Sankofa Closing Celebration Recap

Panoramic view of Chronicling Resistance pop-up exhibit, the barn at Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo Credit: Ilhan Citak

The first phase of “Chronicling Resistance” held its last major event on May 7 at Bartram’s Garden and Sankofa Farm, with 27 people in attendance. The event began in the Barn with a pop-up exhibit featuring enlarged copies of resistance-related historical materials from local libraries and archives. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with these materials before hearing the program.

The formal portion of the event began with a welcome and introduction to “Chronicling Resistance” from project director Mariam Williams. Williams discussed several of the documents in the exhibit, noting that they show the risks people took, conflicts within movements, and connections to the space where we were, as several were directly connected to Southwest Philadelphia.

 

Chronicling Resistance pop-up exhibit at the barn, Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo credit: Ilhan Citak

Williams described some of the work of the project, including the questions that have been asked throughout the project, some of the listening sessions we have held, and a preliminary look at findings. These included the importance of feeling placed and rooted through history, how programming and art can help people to establish meaningful connections with the past, and how lack of knowledge about what is available is a barrier in connecting many people to archives. Williams closed with a vision for future “Chronicling Resistance” work, which includes striking “enabling” from the formal title and replacing it with “affirming.”

The evening then transitioned to a conversation among Williams, Shani Akilah, one of the founders of the Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative (BBWC), and Sade Black, a youth worker at Sankofa Farm, about the theme of Sankofa. “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language which signifies that there is nothing wrong with going back to pick up something you have forgotten. The term connects with the work of “Chronicling Resistance” because it helps to remind us that remembering is something we must practice, and that remembering is especially difficult for people whose histories have been erased. Remembering gives context and provides roots; it is an act of resistance to say “we were here, we are here” and to preserve what is actively being erased.

The conversation opened with discussions about the work each is doing. Black described her work learning about African culture, cooking African food and foods from the African diaspora, teaching new students to farm and cook, and the deep connections of food to history. Sankofa Farm provides opportunities to learn things she doesn’t learn in school, such as how African women preserved crops to save their culture and heritage when they were enslaved in the Americas. Akilah began with their family history; as a descendent of Jamaican Maroons and Haitians, they carry their history of freedom and rebellion with them, and this has informed what they believe is possible. BBWC works for an expansion of democracy and an acknowledgement that black and brown workers do much of the front-line work in social justice movements but still suffer under white supremacy.

Shani Akilah (L) and Sade Black presenting at “Chronicling Resistance Presents: Sankofa,” Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo credit: Ilhan Citak

For both Sade and Shani, their activism and work is a way to reach back and remember. Black noted that farming was not part of the community she grew up in, but that a connection to the land is part of her culture, although one that is not widely recognized in among African American youth in Philadelphia. Getting an education, and in turn educating others, is itself an act of resistance. Akilah emphasized the importance of moving beyond incremental change in becoming the dreams of our ancestors; they are inspired by slave rebellions, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and other people who have been criminalized for what they know. Remembering the truth is the deepest work we can do, because society functions on falsehood and false projects, and we must get at the truth.

Both Akilah and Black spoke about the importance of lifting up the work of black women, who are often erased from the work that they do; this is part of a commitment to collective liberation. Akilah noted the contributions of Ella Baker to the Civil Rights movement, although she is not familiar to many; Black noted the inspiration she derives from Harriet Tubman, who went back many times to save her own people.

In discussing how people should learn about stories in the future, and how their work should be remembered, Akilah noted that one should always ask “is this the moment I should be speaking?” before doing so, and recognize when to allow other voices to be heard; things are missed when people tell stories for others rather than allowing them to speak. Black emphasized the importance of not waiting for other people or school to tell you about history, but to seek it out and to use your voice, not allowing yourself to be silenced. Akilah also noted the importance of oral tradition.  

After the conclusion of this conversation, attendees took a tour of Sankofa Farm with Chris Bolden-Newsome, one of its co-directors. Bolden-Newsome described the goals of the farm, including reconnecting African-Americans to the land, as the culture has all but abandoned the value Africans traditionally place on spending time in nature, and farming is often seen as connected to slavery, when black people were forced to labor on the land in bondage. Sankofa Farm is rooted in the community of Southwest Philadelphia, and is sacred ground where all the plants that are grown have historical and cultural meaning, in addition to providing nutrition. Bolden-Newsome prefers to talk about resilience rather than resistance, because he sees this as a better description of how people can live their lives.

Following the farm tour, attendees were invited to an outdoor picnic dinner catered by Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods, an African-American family-owned restaurant that deeply connects spiritual and nutritional nourishment.

 

Sisters in Freedom Screening at Paschalville Library Recap

Seven people, all women of color, joined us for another screening of Sisters in Freedom on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The post-film discussion went quickly to resistance after one viewer remarked that women are still out knocking on doors and getting petitions signed.

A few of the women had canvassed for political campaigns and all said they were informed voters. They lamented the apathy they perceive among most people today. From their perspective, Philadelphia’s racial inequality persists in education, income, wealth, and housing, but they don’t see anyone in younger generations resisting these challenges. They cited the threat to raze Bartram Village, a housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, as an example. According to the viewers, residents of the projects and of Southwest Philadelphia have accepted that Bartram Village’s demolition is inevitable and that poor people will be displaced from their homes.

The amoebic discussion centered around the erosion of community structures that in the past kept people informed and able to form a more united activist front. Housing integration led to white flight and middle-class black flight. People used to learn about political issues at churches, but church attendance has declined. Parents on the block knew one another because their children played together, and mothers watched each other’s children; now children go to daycare and don’t play with their neighbors. Incarceration has taken away too many fathers. High property taxes, imminent domain, and gentrification have pushed longtime residents out of their homes in South, Southwest, and Kensington. The women noted that their neighborhood library is the closest thing they have to a community gathering space and is where they’re most likely to learn about social issues.

The women noted that the female abolitionists had rallied across racial lines for a common cause. They thought similar alliances would be formed today, if women could find a common cause. They felt this was unlikely, however, as everyone seems to have a different issue that’s important to them. Some care about the environment, some education, some wage equality. Viewers saw how some of these causes could be linked. They believed, for example, that if the minimum wage were raised so high that public assistance was eliminated, more people would demand accountability for how their taxes are spent, particularly in education.

“Sisters in Freedom” Screening Summary

“Sisters in Freedom” screening summary

This event was held in collaboration with History Making Productions, which produced the film “Sisters in Freedom”. The event began with an introduction to the film and to the Chronicling Resistance project and its aims. Six attendees then watched the film, which is about the advocacy of black and white women in Philadelphia for the abolition of slavery and the ways in which they worked together. Stories include those of Ona Judge, Lucretia Mott, and Sarah Mapps Douglass.

Discussion after the film centered on the importance of untold stories, things that are not taught in school, and how much Philadelphia history is unknown to many. Attendees noted that in school slavery is often presented as something that happened only in the South, while the film made clear it was also an issue in Philadelphia. Most people in the room had not heard the story of Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionists and destroyed by those in favor of slavery and colonization soon after its opening; this story is part of the climax of the film, and emphasized how unknown important stories of Philadelphia’s history are not necessarily widely known.

Community Day Recap

Project director Mariam Williams (front, center) facilitates discussion with participants at Free Library of Philadelphia’s Community Day, 16 Feb 2019.

Chronicling Resistance, Enabling Resistance participated in Community Day at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The event began with the talk/exhibit tour “Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward in a Changing City” given by by Kalela Williams, Director of Neighborhood Library Enrichment for the Free Library of Philadelphia. The talk was presented in conjunction with the exhibit “At These Crossroads: The Legacies of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois,” which Williams co-curated.  In her talk, Williams discussed significant people and places in the Seventh Ward, and DuBois’s study of the Ward in The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. Williams also talked about some of the primary sources she consulted while working on the exhibit, including diaries of an African-American woman in Philadelphia during the Civil War (held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania), and several African-American girls’ friendship albums (held at the Library Company of Philadelphia).

Following the talk, 20 people participated in a listening session over pizza and snacks. Discussion centered on how people were thinking about preserving their own and their families histories, and how materials end up in archives. The audience raised important questions about how you can know whether something you have is of interest to an institution (either in general, or what the right institution to contact might be), whether the fact that so much is digital makes it easier or harder to preserve and share materials, and how to decide whether or not to save something when you are cleaning the attic or tidying up. Participants also were interested in what archival institutions exist in Philadelphia and expressed surprise that PACSCL has 40 member institutions.

 

Remembering Resistance, Chronicling Community Recap

Thirteen people braved the cold to participate in “Remembering Resistance, Chronicling Community” at Girard College on the evening of January 31. The event was held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Girard College. Attendees were able to tour the historic spaces of Girard’s main building and see artifacts from its history, including materials related to desegregation.

Afterwards, attendees enjoyed dinner and participated in story circles in small groups. Everyone had been invited to bring an object, image, or other material as a way of sharing a brief story of their own experience with resistance. Some attendees shared experiences about acts of resistance they had participated in, such as the protests to integrate Girard College or exposing the history of environmental racism and health threats in their neighborhood through research and blogging. Others in attendance talked about other people in their families who demonstrated resistance and how that inspires the work they do now. Attendees also responded to the resistance stories they heard.

Themes which emerged from the circles and conversations included:

  • Mothers as models of resistance
  • How civil rights era assassinations catalyzed individuals
  • How easy it is for stories to be lost
  • The desire for stories to be passed down
  • How resistance can be inspired by the acts of others.

Uncovering Women of Color in Time, Place, and History Recap

From left: Karina Puente, Mariam Williams, Rasheedah Phillips, Yolanda Wisher. Photo courtesy Rasheedah Phillips.

The session “Uncovering Women of Color in Time, Place, and History” was held December 12, 2018, at the Education Center of Uncle Bobbie’s Books and Café. 44 people attended a discussion with Rasheedah Phillips (Managing Attorney of the Landlord-Tenant Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Black Quantum Futurism Collective), Yolanda Wisher (poet, singer, educator, curator), and Karina Puente (artist).

In a wide-ranging discussion, Phillips, Wisher, and Puente reflected on questions including the definition of resistance, how resistance is part of the work they do, the kinds of historical stories they include, and what it means to center women of color in their work.

All the panelists emphasized the inspiration which they find in history and historical narratives. Wisher and Phillips both emphasized how hidden some of these stories are — for instance, Ona Judge, about whom there is only one book, and Rev. Leon Sullivan, whose story is not known in much of Philadelphia. Puente spoke about the importance of anchoring her work in a Latin American folk art tradition of papel picado (cut paper), and the history of that work.

Phillips and Wisher discussed differing experiences of historical research. Phillips is a Temple graduate and while she had heard of the Blockson Collection while she was a student, she didn’t know it what it was or how to access it. (The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is an archive with more than 500,000 items pertaining to the global black experience.) Phillips’ perception at Temple was that the Blockson Collection was a resource that wasn’t really available to her. Wisher described her first visit to the Schomburg Center as a pilgrimage, and the importance for her of doing at least some research in a physical space.

Much of the work of all the panelists combines the past, present, and future. Puente views her work in a traditional folk art medium as a way of conjuring the past and connecting to others who do or did similar work. Her current project, “#SisterlyHistory,” which is co-producing with Wisher, is designed to help women of color engaged in arts, cultural organizing, or entrepreneurship remember why they are doing it. Wisher talked about using her family stories in her work, and how the future in her work is in many ways about the past, as well. Phillips exhorted attendees to stop thinking of time as linear and progressive but to explore quantum physics, which sees time as moving in many directions, an idea which resonates with precolonial African practices. She also challenged attendees to question what values spur the desire to document (in writing), preserve, and institutionalize history. Are these values Eurocentric and capitalist? History among many precolonial indigenous populations was oral and was passed down; could archives be passed down the same way?

Phillips discussed her work in Sharswood, a community in North Philly, which is undergoing rapid gentrification, and where the city demolished low-income housing using eminent domain. She had represented people as part of her work as attorney, but also felt compelled to do more. To bring an Afrofuturist lens to the work, she opened up a pop-up store front, and did oral-futurist interviews, sign making, and art. This was designed to push back against the narrative coming from the city and others about the neighborhood, and allow those living there to tell their story of their community.

All emphasized the centrality of women of color in their work, and that they do not see this as a choice.

Following the discussion, audience members filled out response cards. Then there was a question and comment session with attendees. Elements of the discussion included how to stay community focused, that the process of looking for a story is also a story, the importance of community control over both collections and where they are, and the contrast between the often metaphysical process of the creation of art and the order and process of archives. Wisher suggested art within the archives could be a bridge between the different processes, as art and artifacts connect with ancestry and add an element of the living within the institutional space.

Archiving Our Own Recap

The session “Archiving Our Own” was held November 28, 2018 at the Library Company of Philadelphia. 26 people attended presentations by Sofiya Ballin and Samip Mallick and then discussed their thoughts about resistance and archives.

The event was designed as a conversation among project director Mariam Williams, Ballin, and Mallick. The wide-ranging discussion covered a variety of topics including definitions of resistance, how the presenters’ projects affect people in Philadelphia, the relationship between resistance and archives, and the speakers’ connections to the historical record.  

Both Ballin and Mallick emphasized the importance of seeing your stories and the stories of your community represented in the historical record and in the narratives told about history. In discussing why she started her project Black History Untold, Ballin talked about wanting to move beyond the “traditional” profiles of black heroes she was asked to produce as a journalist and to show examples of Black success. Mallick reflected on how he felt displaced and left out of United States history when he was learning it in school, and how transformative learning about South Asian American history was for him. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) was an attempt to rectify this, and to make sure other people did not have the same experience.

Both panelists emphasized that they see the work they are doing as corrective and restorative, and that saying “we are here, we have stories” can be a form of resistance. While both Mallick and Ballin carry deeply personal experiences of isolation and ostracization into their work, each also attested to the collective effect omission and sometimes physical separation from archival records has had South Asian and Black diasporic populations.

Mallick noted that SAADA tries to highlight stories of marginalized voices within the South Asian American community, such as those from the Caribbean or undocumented immigrants. Ballin emphasized the importance of allowing black people to tell their own stories, which can be seen as threatening, as a way to take back some of what was stripped away during the slave trade. While both speakers emphasized the importance of resistance, they also cautioned that everyone thinks they are resisting, even if they are in a position of power, and that it is important to examine the term and its uses critically.

In thinking about the relationship of archives and resistance, Mallick reflected that the act of remembering can itself be an act of resistance, or an inspiration for resistance. Ballin remarked that the current technological moment has allowed more people to tell their own stories, rather than just the victors, which is the narrative more traditionally found in records. However, the independent projects that allow this are difficult to sustain over a long period of time. (SAADA is in its tenth year while Black History Untold will enter its fourth anniversary in February 2019.)

Following this discussion, attendees reflected on the questions: What does resistance mean to you? How do you see yourself in Philadelphia’s resistance history? Who are your Philadelphia resistance heroes? and discussed them in groups. (Group members have been kept anonymous, and the discussions are not transcribed.) Some prominent themes to emerge from the groups were the inherent violence of omission, the ways that things like racist or colonial art on the walls of institutions may deter the public from using the archives, the importance of knowing your own history, and how the preservation of history from non-dominant groups can be difficult in a multiplicity of spaces.


Sofiya Ballin is an award-winning journalist, writer, curator, and storyteller forging new roads in digital journalism.  Creator of the Black History Untold project, the Philly-based and New York-born writer has a magnetic personality and natural charisma that’s evident in her work and online presence, bringing new energy to the field.

Ballin aims to humanize all walks of life through mentorship and her work that included being Features Reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her written work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Okay Player and FADER. Her dedication to the craft has led her to honors that include being named the 2017 PABJ Journalist of the Year and a Caribbean American Thirty under 30 Emerging Leader by the Institute of Caribbean Studies. In 2018, she was given a citation by the city of Philadelphia recognizing her “journalism in music, advocacy and creativity, a most welcome and wonderful addition to the cultural landscape in Philadelphia and beyond.”

“All my life, I’ve learned that there were stories untold and that not every legend was etched into bronze, my goal is to tell their stories,” Ballin said.

Her allegiance to those untold stories has led to some of the most poignant work in her career so far. Ballin’s series #BlackHistoryUntold was birthed from this idea and led to her identity series that explores the importance of a comprehensive Black History education through an array of powerful essays. Winning the National Association of Black Journalist (NABJ) Award for Best Feature: Series in 2017, the project served as an opportunity to work on something bigger than herself and has included Jesse Williams, Marc Lamont Hill, Cory Booker, Black Thought and Jazmine Sullivan, among others.

Ballin is dedicated to the work of telling the stories of others, that might otherwise be overlooked, in the midst writing her own.

Samip Mallick is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), the only organization that digitally documents, preserves, and shares stories of South Asian Americans. Working at the intersection of technology and storytelling, Mallick has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Illinois. He was previously the Director of the Ranganathan Center for Digital Information at the University of Chicago Library.