OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Daniel R. Kerr

Portrait of Daniel R. Kerr
Image Credit: Jeffrey Watts

Daniel R. Kerr is an associate professor of history at American University, where he also directs the public history program. His work focuses on the methods and ethics of doing collaborative, community-based historical research, especially with those living in extreme poverty. For example, Kerr interviewed nearly 200 homeless people and facilitated dozens of workshops in shelters and drop-in centers where unhoused people could view, reflect upon, and interpret these oral histories. The themes that emerged from these workshops structured the questions and archival research that gave rise to the book, Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland (2011). He currently serves on the editorial board for Oral History Review. Seeking to mobilize the humanities, Kerr initiated and directs the DC Humanities Truck Project. The truck—a customized step van that will be completed in summer 2018—will function as a mobile workshop, recording studio, and exhibit space that can be driven around the Washington, DC, metropolitan region to provide resources and equipment to document experiences, start conversations, and share the stories of diverse and underserved communities. Kerr's ongoing project,"Whose Downtown?" will use the truck space as a workshop to reflect on the past and future of the downtown Federal City Shelter, whose demolition and private redevelopment has been proposed for 2021. The project documents the histories of the shelter residents, offering a lens into the social and economic dislocations of the past fifty years. By collaborating in this project, shelter residents will be able to engage more effectively with the planning processes that will dramatically impact their lives.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Drawing on his experiences doing oral histories with unhoused people, Kerr challenges the ethical stance of the unbiased, objective historian. He argues that this fiction obscures our own social position and privilege and normalizes inequality. Holding on to the desire to more truthfully and accurately understand the past, Kerr makes the case for acknowledging and reflecting upon our own subjectivity, being more transparent about our commitments, engaging communities beyond the profession, and participating in movements to change the world for the better. Using his own work as an example, Kerr argues that the engaged historian is a better historian.
Drawing on his argument from his award winning article, Kerr argues that historians in the United States have adopted a problematic history of oral history as field that erases the contributions of our radical forbearers. By fixating on recording technologies, archives, and academia, we ignore those who have shaped the theories and methodologies we draw upon when we facilitate dialogues grounded in personal experiences and interpretive reflections on the past. The lecture identifies the direct contributions that popular educators such as Myles Horton, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and Paolo Freire played in shaping the field of oral history in the United States. Furthermore, it highlights the role that Staughton and Alice Lynd, Helen Lewis, the Massachusetts History Workshop, and the Brass Workers History Project played in translating these popular education practices into current oral history theories and methods.
In this workshop, Daniel Kerr will explore how oral history research can move beyond professional and academic aims and actively facilitate social change. The workshop will cover the nuts and bolts of doing oral history in a social justice context.
Focusing on the past fifty years, Daniel Kerr argues that homelessness has deep roots in the shifting ground of urban labor markets, social policy, real estate development, the criminal justice system, and corporate power. Rather than being attributable to the illness and inadequacies of the unhoused themselves, homelessness is a product of both structural and political dynamics shaping the city.