Monday, July 12, 2010

Innovative oral history project makes human rights crises personal

In a small office in San Francisco, a team of authors, scholars, professors, and staff are focused on an Asian nation most Americans can't even pinpoint on a map. Burma. Before this it was Sudan. And before that, New Orleans. In every case, a non-profit organization called Voice of Witness is tracking down, affirming and publicizing the stories of survivors of the world's greatest tragedies.

Voice of Witness is a book series that collects first-hand oral accounts of human rights crises and transforms them into books used by educators, lawmakers, and activists. These intimate histories make current events come alive even for disinterested high school students and uninformed policy makers. "Voice of Witness does a better job than I've seen anybody do with having people tell their stories in a way that really engages you," says MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

While Development & Communications associate Juliana Sloane networks around the Bay Area to raise awareness and funding for the organization, at least part of her mind is 8000 miles away... in Burma. Voice of Witness's latest project, Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma's Military Regime, coincides with the Southeast Asian nation's upcoming election - the first in twenty years. In 1990, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy Party to a landslide victory. However, she spent the next two decades under house arrest, rather than in office. Whether the 2010 elections will be as hollow is yet to be determined.

Regardless of the outcome, Voice of Witness will be observing, documenting: bearing witness, giving voice. For more on their upcoming projects - including Congo, Zimbabwe, and women in prison - as well as ways to help, visit

by Sadie Kneidel