This profile was prepared when Karen Worcman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
The New Idea
Modeling her work on her experience of drawing out oral histories of holocaust survivors, Karen Worcman created the Museum of the Person to give people the ability to not only record their own history but make the creation of history a strategy for social change. By creating a multimedia data bank of oral reports, videos, photographs, and personal documents, Karen is making oral history accessible and usable to a broad section of the community. Oral history projects have become widely viewed as community organizing tools and useful for building self-esteem and ethnic-pride by giving voices to people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups. By using recording and digitizing technology and the Internet, Karen makes it easier for the oral histories to be recorded and used. The oral histories thus become a much more useful social change tool that a wide-range of social change agents such as schools, social movements, governments, citizens' organizations, opinion pollsters, and businesses can adapt for their purposes. Karen began her growing collection, which she has named the Museum of the Person, after collaborating with her mother on a book about Jewish immigrants in Brazil. The collection is based on the premise that every individual wants to eternalize his or her own story and that listening to another person is a very effective strategy to challenge prejudices. The history that is registered by the museum provides opportunities for the common person to see and understand his or her own history in the context of a larger group; and it allows individuals to understand history in a different way, because official accounts rarely cover the complex influences by and to minority groups, for instance.In addition to its usefulness to others, Karen believes the Museum of the Person is itself a strategy for social transformation because it promotes understanding of individuals and their background and understanding breaks down inequality and other barriers. The museum helps give a face and a voice to those who are not included in wealth and decision-making, and by producing a history of Brazil that will truly give society an understanding of itself. As Paulo Freire said in a 1992 interview at Museum of the Person, "My own memories have helped me understand the events of which I have been a part."