Upending the Narrative of the Great Man of History

The Voice of Witness project spearheaded by Dave Eggers and Mimi Lok gives the victims of crisis a megaphone

(Timothy Archibald)
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Voice of Witness is run out of a storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District that sits across the street from 826 Valencia, Eggers’ award-winning tutoring program. More recently, Eggers started Scholarmatch, an initiative that helps students find money for college and which now shares space with Voice of Witness and McSweeney’s at 849 Valencia Street. Pass through a doorway and the right side of the open room is lined with desks manned mostly by rumpled, bearded folk in shirts inspired by lumberjacks. This is the staff of the McSweeney’s literary enterprise. To the left of the room, the six staff members of Voice of Witness occupy a small bank of desks. In their center sits Mimi Lok.

Growing up in one of only two Chinese families in a little town outside London, Lok knows from experience what it feels like to be on the outside. A 40-year-old writer, activist and teacher, Lok came to the organization in 2007 as a Voice of Witness interviewer working with undocumented Chinese workers. Six years ago, the group had a budget of roughly $30,000 and no dedicated staff. “There was a small pot for VoW that was largely made up of donations from a few good souls, including Dave,” says Lok, who recalls scrambling to procure one of three shared tape recorders.

By 2008, the group had scraped together more money and Lok came on board as executive director. She began fund-raising just as the global financial meltdown got underway. Simultaneously, she created an infrastructure for the growing staff, which has expanded from Lok alone to six paid employees. (The budget has grown to about $500,000 today.) At the same time, Lok edited the series’ books and turned VoW from one of McSweeney’s book imprints into a nonprofit organization of its own. She still spends her days doing everything from soliciting funds—the principal source of money for the $50,000 to $70,000 that each book requires­—to line editing and scanning proposals for the next great idea.

The role of empathy in the work of Voice of Witness is so profound that the interviews have altered the course of participants’ lives. “It felt like being in the room with a counselor,” says 28-year-old Ashley Jacobs, who was interviewed by a charismatic Voice of Witness staffer, Claire Kiefer, in 2009. “I’d never ever spoken about anything I went through,” Jacobs said. “No one ever asked me about it. My family didn’t know how to. So I kind of concluded in my mind that if I don’t speak about it, then I’ll forget.”

Jacobs served six months for embezzling small sums of money from her job. Pregnant at the time of her incarceration, she knew she would have to give birth as a prisoner. But the experience shocked her: While shackled, she was given Pitocin—a powerful drug used to induce labor—against her will. Then she underwent a forced C-section. In the midst of this ordeal, Jacobs, in chains, recalls being harangued as a terrible mother and told that the hell that she was going through was her fault. Once her son, Joshua, was born, she had to leave him at the hospital as she was shuttled back to the prison infirmary and, eventually, to her cell. (Her boyfriend brought the baby home.)

The trauma and shame lodged within her for a year until Kiefer showed up at her door with a smoothie and a box of pastries. Kiefer, a poet who’d taught creative writing to men and women in prison, had no rules, no set agenda. She didn’t jump right in to ask about the story’s goriest details. Instead, she played with the baby for a while on the floor of the bare-bones apartment and slowly asked Jacobs to talk about her childhood, to tell her life story, “from birth to now.”

“I was able to cry. I was able to take breaks,” recalls Jacobs. “I was able to get everything out that I’d been holding in. She never rushed me. She cried with me sometimes. Before she left, I knew I’d gained a friend.”

Jacobs’ story became the lead narrative in the Voice of Witness title Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons. From the interview to the point of publication, Jacobs controlled the process. Using a pseudonym at first, she told her story in her own words and signed off on the final version for publication—a process she called “a cleansing.”

“So many people have had their narratives taken from them, or been called prisoner, guilty, slave, illegal—all of these different terms where people feel like their identity isn’t under their control,” says Eggers. He found a model for his work in journalist Studs Terkel, who got his start as a writer for the Works Progress Administration using oral history to chronicle the lives of Americans during the Depression in Hard Times. “Suddenly being able to tell your story, to have it told expansively—anything you want to include you can include from birth to the present—there’s a reclamation of identity.”

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