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.
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.