicize the work but understood that the project had inherent political potential.