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Achieving Greater Agency, Equity, and Social Justice in New York’s Historical Record

To increase the knowledge of the histories and cultures of this extraordinarily diverse state, the New York State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) is committed to supporting the collection, preservation, and accessibility of historical records documenting the life experiences of all New Yorkers. As SHRAB members, we are archivists, librarians, historians, educators, and genealogists who have been appointed by the Commissioner of the New York State Education Department to represent New York’s historic records organizations and provide guidance to the State Archives, the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education, New York State government, and historical records communities across the state.

To promote equity and inclusion in a large and diverse population, we strongly encourage and recommend that all records repositories work diligently to give agency to those who are  inadequately represented in historic collections and contemporary collecting efforts. Racial attitudes and exclusionary constructs have changed over time, but the opportunities, privilege, and agency afforded to those identified as white to shape the historic record have always been more plentiful than ones afforded to those identified as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Historical knowledge and understanding grow when more stories are added to archives and when BIPOC communities are given opportunities to contextualize existing archives in ways that better represent the communities documented in historical materials. There is no single approach to creating these opportunities, and we acknowledge the intersectionality of these issues and that they impact many marginalized communities in many ways. We hope that these recommendations and the lessons we learn in applying them can be broadened to meet the needs of all marginalized communities in New York. The process of creating equity must be an ongoing endeavor.

These recommendations are intended for any individual or organization invested in developing and sustaining a comprehensive record of New York State’s people, places, and events. We talk about “stakeholders,” “community members,” and “stewards.”  In collections that successfully represent the communities they serve, individuals often occupy more than one of these roles. Responsibility is shared amongst staff, volunteers, researchers, and the general public. A commitment to free expression and an inclusive historic record empowers a broad coalition of allies to ensure our organizations remain relevant and valued in the long term. A more diverse and inclusive historic record leads to greater understanding across New York communities. When knowledge grows, it brings more people together. Broad public support is key to a healthy statewide network of historic records repositories.

To support the work of correcting archival silences and populating archival collections equitably in New York State, we ask the historical records community to incorporate the elements in the following five pillars of archival activity:

Pillar 1: Education

To build cultural competence, we as historical records stakeholders first need to educate ourselves and raise the collective consciousness about BIPOC concerns with the historical record. 

Consider:

  • Exploring the history of your own organization, which individuals and groups had authority in establishing its mission and collections, and how that mission has been implemented up until now.
  • Examining how certain archival practices favor privileged groups and communities. 
  • Educating yourself and your staff on what it means to be a culturally competent records professional.  (See recommended reading below.)
  • Hosting facilitated conversations amongst staff, volunteers, and the communities you serve that address bias and systemic racism.
  • Finding ways to equitably engage partners from marginalized communities who can provide educational sessions for your stakeholders.

Pillar 2: Access

As stewards of historic records collections, we should ask BIPOC community members if there are barriers to gaining physical or intellectual access to materials in our collections. Are there ways to create a genuine feeling of welcome into the processes and spaces of historic recordkeeping? This includes the way we describe materials that researchers will access in-person and online. As stewards of historic records, we should dialog with BIPOC communities and ask, “How do we build sustainable partnerships based on trust and reciprocity with communities we serve in order to provide equitable access to historic records and our understanding of history?

To answer these questions, consider:

  • Finding stakeholders who are interested in BIPOC histories and asking for recommendations of archives that preserve their heritage. What do they like or not like about the experience of using those collections? Are there meaningful practices you can adopt?
  • Dialog with BIPOC community members regarding access to historical collections. Discuss any aspects of gaining that access that feel uncomfortable.
  • Use inclusive and up-to-date descriptive terms to ensure finding aids, catalog records, and other metadata represent communities in a respectful manner.
  • Audit existing finding aids, catalog records and other metadata to locate and replace offensive, exclusionary, and outdated terminology.

Pillar 3: Representation

We acknowledge that there are many valid ways to collect and preserve history. Here, we focus on the document and artifact-based methods used most often by historic records organizations. As stewards of historic records, we should ask ourselves, “Do our collections reflect the diversity that exists in the communities our collections are meant to represent?” As BIPOC community members, we should ask ourselves, “What are the historical records collections that should contain materials reflecting my and my family’s life experiences? What historical instances and traditions do we know that are not well-represented in current historical collections?”

Consider:

  • Consulting demographic data as well as social and cultural assets for a more objective snapshot of who lives in your community.
  • Engage BIPOC community experts in developing and conducting a demographic survey of the individuals represented in your records.
  • Publishing your findings in the form of a special call for staff, volunteers, record donors, and community stakeholders to help address those gaps.
  • Collaborating with BIPOC communities to develop new methods for historical collecting and preservation that better represent their histories.

Consider ways these methods can be included in your practices.

Pillar 4: Agency

As stakeholders who care about a collection of historical records, we should ask ourselves, “Who is doing the labor to collect, manage, and preserve these records? Who is empowered to make decisions about them?”

To answer these questions, consider:

  • If your team is diverse, nurturing a sense of ownership in decision-making around acquisitions and curatorial work among team members.
  • Auditing the past several years of exhibitions, programming, and acquisitions. Have BIPOC voices been part of your offerings?
  • Asking how insular and/or myopic are we as an organization? For example, an assessment of how many new collections have ties to personal acquaintances of staff or board members and if they represent people of similar racial backgrounds could be helpful.
  • If your team is not diverse, finding a way to explicitly bring diversity into your recruitment and hiring decisions.
  • Creating opportunities for guest curators who will bring a BIPOC perspective to acquisitions, exhibitions, events, or publications coming from your organization.
  • Finding opportunities to provide expert conservation and preservation advice to community members who wish to retain their own records.
  • Determining whether your collections represent all the people they should, based on the mandate of your organization’s mission. Do your collections represent all the people they should?

Pillar 5: Partnerships

As collection stakeholders and as community members, we should ask ourselves, “What partnerships could enrich these collections? What partnerships could enrich our work as well as our collections?”

To answer those questions, consider:

  • Finding a way to understand how your organization is perceived as a partner and understanding how that might impact your ability to achieve your mission.
  • Generating a list of community organizations with BIPOC membership. These could be civic, religious, political, or professional groups.
  • Making efforts to visit these groups at their regular meeting times or by appointment to introduce yourself and your collections.
  • Inviting a group for a special tour of your collections
  • Co-organizing a public program of mutual interest with a partner organization.
  • Committing to tabling at community events to meet other exhibitors and the public.
  • Inviting a community group to do an audit of your collections and programming.

Resource Guide

Recommended Readings

American Alliance of Museums. “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum.” Last modified June 9, 2020. https://www.aam-us.org/2020/06/09/racism-unrest-and-the-role-of-the-museum-field/. This video features Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Lori Fogarty, and Lonnie G. Bunch III reflecting on a moment of racial reckoning and what role the museum field can play in it. Includes video and transcript.

Autry, LaTanya. “Social Justice and Museums List.” Accessed November 18, 2020. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PyqPVslEPiq0Twnn4YYVXopk3q426J95nISRxvkQI_Q/edit. A crowdsourced resource list around equity and inclusion-based practices which encourages and provides new additions.

Bell, Jeanne. “Without Mincing Words: Sierra Club Commits to Accountability and Racial Justice.” Nonprofit Quarterly, August 27, 2020. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/without-mincing-words-sierra-club-commits-to-accountability-and-racial-justice/.

Bias Interrupters. “Tools for Organizations.” Accessed June 30, 2020. https://biasinterrupters.org/toolkits/orgtools/.

BIPOC Project (The). Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.thebipocproject.org/. The BIPOC Project aims to build authentic and lasting solidarity among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in order to undo Native invisibility, anti-Blackness, and to dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice.

Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. “Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.” Accessed November 9, 2020. https://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/documents/SlaveryAndJustice.pdf.

Coalition of Communities of Color. “Tool for Organizational Self Assessment Related to Racial Equity.” January 2014. https://www.coalitioncommunitiescolor.org/research-and-publications/cccorgassessment. Free, downloadable publication.

Cota, Eddie. “Institutional Racism in the Arts: The Need to Hire, Retain, and Promote People of Color.” Medium, June 10, 2020. https://medium.com/@eddiecota/institutional-racism-in-the-arts-the-need-to-hire-retain-and-promote-people-of-color-c61b9467183.

DiAngelo, Robin.  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Equity in the Center. “Awake to Woke to Work: Building A Race Equity Culture.” 2019. Accessed November 3, 2020. https://equityinthecenter.org/aww/. Downloadable publication.

Flicker, Sarah Sophie, and Alyssa Klein. “Anti-Racism Resources.” May 2020. Accessed July 6, 2020. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/mobilebasic?fbclid=IwAR2_aTX_DQ9rHSF6iwY1C6IAOAoLLUzWkP4Gk5YiXFuHg4BHMI-xgHN9dKc.

Gassam, Janice. “Dear Companies: Your BLM Posts Are Cute But We Want To See Policy Change.” Forbes.com, June 6, 2020. Accessed June 17, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2020/06/06/dear-companies-your-blm-posts-are-cute-but-we-want-to-see-policy-change/?sh=2b876bce1b9c.

Glaude, Eddie S. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Gregory, Bailie, Anna Stamborkski, and Nikki Zimmerman. “Scaffolded Antiracism Resources.” Last modified June 12, 2020. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PrAq4iBNb4nVIcTsLcNlW8zjaQXBLkWayL8EaPlh0bc/preview?fbclid=IwAR13WniNKEFXyRP5aeM7ryz42WDlX1nyovubD0dKU_RGQbzNunBaoGYZe-E&pru=AAABcp4VXT8*-EIP2SOVy-coUEQotr7djg.

Hicks, Donna. Leading With Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Ivy, Nicole (ed.). “Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group.” American Alliance of Museums, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/facing-change/. Downloadable publication.

Jones-Rizzi, Joanne. “Facing Race.” YouTube, May 11, 2016. Accessed November 8, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCa2tc_ma9w. Jones-Rizzi speaks briefly about introducing anti-racism and equality into museum exhibits as a “Facing Race” award winner of the Saint Paul Foundation.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World, 2019.

Leary, Joy DeGruy, and Randall Robinson. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Portland: Joy DeGruy Publications, 2018.

Levine, Carole. “Will Nonprofits Meet the Racial Inequality Challenge of Our Times?” Nonprofit Quarterly, May 26, 2020. Accessed July 17, 2020. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/will-nonprofits-meet-the-racial-inequality-challenge-of-our-times/.

Management Center (The). “Equity and Inclusion Resources.” Accessed November 5, 2020. https://www.managementcenter.org/tools/equity-and-inclusion/.

MASS Action: Museum as Site for Social Action. “Resources.” Accessed October 30, 2020. https://www.museumaction.org/resources. A collaborative project seeking to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices. Includes downloadable assessments and tools, provides additional resources and links.

McNamara, Rea. “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough.” Medium, June 9, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2020. https://medium.com/@rea.mcnamara/why-your-museums-blm-letter-isn-t-enough-33841b31b9ae.

Moore, Porchia. “The Danger Of The ‘D’ Word: Museums And Diversity.” Incluseum, January 20, 2014. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://incluseum.com/2014/01/20/the-danger-of-the-d-word-museums-and-diversity/.

MP Associates. “Tools and Publications.” Accessed November 9, 2020. http://www.mpassociates.us/tools--publications.html. Includes links to resources and articles related to racial justice.

Museums & Race. “Museum Report Card and Facilitation Guide.” 2018, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://museumsandrace.org/2020/01/01/report-card/. Downloadable material.

Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want To Talk About Race. New York: Seal Press, 2020.

Racial Equity Tools. “Homepage.” Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.racialequitytools.org/home. Racial Equity Tools is designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity. This site offers tools, research, tips, curricula, and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level, in systems, organizations, communities, and the culture at large.

Saad, Layla F. Me and White Supremacy:  Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor.  London: Quercus Publishing, 2020.

Tutu, Desmond and Mpho Tutu. Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference. Edited by Douglas C. Abrams. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Umolu, Yesomi. “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice.” artnet news, June 25, 2020. Accessed June 27, 2020. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/limits-of-care-and-knowledge-yesomi-umolu-op-ed-1889739.

Vagnone, Frank. “Systemic Bias and Racism of Preservation.” Twisted Preservation, June 2, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2020. https://twistedpreservation.com/2020/06/02/systemic-racism-of-preservation/.

 

 

Sources for Facilitated Conversations and Workshops

American University. “Antiracist Research & Policy Center.” Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.american.edu/centers/antiracism/.

Aspen Institute. “Training for Racial Equity and Inclusion.” Accessed November 20, 2020.  https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/training-racial-equity-inclusion/.

Boston University. “Center for Antiracist Research.” Accessed November 20, 2020.  https://www.bu.edu/antiracism-center/.

Brown University. “Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice.” Accessed November 20, 2020.  https://www.brown.edu/initiatives/slavery-and-justice/.

Columbia University. “The Earth Institute.” Accessed 20 November 2020. https://www.earth.columbia.edu/.

National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Talking About Race .” Accessed November 20, 2020.  https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race.

Glossary

Accessibility: Giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience. Accessibility encompasses the broader meanings of compliance and refers to how organizations make space for the characteristics that each person brings. (American Alliance of Museums.)

Antiracism: The active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies, practices, and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.

Audience: The individuals and groups who engage with your organization.

BIPOC: Black, Indigeneous, People of Color. The term BIPOC highlights the unique relationship to whiteness that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have as a whole, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U. S. context. (Adapted from “The BIPOC Project.”)  It does not necessarily acknowledge the direct -- and different -- relationship that each of the three have to whiteness.

Community: The dynamic environment of shifting political landscapes, funder priorities, constituent needs, and demographics in which nonprofits operate. Those who receive services or who benefit directly from an organization’s efforts as well as those who fund the efforts or benefit from the improvement to a group of people sharing similar or the same beliefs and needs, and/or to society. Communities can be groups bound by ethnic identity, shared experiences, or passions.

Diversity: All the ways that people are different and the same at the individual and group levels. Even when people appear the same, they are different. Organizational diversity requires examining and questioning the makeup of a group to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented. (American Alliance of Museums.)

Equity: The fair and just treatment of all members of a community. Equity requires commitment to strategic priorities, resources, respect, and civility, as well as ongoing action and assessment of progress toward achieving specified goals. (American Alliance of Museums.)

Inclusion: The intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse individuals fully participate in all aspects of organizational work, including decision-making processes. It also refers to the ways that diverse participants are valued as respected members of an organization and/or community. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.” (American Alliance of Museums.)

Intersectionality: A paradigm that addresses the multiple dimensions of identity and social systems as they intersect with one another and relate to inequality, such as racism, genderism, heterosexism, ageism, classism among other variables. (American Psychological Association.)

Microaggression: Brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or situational indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights or insults delivered to people of minority or marginalized backgrounds. (American Psychological Association.)

Organizational Culture: The expectations and tenets of the way trustees, directors, staff, and volunteers interact and work together. Culture is often inspired by values statements, and it influences institution-wide behaviors like decision-making criteria and processes, inclusive practices, ways of operating, and the nature of communication. (Gail Anderson, Mission Matters.)

Systemic Racism: Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. “Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts[....E]ach major part of U.S. society -- the economy, politics, education, religion, the family -- reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism.” (Joe R. Feagin.)