A Few Words on Diversity

In a couple of hours I’ll be heading to Chicago for our next Council meeting. This time we will be spending part of the meeting focusing on the issue of Diversity. Diversity is a hard topic for us. We’ve been wrestling with it as long as I’ve been a member of SAA. It is also an extremely difficult issue for me both as an African American female member and as a leader of the Society.

One of the most difficult moments for me as a person and as an SAA leader took place during my first time on Council. We received a report noting the racial and ethnic breakdown of approximately half of the members of the Society at the time. As I remember, of the members listed less than twenty were ethnic or racial minorities. The SAA staff members in the room (none of them work for SAA now) and some of the Council members expressed great excitement at the “increasing diversity” of the membership. I however threw a fit indicating that I did not believe that having twenty members from ethnic and racial minorities was a positive thing. I noted that unless there were many more ethnic and racial minorities included in the part of the membership that was not counted in this particular survey that this did not show success. It showed great failure.

That evening several of my Council colleagues took me to dinner to basically ask me what my major malfunction was and I think to encourage me to calm down and be quiet. I didn’t. I expressed my concerns, my anger, my frustrations and my sadness. And instead of telling me to be quiet these colleagues encouraged me to continue to be honest and to express my concerns but with a bit less emotion. And I am grateful for that.

I’m still grappling with the issue of diversity. I like that we have become more expansive in our definition of diversity and what makes up a diverse membership and a diverse archival profession and record. I appreciate that diversity may not be front and center in our strategic plan but it is listed as the second of our core organizational values behind advancing the public standing of archivists. I like that we are thinking about how to make our membership more diverse and to bring in a wide variety of leaders representing different kinds of repositories, different regions of the country, different points of view and different ethnic, racial, cultural, and sexual communities.

However something frustrates me. I want this diverse profession but I know we don’t have the jobs available for those graduating from archival education programs. Why should we encourage diverse communities to enter the archival field when we don’t have the jobs available for current graduates? We want people from diverse communities participating in leadership roles, in committees as well as providing new ideas and new techniques to help archivists become better at their jobs and in protecting the diverse archival record. But as I discovered when I worked on appointments last year the pool to select from was amazingly homogenous. And there were not enough leadership slots for those interested in serving.

So what should we do? How do we work to develop a diverse archival profession? Do we encourage the development of citizen archivists or participatory archives? Do we focus on supporting community archives? Do we reach out to the K-12 community to let students know about this career field called archives? Do we forget about diversifying the profession and focus on diversifying the archival record?

We’ll be discussing this on Friday. I’ll be interested to see your comments.

And if you need something to spur your thought process read Through the Archival Looking Glass: A Reader on Diversity and Inclusion edited by Mary Caldera and Kathryn Neal. I’ve been reading it this week and it’s given me some interesting food for thought.

5 responses to “A Few Words on Diversity

  1. I appreciate that the Council is tackling some very difficult and very broad issues this year. I feel like it is a particularly exciting time to be part of SAA. Thank you for this thoughtful post; I look forward to reading more about the discussion when the meeting notes go up!

  2. These are important questions about diversity and diversification, and a topic that’s been on my mind for several years, especially coming from a specialized segment of the field that has traditionally had an extra helping of diversity issues (though much improving in the past few years). Also, as someone in the position to hire for projects from time to time it is a consideration on a number of levels.
    I asked some questions similar to yours in a recent blog post “Seeking Diversity and a Unified Field”. I think what it starts to come down to for me is the feeling that we need diversity in the field, and we ourselves need to diversify in order to recognize the many people, materials, and institutions that represent, maintain, and provide access to the historical record (or the common record, for that matter), even if not representative of The Archive. How far does that diversification extend and in what areas? I do feel that we need a degree of professional standards — scratch that — a degree of tools and reasoned approaches based on a common framework that supports the efforts of collection care and accessibility as such things pertain to the material type and organization type.
    I also feel that diversifying what is considered a record or a work worthy of archival management will help support diversity among the professionals in the field, in part because that will help reflect the fact that the type of content or skills one feels passionate about are valued more widely and that there may be space to make a career in those areas. That said, it’s a long slog to that acceptance — personally and professionally and budgetarily. I have seen change in the past 10 years in the audiovisual field, so I’m hopeful, but it isn’t going to be easy.

    • Danna C. Bell

      Thanks for sharing your blog post. I think it does a great job outlining some of the issues that we face in the area of diversity,

  3. As someone who grew up in working class household and is a first generation college student I would like to see attention given to the effects of class on the diversity of the profession.

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