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. Continue reading
Beloved community activist Bob Moses once asked a family living in the Mississippi Delta, “How do you build and organize a community?” He was answered, “By throwing a ball into your neighbor’s yard; that way you have to cross the fence and engage in a dialogue with them. And then your neighbor throws the ball into their neighbor’s yard.”
I took Bob’s spirit to heart when I joined AmeriCorps*VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) in 2010, after completing my M.A. degree in Public History at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I worked for the Massachusetts Campus Compact (MACC), an organization that places AmeriCorps members at 25 colleges and universities across Massachusetts to promote civic engagement and community building initiatives with students, faculty, and staff. MACC is the state organization of the national Campus Compact Organization. I ended up in the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In short, my workplan described my mission for the year as building reciprocal relationships between the College and Mission Hill/Longwood Medical Area – the Boston neighborhoods that MassArt straddles. On day one, my supervisor handed off the ball and I began having discussions on how art and history can catalyze and promote social change. I quickly found myself as an agent of change, using history and art to connect various publics in ways I never envisioned in my public history graduate program.
Truth be told, I never had national service jobs on my periphery when envisioning my public history career. I knew I wanted to return to grad school and earn a Ph.D. at some point, but at the time, I saw myself working in education at a museum or a historic site. After all, that’s what my grad school training emphasized. A friend of mine, who recently returned from service in the Peace Corps, asked if I was familiar with AmeriCorps, and suggested that I might marry my love of history and community building into a job that paid (!!) and was an enriching and learning experience. My early perception of AmeriCorps volunteers was green-sweatshirt-wearing young adults who moved to desolate parts of the country to build schools and the like. I never knew of VISTA, the professional capacity-building division of AmeriCorps that dealt specifically with fighting the political, economical, and social manifestations of poverty. After a lot of reflection and research, I applied to MACC and they offered me a job at MassArt. Of course, at the time, I lacked hindsight of what challenges and rewards awaited. Above all, I did not know in the beginning days that not only would I get paid to be a public practitioner, but I would learn so much about myself within the context of the world along the way.
As a public historian, I brought manifold skills into my AmeriCorps job. I knew how to have conversations with folks. I understood that history connects people, places, and things to communities. I recognized that critical thinking was imperative to understanding the communities I worked in, but also acknowledging many aspects of myself that were vital to service work. Likewise, I had good written and verbal communication skills. MassArt had the vision; I had the skills in my toolbox to help bring those visions to fruition.
As the field of public history becomes more professionalized, I see practitioners and students of the discipline losing sight of one aspect of the field’s roots in social justice, change, and advocacy. In fact, as many know, much of public history started as people’s history, which served and celebrated an important democratic function of giving vernacular publics agency and resources to chronicle and tell their own history. I think service jobs and opportunities are a plausible way for young professionals and academics to reconnect with communities and identify resources that everyone can deploy to challenge a world of acute adversity. Joining AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps, among others, affords historians the opportunity to empower fellow global citizens to tell and learn from their histories, which will create a system of change using the power of the past.
Over the next several months, I will chronicle my adventure in AmeriCorps and hopefully forge discussions around working in a different kind of public space. It is an exciting time to put history@work and I am hoping that my entries will inspire public history grad students and new professionals to consider another path – one of service and community building. I am ready to throw the ball and have fruitful conversations on the intersections of history, community, and art.
~ 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 email@example.com.