Grassroots Oral History Groups in Times of Crisis

by Tasoula Vervenioti

I would like to thank the Program Committee of the Modern Greek Studies Association’s Symposium who accepted our proposal for this special session and personally Van Steen Gonda, who inspired me to write the proposal.

In this panel four grassroots oral history groups will participate, all of them established and functioning in Athens. Such groups also exist in other Greek cities (Volos, Alexandroupoli, Katerini, Giannina), but in Athens the crisis is deeper than in the Greek countryside. I will argue that the creation of the groups is correlated to the crisis.

For the last five years, Greek society has been going through a labyrinthine crisis that has touched and changed dramatically all aspects of people’s lives as well as the reference frame they lived by; their city and neighborhood. Greece is in a transition: something old is disappearing and something new is going to be born. The acceleration of history (a common phenomenon in period of crisis) and the transformation of people’s everyday life has also transformed their identities. Thus, the social body tries to form a new identity and therefore needs a new narrative about its past, one that is not so glorious and heroic, in order to be able to visualize and claim a better future.

This process makes more visible the value of individual life narratives as a privileged tool for the analysis of rapid social changes that restructure the foundations of society. Oral history records the voices of ordinary people, who resist and fight while they feel fear and pain, which contrasts with the stereotype of a heroic and simultaneously a self-satisfied “life style” of the previous period. Thus, the mass response of volunteers in forming oral history groups, as well as the use of oral testimonies by artists and directors in theatre and cinema, is correlated with the historical conjuncture of the crisis. All these initiatives serve the same purpose: to provide Greeks with an alternative narrative of their past and accordingly with a new identity. The people involved in oral history projects -consciously or not- are critical voices on what happens in Greece now; their critique is not only against the Greek government and the way it copes with the crisis, but it has to do with our global world: the EU, the IMF, the US, China etc

Moreover, oral history is poised to fulfill the vacuum between the old oral society and the digitalized era. Oral history suits the decentralized informational times: not only experts in the field or academics, but also volunteers –after training in oral history’s methodology – are fully able to collect oral testimonies. The high educational level of the younger generations and the digital technological revolution has made it easier to record, disseminate and archive ‘memories’; these are the changes that make the project of grass roots oral history groups feasible.

In addition, oral testimonies have a particular weight in a society in which painful memories are “hidden from history”, such as the Greek civil war trauma. People’s suffering because of the crisis has incited demands for a truth that is more “truthful” than history, the truth of personal experience and individual memory. And, last but not least, there is a remarkable analogy with the “acceleration” and the “democratization” of history. That’s why, in this time of crisis, oral history has become a “people’s project”.

The creation of oral history groups could be considered part of a broader spectrum of initiatives undertaken by ‘ordinary’ people, outside the old institutional and political frameworks. These initiatives cover a wide spectrum of domains from culture to economy. For example, “the movement without middlemen”: farmers and other kinds of producers sell their products (cheese, honey, rice, olive oil, potatoes etc) in street markets usually organized by local collective structures of solidarity. The aim of both producers and consumers is actively to face the humanitarian crisis. We could say that they have created another kind of market outside the official one, in the same way that grassroots oral history groups have undertaken the effort to write history outside academia and the Greek media’s public history.

In Athens the first oral history group was created in 2011, in Kypseli. It is called OPIK (all groups begin with OPI (Omada Proforikis Istorias) and then follow the first letter of their district. Nowadays Kypseli is densely populated, housing the largest number of immigrants – mainly from Africa- of all Athens districts. In April 2012, OPIK’s members presented their work at the Cultural Centre of Athens and the event had a great and unexpected success. In 2013 the Oral History Groups of Athens (OPIA) was established. In 2014, when the crisis had hit not only the poor but also the middle class people, two new groups were created. The Oral History Group of Kolonaki (OPIKO), because even this elite neighborhood faces many problems due to the crisis and the Oral History Group of Dourgouti (OPIDOU), an ex Armenian neighborhood, and a multi cultural one in nowadays. During the winter 2014 – 2015, other two Groups were created: in the Municipalities of Galatsi (OPIGA) and Nea Ionia (OPINI). In 2015 another two: in Chaladri (OPIDHX) and in the Department of Political Science at the University of Athens. Now, two more are on road.

All members of these groups are volunteers; after a training seminar of about 20 hours, they begin to collect oral testimonies. The groups constitute of thematic sub-groups: on crisis, migration, everyday life, social environment, the 1940s decade etc. They are not part of an EU program and thus they had no money, but this did not impair their activities. On the contrary, the lack of material funds reinforced their social dynamic. The working method is that of a collaborative project. In June 2015, all of the groups cooperated and organized a three days Oral History Festival.

Today, OPIA will present the way they work, OPIK and OPIKO will present their work on the crisis, from the perspective of a degraded and an elite neighborhood respectively and OPIDOY will present the groups’ history and a video on the events organized last week focused on the Occupation period.