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.

 

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.

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.