Building Activist Capacity Through Memory Work
For me, radical archiving is a practice that is both embedded in and inseparable from, grassroots community organizing. My journey towards this definition of radical archives practice began as an undergraduate student volunteering at the Midnight Kitchen, a collectively-run community kitchen focused on food justice in Montréal.1 In preparation for the launch of a major campaign against the corporatization of campus food providers, I wondered what campus food fights had previously occurred. As a student-led organization, our institutional memory, and hence our political strategies, had a short arc. My curiosity led me to research a feature article for our campus paper; from there I knew that I wanted to contribute to grassroots political work by building stronger organizational and political memory.2 For me the purpose of this work was not to memorialize important campaigns or leaders, but rather, to demystify and build long-term knowledge about organizing tactics and skills.
For the past decade, I have tried to figure out impactful methods and techniques for doing this work, in paid and unpaid settings, as a one-time consultant, and in organizations where I have had long-term involvement. Reflecting on this work, my practice of radical archiving as embedded in social movements has taken three broad forms:
- Building capacity of activists through historical knowledge and archival methods, which are discussed further below;
- Solidarity work among information professionals, primarily through Librarians and Archivists with Palestine3;
- Maintaining repositories of activist history, including in paid capacities at formal repositories, and as a volunteer at the grassroots counter-repository, Interference Archive4.
My capacity-building work has occurred primarily within NYC’s housing justice movement, in which I have been involved since moving here in 2010. I have researched and curated an online exhibition for the city-wide organization the Metropolitan Council on Housing, as well as a more widely scoped, collaborative exhibition about tenant organizing in New York City, We Won’t Move.5 Both projects explicitly prioritized topics identified by tenant organizers, and in many ways emerged from specific requests. In addition to serving as inspiration, these projects aimed to gather and provide concrete resources, tools, and techniques for tenant organizers.
We Won’t Move was organized and hosted at Interference Archive. Our process reflected some of the structures and principles found in movement organizations and at Interference Archive: non-hierarchical collaboration, consensus-based decision-making, and a focus on popular education. The core organizing group studied key texts together, consulted with over a dozen tenant organizations, and developed a programming series emphasizing intersectional approaches to housing justice. We compiled archival materials and created a resource directory and glossary for tenant organizers presented together in an unconventional exhibition catalog.6 The We Won't Move project stitched together place-based stories and geographically dispersed neighborhood organizations to demonstrate our city’s continuous history of effective and militant tenant action for housing justice.
Finally, archival and records management skills build organizational capacity. These skills support activists through informed decision-making, facilitating in-depth orientation of new staff and volunteers, acknowledging and mobilizing past contributors, and assisting in outreach and fundraising. Over the past decade, I have taught these skills in formal and informal settings, as one aspect of the essential work to build stronger and more powerful activists and organizations for racial and economic justice.
Chilliak, Shayla and Maggie Schreiner. “History of a Food Fight.” McGill Daily, March 27, 2008. Accessed October 8, 2008. https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2008/03/historyofafoodfight/
Interference Archive. “Interference Archive.” Accessed October 8, 2018. http://interferencearchive.org/
Librarians and Archivists with Palestine. “Librarians and Archivists with Palestine.” Accessed October 8, 2018. https://librarianswithpalestine.org/
Midnight Kitchen. “Midnight Kitchen.” Accessed October 8, 2018. https://midnightkitchen.org/
Schreiner, Maggie. “Our History.” Metropolitan Council on Housing. Accessed October 8, 2018. http://metcouncilonhousing.org/our_history
Schreiner, Maggie. “We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City.” Interference Archive. Accessed October 8, 2018. http://interferencearchive.org/we-wont-move-tenants-organize-in-new-york-city/
We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City. Edited by Maggie Schreiner. Brooklyn, NY: Interference Archive, 2015. Exhibition catalogue.
“Our History,” Metropolitan Council on Housing, accessed October 8, 2018, http://metcouncilonhousing.org/our_history; Maggie Schreiner, “We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City,” Interference Archive, accessed October 8, 2018, http://interferencearchive.org/we-wont-move-tenants-organize-in-new-york-city/. ↩
We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City, edited by Maggie Schreiner (Brooklyn, NY: Interference Archive, 2015), Exhibition catalogue. ↩