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.