Moving Past “Diversity and Inclusion” In Troubling Times: A Response to the SAA

It’s been a rough few weeks for everyone, it seems. The election of a Trump/Pence administration was not unexpected, but brings new urgency to the same calls for equity and social justice that are at the root of why I work in archives. These last few weeks have made me think extensively about what am I doing that is significant, impactful, and meaningful in this work, inside, and outside of the classroom.

As I redouble my commitment to being a memory-worker in these troubling times, I have been forced to examine closely why I want to do this work, and why this work is important. This project again seems particularly critical now as I look to how I will work to disrupt and dismantle the systems which privilege and oppress me along various fractures of my identity. This is all introspective, personal work, that many of us as practitioners and as students will be forced to confront over these next four years and hopefully over our lifetimes. I refuse to normalize this blatantly racist, homophobic, ableist, and misogynistic administration. I join many others in calling for actions that demonstrate our commitment to the principles of equity and justice, and the dismantling of oppressive systems through our work as archivists, librarians, and other types of “information professionals.”

In the weeks immediately following the election,  the Society of American Archivists and the American Library Association released statements obviously in response to the traumatic outcome of this election. Both statements reveal how our professional organizations are truly more invested in their longevity as organizational entities rather than actually positioning our professions as agents and accomplices in the pursuit of justice and equity of access and representation. Perhaps saying that makes me sound idealistic, but I continue to cling to the idea that the work that we can and should be doing is that which is radical and anti-oppressive.

The Society of American Archivists’ “Statement Reaffirming Our Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion” posted on November 16, is exactly what it says it is:

With the recent rise in hate crimes, harassment, and divisive rhetoric in our country, the Society of American Archivists reaffirms its commitment to the importance of diversity and inclusion. SAA strongly rejects any acts of hate, discrimination, bias, or intimidation against anyone on the basis of ability, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

We are committed to supporting our members in their work during these challenging times. We stand by the Core Values of Archivists and the Code of Ethics for Archivists to guide our practices and beliefs, and by our Code of Conduct for our members and others who participate in our conferences, events, formal mentoring relationships, and online spaces. SAA stands with our allied professional partners as we continue to select, preserve, and make available evidence of our nation’s diverse cultural heritage.  

We welcome our members to review SAA’s Core Values, Code of Ethics, Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, and Public Policy Agenda, which underscore our responsibilities to preserve and provide access to a documentary record that protects rights, supports accountability, and reflects the diversity of society as a whole. This includes working actively with communities to document those whose voices have been overlooked or marginalized. We welcome your recommendations for how we can encourage diversity and inclusion within SAA, the archives profession, the historical record, and the communities we serve. 

The brief introductory acknowledgement of the staggering increase in hate crimes against LGBT folx and people of color, particularly Muslims and folx perceived as immigrants, since the election is important, but immediately fails to be made meaningful in the context of what follows. The SAA’s insistence on reaffirming commitment to “the importance of diversity and inclusion” does not require a proactive action on the part of archivists, and does little to position the archivist as integral to larger social concerns. This statement does nothing to extend or refine the relevance of archival practice in a time where communities of color and LGBT communities of all intersectionalities are adopting self-documentation practices through decentralized archival projects. Rather than re-defining and asserting the value of archival work generally (let alone acknowledging the work already being done by archivists of the trained and un-trained variety), this statement asserts that the SAA is already doing enough to be able to stay relevant in dire times.

The future of the archival profession not only requires the continued refusal of neutrality, but it also requires recognition of the ways in which archival practice as usual is becoming increasingly irrelevant without a critical approach to our work. It also requires an understanding that those most in need of our skills and tools are those who continue to be marginalized within our profession and within our collective archival holdings.

These questions of how to position the field in dire and reactionary times is also evident on the various SAA listservs, as many roundtable/affinity groups grapple with whether and how to draft statements post-election, rather than simply re-affirming what SAA has already institutionalized as the concerns of diversity and inclusion (specifically “factors related to individual and community identity” and the  “desire for broad participation from archivists working in various locations, repository types and sizes, and professional specializations”). The SAA statement goes on:

SAA’s initiatives are focused primarily on achieving socio-cultural diversity and fostering inclusion within SAA, the profession, and archival collections and users.

By embracing diversity and encouraging inclusion, the Society speaks more effectively on behalf of the entire profession, serves a fuller range of stakeholders, increases organizational credibility, and becomes a stronger advocate for the archives profession.

Like the systemic forces which it supports, archival practice in these terms continues to be insular and somehow disconnected from larger society. SAA does appear to represent the entire profession in this sense; a profession that as of the 2004 A* CENSUS was 87% white. It is no longer good enough (nor was it ever) to assert the empty value of “diversity and inclusion” when the profession remains overwhelming white, overwhelmingly straight, and when basic access to professional positions in archives requires a graduate degree and the ability to lift 40 pounds. These barriers are part of the systemic inaccessibility of archives as cultural space and as a profession.

The question is not about staying relevant anymore. It is about demonstrating our value as memory-workers and accomplices in the pursuit of a truly equitable society, particularly in the difficult times ahead. We cannot advocate for our records, our communities, or our profession while maintaining a stance of faux-neutrality, nor can we continue to assume that by simply being more accepting of difference that we are doing the work needed to dismantle oppressive systems in our hearts and in our field. Many of us who do not fit into the Trump/Pence administration’s vision of the United States will not have the luxury of determining whether now is the time to remain apolitical, and now more than ever, we must consider how to combat our erasure by reshaping the profession in our image; a beautiful, kaleidoscopic profession that is intellectually and demographically diverse and oriented toward empowering marginalized groups within our profession and in our collections.

To paraphrase Black Lives Matter activist Janaya Khan, our politics must matter more than our individual identities; we must change what “truth” is and work toward the world that seems impossible right now. For archivists, this call requires that we remain vigilant about how our individual beliefs impact our work, our users, and our work environments. But this will also require integrating our vision for the world with our actions and interrogating the gaps in what we say as a field and what we demonstrate to our existing and future communities of records users and creators.

Photo sourced from Flickr user Sarah Luke


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