Connecting Communities Digital Initiative: Introducing Erika Gault

We are pleased to announce that Erika Gault has joined the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) as a program specialist. We interviewed Erika about her role in CCDI, her experience in digital ethnography and Black Cultural Studies, and the opportunities she sees with digital initiatives at the Library. 

Erika Gault, program specialist with CCDI

Erika Gault is a program specialist with the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative

CCDI is supported by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to Of the People: Widening the Path. This four-year program encourages creative uses of the Library’s digital collections that center one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander and other communities of color. With CCDI, Erika will work to design, coordinate, and assess this new Library initiative.

Welcome, Erika! We are thrilled that you’ve joined the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative team. What is your role with CCDI?

I am a program specialist for CCDI. I oversee several aspects of CCDI’s program planning, like our recent Summer Fuse event. I also work with advisory board members, grantees, and junior fellows as they conduct research at the Library. My role requires a keen attention to detail and an ability to multi-task. I like to maintain a laser like focus on each project. However, it’s important not to become too bogged down in the minutiae of it all. I’m constantly considering the future implications and impact of the work we do in CCDI on our program, OTP, and the wider Library.

Your scholarly work uses digital ethnography to explore religion and Black urban life. Tell us a bit more about your research. How does this expertise inform your work with CCDI?

Sure. I was raised in the Black Church. I love its history, liturgies, perseverance and dynamism. When I was in college, I became very much invested in hip hop-inspired spoken word. There was a spiritual nature to spoken word gatherings and the poetry seemed very much influenced by the Black Church’s homiletic tradition. Nothing in the research captured that. As well, most data on Black religion centered the Black Church as a physically located body. That just wasn’t the case from the arts communities I was involved with. In graduate school, I delved deeply into the history of both Black religion and approaches to the study of the Black Church. Works by W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neal Hurston, and St. Claire Drake fascinated me. I wanted to produce qualitative work that documented contemporary Black religion in the same way. Much of this world occupied space in the digital and my first documentation of Black millennials’ religious practices occurred online through digital ethnographies.

The work I do with CCDI continues this trajectory by allowing me to assist grantees and fellows in highlighting the histories of people of color in the collections through technology. Also, I think I bring particular skills in research and planning that have been useful in terms of programming. It’s wonderful to collaborate with a team that is both passionate and skilled in the study of Black life and in building programming around digital technologies and communities of color. My work makes sense in that environment.

CCDI is the part of the Mellon-funded Of the People initiative that focuses most on technology. How do you think technology can help us center the histories, lives, and experiences of communities of color?

Wow! Where to begin? There have been so many wonderful projects, online exhibits, text analysis programs, and interactive texts (to name a few) that have emerged in the last decade that give voice to communities of color and are authored by those communities. It’s not that technology provided that, but technologists of color understood the possibilities for those technologies and used them to center their stories. The more opportunities communities of color are provided to document, preserve, and protect those stories through technology, the more we center their histories, lives, and experiences.

As a Black studies scholar, you’ve done research with many different types of collections. Are there any materials that you’re particularly excited about working with at the Library?

There’s so many. The Omar Ibn Said collection fascinates me most at the moment. The Black Muslim influence on the Black Church tradition remains an under-discussed topic. Additionally, items like The life of Omar ben Saeed, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. offer a fuller portrait of early American religion.

What have you learned so far working with the CCDI project? Is there anything that surprised you?

I’ve been fascinated by the collaborative nature of the work we do in CCDI and across OCIO. As well, it has been helpful to learn (and I am still learning!) the process toward digitization and preservation of materials. The level of care and thought that goes into these processes is both impressive and instructive for my own work with CCDI grantees, fellows, and programming.

What else are you passionate about? Do you have any hobbies or interests you’d be willing to share?

I enjoy learning new things. I know that’s broad, but I think it speaks to the wealth of information/knowledge available at the Library both in terms of collections and what I’ve learned so far from my colleagues. I enjoy learning about the history of the Library, how certain collections were acquired, and about the work of its staff. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with my family, skating, and playing (dabbling mostly) the saxophone.

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