Still Processing: A Career under Review

As a follow up to my May 15 and May 22 posts, I am still processing my career and what it means. The thing about processing is that it occurs in stages.

A few weeks ago, I experienced several epiphanies that uncovered hidden feelings about my career, my current position, and where I would like to go. This came to a head in my bi-weekly therapy session last month. Funny how the biggest revelations seem to occur in the lead up to my Saturday sessions.

For twenty laborious minutes, I explained these realizations and mapped out my reflections on them to my therapist. And, I shared my vision of the type of life I want to live. I articulated my frustrations about moving toward that life now. What I love most about my therapist is that she is very hands-on. No passive listening. She glanced down at my notebook, the black one I carry only to therapy. She directed me to open it for a writing/thought exercise.

First, she had me draw up a chart, essentially my life in a week. What were the things I felt were missing from my life? I jotted those down. Then, I charted out approximations of what time I woke up each morning, went to bed, work and other activities. Time is finite but it became clear that I wasn’t using my time all that well. Yet, I had convinced myself there wasn’t time to do the things I love. Well, there it was in black and white to say otherwise. 

She encouraged me to meditate on that to which I did (and still am).

Second, she directed me to create another chart with two columns:

Archives Then vs. Archives Now

Archives Then became an expression of what drew me to archives. What were my motivations? Also to think through how my past tracked (or didn’t) along with those motivations. Admittedly, in talking about it, I felt that excitement building up inside of me. Like waking up from a dream and remembering where you are or, in this case, who you are.

Archives Now was an exploration of where I am now. What are my motivations now? How had things changed or stayed the same. 

As I looked at the chart, it became clear my frustrations and the source of my crisis-turned-angst. Crisis signifies to me the part of me that operated in the middle of depression. I made, if we’re being honest, suspect decisions about my life and health. Those decisions popped up in my Archives Then vs. Archives Now in my chart. Now that the crisis has abated (several months and counting of no depressive episode), a deep anxiety has settled in its place.

What the fuck am I doing? And why do I feel like I am living on auto-pilot in life but most especially my career?

This writing exercise also exposed the deeper reason by my dissatisfaction with my current position. I should preface and say that my job, by all tense and purposes, is not bad. It’s a solid job and recent institutional changes have hearkened to an even brighter, positive future. But the realization looming in front of me, staring me square in the face, is I’m pretty certain I’m not the person for that future. 

In my vision of my future, I firmly believe I will chart a life that infuses archives, history, teaching, and project-based work but, most importantly, it will be outside an institutional setting. It will nourish me in a way that I need while enabling me to critically engage with others.

Now how I get from here to there is still in progress.

Stay turned.


Archives, Liberation, and Black Feminist Theory

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this post on archives, liberation, and black feminist theory. The previous times delved into a long-winded explanation, a veritable literature review of my foray into readings.

Friends, that is not the post I wanted to write, although I have included at the end of this post a meaningful bibliography of black feminist theory and social justice readings that resonated with me.

What I wanted to write about, to connect on, is that place of tension within myself that, in turn, informs my archival practice.

In one of my many readings, bell hooks said simply and profoundly:

“decolonize your mind.”

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown stated:

“what we practice at the small scale sets the pattern for the whole system.”

Inevitably to change these systems of oppression, the necessary work, that ripples out must start with me. I must decolonize my mind, reckon with its toxicity wrought by a straight, white supremacist capitalist patriarchal (and evangelical) culture (S.W.S.C.P.E). How do I hinder myself? Oppress others? How do I keep drinking this poison and expecting those who are doing the harm to get sick or die?

To envision liberation, I must first liberate myself. This is what comes up most often in my readings. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, unpacking it in my day to day.

At the same time, I ponder the influence of this culture on archives and archival practice.

Black feminism brings stern critique, a hyper awareness of the interplay of different identities (race, class, sexuality, etc) and an understanding of power dynamics but it also speaks with love, even leads with it.

How do I bring this into my archival practice? How does my identity as a cisgender hetero middle class black woman inform my approach? How do these identifiers come into tension with S.W.S.C.P.E? After all, as discussed on Twitter, the voices and writings that are upheld as the cornerstones of archival theory are straight white men.

If I do not liberate myself by recognizing how I support the systems of oppression, leaning away from the dominant colonialist narrative/approach, and halting my tacit demand of others to adhere to it as well, I will only replicate them within the archivist-donor-researcher paradigm. That is not leading with love. That is leading with power and centuries of domination. “I know something you don’t. I am the authority.”

I am not advocating to throw the whole basis for archival theory or practice away, as tempting as that may sound. Rather I advocate revisiting it, revising it if we can, and if not, then discarding it in order to create something new.

What encourages me to propose the aforementioned statement is the present, changing landscape of archival theory and practice. It is expansive and diverse. I look at the work and writings of Jarrett Drake, Michelle Caswell, Bergis Jules, Staci Williams, and so, so many others who bring marginalized communities to the table as equal partners to share in the transformational work of reimagining archives to be an inclusive environment and experience. (Yes, it is an experience to engage with archives.) I think to myself, why isn’t this embedded in our archival theory and practice? Why does the profession persist in setting itself apart? This is work we ought to reckon with because in continuing to exist in this manner only aligns ourselves with systems of oppression. It continues to distance marginalized communities.

The work has shifted toward bringing in diverse collections but not actively and consistently creating an inclusive space for marginalized communities to engage and interact with their collection….with their own history. Is that not still gate keeping?

In response, we see the rise of community archives. The community taking ownership of their history and the preservation of their records.

How do we reimagine archives? How do we dismantle the hold of these systems of oppression and what does that look like?

Again, I return to brown, as that is my current reading and most present in my mind, what is the vision for liberation? What does it look like? What are we working toward?

From there, I ask myself and ask of you, how are we honoring that vision? How are we moving toward it? How are we replicating it now in our lives and in our encounters with others?

Why is that important? Because we are the system. These systems of oppression are us. We sustain it. We nourish it. Now hear me out, the system is predicated on people playing their part or, in the case of marginalized communities, “staying in their lane.” To continue to play the role it has designated for us, not the role we hope for or envision for ourselves.

When we stop participating the way the system (aka others) expect of us, when we recognize and assert the right to determine the course of our own lives, THAT is where change is possible. That is where liberation comes. That is when systems can be dismantled. But, that is also where the tension lies….and also the potential for violence from the most staunch supporters of said system.

It won’t be easy. It will be hella tough because this is a system that has thrived for centuries. It is a system where folks are still invested in it, whether they openly admit it or not, whether they know it or not.

Fin.

For now.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

___

Meaningful bibliography

adrienne maree brown. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press, 2017.

Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2012.

bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.

bell hooks. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000.

Barbara Ransby. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.

Brittney C. Cooper. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Ricardo L. Punzalan and Michelle Caswell, “Critical Directions for Archival Approaches to Social Justice,” Library Quarterly 86 (2016).




The Career Crisis

I shared in my last post my general feelings about the state of my career. As I sat in therapy this past weekend, I had a realization, which one often does in that space: I never addressed my career crisis.

What was the moment?

I spent my entire grad school career striving for a particular goal: working for the National Archives. I made that ambition known early. In 2010, I interned at the Seattle branch to fulfill my MLIS requirement. I loved the work.

My first job out of grad school was a strategic choice. I took a one-year archives processing position at Death Valley National Park in Death Valley, CA, some 3,000 miles away from home, because it was federal government-adjacent and, I believed, would demonstrate substantive archival work. By month four, I had begun to circulate my resume to park employees to get their feedback. What was I doing wrong with my resume? Why was I not advancing to an interview. I took their recommendations and tweaked my resume. By month nine, I was actively applying. AND, I was getting interviews.  

My contract ended. I moved back to the East Coast. In August 2012, I got THE interview: an archives technician position at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

A week later, when I heard the words “we would like to offer you the position” I was in shock but also experiencing the unmitigated joy of a plan for my life coming together.

I *thoroughly* loved my time in Philadelphia, for professional and personal reasons. In spite of the 2013 federal government shutdown, I was still all in. But, in 2014-2015, government bureaucracy reared its head and my idealistic view of NARA became muddied.

In time, it came crashing down.

Rather than address the end of an idealistic dream, I ran. Running looked like applying for other jobs. I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore as I had wrapped my whole identity in working for NARA.

I was NARA. NARA was me.

Without it, who was I?

Now that the fog of a two year depression has lifted, I see the toxicity built in wrapping up my identity, let alone my professional identity, in a place. In something external to me.

My heart, in spite of the hurt, still cares deeply for NARA, especially the people. I am still invested in its success even if that means being at odds with its leadership. For example, at SAA 2018, I took the time to address its leadership during their August 17 session regarding NARA’s “digital future” and its strategic plan. I even talked afterward with Micah Cheatham, the Chief Management and Administration, much to the chagrin of some of leaderships most ardent supporters. I have reservations and many of them grave. Why? Because I love NARA. I want the best for it. I want it to do right by the American public and its hardworking employees.

The question now is what can I do in archives? How do I channel the things I love, the causes that are important to me, and who I am now (and who I have always been) to reimagine a career that enables me to create something exciting and helps others?

So here I am, four years in the making, ready to face it.

*deep breath*

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Career Inertia

Time to name the thing. I do not purport to know physics but as I sat down to draft this blog post, I thought of Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion. Here he introduces us to “inertia.” Essentially, an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

When I graduated in 2008 from the University of South Carolina, I felt very much “in motion.” Big dreams and even bolder ambitions. An object in motion. Multiple moves and a painful romantic breakup didn’t stop the motion. Didn’t halt my trajectory.

A career crisis and subsequent depressive episode that hovered for two years did that. I became an object “at rest.”

Naming the thing is saying, I’m at rest and I don’t know how to get back in motion. Eight years in the archives profession, some dodgy experiences along the way, I’m a little worn in places, grizzled in others, stupidly idealistic in others but I feel it.

I’m stuck.

I am unsure of what to move toward. Depression compromised my ability to trust my inner voice because for a number of years it put me down. I have questions and doubts where I once had certainty.

My passion for archives still exists. New ideas and online conversations raise issues and concerns I spend a great deal of time off-line thinking about.

Archives. Environmental Sustainability. Black Feminist Theory. Records Management. Electronic Records. Community Archives. All compelling pieces to an internal puzzle I’m trying to put together.

I am inert.

But, I don’t want to be.


#thatarchiveslife building community one snarky tweet at a time

I created the hashtag #thatarchiveslife as a way to curate my call for assistance and random thoughts. I then began to expand it to include snarky comments and quirky observations of this archives game. In doing so, I’ve found a community of sorts.

A delightfully, snarky bunch of archivists. My people. The type of archivist that lurks in us all (or anyone that works in customer service). The one who screams internally when a potential donor wants to donate a stack of newspapers (read: acidic).

Screams internally.png

Or, find yourself in yet. another. meeting. Or, to share your triumph after floating in a sea of limited time, resources, and people. Hey, even snarky people look for the rainbow after a rainstorm.

To my archivists out there, I hope you’ll consider joining my little community and add #thatarchiveslife to your tweets.



 

P.S. - #WakandaForever