Knowing What Shapes Us and Working Toward Equity

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the January/February 2020 issue of Archival Outlook.

As we enter this new year—and new decade!—I want you to know that I hear you. Regardless of the  medium used to communicate your thoughts or concerns, I hear you and the SAA Council hears you. Each day I work on listening, moving beyond my own distressing experiences, and healing. We all have learned biases—conscious or unconscious—that we bring to work, home, and SAA. As I prepared to write this column, I was mindful of how important it is for each of us to be aware of our impact on one another and to give people a safe space to share thoughts and opportunities to heal and right relationships.

Recently I read Chains, a historical fiction novel for tweens that is part of the Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson. I wish this experience could have been me just reading a book, but it wasn’t. Chains follows a young female slave who is denied the promise of freedom upon the death of her owner, becoming the property of a malicious couple in New York. I was forced to address many layers: my son is reading this with his class; slavery was a new concept to more than half the students; he is one of four people of color in his class of 24 students; I identify as female and as a descendant of slaves; I grew up in New York City; I am middle class; I hold degrees in history; I am an archivist. My experiences can cloud my mind and, in this case, refuel upsetting moments in my life—just from reading this book! I share this not for sympathy or to create division, but to encourage us to consider how our experiences shape our interactions in the world.

Recognizing privileges and differences means simply being aware that some people have to work much harder to experience the things you may take for granted (if they can ever experience them at all). SAA has made great strides in fostering diversity (embracing people’s differences) and inclusion (creating environments where people feel heard and supported). Now I encourage us to work toward equity—making efforts to eliminate obstacles that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity requires fairness within our procedures and practices and an understanding of the origins of the disparities within our communities.

Many archivists have written about opening archives and collecting more expansively. F. Gerald Ham, Terry Cook, Thomas Nesmith, Kathleen Roe, Helen Wong Smith, Rebecca Hankins, Ricky Punzalan, Mario Ramirez, and many others have spoken and written about ways in which archival practice can be implemented to accurately reflect the history of our nation and the communities where we live, work, and play. All should be heard, recorded, and remembered. With equity comes balance, and when people are no longer minimized or erased, we will see each other in a new light and function more fully as a community of practice.

I find these discussion prompts from historian Howard Zinn’s address at SAA’s Annual Meeting nearly 50 years ago still worthy of review today:

  • That the existence, preservation, and availability of archives are very much determined by the distribution of wealth and power, and that collection materials are biased in documenting the important and powerful.
  • That one of the ways in which information is controlled and democracy denied is through the government censoring or withholding documents from the public.
  • That collections skew toward individuals versus movements, the written word versus oral history, and preserving what already exists versus recording new data and voices.
  • That archivists emphasize the past over the present, the antiquarian over the contemporary, the non-controversial over the controversial.

Read his full address here and consider what steps you might take toward creating a more equitable profession.

3 responses to “Knowing What Shapes Us and Working Toward Equity

  1. Hello, apologies but I am unable to access the link to the Zinn address.

  2. thank you!

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