This summer I have had the pleasure of working on the Reckonings Project which is a local history platform for the community-archivist. The main goals of the project were highly attractive as it seeks to empower community archivists through digital scholarship, civic engagement, and community-library-university partnerships. In particular, the focus on the documentation and commemoration of Black Boston felt especially important, given the immense connections between Northeastern University and the larger Boston area. Further, I enjoyed the idea of promoting more positive connections between an institution and its students which seems at times entirely disconnected from the community it resides in.
In terms of project position, I am a summer research assistant who focuses on two partnerships which include the Black Artists of Boston and a non-profit related to increasing archival efforts among Haitian youth. The former relates to the efforts to build connections between Northeastern University and the Black Artists of Boston community. I first engaged with this sector of the project as a student in a graduate course last semester about documenting field narratives. The course provided students with the tools and experience to conduct oral history which was extremely beneficial. In terms of the classroom, students learned the various methods to receive and analyze oral history, the audio and visual technology and software, and ethical debates. This course also challenged students to document Black Artists’ stories and translate these stories into a digital form. For example, my project group used a digital archive platform to categorize various forms of art including posters, sketchbooks, and textiles.
During this course, I truly saw the embodiment of the Reckonings Project’s goals in the collaboration between students and the community partner. More specifically, the importance of letting the community partner define how they would like to plan with or design with the institution. This strategy not only built better relationships between the institution and Black Artists of Boston community, but also allowed artists to choose the best way and strategy to document their own stories. For example, some artists wanted to build online archives through YouTube, some through Websites, and others through a more Podcast style.
In correlation with the Black Artists of Boston partnership, I have also been working on making the toolkit portion of the Reckonings Project more clear and concise. A part of the Reckonings Project is providing toolkits for the community archivist which include some type of module or workshop which address the critical skills needed to conduct and receive oral history. These include audio and visual lessons which would cover areas such as software requirements, different recording platforms, and many other sectors. My goal is to make the structure of our toolkits more detailed and clear in order to better communicate with potential community partners about our toolkit resources. In the future, I look forward to working more on both the Black Artists of Boston and the other partnership with Haitian youth as well as streamlining the Reckonings Project resources.
– Victoria Dey
My work for the Reckonings project has had a bit of a slow start. The Black Artists of Boston was such a positive and meaningful experience (shoutout to Ifé Franklin!), and continuing that work in the form of a toolkit that community members, museum workers, researchers, youth and other groups can use to understand community history, expertise and expression. A key part of this process is reflecting on the Black Artists of Boston project and extracting the useful and positive experiences while making propositions for improvement. For example, I and my partner originally envisioned fully structured interviews where the entirety of the content was filled with responses to our questions. We discovered in our first meet and greet that that wasn’t going to work! Instead, a semi-structured interview style, which includes fewer questions on the topic and allows for conversation to flow more naturally, was more appropriate. While there is certainly variation in what interview approach participants will feel most comfortable with, we recommend that interviewers start with a semi-structured approach and re-evaluate as needed. Another recommendation for interviewers, developed by Shavaun Sutton, is to know when to bring in your own expertise and interests. Again drawing on my experience from the Black Artists of Boston project, my partner and I began our second full interview with a discussion of how hierarchies in higher education can manifest in unsafe conditions for students, which lead us to conversations about cross-generational relationships, which Ifé is involved in and passionate about. It wasn’t a part of our original set of interview topics, but it certainly made our conversation and relationships deeper. The last recommendation I will discuss here, and is perhaps the most important, is respect for boundaries. Interviewers may be searching for particular responses as we ask questions, but there are times when our participants do not wish to share for some valid reason, and we must accept it and move on. Of course, this respect for boundaries is not limited to the interview (consent and input must be sought in the creation of any final products as well, for example). It is important to recognize that university and community relationships are often exploitative, and to minimize harm to the community, interviewers, especially those affiliated with an institution, must be willing to respect the boundaries of our participants, and we will get the same respect in return!
To talk a bit about our current goals for this project, we are hoping to develop a specialized version of our toolkit which high school-aged interviewers can use. We hope that this toolkit will be used to strengthen community ties as students come into contact with elders and others in their area, get to know them, and document that which they both find to be important. This kind of co-construction of community narratives in areas like art, architecture, history, etc. can be incredibly valuable, and we hope, benefit all who are involved. We hope to create programs where not only the participants are compensated financially for their time, as with our Boston Artists, but our young interviewers as well. Similarly, we’ve discussed creating proposals for this project which align with the school district’s requirements so that students can get some form of extra credit (shout out to Savita Maharaj for the resources on this!). While much of this part of the project remains unknown as we work out some hold ups, we still aim to create resources which communities in Boston (and maybe in other places) find to be helpful, respectful and determined by their interests.
I look forward to keeping this blog updated!
– Titilayo Odedele