Reflections: Untold Histories Unconference 2016

Hello, everyone! I’m baaaaack! I’ve had a really great month off and am ready to jump back into the swing of things with you all.

Next week is the 2017 Untold Histories Unconference at Rutgers University-Newark, a public history gathering of historians, archivists, librarians, community members, and more. I attended the unconference last year and had a really great time. This year I was honored to be asked to serve on their planning committee. The event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 9am to 4pm and registration is still open.

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Banner image from untoldhistories.wordpress.com

At last year’s unconference, I proposed a session on walking the fine line between providing access to a community’s materials and exploiting that community for their material. It was a hugely popular session; the room was packed and we didn’t really get to finish the conversation. With this in mind, I’ve proposed the session again for this year in the hopes of keeping the conversation going.

Here are my notes and reflections from last year’s session. If you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, I hope you join us on May 11!


Break out session on fine line between providing access to a community’s material and exploiting that community. How do we help document these stories without exploiting them, especially stories that are not our own? Much of this conversation spilled over into the following session on archives for Black Lives. We essentially were teasing out the ways to tell stories without changing them.

A lot of great discussion about transparency of intention, open collaboration. Being open and honest about your motivations as researcher/archivist as you enter a community. Learn the language, be ready to codeswitch. Allow members of the community to tell their stories in their way.

Feminist methodology comes into play here with emphasis on transparency and collaboration. Allowing flexibility in entering community and working with them. Letting community share in power and authority over project. It takes time to build trust in a community. Your timeline and priorities may not work. Remember it’s not about the project but the people.

The focus on power is key: both the power you bring to the community in the form of your project as well as the power dynamics that exist within the community. Remember this can take a ton of time. Flexibility is especially salient when having to navigate the local hierarchies, power dynamics, and internal systems of oppression.

Also cast critical eye to the role you are playing in the project, the effect you have on the community. Examine the assumptions you enter with, the ways in which you become part of the work. You aren’t an objective, distant gaze. You are a part of the telling of the story.

Finally, remember to approach work with an intersectional view. People possess multiple interconnected the titles and they will interact with different communities in different ways.

We had such a rich discussion. I particularly loved the connections made because they resonated not just on a professional level but also on a personal level. A couple of the public historians in the room talked about research they’ve done and are doing with Black Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee people of the Carolinas, groups which make up the bulk of my ancestry. Hearing about their work and being able to see my people’s stories in it was incredibly moving.

Ultimately, in engaging in this conversation we reached an important realization: These aren’t really “untold histories”; they’re just unheard histories. The histories are being told even if we don’t hear them in the mainstream.

 

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