DLF 2018 panel: What Would the Community think?

community-zine.jpgIn October, I went to Las Vegas to attend the Digital Library Federation’s 2018 meeting to be a panel participant on What would the “community” think?: Three grant-funded teams reflect on defining community and models of engagement.” It featured projects working across organizations to implement change and find common solutions often engage relevant communities. Questions asked: How do we define communities and design these engagements? Do these approaches work? What can we learn from other fields? Resources 1. and links to slides here:

I participated as a “Design for Diversity” advisory board member.  The following is a lightly edited version of my talk, along with a link to the minizine I put together for the panel. Big thanks to Kelly Wooten and my Radical Empathy sister-archivists, much of whose work is collected on the “Radical Empathy in Archival Practice” tumblr and who continue to awe and inspire.

  1. Download and print my minizine here.
  2. Learn how to fold it here.

My name is Giordana Mecagni, and I have lived in Boston for most of my life. I am white, and like many people from Massachusetts, am the product of poverty-based European immigration, and am Italian, Irish, and Scottish. Most of my family, largely Catholics, includes a couple dozen first and second cousins who also live in the Boston area. They are also Italian, Irish, Scottish, but additionally, African-American, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Mexican, Scandanavian, Dominican, German, Haitian, Spanish, English, etc.

I mention this for two reasons– one, is that it explains my perspective and positionality. I am white. I am a lifelong Bostonian. My family is extra-ordinarily fertile. Understanding and examining this perspective fully in light of what I do for work is incredibly important.

Secondly, it is an example of a community, in this case my family, who have mostly lived in one geographic place for multiple generations. This community is one that is always changing, constantly being influenced by and changed by, and producing babies by the other people who occupy that same space. But those babies often have very, very different perspectives than I do. One of my favorite cousins, is a black union plumber apprentice, with a Haitian-Canadian family living in Montreal.  I love him, he’s a relative, we spend lots of time together, but I don’t presume to think I understand his perspective.

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler (from the parable series) says “ “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” And I highly encourage you to add adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy to your GoodReads list immediately. Citation is on the back page of the zine. She weaves together afro-futurism, the natural world, and stories from effective activists into a guide for making a better world. It’s incredible.

I am Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Northeastern University in Boston. A community archive based in a large R1 University, we collect, preserve, organize, describe, provide access to, digitize, and make anniversary exhibits for Boston’s under-documented communities, with a particular focus on Asian American, Latinx, Queer, and African American communities.

I should mention here that I am part of none of these communities, apart from the Boston one. And I don’t believe I have met anyone who claims all of those identities. Although it’s not out of the question that that person exists, I haven’t met them. But I do spend a lot of time listening, appreciating, and amplifying Boston’s marginalized voices. I have spent a lot of time working on city-wide race and resilience efforts. I have developed a trust network within those communities– folks who are completely willing to call me on my own bullshit. And those folks also have relationships and trust networks that aren’t confined to their own identietis or positionalities.

And then Amanda and Julia asked me to be part of the advisory committee of the Design for Diversity project. My first question was, “I am clearly not very diverse, how about I cede my position to someone else more qualified?” But then Amanda explained that they were targeting mainly folks who make ethical tools and projects to help others make ethical tools and projects. So I said yes, and started to think about what I bring to the table– the skills and tools I have built that might prove helpful to this other community that I am a part of– GLAMers and DHers and technologists and Wikipedians etc.

And I thought to myself– what is the pinch point, always, in my work? And top on the very long list was folks doing academic projects ON, but not with community. Because of what I do, academics regularly reach out to me to ask me about a project they want to do on diverse communities. Sometimes, I am happy to do this– I only have to reach out to someone in my trust network, make sure they are amenable, and make an introduction. But more often than I would care to admit, the project they have proposed is completely inappropriate.

For example, a white woman came to me and said, “I would like to do an oral history project to collect the stories of people affected by gun violence in the inner city”. Um, #1, no. #2. there already is a community project that exists, and #3. Just no. The key point was, why are these people talking to me about these projects? Why didn’t they approach someone in those communities? And if they don’t know someone in those communities, maybe they should choose a different project?

So, back to Design for Diversity (D4D). I wanted to create a tool that helped circumvent those difficult conversations. A how-to guide for community engagement. So I went to the library literature. Nothing. The archival literature I knew had some really great critical theory and Radical Empathy stuff by Michelle Caswell, RIcky Punzalan, etc. but no how-to. The D4D zotero was amazingly helpful for theory. But there was nothing concrete. So I tracked down some campus partners, all of whom said “everybody writes about this stuff!!. My Cherokee language scholar partner pointed me to a huge bulk of indigenous studies literature. My service-learning partner pointed me to an entire field of it. My black feminist studies colleague gave me some amazing resources. So I took a deep dive, and this is what I have come up with. This zine I produced for this conference, distills lots of smart people’s work into 8 tiny pages. But page 1 is the bibliography, the list of resources I found most helpful, and hopefully you will, too.

Thank you.