Our year of focus on “radical empathy”: a summary

Background

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the staff of the Southern Historical Collection employed three graduate students working on projects that engaged elements of radical empathy. Flannery Fitch and Michelle Witt were working on On These Grounds (a project focused on the lives of enslaved individuals connected to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), while Brianna McGruder was involved in the Hungry River Collective (a project focused on the historic lives of incarcerated women in Cherry Hospital Goldsboro, NC). As the supervisor of all three students, SHC Curator, Chaitra Powell, initiated a bi-monthly discussion group that encouraged the graduate students to explore readings, their own experiences, and their projects to help develop a working definition of what radical empathy means to us. This blog post includes our reading list, a summary of our discussions, and offers a few personal reflections/connections. 

xoom screen boxes from NCPH
A sample of Hungry River Collective members, (clockwise, l-r) Tift Merritt (singer), Vanessa Jackson (social worker), Sarah Koonts (archivist), Alison Russell (singer), Hannah Jacobs (digital humanist), Chaitra Powell (curator), Wanda Cox-Bailey (genealogist) presenting at the National Council of Public Historians annual meeting (May 2022)
A sample of the UNC- Chapel Hill OTG Project team during a meeting in Spring 2022

Our 6 tenants of Radical Empathy

1

Radical Empathy requires an analysis of where power and/or money reside. We thought about this in relation to work happening to tell stories about Dorothea Dix hospital in Raleigh, NC compared to our efforts at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, NC. We think about this every day in the Southern Historical Collection, when we compare the paucity of information, we have about enslaved individuals to the information we have about wealthy white families.  

During a Spring seminar talk for information and library science graduate students, the poet and activist Anasuya Sengupta explained that often, we are simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. I think about this often while engaging in community-driven archives work. Within Wilson library, I often work with and am surrounded by materials that document the subordination of BIPOC and I sometimes feel dejected by the lack of empowering materials that celebrate black or biracial black experiences.  

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore power 

  • Revisiting a Feminist Ethic of Care in Archives: An Introductory Note (2021): Caswell and Cifor 
  • Toward Slow Archives (2019): Christen and Anderson 
  • The House Archives Built (2021): Berry 

2

Radical Empathy acknowledges multiple ways of knowing. Our manuscript collection is full of ink on paper, what if your community does not hold knowledge in this way? What if it is in the oral tradition, the tattoos, or a worn in cast iron skillet, this history matters and confirms that the traditional archive is missing important pieces of the story. We don’t say this to expand the collection scope, we say this with humility and openness to new interpretations of our collections.    

In her memoir Bad Indian, California Indian activist Deborah Miranda writes about the pain she experienced in white American schooling where her teachers repeatedly told her that she could not be a California Indian because they were extinct. There was such a deep adherence to this idea that her white teachers felt a need to impress upon a child that her very understanding of herself, her community, and her people was wrong, that she did not exist. Why? 

Flannery Fitch 

Sources that explore ways of knowing 

  • Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction (2013): Accardi 
  • Tribal Critical Race Theory in Zuni Pueblo: Information Access in a cautious community (2021): Leung and Lopez-McKnight 
  • To Suddenly Discover yourself existing: uncovering the impact of community archives (2016): Caswell, Cifor, and Ramirez 

3

Radical Empathy is not a moral imperative. We don’t talk about radical empathy to make powerful people or institutions feel bad and share their resources. We hope that a clear identification of the imbalances will help people think about the specific ways that their work helps or hinders progress toward equity. We also acknowledge that there is no silver bullet, and that the other tenants of our understanding of radical empathy will be consulted as decisions are being made. 

Celebrating our differences while acknowledging our shared humanity and placing this awareness at the center of our day-to-day activity. Examples of this include asking thoughtful questions, sharing candidly, listening and demonstrating understanding, speaking, writing, and acting with kindness and humility. 

Michelle Witt 

Sources that explore morality 

  • Dusting for Fingerprints: Introducing Feminist Standpoint Appraisal (2021): Caswell 
  • How to be Anti-Racist (2019): Kendi 

4

Radical Empathy invokes notions of belonging and community. When we think about communities that have been “othered”, a common part of their resilience is the development of a sense of community for themselves. Archival practitioners can learn more about dignity, truth, and the power of collective memory by listening to and learning from community memory practitioners. In all our discussions we asked, who belongs? who has been excluded? which community is being centered? — to bring our activities and decisions into closer alignment with our values.    

White American culture has historically enforced an idea of individualism that strips power from communities and upholds keeping that power with the ruling class. Embracing community is a way to subvert this, because community allows for different viewpoints, experiences, and beliefs while functioning as a whole. Shifting focus from standard archival and library practices into a more community driven, empathetic model not only uplifts the experiences of oppressed and marginalized communities but increases our overall experience of community and how crucial it is to have a place and a people to belong to. 

Flannery Fitch 

Sources that explore belonging and community 

  • From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives (2016): Caswell and Cifor 
  • Each according to their ability: Zine Librarians Talking about Their Community (2018): Wooten 
  • A Measure of Belonging: 21 writers of Color on the New American South (2020): Barnes (editor) 

5

Radical Empathy calls for embodiment, in every sense. Embodied knowledge radiates from our heads and hearts, extends to our surroundings, our nation, and our planet. There are stories that can only be told by certain people because they have lived it, stories that can only be told in certain places, because the natural environment holds so much memory. We give space for our whole selves in our work and think creatively and with deference about how embodiment could be understood by our colleagues and the people in our collections.    

Thinking about an archive or artifact as disembodied knowledge, these items that are often mistaken as neutral and natural, and by some audiences deemed as history embodied. A historical document sheds light on the past, through a particular lens and through several (sometimes unknown) facets, producing a particular narrative; but only the person that produced the document embodied the knowledge, and transcribed that knowledge into a now disembodied document. The document can’t talk to me or explain the thinking of its creator. All we are left to do is carefully and cautiously interrogate these disembodied materials with our whole, embodied selves. 

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore embodiment 

  • Why the Way we Tell stories and Document History as a social justice issue (2019): Mason-Hogans 
  • This [Black] Woman’s Work: Exploring Archival Projects that Embrace the Identity of the Memory Worker (2018): Powell, Smith, Murrain, and Hearn 
  • Undrowned (2020): Gumbs 

6

Radical Empathy is iterative. We know that a decision that we make today about description, budgeting, or collections could easily be challenged tomorrow. We all have blind spots and finite resources, so we make our best decisions with the information in front of us and try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

Treating archiving as a living discipline that’s constantly changing 

Michelle Witt 

 

I must credit Michelle for introducing me to the idea (really, the fact) of our initiatives as iterative. I’ve discovered that it’s very easy to self-aggrandize through weight-of-the-world mentality in imagining the most ethical, most reparative, most effective initiatives and projects to combat epistemic injustices. But after listening to Michelle’s very wise realization that our efforts are but a step in the direction of progress, I felt relieved! I’ve felt more productive since internalizing the work of reparative archives is iterative. Like meditation, iterative repair and care work seems to be the spot where “intention meets honesty in practice” (Anasuya Sengupta 2022). 

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore iteration 

  • Radical Collaboration: An Archival View (2018): McGovern 
  • Archives, Records, and power: the making of modern memory (2002): Schwartz, Cook 

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