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Samantha Winn serves as the Collections Archivist for Virginia Tech, where she helps to document the cultural heritage and experiences of traditionally marginalized groups. Samantha graduated from Drexel University with an MLIS and concentration in archival studies. She is currently chair of SAA’s Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable. She was one of the first people to engage with #ArchivesSoWhite on Twitter
What does #ArchivesSoWhite mean to you?
With #ArchivesSoWhite, Jarrett Drake leveraged broader cultural conversations around representation for people of color at the Oscars to pithily draw attention to parallel failings in archives. For me, #ArchivesSoWhite was a mechanism to spotlight pervasive and deeply entrenched patterns of exclusion in our collection development practices and the recruitment, hiring, and retention of archival professionals. Generations of cultural heritage and information professionals have engaged this issue of marginalization in our institutions. Whatever progress we’ve made, we still have a long way to go.
I was raised to seek out, listen to, and respect other people’s stories. This early training prepared me in many ways to be an archivist. When I entered the field as a paraprofessional in 2011, I made it a priority to build an inclusive and diverse network of peers and mentors (I talked about this work as a student writing for Hack Library School).
I happened to catch #ArchivesSoWhite while grappling with broader social justice/anti-racism work in my immediate community. I have considered this work a deep personal priority for many years, but I’ve only recently felt sufficiently equipped to engage with it in a public and meaningful way. Several resources exist for this. My own path involved a lot of reading, a lot of listening , and many professional development workshops.
Now that I have a deeper reservoir of expertise, I’ve been working to balance two competing priorities. The first is a need to decenter myself and step back from the podium to give other voices a space. The second is a responsibility to leverage my own privilege – by which I mean my position of influence online and in personal spaces, my access to decision makers, and my relative professional security – to initiate, sustain, and act upon hard conversations about representation in archives. I joined the #ArchivesSoWhite conversation because I felt convicted by one of Jarrett’s tweets, which lamented the reality that people from traditionally marginalized groups are expected to carry these burdens with limited support, resources, or recognition. In addition to being exploitative and irresponsible, this practice diminishes our collective ability to retain archivists from these groups.
What conversations do you wish to hear archivists having, and where?
Rather than jump right into the conversation, many of us may need to step back and listen first. I recommend seeking out research and literature from across the cultural heritage professions, attending workshops in your area, and intentionally listening to the lived experiences of our POC colleagues (without excuse, argument, or evasion). Then, and only then, will we be equipped to make change in our individual spheres of influence. Once we get there, I want to hear archivists talk about our responsibility for diversity and inclusion in our role as cultural heritage professionals. I also want to hear recommendations from across the broad archives community about how folks have incorporated these values into collection development, arrangement and description, outreach, scholarship, mentoring, recruitment and retention, and so on.
The question of recruitment and retention should be a key priority, especially for SAA leaders and archives managers. I have seen a distinct and undeniable whitewashing of the profession at every step of the career ladder. My colleagues today (broadly speaking) do not look like my classmates from high school and college, and they don’t look like the paraprofessionals I worked with before I graduated. In the 2010 US census, about 64% of respondents identified as “white, non-hispanic.” If our profession was representative of the US population, 1 in 3 archivists would be a person of color.
One broad conversation that needs to happen is for our profession as a whole to explicitly agree that we care about equitable representation for people of color in the ranks of archivists and in the historic record. I’m not certain we’re there yet. Studies of corporate and academic initiatives have shown that diversity and inclusion policies are effectively meaningless when goals are watered down. It is profoundly counterproductive (however well-intentioned) to equivocate difference of opinions, geographic distribution, and institution type with ethnic and racial diversity.
Better yet, what action do you want archivists to be taking?
I challenge anyone who claims that they lack the capacity to achieve meaningful progress in this work. The truth is that there are so many steps we can take, regardless of our job description or tenure in the profession. Here is a narrow sample of things we can do:
1. Seek out literature and personal stories about the experiences of marginalized groups around archives, including archivists, cultural heritage creators/donors, and researchers.
2. Strive to broaden our professional networks to include more people of color.
3. Attend continuing education workshops on diversity and inclusion practices.
4. For hiring managers, seek out training on unconscious/implicit bias. Research best practices for hiring policies that measurably reduce discrimination by effect (regardless of intent).
5. Personally encourage students (K-12 and college) from traditionally marginalized groups to consider archives as a profession.
6. Recruit people of color to run for SAA positions, serve on committees, and pursue leadership roles across the organization.
7. Bring a diversity/inclusion lens to collection development, exhibits, and scholarly research. Regardless of who we are or what kind of institution we work in (unless we literally work for the Institute for the History of Rich Older White Protestant Married Men with Ivy League Degrees), anyone can do this.
8. Actively and explicitly invite the participation of traditionally marginalized groups in collection development and documentation strategies.
9. Deliberately and intentionally mentor students and new professionals from traditionally marginalized communities.
10. Seek out and invite people of color to speak on panels, author book chapters, give keynotes, and teach workshops on topics that reflect their professional expertise (e.g. not just for diversity panels).
In what moment did it dawn on you that archives had failed diversity and inclusion, or did you always see this enormous gap/lack in the profession?
It was pretty clear to me as a student of history from a young age, but several experiences as a researcher, archives staff member, conference attendee, and roundtable leader have reinforced this understanding.
What would you like the archives, and the archivists, of the future to be? What actions do you see helping the field move on that direction?
I am excited to see the Council’s new cultural competency training roll out. I would like to see all archival professionals take on responsibility for this work in our repositories and our professional organizations. I would like to see stronger diversity/inclusion mandates adopted and implemented across SAA. I would particularly like to see permanent funding for the Mosaic Scholarship and a renewal of the Mosaic Program.
What readings (up to 3) do you recommend to archivists who need to up their knowledge around archives and race?
April Hathcock’s “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS”, http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/
Jennifer Vinopal’s “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action”,http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/
Fobazi Ettarh’s “Black or Queer? Life at the Intersection”, http://hacklibraryschool.com/2013/11/19/black-or-queer-life-at-the-intersection/