SAADA’s "Where We Belong" Project – From Theory to Practice
SAADA (the South Asian American Digital Archive) is an independent non-profit organization working nationally to give voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their unique and diverse experiences. SAADA’s collection of more than 3,100 items is the largest publicly accessible South Asian American archive. Used widely by scholars, students, journalists, artists, and community members, the archive includes rare photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, oral history interviews, videos, and other materials. SAADA’s website has received 617,565 visitors in the past four years. Further, through digital storytelling initiatives such as its First Days Project (sharing stories from immigrants and refugees about their arrival in the U.S.) and Road Trips Project (sharing stories of travel to reframe an American tradition), SAADA reimagines the potential of community archives in the digital era. SAADA has been recognized with awards from the American Historical Association and Society of American Archivists and grants from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and National Endowment for the Humanities.
SAADA addresses the symbolic annihilation of South Asian Americans. This term refers to the ways that members of marginalized groups are “absent, grossly underrepresented, maligned, or trivialized” from the historical narrative and popular media. As SAADA Co-Founder Dr. Michelle Caswell (Associate Professor of Archival Studies at UCLA) has shown in her research co-authored with Marika Cifor and Mario H. Ramírez, SAADA’s work has an epistemological, ontological, and social impact on South Asian Americans, demonstrating: “We were here.” “I am here.” “We belong here.” As one respondent in Dr. Caswell’s research expressed, “to discover yourself in the archive is to suddenly discover yourself existing.”
Building from this research, SAADA’s “Where We Belong: Artists in the Archive” project sought to understand how collaboration between artists and archives might effectively counteract the symbolic annihilation of immigrant and minority communities. Made possible with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, for this project SAADA partnered with five contemporary South Asian American artists who each engaged and responded to the archive to create new artistic works. The artist cohort included Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chitra Ganesh, Chiraag Bhakta, Joti Singh, and Zain Alam. The artists presented their new creations at a one-day symposium held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on April 8, 2017. In the photograph above, dancer Joti Singh shares her new choreography based on the story of Ghadar Party leader Bhagwan Singh Gyanee, who was also her great-grandfather.
The sense of community created at this event was profound and moving. To share this feeling more widely, SAADA invited community members across the country to organize intimate gatherings in their living rooms on August 5, 2017, the five-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin. The artistic creations and discussion sparked by this project helped community members at these gatherings engage in conversation, dialogue, and a deeper understanding of our shared histories.
Caswell, Michelle, Marika Cifor, and Mario H. Ramírez. “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives 1.” The American Archivist 79, no. 1 (2016): 56-81. doi:10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.56.