The idea first occurred to Dave Eggers in Marial Bai, a village in southern Sudan. People who’d fled during a decades-long civil war had cautiously started to return home, bearing little more than their incredible stories. Eggers, the prolific writer, publisher and social justice advocate, was traveling with a young man named Valentino Achak Deng. The two had met in Atlanta through the Lost Boys Foundation, a group that helps Sudanese refugees build stable lives in the United States, and Eggers had agreed to help Deng write his autobiography.
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Their collaboration led to What is the What, Eggers’ novel about Deng’s walk out of southern Sudan among hundreds of boys escaping the carnage of war. But it also led to something more.
On their journey back to Sudan, Eggers and Deng met three Dinka women who’d recently returned to Marial Bai after being enslaved for years in the north during the civil war. “None of the three spoke Dinka anymore,” Eggers remembers. Losing their language was only one way their identities had been erased. Their names had also been changed to Arabic ones. One of the women had left five children with her captor. The meeting haunted Eggers and Deng.
“What about them? What about their stories?” Eggers asked. “I guess what we both talked about a lot on that trip and afterwards was that his story wasn’t the only one that needed to be told.” What is the What would go on to become a best seller, but Eggers and Deng vowed to return to tell the stories of more survivors of Sudan’s civil war.
Teaming up with Lola Vollen, a human rights activist and medical doctor, Eggers founded Voice of Witness, an innovative nonprofit that records the narratives of those who’ve survived some of the most harrowing experiences on earth. Since Eggers was already a publisher, they could use his company, McSweeney’s, to put survivors’ stories into print—to “amplify” them, in the organization’s parlance. Working with students in a class they taught together at University of California, Berkeley, Eggers and Vollen collected 50 testimonies from men and women in the United States who’d been wrongfully convicted, many of whom had been on death row. These served as the basis of the group’s first book, Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated.
Since its founding in 2004, Voice of Witness has published ten more titles that chronicle the little-known lives of those caught in some of the worst and least understood catastrophes of our time. Through extensive face-to-face interviews, it has explored undocumented immigrants, the struggles of refugees, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, this year, Chicago's public housing projects. And now, by broadening its innovative education program, Voice of Witness is expanding its reach even further.
The idea behind the series is to eschew the top-down method of telling history through the eyes of the “great men” who directed events in favor of returning authority to those who actually lived through them. “If journalism is the first draft of history,” says Mark Danner, a founding member of the VoW board of advisers and the author of trailblazing books about human rights problems, “then the voices of witnesses are the pith of it.”
Published between covers of slick and inviting vellum, these collections of searing testimonies are, above all, good reads. Recent titles employ powerful photographs as well as narratives. Refugee Hotel, for instance, a collaboration between Gabriel Stabile, a photographer, and Juliet Linderman, a writer, presents stories of those struggling to make it in America in a book of a startlingly unconventional design: pliable postcards bound into a coffee-table book.
“Empathy is the basis of all these stories,” says Mimi Lok, executive director of Voice of Witness. “Once you connect with someone, once you acknowledge that your understanding of an issue can be broadened and challenged, it’s transformative,” Lok adds, “not just for the reader, but for the interviewer and the person who is being interviewed.”
This is where education comes in: Through its pioneering schools program, VoW worked with 85 teachers to reach some 1,400 students last year. The effort, conducted through in-school visits, workshops and training sessions, centers on teaching young people the group’s distinctive method of gathering oral histories. Organizers know from experience that the act of interviewing a subject has a remarkable impact on students—not just on giving deeper meaning to the crises of the past, but on gaining greater understanding of the world around them. To this end, there’s a maxim that Lok and the rest of the VoW staff repeat as a mantra: Empathy, they like to say, is the highest form of critical thinking.