Jennifer King 2018-01-19 14:09:49
Do community archives need institutions? Are community and institutional partnerships fair and equitably beneficial to both sides? How is trust built and sustained between the two? These questions are becoming increasingly vital as more community-based archives emerge. When a community of former political campaign volunteers reached out to The George Washington University Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) for help extending an oral history project, the examination of these questions led to a rewarding partnership. In 1978, Marion Barry won the Washington, DC, mayoral election by energizing the District’s historically marginalized constituencies to form a city-wide coalition. This campaign strategy, Barry’s subsequent victory and innovative reforms to district government during his first term altered the District, transforming the lives of underserved and previously ignored communities. The campaign was also life-altering for many of the campaign volunteers and staff. In 2014, former campaign volunteers organized an oral history project to record the experiences of this diverse set of DC activists and to document Barry’s historic political campaign. Recognizing the need for an institutional partner to provide critical infrastructure to sustain the project, they approached SCRC. The Anti-Establishment Candidate Until 1973, the federal government controlled local governance in DC. On December 24, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act, and the following year DC residents elected a 13-member council and their first mayor, Walter Washington, who had been the mayor-commissioner appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Not until the following election would residents fully embrace local governance by electing Barry—viewed by many as an anti-establishment candidate. Barry’s involvement with local politics began in 1965 when he moved to DC from New York City to establish a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In his 1975 campaign for an at-large seat on the Council, Barry experimented with a city-wide campaign strategy that he used again in 1978. This strategy established a coalition of liberal whites and younger African Americans, the same coalition that propelled the student civil rights movement in the early 1960s. As noted by Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe in Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., “Fifteen years after SNCC had peaked, here was the SNCC support system ready to be molded into a political constituency.” (1) Many credit Barry and the policies he enacted for transforming local government to better support marginalized communities. Former campaign volunteer Betty King believes that Barry “single-handedly created a black middle class in the District of Columbia.” (2) From 1971 when he was first elected to the School Board until his death in 2014, Marion Barry was a political force in DC, serving multiple terms as mayor and spending more than 13 years as a member of the Council. The Perfect Match In the fall of 2014, five former campaign volunteers and staffers who had remained friends decided to organize an oral history project to document Barry’s first mayoral campaign. They realized the historical significance of the campaign and felt strongly that it should be documented. They also realized they couldn’t do it alone and needed the expertise and resources an institutional partner could provide. In their first communication with the SCRC they wrote: “We agreed that if we lived to be 1,000 we would probably never work on such a remarkable and challenging campaign. This led us to the thought that the recollections of those who were most instrumental in winning the 1978 Democratic primary should be preserved. . . . We are looking for an institution that might support this project and provide a home for the resulting interviews. We also need a great deal of guidance as to how oral histories are done.” SCRC immediately recognized the value of this project and its fit with the university. A core collecting area is the history of Washington, DC, with a special emphasis on citizen interaction with authority. With this partnership, we had the opportunity to provide infrastructure, permanency, and broad access to the collection. In response to the project organizers, we wholeheartedly embraced our supporting role in this collaboration. Defining Responsibilities We began by advising about equipment, the need for a release form, and fundraising for transcription to enhance research potential. In addition, SCRC staff explained the value of preferred file formats necessary to ensure continued access. Because of our familiarity with the recommended equipment, SCRC staff conducted several hands-on trainings, with one session taking place at a community member’s home. The organizers decided to use the release form which provides all the rights necessary to manage the use of the oral histories. From the project’s inception, the delineation of responsibilities was well defined for each partner. I serve as the project lead, providing both continuity in communication and reliable and timely support. Leadership of the project and decisions about its future direction reside with the community. Community members conduct the oral histories; I save the files on a secure server, manage the transcription process, add basic metadata, and coordinate the upload of the recordings and transcripts to the Internet Archive (go.gwu.edu/marionbarryproject). The IA links are made available in an online finding aid (https://library.gwu.edu/ead/ms2342.xml). To date, the community has raised more than $5,000 to fund equipment and transcription. More than two years into the project, there are thirty-three oral histories online with about another twenty-five interviews being planned. Successful Partnerships Partnerships are always challenging for participants; there have been refreshingly few obstacles with this project. We attribute this to the community’s dedication to the project and the library’s commitment to resourcing a staff member to serve as the coordinator who, through personal interaction and responsiveness, has modeled the trustworthiness of the institution. The organizers’ enthusiasm, dedication, understanding of where and when to seek expert advice, and patience with an institution’s bureaucracy has allowed this partnership to flourish. The community is grateful for the opportunity to create the archives, and The George Washington University is grateful to provide access to this unique resource. This successful oral history project is a model that demonstrates how a community group and an archival institution can respect, trust, and consciously validate each partner’s expertise. The working relationship the SCRC and the community have built is defined by valuing each partner’s strengths along with the shared goals of public access, solid legal rights, and long-term availability. Politically active DC residents created the project, raised funding for equipment and transcription, and decided upon whom to interview, while SCRC archivists provided needed expertise on managing archival content and use of technologies related to oral history capture and storage, as well as creative ideas about how to enhance access to the content. Both the community and the university are committed to completing the project, meeting the project organizers’ goals, and providing resources for future scholarship. Notes (1) Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 113. (2) Betty King, Interview by Kwame Holman, May 2015, transcript, MS2342 Marion Barry 1978 Campaign Oral History Project, The George Washington University, Washington DC. (3) Betty King, email message to John Ralls, September 2014.
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