The Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) is proud to announce our new blog series highlighting the work of our post-custodial partners and archivists. Since 2008, the HRDI has collaborated with organizations around the world to promote the security and use of human rights archival material as preserved in their context of creation.
Our series begins with an interview of Gabriel Solis, Executive Director of the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP). Director Solis’ contributions to the field of criminal justice reform and human rights includes work at Columbia University’s Center for Oral History, NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, and the Texas Office of Capitol and Forensic Writs. We are honored to collaborate with TAVP, and are thankful to Director Solis for his participation in our interview!
- Can you tell me about the Texas After Violence Project and what you do there?
Founded in 2007 by capital habeas defense attorney Walter C. Long, the Texas After Violence Project is a human rights and restorative justice project that documents the effects of interpersonal and state violence on individuals, families, and communities. Our mission is to build a digital archive that serves as a resource for community dialogue and public policy that promotes alternative, nonviolent ways to prevent and respond to violence.
Our name—Texas After Violence Project—looks to our state’s past while simultaneously imagining a less violent, more just future. The American South consistently produces the highest annual murder rates while also regionally leading the nation in executions. Texas, a Southern and Western state, has a markedly violent past reflected in the expulsion of Native Americans, slavery, and public lynchings of African Americans and Mexicans. Today, in addition to having one of the largest prison systems in the country, Texas always leads the nation—and often places in the range of the top ten nations of the world—in annual executions.
Our work centers on our belief that multiple forms of violence—including violent crime, mass incarceration, and the death penalty—must be addressed as a serious public health issue. The global community has recognized that violence is a major public health problem for which there are actionable solutions. From this perspective, TAVP works to document the ways Texas’ past and current retributive responses to violence traumatize individuals and communities, likely contributing to the reenactment of violence through “trauma organized” systems occurring on individual, family, generational, and societal levels.
TAVP has been incredibly productive in documenting the impacts of murder and executions on families, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors, law enforcement and corrections officers, media witnesses, clergy, and others. While our core research focus is better understanding the effects of murder and capital punishment on individuals, families, and communities, we continue to be interested in other forms of interpersonal and state violence. In the past, the project has worked to document the impacts of violence against undocumented immigrants and transgender people in criminal justice systems across the state, and we’re currently working on a collaborative project with the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI) to document the stories and experiences of the loved ones of victims of police shootings, as well as individuals that died in jail and prison custody.
In addition to our documentation projects, TAVP collaborates with researchers, scholars, educators, and artists to integrate our archival materials into their work. This year, we’re collaborating with a researcher studying the relationship between state executions and intergenerational trauma in African American families, as well a researcher studying the history of clemency petitions for Mexican nationals on Texas’ death row. We’re also working with our artist-in-residence on new educational exhibits that draw on TAVP’s archival materials and other archival collections.
- How do you see TAVP material as contributing to our understanding of human rights issues in the United States and Texas?
We describe our work as a human rights project to bring attention to human rights violations occurring every day in criminal justice systems across Texas and the U.S. In doing so, we hope to challenge exceptionalist notions that serious human rights abuses occur only outside of the borders of the United States. This is one reason it is vital that TAVP’s collection is housed at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), alongside the collections of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, and WITNESS.
Fortunately, there are many organizations, activists, advocates, and investigative journalists working hard to both bring attention to and abolish human rights abuses in domestic criminal justice systems. This work is critical not only to achieve just and sensible reforms, but to fundamentally transform systems of justice in ways that honor the human rights of every person impacted by violence. TAVP was founded on the principles of human rights, human dignity, and human needs. In documenting the stories and experiences of people directly impacted by interpersonal and state violence, we seek to understand how our systems of justice succeed or fail to meet basic human needs and honor human dignity. Using oral history as our primary method of interviewing allows us to both document ‘what happened’ and seek deeper understandings of how people grieve, heal, and make meaning out of their experiences in the aftermath of violent and traumatic events. Our work is very much inspired by other projects engaged in social justice, anti-oppression, Feminist, and queer oral history documentation.
- Do you have any recommendations for researchers unfamiliar with using oral histories as source material?
There’s an ongoing academic debate about the “objective” value of oral history. Where some view its reliance on subjectivity and memory as disqualifying to be a “legitimate” form of historical or social science research, others find unique meaning in how people remember and retell the stories of their lives; in their utterances, expressions, silences. As such, researchers using oral histories as source material should take a more holistic, intersubjective approach in their analysis and interpretation, beyond academic obsessions objective scientific research. Here, we follow the lead of the Italian scholar Alessandro Portelli who, in critiquing academia’s preoccupation with the text, argues that valuing transcripts over audio/visual representations “is equivalent to doing art criticism on reproductions, or literary criticism on translations.”
- Could you share what the impact to TAVP has been in partnering with LLILAS Benson?
Since 2009, TAVP has had a partnership with the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) to archive our video interviews and other research materials. Both TAVP and the HRDI seek to preserve these historical records for open access by human rights activists, scholars, academics, policymakers, artists, educators, healthcare workers, and people concerned with violence worldwide. From our perspective, it has been a mutually beneficial and successful university-community collaboration. We’re very thankful to T-Kay Sangwand, Theresa Polk, David Bliss, and Haian Abdirahman for all of their work on our partnership. Its impact to TAVP has been significant since, as a small nonprofit project, we do not have the resources or organizational infrastructure to responsibly and ethically archive our materials in ways that ensure their security, longevity, and accessibility.
- Do you have any final thoughts you would like share on archives, oral histories, and human rights?
Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, has said that oral history supports human rights documentation because it “can make possible an act of witness that, when properly archived and disseminated, can create new dialogues that arise from and represent the experience of those who have experienced atrocity directly” at a time “when we are immediately and consistently overwhelmed by the proof of atrocity, catastrophe, and suffering to such an extent that our ability to truly know and to identify with the one that is suffering, and then to take ethical action, is threatened.” Our work at TAVP has taught us that oral histories with people directly affected by violence in Texas and the United States share this emotional and intersubjective power.
As such, our approach to human rights documentation is primarily to re-center the human, her life, her experiences, and her stories at a time when we are constantly inundated by information and images of extreme violence. TAVP’s inaugural director, Virginia Raymond, has written “our work takes place at a delicate, fraught juncture of scholarship and intimate, even sacred, witnessing. At one level, we simply listen compassionately; on the other hand we document tragedies, human rights violations, and their effects. It’s complicated, impossible, and critical.”
Finally, here are some works that inspire our approach to archives, oral history, and human rights:
- Bloom, S. L. & Reichert, M. (1998). Bearing Witness: Violence and Collective Responsibility. The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.
- Clark, M., Bearman, P, Ellis, C. & Smith S. (2011).After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years the Followed. The New Press.
- Gergen, K. (2009).Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Oxford University Press.
- Gregg, B. (2012) Human Rights as Social Construction. Cambridge University Press.
- Long, W. (2016). The death penalty as a public health problem. In Death Penalty and the Victims. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.
- Passerini, L. (2006).Memory and Utopia: The Primacy of Inter-Subjectivity. London: Equinox Publishing.
** Drafted by Haian Abdirahman, Mosaic Fellow, Human Rights Documentation Initiative.