I recently attended an event in Boston’s South End neighborhood called “Sharing our Stories: The Power of Place,” a sensational evening sponsored by the Tenants Development Corporation, Inc. and the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Nationally renowned jazz/blues singer, historian, actress, and lifetime resident of the South End Valerie Stephens directed the event. The program brought community members, activists, and historians together to chronicle and celebrate the South End’s history through theater and spoken word. The speakers captivated the audience as they told tales of growing up in a neighborhood plagued by urban renewal and subsequent gentrification. But more inspiring, the cast of locals shared their stories of overcoming obstacles and working together to address community needs. “No demolition without relocation,” screamed one speaker. “You can shove me, but I’m not leaving,” remembered another. The powerful evening culminated with a keynote address by beloved activist Mel King, who I had the honor of having dinner with later that night and who gave words of empowerment and inspiration to all sitting in the room. He ended his talk with a call to action: “Thinking like a community is the most important thing anyone can do. No one, residents, students, professionals, should live and/or work in isolation. After all, a house divided cannot stand.”
I found myself in deep reflection around Mel’s statement, especially in connection to my work as a public historian. Back in September, my home public history program at UMass Amherst held a conference themed around the future of public history. I was particularly moved by a comment that Graciela Sanchez (left), Director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas, made during her presentation. She said, “The future of public history is all about connecting people. Public historians must be in service to community.”
But what is community? And how do public historians fit within one? These questions came center stage during my time in AmeriCorps. At the start of my service, I thought I knew the answers–community is a space where people interact with each other. When my year concluded, I had a much different take based on my experiences. I now see community as much as a verb as a noun. Sure, when we engage publics with the past, whether at a museum or a historic site, we are bringing a myriad of cultures and perspectives together around the power of history. That product yields community–a noun. But community should not be linear or monolithic; it should be circular and reciprocal. And my past experiences show that I was most satisfied with my work plan and sense of self when I was growing, learning, playing, and sharing within a community. In other words, the verb of community means sharing resources with a certain public, but also being open to receiving resources and nourishment at the same time.
When I think about Mel King and Graciela Sanchez’s calls to action in connection to my own work, I conclude that maybe it is not about shared authority; rather, it is about shared community and inquiry. If we frame our work in the public around reciprocal learning and practice, then we create space that forges connections between people. The process of our work is as important as the product. For new professionals entering the field, I offer this post especially to you. In an economy that forces us to think creatively about our academic degrees and practical experiences, it is important to reflect on more personal and human skills: how can you connect fellow global citizens to each other using the power of the past as a catalyst?
I also offer this post as a way to continue a much-needed conversation around civic engagement and service learning within the world of public history. The trajectory of public history is moving more into interdisciplinary and transnational waters than ever before. The audience we want to engage, either in the academy or in the field, is becoming broader and more global. Understanding the intersections of history and community allows public historians to see how global cultures employ the past to address contemporary problems like gender oppression, human rights violations, religious persecutions, and terrorism, among many others. Through shared inquiry, we can collaboratively celebrate our histories and also address global iniquities while doing so. After all, in my opinion, that is what it means to be civically engaged and part of an order of global citizens.
~ Jeff Robinson is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History and a Graduate Certificate Candidate of Advanced Feminist Studies in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His primary research investigates the intersections of public history and gender in gilded and progressive-age New England. The views expressed in his entries do not necessarily reflect those of AmeriCorps or the Corporation for National and Community Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.