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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Now 43, the crusading Eggers spends his time and talent in service of a host of underreported causes, along with his tutoring programs, his literary magazine and his publishing company. Eggers rocketed to fame in his early 30s for his own memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And this fall he stirred debate with a best-selling dystopian novel, The Circle, which tackles themes of privacy in the Internet age. Despite the breadth of his interests, Eggers keeps tight focus on Voice of Witness above all. “The books that Voice of Witness has done have been the closest editing that I’ve done in the last ten years,” he says.

Although the original intention had been to focus the series on international human rights crises, the group found abuses closer to home, too: The 11 titles to date are almost evenly divided between domestic and international issues. There are books in the works about Palestinians and Haitians, and one on human rights and the global economy entitled Invisible Hands.

This isn’t traditional journalism told in the third person and claiming objectivity. Instead, these are tales told in the first person, and as such, they own their subjectivity right upfront. Although the books are carefully fact-checked, they are also left to the narrator’s point of view. Eggers has a perspective and a purpose: to build a broader and more inclusive understanding of history.

In his own work, Eggers aims to write books that directly benefit those he writes about—he has even started foundations for some of them. But the catharsis that VoW books bring to their subjects has also been an unexpected benefit of the work. “Even if the books didn’t exist, just to be able to participate in their healing has been incredibly important and central to us,” Eggers says, referring to this as a kind of “reparation.”


Perhaps the biggest challenge Lok and Eggers face is spreading their message. McSweeney’s publishes just 3,000 to 5,000 copies of each title, but hopes to magnify their impact by using them in classrooms across the country. It’s not just a matter of teaching their content about civil war in Sudan or Colombia—it’s about changing the way history is taught.

The most essential lesson is the art of listening, says Cliff Mayotte. He and Claire Kiefer, the poet who interviewed Ashley Jacobs, make up the VoW’s thriving education program, which began in 2010 with the help of Facing History and Ourselves, a decades-old organization that teaches social justice around the world. Facing History and Ourselves helped the fledgling VoW craft a curriculum, which was recently published in a teacher’s manual, The Power of the Story. Now Mayotte and Kiefer travel around the San Francisco area and teach students in private schools and underfunded public high schools the principles behind a successful oral history. This year they have begun to take their teachings nationwide, traveling to Chicago, Eggers’ hometown, to discuss the latest book, about the city’s public housing projects.

On a recent afternoon, Mayotte and Kiefer drove his 19-year-old Toyota Camry to Castilleja, a private girls’ school in Palo Alto, California, one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the United States. The two were team-teaching 66 sophomores how to ask one another intimate questions about the most difficult experience they’d faced in their short lives—and how to answer them. Their lessons were more about mutual respect and practicing empathy than they were about any specific technique.

The day’s exercise was only the beginning of the project. The students were preparing to interview mostly undocumented day workers at a jobs and skills-building center in nearby Mountain View. As the uniformed girls in their baby-blue kilts paired up to speak to classmates they hardly knew, Mayotte scrawled his favorite quotation from the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the blackboard: “You can’t tell a single story of any place, person, or people. The single story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they’re untrue, it’s that they are incomplete.” These collections of oral histories defy stereotypes: Their very method is to let a broad swath of people speak for themselves.


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