De-Radicalizing Public Engagement
“Radical” is a modifier that follows me in much of the work I do, whether it is fueled by professional, political, or intellectual yearnings. The first academic journal article I wrote (co-written with the historian Jeffrey T. Manuel) was published in the May 2012 issue of Radical History Review. Last year in the fall of 2017, I co-organized a panel titled “Radical Histories/Radical Messages” with public historian friends for the annual National Humanities Conference. There, I presented a course I’ve been producing with my undergraduate students at New York University for the past four years. And, in 2019, I have a chapter coming out in historian Denise Meringolo’s exciting anthology tentatively titled Radical Roots: Civic Engagement, Public History, and a Tradition of Social Justice Activism (Amherst College Press).
But I often find myself puzzled by the idea that the work I, and so many of my fellow publicly-minded scholar-activists, do is somehow radical. As someone trained in both academic and public history, it has always seemed self-evident to me that history is a co-produced idea and that the materials of history require as many forms, creators, interpreters, and keepers as possible. That this perspective is not always welcome among my more traditional peers in the academy is either a sign of the discipline’s frequent rigidity or of a generational shift in thinking through the possibilities of historical practice. In any case, radicalism is only measured as such by those who do not wish to bend.
Over the past year, I have worked with a team of doctoral, Master’s, undergraduate, and post-graduate student researchers in collaboration with Lower East Side leaders to advocate for community control and self-determination around land use. In particular, we have recorded oral histories to better document the diverse experiences Lower East Siders have with land, property, and neighborhood. The interviews currently exist in raw form on Soundcloud, but we are working towards editing them into a podcast. The purpose of the project is partly to understand the ways our neighbors relate to land outside the typical New York paradigm of real estate and profit. It’s also to produce testimonials that can be used by the Cooper Square Community Land Trust to expand their efforts to provide permanent low-income housing in the area.
The so-called radicalism of this project, which is ultimately to use the tools of history to reason with the powerful in support of those to whom power has been denied, is perhaps only that university-based researchers have decided to do it. We deny the neutrality of historical research and activate our skills to become allies in an anti-capitalist, anti-racist struggle against the gentrification of a historically low-income, racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood. In practice, this means showing up and making ourselves available for whatever our partners need, even if it means our project takes a backseat for a moment. It also means a long-term commitment and a willingness to watch the project change. For me, and I know for many of my colleagues in the City Amplified working group, this is the very definition of public engagement. For others, however, it is perhaps radical.
Amato, Rebecca. "LES Researchers Project." SoundCloud audio, approx. 9 hours of recordings, August 10, 2018. https://soundcloud.com/les-researchers
Amato, Rebecca and Jeffrey T. Manuel. “Using Radical Public History Tours to Reframe Urban Crime.” Radical History Review (2012) 113: 212-224. (https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1505002
"Humanities for All. “(Dis)Placed Urban Histories.”https://humanitiesforall.org/projects/dis-placed-urban-histories