Top of page

A screen shot of the first slide of the event showing a project of the American Folklife Center Community Collection Grants program that shows an interview taking place outside during a project focused on women's textile weaving traditions in Yap State, Micronesia
The first slide of the Community-driven Archives event, which shows Modesta Yangmog interviewing master lavalava weaver Conchita Leyangrow of Lamotrek Atoll in Talguw on Yap Island, Federated States of Micronesia. Photo courtesy of Habele Outer Island Education Fund, a 2022 American Folklife Center Community Collections Grant recipient for the project, Warp and Weft of the Remathau: Traditional Weaving on the Ulithi Atoll.

AFC’s Community-driven Archives Discussion Part 2: Zooming in on Approaches and Impacts

Share this post:

In September, the American Folklife Center, with support from the American Folklore Society and the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF), hosted the successful Community-driven Archives: Local Needs/Global Practices in Safeguarding Living Cultural Heritage discussion event, which is now available for viewing below, and on the Library of Congress YouTube channel here. (The second roundtable begins at 1:59:00.)

As you may have read in Part I of this series, the Community-driven Archives event comprised two, separate roundtable discussions that each convened four distinguished scholars and professionals. Over both roundtables, they share examples of community-led documentation and archival preservation from a range of theoretical, practical, institutional, and community-based perspectives, discussing why such efforts are needed, how they can be supported, and the challenges that can be faced. Panelists joined in from multiple time zones, bringing an important international scope to discussions, grounding ideas and issues in community archives work – and related cultural documentation projects – in the contexts of India, Kenya, Peru, Brazil, Ireland, the U.K., and across the U.S. You can read about the event and each panelist’s biography and presentation here.

In the following, I provide a mere summary of the excellent and engaging panelist presentations shared during the event’s second roundtable, Community-driven Archives in Action: Approaches and Impacts, as well as links to resources mentioned. At the end, I also include a listing of related materials for further reading.

For this roundtable, we were fortunate to virtually host the following distinguished panelists: Professor Michelle Caswell, UCLA, Co-Director, UCLA Community Archives Lab; Dr. Ashley Minner Jones, Artist, Folklorist, and Assistant Curator for History and Culture, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; Junious Brickhouse, Founder and Executive Director, Urban Artistry, Inc.; and Dr. Lucy Kariuki, National Museums of Kenya (stepping in for colleague Dr. Patrick Maundu, Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, National Museums of Kenya).

screen shot of zoom presentation with panelists
The second roundtable participants, clockwise: Lucy Kariuki (top left), Michelle Stefano (moderator), Ashley Minner Jones, Junious Brickhouse, and Michelle Caswell.

In part, the first roundtable brought into view the very active, global arena of living cultural heritage policy – namely, via UNESCO – and issues that can arise in “top-down” implementation efforts. Here, the second zooms further in on the local level, spotlighting community-led documentation and collaborative archives activity in a wide range of places over the past several decades and years. Indeed, one aim of the Community-driven Archives event is to help expand (and infuse) international heritage-safeguarding discourses, and associated initiatives, with beneficial examples of “bottom-up” community safeguarding efforts already underway, and under their control – shifting the emphasis onto fostering equitable and ethical collaborations in supporting this ongoing work. In fact, our final presenter, Lucy Kariuki, rounds out event discussions by examining community-led efforts since the 1990s that focus on the documentation and archival preservation of foodways knowledge and traditions in Kenya, projects that have more recently been recognized by UNESCO as constituting important models for bolstering such community-led work.

On this key notion of community-controlled documentation/archives practice, Michelle Caswell, in her presentation, Community Archives and Liberatory Memory Work: The View from Los Angeles, begins discussions by distinguishing between ‘community archives’ and ‘community-driven’ (or ‘community-centered’) documentation/archival activity. Building on previous definitions, such as theorized by Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd (also noted by panelist Andy Kolovos earlier in the day [1]), Caswell provides a broad, and “most basic,” definition for ‘community archives,’ as conceived with colleagues at the UCLA Community Archives Lab: “community archives are independent memory organizations emerging from and coalescing around vulnerable communities, past and present.”

screen shot of a slide by Michelle Caswell outlining characteristics of Independent, Minoritized Identity-based Archives
Independent, Minoritized Identity-based Archives characteristics, as presented by Professor Michelle Caswell.

In contrast, the commonly-used term, ‘community-driven,’ can serve to categorize the important programs and projects that ethically involve culture keepers, artists, communities, and social groups in documentation, preservation, and interpretation/re-interpretation processes at, for instance, university-based archives and those in government agencies, such as the AFC Archives, among other, larger institutions. Nonetheless, with the focus placed squarely on independent community archives and their impacts, she examines how this definitional distinction hinges on power; that is, decision-making power in all steps of archives development and sustainability is autonomously exercised by the community – those whose history, heritage, and culture is taking center stage, and those who are the authorities over the materials therein and the stories they tell.

In tracing where power lies, both inside and outside the archival context, Caswell stresses an understanding of a great many community archives as Independent, Minority Identity-based Community Archives: “grassroots collections in which those who have been left out of mainstream archives document their own histories.” She argues that the longtime omission, marginalization, and lack of “representational belonging” of minoritized communities, and their histories and heritages, in the dominant archival context is tantamount to “symbolic annihilation,” which independent, minority identity-based community archives significantly and rightly counteract.

Yet, “with autonomy comes a struggle for sustainability,” she states. As such, she discusses the differing extents to which the decision-making power of communities is – and ought to be – upheld in archives work, as well as associated challenges that can arise. In terms of the wider field of archives theory and practice, underpinned for centuries by colonial thinking and activity, it is largely thanks to the longtime work of community archives, as discussed here, that it is shifting toward more equitable, ethical, and inclusive approaches, where the symbolic annihilation of marginalized communities and groups is combatted with increasing “representational justice” for and by them. Caswell then turns to sharing examples, taking us on a tour of longstanding independent, minority identity-based community archives in the Los Angeles region, including the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, La Historia Society Museum, the Skid Row History Museum and Archive, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, and the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives, as well as the South Asian American Digital Archive, which is not based in Southern California and like the Mazer Lesbian Archives, has a nation-wide scope. Without giving too much away, she ends on the critical note of ‘liberatory memory work,’ a conceptual tool for better understanding the necessity for and impacts of community-controlled cultural safeguarding efforts, and decolonizing mainstream archives practice. Caswell’s leading scholarship on these (very) summarized ideas, such as her recent book, Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work, are included in the bibliography below.

A photo of several of the (folded and unfolded) print Illustrated Guides to East Baltimore's Historic American Indian "Reservation" released in 2021, a community documentation and archiving initiative led by Ashley Minner Jones.
The print Illustrated Guide to East Baltimore’s Historic American Indian “Reservation” released in 2021, a community documentation and archiving initiative led by Dr. Ashley Minner Jones, discussion panelist. Photo by Sean Scheidt.

Focusing on one community documentation initiative, and anchoring ideas shared by Caswell, Ashley Minner Jones, in her presentation, Revisiting the Reservation of East Baltimore, brings us to the city’s neighborhoods where, since the mid-20th century, thousands of members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina made their homes, and built better livelihoods, including members of her family. After an overview of Lumbee history and culture, interspersed with photos and stories of family members and community leaders, she hones in on “the reservation,” as it is affectionately called, and the array of East Baltimore institutions, such as the Baltimore American Indian Center (BAIC) and South Broadway Baptist Church, as well as businesses, established by the Lumbee over decades – some still going strong, with others physically long gone. Intimately, and often humorously, she takes us step-by-step through the intergenerational, community conversations, research, and documentation processes of ensuring that this vital history, living heritage, and culture is put on the map – figuratively and literally.

Taking us to the beginning of what has become the Baltimore Reservation project, seven years ago, she recounts her realization that – despite her longtime work with the BAIC, community youth, and giving neighborhood tours – she lacked the rich and detailed knowledge of the community’s places and spaces, stores, frequented bars, and homes no longer around, but that live on in the memories and stories of her elders. “So,” as she notes, “I convened my elders to ask them what we used to have.” At the same time, she turned to archival research and, among a range of materials she shares, was an official, institutionally-produced 1969 map of the ‘Lumbee Community in Baltimore’ and related sites. Yet, she soon learned – when enthusiastically presenting the map to her elders – they told her it was all wrong, and painted a picture of Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill that was far from complete. “And I said, ‘Well, could you mark up the map? Could you add what’s missing or fix it?’ And, instead, they decided in conversation that day to go from memory block to block, alley to alley and reconstruct the reservation of their youth…,” she recalls. From there, she convened a series of conversations, which evolved into a community mapping project while going around the neighborhood together, in addition to oral history interviews and photographic documentation.

As you can enjoy from the recording, Minner Jones makes a number of engaging stops along the way in telling this story, sharing photos and stories of particular people and places that made the reservation what it was, and is today. Indeed, the project has resulted in an illustrated guide and map (see photo above), a dedicated website and Guide to Indigenous Baltimore app, all available on: https://www.baltimorereservation.com. Moreover, her research is being archived as The Ashley Minner Collection in the Albin O. Kuhn Library, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she previously served as a faculty member in the American Studies Department. Lastly, she will soon be publishing a monograph on this work, so stay tuned by following her here!

A screen shot of a slide presented by Junious Brickhouse that shows his collaborator's code for doing ethical cultural work
The Collaborator’s Code, as presented by Junious Brickhouse.

Following on is Junious Brickhouse, who carries the intimacy and respect expressed in Minner Jones’ presentation into telling the story of his years-long collaborations with National Heritage Fellows Phil “Harmonica” Wiggins, Piedmont blues artist, and legendary buck dancer, John Dee Holeman, who has since sadly passed away. Indeed, his presentation, Harmonizing Heritage: My Time with Two Piedmont Blues Legends and the Codes that Define Us, concentrates most specifically on the collaborative process, and not so much the ‘end goals,’ as well as his thoughtful reflections on his profound time being with and learning from them, and what it takes to do it right. “It wasn’t the goal that was important. It was the process. And I learned that really quick working with these gentlemen,” he notes. Although he was eventually able to amass a collection of materials, such as video interviews, that serve to trace the resonances of Piedmont Blues traditions with Hip Hop culture of today, he states that that was not the original aim: “I didn’t intend to do a collection; I wasn’t trying to create an archive. What I was trying to do is find a little bit of information about the context of acoustic country blues and what it meant to Hip Hop culture,” Brickhouse’s longstanding area of expertise, as an artist, dancer, and folklorist.

The materials are stewarded in the community archive, the Preservatory Project, of Urban Artistry, Inc., the organization in Silver Spring, Maryland, he founded and directed. “In a lot of ways at Urban Artistry, as the Founder, a lot of my mentees and my students, they look to me for professional growth and guidance…So, the Preservatory project is kind of our arm of trying to document our communities responsibly and to tell our stories,” he says. Yet, Brickhouse talks of how he was the mentee of Wiggins and Holeman, and the importance of taking the time to build the trust needed, and with great fortune, to listen to their memories and stories, meet their families and fellow community members, and absorb as much as possible their rich knowledge of Piedmont Blues music and dance traditions.

On this process, which he makes clear was not ‘perfect,’ he states: “The first thing was that integrity was non-negotiable, and we wanted to be honest about what we were doing. And John Dee specifically came from an environment where he didn’t have a lot of trust with people. And I’ll say this out loud because I think it’s important. I think often people believe that I had access to these communities because I’m Black. But I will say out loud, my Blackness doesn’t make me informed. I have to go out, I have to do the work, and I also have to learn. I have to be a student. I have to be kind. I have to be the type of person that’s deserving of the time that these beautiful people spent with me.”

In turning his experiences and reflections into a guide, Brickhouse created the Collaborator’s Code (see image above), a set of essential principles to be applied to cultural research and documentation efforts and, really, collaborations of any kind that are built on respect, as they should. He then ends with a series of questions that strike right at the heart of the ethical (and moral) dimensions of this type of work, and that tie into a number of issues discussed by panelists throughout the day. He asks: “What does it mean for us to have this collection, all this work, all these assets? And how do we make sure that the family is involved, especially with an artist like John Dee, who’s no longer here to represent himself? […] What does it mean to be a steward of this information? […] And last but not least, is this my work to do? You know, am I the right person for this? How does that information live in me? How do I ensure that it’s not just me, but the people who look to me for professional growth and guidance are now a part of this continuum, of this information, of these experiences that I’ve had with these National Heritage Fellows?” Like the Collaborator’s Code, these questions, among others he raises, can be used to guide the shaping of such collaborative projects, ensuring that each collaborator’s needs are respected and met in each step of the way. You can read more about Brickhouse’s work with Wiggins and Holeman here, and the National Heritage Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts here.

A screen shot of a slide frrom Lucy Kariuki's presentation that outlines the community-involved research and documentation methodology
Lucy Kariuki presenting on methodological approaches of KENRIK foodways initiatives under community guidance.

Our final panelist is Lucy Kariuki of the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK) of the National Museums of Kenya, who delves further into the institutional perspective of fostering, building, and sustaining community collaborations. In particular, she examines multiple community-led documentation projects at the local level across Kenya that, together, serve to safeguard – as well as promote to wider audiences – diverse communites’ food traditions and the related cultural knowledges they embody – from food acquisition to consumption, and associated practices, such as songs, taboos, ceremonies, and relationships to seasonality. Similar in spirit to Brickhouse’s Collaborator’s Code, Kariuki and colleagues are developing a protocol for foodways documentation ‘so as to empower communities to document their own food-related practices and knowledge,’ with the view of supporting their own archives for preserving and disseminating resultant information. Accordingly, she highlights the principles and priorities that constitute this protocol, guiding their decades-long and ongoing work, as part of KENRIK, with numerous local communities (see the reading list below for related resources).

Importantly, Kariuki emphasizes the notion of empowerment, as an overarching priority in actively uplifting and respecting the expertise of community members when it comes to their cultural traditions, practices, and expressions. Equally, she stresses ensuring that documentation from these efforts is kept within communities, in the places and spaces where archival materials make the most sense, and can remain accessible. With these principles setting the stage, she discusses in detail three, particular projects and their differing objectives, such as combatting negative connotations held by the general public (typically in urban centers) that have been placed on certain food practices of rural populations. Moreover, a key approach has been to support young people, through schools, in documenting their foodways by using digital technologies and devices, such as smart phones. She notes that by working with young students, they are able to strengthen the continuity of foodways traditions, fostering the passing on of related knowledge from elders to younger generations, safeguarding this information for subsequent generations of the future.

screen shot of a slide showing examples of work Lucy Kariuki and colleagues have done on supporting foodways documentation projects. The images on the slide show different gourd traditions and uses
Kariuki presenting on a community-led foodways documentation project focused on gourds traditions. See also the related online presentation, Safeguarding the diversity of bottle gourd in Kenya Biological conservation through Indigenous Knowledge documentation, by Patrick Maundu and Yasuyuki Morimoto. 

As mentioned earlier, she shares two particular projects – the African Leafy Vegetables and Traditional Foods Diversification Activities (1996-2011) and the Safeguarding the Traditional Foodways of Two Communities in Kenya (2009-2012) – that in recent years have garnered global attention as models for community-led programs for the identification, documentation, and preservation of culture, or what is increasingly termed ‘intangible cultural heritage’ at the international level. Specifically, her colleague at KENRIK, Dr. Patrick Maundu, was instrumental – and successful – in putting forth the nomination, “Success Story of Promoting Traditional Foods and Safeguarding Traditional Foodways in Kenya,” based on the aforementioned projects, for official recognized by UNESCO, via its Register of Good Safeguarding Practices (as part of UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, touched upon by the first roundtable participants). The points Kariuki makes in her presentation, in terms of community empowerment and community-led, participatory methods, are also evident in the “Success Story of Promoting Traditional Foods and Safeguarding Traditional Foodways in Kenya” nomination file, so it is unsurprising that their work has been chosen for the global spotlight, as inspiration for adopting and adapting similar practices (and principles) elsewhere. You can read more about the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge here, as well as “Success Story of Promoting Traditional Foods and Safeguarding Traditional Foodways in Kenya” program here.

Thanks once again to our second roundtable panelists, and all participants in the Community-driven Archives event! As made clear in the recording above, the day’s presentations and discussions strongly interconnect, with thematic threads – theoretical and practical – woven throughout. The purpose of this two-part summary is to also serve as a resource in and of itself, with highlighted organizations, resources, and scholarship provided so you can better follow along.

Notes:

  1. Flinn, Stevens, and Shepherd (2009) define community archives as the following:

“[…] collections of material gathered primarily by members of a given community and over whose use community members exercise some level of control. This allows both for collections that are sustained entirely independent of mainstream heritage institutions and those that receive support in some form from such organisations. Indeed, we argue that the defining characteristic of community archives is the active participation of a community in documenting and making accessible the history of their particular group and/or locality on their own terms.” (original emphasis, p. 73)

Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, Elizabeth Shepherd, 2009. Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream. Archival Science, vol. 9.

Further Reading

The Baltimore Reservation: press and articles.

Caswell, Michelle. 2021. Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work. London and New York: Routledge.

Caswell, M., Cifor, M. and Ramirez, M. H. 2016. “‘To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing’: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives.” The American Archivist 79 (1), pp. 56-81.

Caswell, M., Migoni, A. A., Geraci, N. and Cifor, M. 2017. “‘To Be Able to Imagine Otherwise’: community archives and the importance of representation.” Archives and Records 38 (1), pp. 5-26.

Cifor, M., Caswell, M., Migoni, A. A. and Geraci, N. 2018. “‘What We Do Crossed over to Activism’: The Politics and Practice of Community Archives.” The Public Historian 40 (2), pp. 69-95. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.2.69

Gee, Eliot. 2022. Now under protection: Traditional vegetables recognized by UNESCO in Kenya. Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Maundu, Patrick and Morimoto, Y. 2022. Safeguarding the Biodiversity Associated with Local Foodways in Traditionally Managed Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes in Kenya. In M. Nishi, S.M. Subramanian, and H. Gupta, eds. Biodiversity-Health-Sustainability Nexus in Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes. Springer.

Maundu, P. and Kapeta, B. 2013. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage: a photobook of traditional foodways of the Isukha and East Pokot communities of Kenya. UNESCO.

Maundu, P. et al. 2013. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage: a practical guide to documenting traditional foodways using lessons from the Isukha and Pokot communities of Kenya. UNESCO.

Maundu, P. et al. 2013. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage: traditional foodways of the East Pokot community of Kenya. UNESCO.

Morimoto, Y. 2015. Countering Local Knowledge Loss and Landrace Extinction in Kenya: The Case of the Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Terralingua.

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for thought provoking and inspiring two-part blog on community archives. I learned much from the description of the wide ranges of settings and methods, always with community members in the driver’s seat. I look forward to a future discussion of how these invaluable resources will be maintained and sustained for the long term.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.