Advancing Social Justice through Documentation and Archiving

Posted by Jamie Haft, May 19, 2014 1 comment

Jamie Haft Jamie Haft

A call to action is what has emerged for me from Animating Democracy’s vigorous blog salon, Back to the Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation & Archiving. Imagine an organizing effort to achieve Reverend James Lawson’s founding statement of principle for the civil rights movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “a social order of justice permeated by love.” Do documentation and archiving come to mind as essential to building a movement? Reading the insights from all the thoughtful writers in this blog salon, I am happy to say, yes!

The work of documenting, archiving, and communicating about the field of community cultural development is a political act. This context encompasses and gives meaning to the five debunked misconceptions about archiving and documentation in my opening post.

Andy Horwitz urgently frames the need to build “new practices for discourse and documentation, not just in the field of community-based arts, but for society as a whole.” Regarding his own role, he reflects: “Over time I have come to resist the word ‘critic’ entirely, preferring ‘dramaturge’ or even ‘community organizer’.” Furthermore, he notes: “We are all responsible for co-creating the archive.”

Vijay Mathew describes the countercultural approach of “open sourcing” (also known as commons-based peer production) to develop content. This approach subverts the model of privatization that “defines value through artificially induced scarcity and then derives money from barriers to access” in favor of defining value by “how successful the needs of a community are being met and by the project’s ability to enable continuous innovation and evolution due to its openness and accessibility.”

Sonia Manjon draws on research reports to demonstrate funding inequities when it comes to documenting and archiving the work of cultural organizations “dedicated to artistic traditions from African, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, Native American tribal cultures, and groups serving rural communities and other underserved populations.” Manjon urges us to use “historical narratives and case studies to document and publish a profile of these organizations, their history, where they are now, their principles and values, and the artists, activists and community organizers who have emerged from their mentorships.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz proposes we create a regular compendium featuring relevant materials recently published on existing platforms to serve as a “digital town square.” This addresses the issue of “bifurcating the field if all communication reflects separate siloes.” She states: “A jointly edited annual publication could better acquaint us with each other while sharpening and holding each other to shared values.” She suggests an action plan for sharing the responsibility among a group of organizations, involving those beyond the arts that see a role for culture in their work, and organizing face-to-face discussions to advance the compendium’s discourse.

Thinking about Jan’s idea and insights from Andy, Vijay, and Sonia, I wonder:

  • How might we approach creating the compendium as community organizers?
  • How might open sourcing animate the process?
  • How can this project intentionally advance a social order of justice permeated by love?


Get involved:

The conversation about documentation, archiving, and communication in the field of community cultural development will continue at the annual meeting of Alternate ROOTS, August 5-10, in Asheville, North Carolina, and at the annual national conference of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, October 9-11, in Atlanta, Georgia. To join a listserv for ongoing exchange, email [email protected].

Interested in exploring these key issues and others related to cultural development? Join us for the following sessions at Americans for the Arts' Annual Convention:
What Does It Take For Agencies to Stay Relevant in a Changing Community?
In Creative Placemaking, Whose “Place” Is It to Make?
How Can Arts & Cultural Districts Stay Relevant, Healthy, and Sustainable?

Back to the Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation & Archiving is generously sponsored by Drexel University Online.

1 responses for Advancing Social Justice through Documentation and Archiving


Dirk Sorensby says
September 06, 2014 at 6:11 am

Dear Jamie Haft,
Some intelligent wording of things you put forth here. A couple questions come to mind. First one is, when you speak of one aim being "to advance thee social order,.." is it something other than equality and equal social representation you have in mind, because "social order" sounds antithetical to "equality." Is there still an order when an equality is reached?

Second, if I'm interpreting things correctly, it seems there are a lot of colorful ways you and those you mention are mixing sugar with your suggestions and intention. Without the sugar, what you seem to be discussing, are ways in which social justice organizations can further collaborate, or orchestrate, their efforts while also documenting the effective parts of the processes so that other organizations can more effectively re-engage the processes, and more successfully accomplish their goals and further the common goals? If I am anywhere in the ballpark, then I think there are a few important questions someone should be asking. 1. What exactly is this common goal? Is it to work towards diminishing the power and opportunity of white men? I sit populating political seats: if so, who does "the common goal" want to be in those seats, and why? What will be their common goal behind their votes? Lastly, assuming your goals and the answers to my questions, represent unbiased and non-sinister intentions, then why the need for such ambiguous language and artful metaphors? And, to what extent are you aware of the codification in the words you and your audience speak? That is to ask, to what extent is the process and message working upon you vs. how much you are aware of and working the process?
Thanks for any time you might give to my questions.

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