This is part one of two, maybe three posts about archival activism. I wanted to respond to Annelie De Villier’s excellent post and also use this as a contribution to this month’s #glamblogclub with the theme of ‘how you ended up here’.
Protective interrupting is a behavioural strategy developed by social workers as one of a set of skills for children and young people exposed to abuse or violence. It has been part of my own skill set since the 90’s and it is only making sense, as I write this, why that might be.
These days I pull it out of my toolbox if I find myself in conversation with someone and I start to feel uncomfortable. It might be because they are sharing something I don’t feel I should know, or if boundary lines are being crossed. It might be because a third parties story is being shared. I might not be feeling safe or resilient enough to hear that story.
I went to the Australian Society of Archivists’ 2017 ‘Diverse Worlds’ conference last week prepped and ready to protectively interrupt. Nicola Laurent and I presented on Vicarious Trauma and Radical Empathy in Archival Practice. We set up the discussion with some clear guidelines around personal disclosure, confidentiality, self-care and safe (enough) spaces. It felt like all those participating responded to this respectfully and thoughtfully and no interrupting was needed.
Creating this kind of space doesn’t happen by accident and it is extremely hard to measure. I learnt this and other skills as a young feminist activist in the 90’s, living alongside women who were working in women’s shelters, at sexual assault support services, women’s health clinics.
Together we organised and ran major events, rallies, protests, built organisations, conferences, festivals. We used nonviolent and feminist principles to underpin that work. We drove to the desert and chained ourselves to fences. We caught buses to Canberra and got sprayed with tear gas by military police. We learnt to listen, and argue, negotiate. How to take up space, create space, remove ourselves from space.
I got arrested more times than I care to mention.
So what point is there to telling this story? Well, firstly I want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that some of what we built was deeply flawed. Bi phobia, transphobia, racism, ableism all existed to some extent within the constructs of our work.
To uncover and examine this structural violence requires critical self-reflection. In the archival context this requires us to examine how and why we do this work. As Scott Cline describes it “in the archivists circumstance, self-clarification is uncovering the meaning of our profession and distinguishing its inherent values” (Cline, 2009,p336).
I think what I’m trying to say is that the skills that make an activist archivist aren’t necessarily going to be taught in a Masters program. Activism can take many shapes, though, and the skills of an activist can and should be applied to change the colonialist, heteronormative, patriarchal structures that shape our current institutions.
As Cassie Findlay points out “we need to come to grips with a necessary refashioning of our professional identity” (Findlay,2016,p.158). Perhaps this new identity is one where skills such as the ones I have mentioned are considered as important as appraisal and description.
Cline, S (2009). To the Limit of Our Integrity: Reflections on Archival Being. The American Archivist, vol 72, 331-343
Findlay, C. (2016). Archival activism. Archives and Manuscripts, 44(3), 155-159
**Part two will be about professional associations and working within institutions of power. Also about citation as a political act.
***Part three will be about the silences in our descriptive schemas. I’ve been working on something for a while about gender and archival description and I suspect I’ve been sitting on it out of fear.