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

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.