Reassembling the Archive: The “Born In Flames” Oral History Project at Women With A Vision

In the summer of 2013, with the generous support of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life, I was able to travel to New Orleans to begin work on an oral history project with Women With A Vision, Inc (WWAV).  For those not familiar with the organization, WWAV is a twenty-two year running black women’s health collective, which gained international notoriety in March of 2012 for overturning a 207-year-old crime against nature statute being used to criminalize sex work in Louisiana.  Two months later, their offices were destroyed in an aggravated arson attack.  That night, all tangible memorabilia of their groundbreaking work went up in flames.

With the working title, “Born in Flames,” we envisioned the WWAV oral history project to be a living embodiment of Executive Director, Deon Haywood’s words after the arson attack, “Fire has long been used as a tool of terror in the South, but we also know that it can be a force for rebirth.”  The title is also a nod to Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film with the same name.

laura's researcher/storyteller kitAs the lead interviewer for the project, I am the member of the WWAV team responsible for gathering, transcribing and editing hundreds of hours of life history interviews with the visionaries who have guided WWAV over the last two decades.  We decided on a life history format because it decenters events (like the arson), thereby providing staff, participants and allies the space to reflect on the paths that brought them to WWAV and the lives they lead going forward.  In the first phase of the project this summer, some began with stories of their first social work practicums; others with childhood memories of being on segregated trolleys.  Some found WWAV to be their only lifeline in a time when communities were being torn to shreds by the war on drugs and AIDS; others had to battle their own families simply for working at WWAV.  Some could trace their family lineages back through generations of New Orleanians; others were transplants who would never be able to return after Hurricane Katrina.  This texture only begins to illuminate the contours of the small grassroots organization that catapulted onto the international stage in 2012, and has quite literally kept tens of thousands of people alive since the early 1990s.

Ultimately, these interviews will be foundational for my dissertation. I will all be working the WWAV team to build a readily accessible online archive of the “Born in Flames” project with an anticipated release date of May 24, 2019, the seven-year anniversary of the arson attack.

Below you will find an excerpt from Women With A Vision’s official announcement about the project.  Please click here to read the full post.

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from Women With A Vision, November 22, 2013

Rebuilding Our Archive: The “Born In Flames” Oral History Project with WWAV Board Member, Laura McTighe

After the 2012 aggravated arson attack on our offices, we lost more than our home and sense of safety in the city we love; we also lost all the tangible memorabilia of our more than twenty years of work.

In the wake of this attack, WWAV sustained our rebuilding process by making new memories – uniting our members to craft policy campaigns for combatting the policies impacting their lives; microfinance projects for expanding their employment possibilities; and trauma healing circles for sustaining their community with one another. On the one-year anniversary of the arson attack, WWAV was able to take our healing work retrospective, with the help of board member, Laura McTighe… [continue reading at WWAV]

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