This piece was written as a farewell when I stepped down from my three-year term as New England Archivists’ Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator. It first appeared in the October 2017 issue of NEA News (44:4). As I have been following the #DERAIL2018 conversation on Twitter this weekend, it seemed like this reflection on the possibilities and problematics of institutional diversity work in the archives world might have broader applicability. So I’m reposting it here.
I accepted the position of New England Archivists’ first Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator in November 2014 with some trepidation. With our recently-adopted Inclusion and Diversity Statement in hand, the leadership was ready to take action. But what would effective short-term and long-term action look like? Would I have support from the organization to institute change? How would I adequately assess and address the needs of New England’s archivists for a more just and inclusive professional environment? These were some of my initial reservations as a relatively young and newly-involved member of NEA, yet I felt it was important to work on these issues and was committed to charting out a path that future Coordinators might find useful to follow.
Over the past three years, I have been grateful to my fellow archivists within NEA for enthusiastically welcoming my proposals and bringing their own concerns forward that we might address them together. Thanks to the members who brought me ideas and requests, we have made structural changes to our Spring Meeting to ensure people of all genders feel welcome, that nursing parents have space to feed their children, people with a wide variety of dietary needs are fed, and that specific accommodations for participants with disabilities are advertised and provided. These changes have been institutionalized as part of the Spring Meeting planning guide. We are also in the second year of our three-year pilot program to encourage session proposals on social justice themes with the Inclusion and Diversity Travel and Session Award that funds travel expenses for the winning panel participants.
Thank you, also, to the membership for your overwhelming support for adopting our code of conduct that is the policy instrument backing up our stated commitment to building and maintaining an environment where members and guests are free from harassment. While this anti-harassment policy was not developed in response to any specific incident of exclusionary hostility, it does establish a framework through which we can handle any such incidents as they arise. Even more importantly, in my opinion, the code of conduct establishes a common expectation for all members and guest participants in NEA events that we respect the full humanity of one another, honor each others’ complex life experiences, and strive to learn how our multiple identities inform our perspectives both personally and professionally.
These are steps in the right direction, but we still have a long journey ahead to address the structural inequalities baked into our profession.
Like most of us, I am member of multiple communities, some of which grant me social privilege and others of which pull me toward the margins. I am a white woman who is two comfortable generations away from poverty, with advanced degrees and a full-time job. I am bisexual woman, married to another woman, and a paycheck or two away from not making rent. I may perpetuate racism and be mansplained to in the same meeting, might have my bisexuality erased and make boorish middle-class assumptions in the same conversation. Working in a field that is, statistically, dominated by white women, I am mindful of the fact that my lived experience often hampers my understanding of how personal bias and structural oppression work in our field. While I may be intimidated by the giant portraits of white men hanging in the research library, I have not had to wonder if my wearing a headscarf was against library policy, or whether my identity papers were acceptable enough to grant me access to rare manuscripts. I have never had to call ahead to an archive asking whether they can accommodate my wheelchair in the reading room.
Since taking on this role, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues, other white women, who have voiced concern about women like us — white women — occupying the role of Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator within our organization. Their concern, as I understood it, was that our whiteness could prevent us from identifying and addressing forms of exclusion that we had not personally experienced. A valid concern. Yet my response has always been that it is precisely individuals like us who must learn to think in ways our structural privileges have encouraged us not to think. Who must stop looking to our colleagues of color, and colleagues from other socially marginalized communities, to lead the way. We need to listen to them when they tell us we have work to do, and then it is our responsibility to really hear what they have to say and make meaningful change.
Shortly after the November 2016 election, I walked through the doors of Arlington Street Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the heart of downtown Boston. Having grown up mainline Protestant, I became impatient with my denomination in the late 1990s as they grappled rancorously over issues of human sexuality. Yet in the wake of the election I felt the urgent desire to recommit myself to a community of mutual responsibility that would collectively hold one another accountable in the challenging years ahead. Arlington Street Church is slowly becoming that community.
At the end of Sunday worship at Arlington Street Church, those gathered in the sanctuary reach out across the aisles to join hands in a final prayer. Our benediction always includes the reminder that “the service begins when the service ends.” That walking out into the world outside, we must continue and continue and continue to move forward towards a more inclusive future.
As I close out my term as Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator — in the midst of challenging times — I encourage each and every one of you to find your Arlington Street Church, in whatever form it takes. Find a community outside of your workplace — outside your profession — that will help you to remember your values and center social justice in your everyday lives. Work to hold your profession and workplace accountable. Organizations and institutions function — above all — to perpetuate themselves and the power imbalances that have sustained them. They resist change. It will take concerted and continuous effort, on all of our parts, to ensure meaningful social justice progress is made.
In July 2017 the NEA Board, at my recommendation, voted to establish an Inclusion and Diversity Committee, with a chair and three members, who will continue — and hopefully expand — the work of the Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator. The service begins when the service ends. I look forward to discovering where our service together — as a community of archivists — working toward a just, equitable, and inclusive future takes us in the years to come.