Storytelling for Social Change
Seven years ago, Professor of Creative Writing Peter Orner asked his student Mimi Lok (M.F.A., ’07) to help with “Underground America,” a collection of oral histories he was editing for the new Voice of Witness imprint at McSweeney’s Publishing. The book allowed undocumented workers to tell their stories in their own words, and Lok’s work with a cook from China — who told of owing ever-escalating sums to his smugglers — ended up being “one of the most important stories in the book,” Orner says.
Lok remembers scrambling for recording equipment, since the book was produced on a shoestring budget. But today, with Lok at the helm for the past six years, Voice of Witness operates with a full-time staff of five and a $500,000 budget. It just won an American Ingenuity Award from Smithsonian magazine, and it has become a life-changing resource for high school students and teachers who receive Voice of Witness’s oral history training. Four new titles in its book series — including oral histories from Gaza, the West Bank and postearthquake Haiti — will come out this year.
How did Lok, a former Hong Kong based journalist with little fundraising experience, turn Voice of Witness into a farreaching nonprofit? “Really hustling,” she says from VoW’s Mission District offices. “And it helps when you’re not doing it for yourself, when it’s a cause you believe in and want to see grow.”
She connected with Orner’s project, she says, because she grew up in one of two Chinese-immigrant families in a small town outside of London. But that doesn’t quite explain her deep empathy — as she explains, “It wasn’t a bad upbringing at all.” Rather, she imagines how her life could have been different. “What if my grandmother hadn’t snuck into Hong Kong all those years ago or if I had been raised in China?” she says. “What if I had been born in a civil war?”
Lok came to SF State for the diversity: “There wasn’t just a single school of writing on the faculty. The students had jobs and families, full lives.” Studying with Orner and with Camille Roy and Maxine Chernoff, she learned “not to be a passive reader,” Lok says. “It’s kind of like having your taste buds refined.”
The skills proved useful for the organization’s mission: “amplifying unheard voices.” “Mimi brings to Voice of Witness a writer’s sense of vivid detail combined with an ability to see the long view,” Orner says. “She’s always interested in how one individual’s story sheds light on a larger societal problem. It’s great to know VoW is in such capable, creative hands.”