People Before Highways event at the State House

On January 25th 2019 Karilyn Crockett, author of People before Highways, led a group of the original activists from across the region to the Massachusetts State House to commemorate the 50thanniversary of the pivotal 1969 fight to stop I-95 and the Inner Belt.  Chris Lisinski captured the populist legacy of the anti-highway movement organizers in the following article for the State House News Service. 

The event had everything:  it brought history out of the Archives/off the pages and into the State House, included activists sharing lessons learned and anecdotes, elected officials took the time to learn and understand, linked Boston’s public transit/traffic woes to past struggles and successes, and was wrapped with elements of art/music (drumming and trees and laundry lines full of wishes.)  So happy to have played a tiny supporting role in this event.

Article:  https://www.statehousenews.com/?login=yes&trial=yes&path=cms/news.aspx&yr=2019&select=2019162 

 

Radical Empathy in New England Archivists Newsletter

NEAART_Spring2018_Meeting_graphicFINAL-full

Sam Strain interviewed me about Radical Empathy for an article in New England Archivists Newsletter 45:2, Spring 2018. She did a great job making me sound smart!

This is the text of the article.

____________

At the Spring 2018 NEA / A.R.T. Joint Meeting in New Haven, one session focused on exploring personal and professional responses to Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s foundational text “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives.” As a member of Inclusion & Diversity Committee, I met with panelist Giordana Mecagni of Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections to unpack some of the session’s content. We discussed radical empathy and its role in providing framework to center affective responsibilities in our work, and to help bring new voices to the table.

Sam Strain : How would you define radical empathy to someone unfamiliar with the concept?
Giordana Mecagni: Caswell and Cifor explain four affective responsibilities:

  • Archivist to the creator
  • Archivist to the subject of records
  • Archivist to the user
  • Archivist to the community

We came up with this fifth affective responsibility, archivist to archivist – a focus on accountability and mutual support of our colleagues.

Radical empathy means a shift in thinking from a legalistic, rights-based framework to an approach more aligned with feminist ethics of care and an understanding of the web of mutual affective responsibility. [It means] shifting from ‘what are we legally allowed to do with these records?’ to ‘we care for these records, these records affect us, and our work affects those who are their subject or creators.’

Radical empathy provides a framework to look at power dynamics, rather than relying on ad hoc experiences and ‘gut feelings.’ Panels like this provide a space to talk about how radical empathy can be enacted in many diverse real-world archival settings.

SS: What impact does the concept of radical empathy have on your day to day archival work? Does it have any ramifications for specific workflows, such as description and access, acquisitions and collections management, or supervisory techniques?

GM: In a way, it’s easy for me to think about radical empathy in my daily work, coming from an archive where we collect and make available the history of underrepresented communities. [I operate in] a context in which all of my work – from acquisition to community outreach – are based on continued relationships. [For example], even if this set of records was collected twenty years ago, we are still beholden as the keepers of those records, and the history of that community. With that comes a large amount of responsibility.

[In recent years], we’ve been shifting into the model of a community archive, emphasizing [community] partnerships. That started with simple things, like not charging partners a fee for scans. If it’s their history [we’re collecting], then we should be able to provide access to that history, for free. We’ve also streamlined entry into the building, and focused on providing ready-reference services; simple things to do in a feminist ethics of care. There’s also a need to understand power dynamics, and to start having conversations about how specifically we can help racial justice and equity happen in Boston. According to community partners, there’s a giant gap between what general folks in the community understand about Boston’s history and the way it’s talked about. Archives are meant to problematize by providing nuance and varying perspectives.

There are things we can do tangibly, practically, and immediately, to shift the conversation towards celebrating people of color and activists who have done amazing work in the past – voices [which] are oftentimes erased. [We can also] work to provide activists, people who are on the ground and in the community right now, with the kind of tools that can actually help them.

SS : What does archival work based on a feminist ethics of care look like our field now? Who’s doing that kind of work?

GM : It’s interesting – there’s what’s going on now, and there’s all the work that started this idea. [People like] my predecessor, Joan Krizack – who got the diversity award from SAA – was doing radical work. People who were doing new documentation strategies back in the day built these wonderful collections of the people’s history. They may not have been talking about radical empathy, but they were talking about relationships, they were talking about community, they were talking about not cherry-picking, they were talking about looking at a community from all aspects. Those folks are acknowledged by Caswell and Cifor as laying the groundwork for this kind of work.

SS : Do you think there’s any stigma on this kind of approach to archival work? Do you think centering a more empathetic and care-focused ethic in our work will meet push-back in our profession?

GM : I don’t think anyone is against empathy. [However],I think when we shift [the conversation] from ‘we’re all going to be nice to each other’ and move on to looking at interactions between people as being professionally problematic, that’s where the push-back is going to be. There’s so much of our field that needs to be looked at hyper-critically. Through this lens, it’s easy to start seeing all of the places where our field is really complacent, in allowing racial stereotypes to continue, and in [perpetuating] white supremacy.

We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, but the way we value collections needs to be looked at critically. The way some large institutions value archival collections both monetarily and in prestige – really does favor the overrepresented. If you’re not reflected in the archives, that’s problematic. The idea of neutrality has been a giant flash-bang in our profession; if you’re dealing with people, there is no neutral. Archives are people.

SS : How do you feel understanding of radical empathy can be integrated into graduate level archival education?

GM : [As a graduate student], I don’t remember learning anything about donor relations, or even how to acquire, which was a challenge [in the workplace]. I never, ever got a lesson [that taught me] what to do when the widow of the person whose papers you’re collecting starts crying, and that happens all the time. These are people, people with lives – and that’s something we don’t address in library school; the people aspect of things.

Thinking about graduate education, what does a change in the field look like? What would it take to center people in the equation? I think that most neoliberal institutions – including universities – see the ability to maintain and develop relationships to care for the community as valuable skills. I think that’s what it would take – to see those sorts of skills valued [in graduate archival education], rather than the ability to do nice, pretty EAD encoding.

Closing:
Having recently graduated with an MLIS from Simmons College, I am hopeful that our field can continue to grow and change, and that frameworks like Caswell and Cifor’s can be used to open new dialogues in archival education, while interrogating traditional methods. I look to the work of my classmates – especially student presenters and organizers of the DERAIL Forum – as an example of the potential to shift paradigms in our profession as we enter the field.

As a member of the Inclusion & Diversity Committee, I feel that it’s necessary to continue to make space to have professional conversations about our affective obligations to the creators, subjects, and users of records, as well as our wider communities. In our ongoing work to make NEA a more inclusive and welcoming organization, I hope that we can help strengthen mutually supportive archivist to archivist relationships among our members.

For further reading:
Brown, M. (2017). Confronting the Curriculum: Incorporating Radical Empathy into Archival Training. Presented at the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) Forum.
Caswell, M., & Cifor, M. (2016). From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives. Archivaria, 82 , 23-43.
Jimerson, R. C. (2007). Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice. The
American Archivist, 70 (2), 252-281.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

“Community Engaged” projects

community-engagement
Gross corporate “community engagement” image from the internet. Who wears a suit while gardening?

During the #d4d Design for Diversity Conference, Case study presenters talked about developing DH projects that are ethically embedded in the community.  Wanting to learn a little more about the topic, I googled around and found guidelines for both “Community Engaged”  and “Ethically Community Engaged” projects. Both had similar types of mild suggestions, such as ‘humility,’ ‘mitigating harm,’ ‘engaging across boundaries’ and ‘respecting self-determination.’ Obvious, right?

What was missing from the reports and guidelines I skimmed was any perspective from the impacted community ‘partner.’   Are they not asked for feedback?

The exception was in this “Characteristics of quality Community-Engaged Scholarship” from Pepperdine (this report is worth reading), but is just a citation.Ethical

It looks like this book  “Service-Learning Through Community Engagement:What Community Partners and Members Gain, Lose, and Learn From Campus Collaborations”
by Lori Gardinier might shed some light on the community’s perspective, so I will put it on my list of books to read at some point.

#d4d case study presenters and conference attendees had some interesting ideas about forming an ethical community engagment certification (like LEED!) program.  I have collated them and will post later.

 

 

Boston, Race, and Resilience

Mel King, Harry Dow, Jean McGuire, Tent City

For the past nearly two years, I have been a member of the Race Equity Working Group of the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Race Equity. The MORRE Office’s primary mission is to help build resilience for all Bostonians by addressing and and challenging social and racial inequities.  The Racial Equity working group (an advisory group for the office) consisted of incredible warriors– smart, experienced, passionate people who do battle every day but still are able to laugh, breathe, and do it all over again the next day.  Although I felt like I really belonged at the #kidstable instead of in this group, it was a brain-expanding experience and I am thankful I was able to participate.

The Chief Resilience Officer leading the charge to create Boston’s Resiliency Plan, Atyia Martin, and her staff allowed me to assist the effort by convening a group of historians and archivists  (‘history holders’ she called us) and Race Equity Working Group members to strategize how we could showcase the lesser known/understood aspects of Boston’s history across race and ethnicity, including immigrants, from a personal and policy perspective. As Donna Bivens and co. write in the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project’s 7 Lessons “Access to a more complete picture of this history is access to knowledge about how power works to enable and limit us. That access allows us to focus our individual and collective efforts to make real social change.”

One of the results of this convening was POLICY, PLACE, and POWER in an evolving city: BOSTON’S RACIAL EQUITY HISTORY PROJECT, a map and timeline that describes flashpoints, battlegrounds, and structures of inequity in the City of Boston. You can view that timeline at http://socialjustice.library.northeastern.edu/

From the website:

History is everywhere in Boston. Every neighborhood, street corner, and building embodies the people, communities that have occupied those spaces previously. The history of Boston’s systemic racism and communities’ acts of community building, activism and resistance are baked into both our understanding of our city, as well as its physical geography.

This timeline represents policies, events, and projects to the map and timeline that describe flashpoints, battlegrounds, and structures of inequity in the City of Boston.

  • BATTLEGROUNDS: Places where communities and institutions collide over resources, spaces, and neighborhood visions. ie. Tent City, The Southwest Corridor, Villa Victoria, The West End.
  • FLASHPOINTS: Trigger events that exposes inequity and leads the city to a better understanding of itself. ie. School Desegregation, the Henry
    Louis Gates arrest, the Charles Stuart Case.
  • STRUCTURES OF INEQUITY: Government and private sector policies and practices that are racially biased. ie. Chinese Exclusion Act, Redlining, Urban Renewal.

PROJECT GOALS

  • Our goal is to illustrate. To identify histories of racial injustice and celebrate communities’ acts of social resilience through community involvement and activism that moved spaces and institutions and policies toward justice and equity.
  • Our goal is also to learn. The combination of policies and citizen actions over time define our city and our current state equity/inequality. What are the key elements in each campaign or event that have made forward momentum toward racial equity successful?
  • Our goal is also to apply. What are the equity projects you are involved in that define Boston’s current social resilience? Are there elements missing in your current constellation of support? Help create a foundation for new insight as we assess current and future projects.