Category Archives: Texas After Violence Project

Documenting Human Rights in Texas: Interview with the Texas After Violence Project

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!

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  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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:

 

** Drafted by Haian Abdirahman, Mosaic Fellow, Human Rights Documentation Initiative.

Questions of Digital Witnessing, Community Engagement and Human Rights

Lydia French introducing panelists to Digial Witnessing audience

On March 2, 2010, the Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group (E3W) featured several faces of the HRDI in one of its Sequels Symposium precursor events, “Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” held in the UT Libraries Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books Room. The following post details this event and another pre-symposium panel focused on community engagement; these events are great examples of the activist scholarship and dynamic discussions on human rights occurring at UT.

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By: Lydia French

In March 2010, the English Department’s Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group held two events in advance of their annual Spring SEQUELS Symposium. This year the symposium will feature E3W alumni Joseph Slaughter (Columbia University, author of Human Rights, Inc.) and Jennifer Wenzel (University of Michigan, author of Bulletproof). As such, the special events drew on the global themes of human rights, but with special emphases on (1) archiving and (2) community engagement/service learning.

“Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” featured human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand, I-School graduate student Nicholas Rejack, and Texas After Violence Director Virginia Raymond, each of whom offered illuminating discussions of the praxis and ethics of collecting stories of trauma. In her presentation on the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, Sangwand highlighted the unique collaborative, technological, and narrative features of the project. Rejack discussed his own experiences working with HRDI partner organization, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR); last summer he traveled to the FBR offices in southeast Asia to transferr hours of video narratives onto a computer to be preserved, translated, and housed in the archive. Finally, Raymond, Director of HRDI partner organization, the Texas After Violence Project, spoke on the ethics of collecting and preserving stories of violence. Every individual involved in the process, she suggests, bears a responsibility to each other as well as to the narrators of the stories, the absent individuals involved in the stories, and the future generations who will hear them. Parsing the exact nature of that responsibility, though, is not so easy. Nevertheless, each of the panelists—indeed the philosophy behind the HRDI itself—recognizes the sensitive nature of collecting and preserving the voices of those so long silenced by the violence of trauma.

If there appeared to be tacit agreement among the audience and panelists of “Digital Witnessing,” one week later at “Service Learning: A Roundtable Discussion on Community Engagement” the discussion was a bit more contentious. This event featured panelists from across the university and in the community in capacities as diverse as graduate assistant instructors, not-for-profit directors, activists-turned-administrators, and so on. The roundtable aimed to explore the state of community engagement/service learning (even the nomenclature was/is a sensitive subject; most agreed that the terms have been evolving over several decades now, but generally service learning is seen as a narrow concept within the larger umbrella of community engagement) at the University of Texas and in general. Administrators, instructors, and community activists agreed that anyone who incorporates a community engagement component in their classroom and pedagogy needs to prepare themselves, their students, and the community partner well in advance of the project to avoid what one panelist called “drive-by” interactions, which tend not to benefit either the student or the organization. The instructor needs to have a sustained and mutually beneficial relationship with the organization(s) well before incorporating a project into his/her syllabus. Communication is key. All parties need to be fully informed of the needs of the community partner, the limitations of the classroom, and, honestly, the limitations and needs of the students in order to sustain a healthy relationship.

More contentious are the philosophies behind “service,” “engagement,” and “development.” Particularly in a climate where “service” to “underdeveloped” areas is garnering more and more institutional backing (i.e. it’s hip for universities), the event’s participants questioned the efficacy (and history) of sending thousands of students out as saviors for a community. The answers to one question in particular will illustrate the stakes of the discussion. When asked, when and why did the university start getting interested in community engagement, the following genealogies were offered:

  1. It was a reaction against the self-interested, resume-padding model of “student development” of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a move, today, toward greater social action.
  2. When the university wants to take land and/or resources from disenfranchised people in the community, it needs to mollify that community by offering its own resources: students. Power relations thereby get watered down to “diversity.”
  3. The university is under pressure, now, to compete with online universities and degree-granting institutions, so it needs to institute local programs.
  4. The need for engagement comes down from the legislature when the university becomes more selective. In other words, it’s a public institution, but it’s no longer admitting as much of “the public,” so the university must compensate by instituting programs to “serve” that same public.

The questions of power, representation, and discrimination implicit in each of these genealogies compel thoughtful response. As an instructor, I realized that the stakes of community engagement are far too high to approach it as simply another assignment; it demands great patience, understanding, and working relationships.

For more information on community engagement at UT, you can visit the following websites:

Bridging Disciplines Program

Practical Opportunities for Law Students

Volunteer and Service Learning Center

Lydia French is a graduate student in E3W and co-organizer of the annual E3W Sequels Symposium.

Human Rights in Texas: Introducing the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP)

Happy new year!  The HRDI has some exciting projects lined up for 2010, including the public online launch of testimonies gathered and produced by the Texas After Violence Project.

As you may have noticed on our “About the HRDI” page, we established our latest partnership with the Austin, Texas based non-profit organization, Texas After Violence Project (TAVP).  TAVP collects oral history testimonies from people “directly touched by serious violence, the criminal justice system, incarceration, and executions in Texas” in order to “promote collective, critical, and constructive conversations about effective ways to prevent and respond to violence” and to “work toward a more just and less violent Texas: a society that recognizes and affirms the dignity and value of every human being.”

To date, TAVP has collected testimonies from family members and intimate friends of executed persons, family members and intimate friends of murder victims, media witnesses to executions, law enforcement officials, defense lawyers (including former prosecutors), and clergy.  The TAVP collection consists not only of these recorded video testimonies, but also the corresponding transcripts and supplementary materials such as photographs and legal pleadings.  The TAVP testimonies provide rich insight into the human impact of the death penalty in Texas and will be useful for human rights activists, researchers, policy makers, historians, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists and community members interested in how to effectively respond to and prevent violence.  Click here for a sneak peek at some of these videos.

In order to make this valuable collection accessible, Meghan Currey, a second year Master’s student at the UT School of Information, will be working with the HRDI and TAVP to input the videos into Glifos.  Glifos will allow us to index videos and sync them with their transcripts in order to provide a deeper level of access for the user.  (For an example of what this looks like, check out this video of Mike Wallace interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt that has been treated through Glifos.) We anticipate a public launch date of May 2010.

In the meantime, you can read what our friends at TAVP are saying about the project.