by Mariam Williams, Project Director for Chronicling Resistance
Sometimes, the way events merge is uncanny. This is the case for Chronicling Resistance, a project that recently migrated to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Initiated in 2017 by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), Chronicling Resistance aims to amplify stories of resistance in Philadelphia’s historic archival collections and preserve activists’ records of their communities’ small and large acts of resistance to oppression today.
Selection of archival documents from the Chronicling Resistance discovery phase
Many PACSCL member institutions have been recognized, sometimes for centuries, as libraries or archives. A lot of times, these places and their collections are as exclusive as they are exhaustive. Conversations among special collections professionals about how to liberate the archives have been happening for several years, with archivists working in these places confronting issues like the erasure of Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, immigrants, sexual and gender identity minorities, and working-class people as agents of history; the ways that collection priorities devalued these same populations; and the ways that campus and reading room policies have served to alienate people from traditionally marginalized communities.
In late 2016, PACSCL archivists and librarians began discussing a public-facing project that would explore how to engage new audiences, make special collections’ materials more available to Philadelphia’s diverse population, and gather new materials reflective of Philadelphia’s diversity. At that time, resistance was top of mind. "Resist" became the national public outcry after the 2016 election, when the public faced the real possibility that rights might be rolled back or taken away from some of the most vulnerable populations in the country. PACSCL asked, "How can we, as some of the most well-resourced keepers of history, give voice to resistance in ways that our institutions historically have not?"
After two years of discovery phases and project models, Chronicling Resistance answers that question with the Activist-Curator Fellowship.
Funded by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the fellowship offers a unique, paid opportunity for local activists and cultural organizers who are interested in how historical materials can strengthen and support their community work. Fellows will investigate archival collections in Philadelphia to uncover stories of resistance, tell those stories through a series of programs and exhibitions, and preserve the record of current activism authored and owned by their communities.
Chronicling Resistance Listening Session at the Free Library.
Over the next two and a half years, through periods of archival research and community engagement, Fellows will collaborate with other activists, librarians, archivists, the project’s Consulting Curator Yolanda Wisher, and myself, as the Project Director. This phase of Chronicling Resistance will culminate with an exhibition and programs in ten neighborhood libraries and at Parkway Central Library, slated for 2022.
We did not foresee opening this fellowship during any of the present circumstances. COVID-19 has forced most archival research online. More importantly, the virus is disproportionately killing Black and Brown people, just as police violence does. At the same time, the same people are organizing and protesting for their right to live. And the Free Library of Philadelphia, the grant custodian, is having its own reckoning over issues of systemic and interpersonal racism, as the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library have organized to bring these problems to immediate attention and action.
Nonetheless, now is the time to name and address institutional harms. The threats that drove people to the streets in 2016 have intensified, and we are going to need Philadelphia’s stories of resistance to fuel present-day activism—and a record of this moment to inspire those who come after us.
We will announce the ten Activist-Curator Fellows in the coming weeks and look forward to sharing the progress of Chronicling Resistance with Philadelphia over the next two years.
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