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.

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.

Seeking Experts to Open Doors

By Mariam Williams

 

In September, several members of the Chronicling Resistance steering committee attended the Annual Meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. There we heard a keynote address from Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance.

Based on her second book, Simon’s keynote address (much like this TEDx Talk) gave leaders of various organizations and institutions a crash course in “how to invite people outside of their traditional circles, into that thing that matters to [them].” In other words, she answered the following question: how do you make a place, issue, cause, art form, business, etc. relevant to people who currently, for whatever reason, don’t care about it, don’t know it exists, or don’t think it’s of any importance to them?

Who are archives important to? With whom do narratives of resistance resonate? The answers aren’t necessarily two different constituencies, but one group may, to paraphrase Simon, look at the front door to an archival institution and see a systemic lockout while the other may look at the same door and feel like they are about to enter their own home.

I’m closer to the latter group. For most of my life, I’ve had the ability to nerd out and go down rabbit holes of documents and files just because it’s interesting. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to enter a place built in the 1800s and have an archivist who’s certain I don’t know protocols about food, beverages, pens, and bags watch me closely as I do my work. Such an archivist’s behavior (and such necessary rules) aren’t ones everyone can tolerate. But it doesn’t mean the stories inside the archives wouldn’t be important to them if they knew they were there. It may just mean, as Simon suggests, the effort it takes to get into those archives and draw meaning from them isn’t worth it to everyone. And it may mean we have to build a door that they think will be worth going through, a door that opens to something meaningful for them.

What does that door look like? What does the invisible “Welcome” mat outside look like? That’s the question I’m wrestling with. With a group of consultants we’re calling Thinking Partners, the Chronicling Resistance staff and steering committee is attempting to construct those doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways.

Simon encourages “community-first programming, using a community’s assets and resources to build a project together.” Listening to the community’s wisdom and then adapting existing doors and spaces rather than prescribing what they should look like–because honestly, we don’t know what they should look like. We, the historians, archivists, and academics who are degreed and skilled in what we do are not the experts in this project.

For the next several months, Chronicling Resistance staff, steering committee members, and consultants will be attempting to construct new doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways. I’m excited to look to people whose histories, stories, and contributions often have been undervalued and call them experts.