Final Chronicling Resistance Thinking Partners Meeting

Members of the Chronicling Resistance steering committee and thinking partners met April 9, 2019. This was the last formal event for thinking partners in Phase I of the project. Discussion topics at the meeting included where the project was and what it had accomplished, potential next steps, and best practices for future work.

Those in attendance agreed that the project had learned much about what the barriers are to people using traditional library/archive reading rooms and about the collections in PACSCL institutions which relate to resistance. We have also learned that thinking about resistance is often very local: in talking about resistance heros and what resistance means to them, attendees at our listening sessions often mentioned someone in their family or community elders. These outcomes will inform our future development of the project, which includes a grant application in concert with the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Further discussion focused on best practices for reaching out to communities and making archives and libraries more open. We discussed the possibility of developing training for PACSCL library staff on implicit bias and anti-oppression work. We also discussed what it might mean to provide support for activists in archives who may encounter traumatic material. The issue of encouraging more students from a variety of backgrounds to explore libraries and archives as a potential career was raised.

We also discussed issues of preservation and access to collections in both institutional and non-institutional settings. Many communities don’t want their materials to go to a university or historical society, but prefer to preserve them within the community which created the materials. If we put together kits for groups to use in preserving their archives, will they want these and no further contact, or should there be a continued relationship? What might both these options look like?

The meeting closed with conversation about the news from the previous day that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was laying off 30% of its staff. While not directly related to the project, HSP is a PACSCL member, and everyone at the meeting expressed sadness at the news. Many people around the table also stated that such news forces us to consider how Philadelphia values, preserves, and thinks about its cultural heritage — one of the very questions being explored in Chronicling Resistance.

Resistance Collections PACSCL Member Event

Resistance Collections
An Event for PACSCL Library Staff

22 people attended a Chronicling Resistance event for staff from PACSCL member libraries. The goals of the event were to inform PACSCL member staff about the project and its findings, and to learn more about resistance-related collections in the collections of PACSCL institutions.

The event opened with everyone sharing something that was going on at their own institution, either that they were particularly excited about or that they had been focusing on. Project director Mariam Williams outlined the events we hosted, questions that were asked of attendees, and some early findings. She also asked several people in the room to share their experiences of attending or hosting listening sessions.

One attendee noted that the listening session he attended gave him further motivation and a framework for the work he wanted to do in thinking about his institution’s demographic boundaries. He was also especially influenced by speaker comments on how ownership of narratives is critical. A staff member at an institution which hosted a listening session noted that having the session there connected her with people who had been involved with the history of her institution, and brought out stories she had not heard before. Other attendees noted that sessions gave them a lot to think about and found them productive.

Mariam then reviewed discoveries from our process, and rounded up some other projects we have thought about, used as inspiration, and been in conversation with. Major points included that the public connects the past and the present, but doesn’t necessarily see a connection of the past to archives and special collections. One major barrier to this is not knowing what materials are available or if they are available to everyone.

The conversation then transitioned to the website we are creating that will include information about resistance related materials found in PACSCL collections, which attempts to address in some way the findings above. We discussed the audience for the website and its goals, as well as how materials could be added and what information we are hoping to collect. Guidelines written by project staff were passed around, designed to help people think about language and types of description.

The event closed with general social and networking time, so that attendees could talk more informally about the work they are doing.

Thinking Partners Retreat Recap

Members of the Chronicling Resistance thinking partners and steering committee met January 18 for a half-day retreat. Major topics of discussion included where the project is now, what the main goals are for the second part of this phase, and the possibilities for future phases. Themes of the discussion included how best to activate materials and the importance of stories. We also identified two distinct strands of the project: one is about accessing collections, letting people know about materials, interpreting those materials, and deepening engagement with them; the other is about collecting materials and documenting stories. We need to figure out how/when/if to bring these things together, and what that might look like.

We have been using cards to gather information on how people think about resistance and the history of resistance. This lead to a discussion about whether we could do this work in another format; e.g., encouraging people to do a short video essay in answer to these questions, and posting it online. This might be especially attractive to a 9-12/education population. There are some privacy concerns, but this is something we might look into for the future.

One thing that we have learned from our listening sessions is that lots of people don’t see libraries as their spaces. One of the reasons that sessions have been successful to date is because we drew on the networks of the people involved in those sessions, particularly the speakers, but also the venues. If we are doing events without speakers, or at public libraries, how can we continue to engage with people who don’t see libraries as their spaces? We discussed strategies, and acknowledged the fact that tension in these areas is okay; if there isn’t any tension, this project is not going well, as tension is one way of knowing that we are getting to the heart of issues.

It also seemed that the “chronicling” part of our work has been less of a focus than “resistance” so far. We discussed various methods of making sure that this is part of the conversation at events, including having materials (or facsimiles) available in the space to spark thoughts in this area, framing opening questions to encourage discussion of experiences with archives and libraries, and asking people about what stories they want to hear and do not, and what do they find off-putting about libraries.

Stories were once again a major feature of the discussion, particularly how we can (or cannot) tell stories with documents and objects, the ways in which stories allow for engagement, and creating authentic excitement about history. Connections, and the lack thereof, between communities and collections were also an important topic of conversation. A long-term goal of the project is to lessen the power dynamics between communities and archives.

 

In thinking about next steps for the project, thinking partners were very interested in how PACSCL members might demonstrate commitment and use their power. There were discussions about whether future grants could include money to bring communities to work with collections, to purchase new resistance materials, to work with communities to preserve collections, or to bring in artists to make work inspired by materials. Such collection-development related activities are not new work for institutions, although this is a different way of seeing them. Although Chronicling Resistance is a PACSCL project, to do this kind of work we will need investment from individual institutions; more interaction between member institutions and communities could have beneficial outcomes for both groups.

One key component of any next steps should be to activate materials and collections; part of what has been inspiring about previous listening sessions has been when people talked about their own work.

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.

Thinking Partners Meeting 11.14.2018

Members of our thinking partners and steering committee met in-person and via Zoom at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia for the second in a series of conversations. Conversation focused on valuing the contributions of those involved in Chronicling Resistance and similar projects, and how communities can learn about historical material.

It is important that this project not disempower people, and that it not perpetuate issues it is trying, in some small way, to resolve. We must value people’s time and contributions, as communities often feel that they are asked to donate their intellectual and cultural labor behind the scenes of a project and left behind after a project is completed; we must think about what is left for them after the project is done. Compensation and agency are important parts of this conversation. People’s work must be acknowledged (and compensated), but agency is a deeper and more difficult concern. We will think about ways to keep in touch with those who attend listening sessions, letting them know what is happening with the project.

It is also important to be upfront and transparent in order to manage expectations. To that end, being clear with partners about how much funding is available, what the timeline is, and what the goals of the project are is critical.

In discussing our goal of having people and communities make more meaningful use of archives, the question of how people can learn about what is held in collections was raised. Traditional description does not focus on things like neighborhoods, ethnicities, or resistance movements, and other ways people might define themselves. The steering committee will take up this question.

Resistance always means being against something, and it is important to acknowledge these systems of oppression even while celebrating resistance. Both these things should be marked. We must also keep in mind that stories of resistance can be sites of trauma, and think about how we can keep people safe during our sessions.

In thinking about next steps, we discussed defining resistance, the importance of attainable goals, and meeting people where they are.

Thinking Partners Meeting 10.09.2018

Note: To make information on our website easier to find, we’ve moved meeting summaries to our blog and deleted the “Discover” page. You’ll find all Thinking Partner meeting summaries under the “Project Updates,” “Meeting Summaries,” and “What We’ve Learned” categories.

A number of thinking partners and steering committee members gathered at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia for the first in our series of conversations. The conversation focused on the two major goals of this project: documenting current resistance, and inviting people to see themselves in resistance narratives that are kept in archives/libraries/special collections.

Several themes became apparent as part of the conversation. One was that we need to rethink common knowledge about what stories are known, as some stories may seem “hidden” but will be told by people if they are asked what history is important to them.

We also discussed the importance of personal and individual stories, and of people stepping up when systems are failing. Many people doing radical things may not identify themselves as resistors, so how can they be reached?

There was also debate among those in attendance about what the best way to preserve stories can be. It is important to determine where people consider their stories safe, and to be sure that such places, and places where people trust their stories to be told, have resources. But there is also potentially value in “canonizing” stories by talking about them in traditionally-elite institutions, as long as this is done in a way that centers the experience of the groups in question. It is always important to insist upon the inclusion of people who may not be obvious in records.

On a practical level, it was suggested that having a short, written form that people can fill out to give feedback is helpful in collecting information. In order for this to work well, it is necessary to have a specific question or hook, even if action items are still pending.

Implemented Action(s) Following Meeting: The steering committee developed three central open-response questions related to the project goals and created a Google form and 5×7 response card to receive public replies.