The African American Museum of Iowa’s Virtual Writing Project gathers stories about 21st century activism

Think about current events taking place in our nation and our state.

What does present day activism look like to you?

What different types of activism have you seen and practiced in recent weeks or months?

The Virtual Writing Project is an online project that will be gathering narratives from the public for the African American Museum of Iowa’s historical archives. Through digital outreach and engagement, this project encourages participants to share their stories and reflect on their lived experiences based on five thematic frames: Present, Past, Future, Comfort Zones, and Blind Spots.

This summer, as an Obermann intern with the AAMI, I had the pleasure of working with Felicite Wolfe, Curator at the African American Museum of Iowa, to design an interactive writing project that will serve three main purposes. First, the stories that were submitted in June and July of 2020 will be included in a museum display where they will have an educational function. The images above show an example of the proposed installation design I created using excerpts from people’s responses. Another purpose of the display itself is to engage and invite museum visitors to generate their own hand-written responses while inside the museum and post them on the exhibition wall for others to read. The interactive nature of narratives and counter-narratives will create a dialogic experience for those who visit the museum in real life. The third reason for collecting stories in a digital platform (using a Google form) is to create a public archive for the AAMI’s collection. By this time next summer, the hope is that this AAMI will have a new community archive that gathers and preserves narrative data from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021.

The Virtual Writing Project aligns with the AAMI’s upcoming exhibit, “Unwavering: 21st Century Activism,” which looks at contemporary social movements and different forms of activism that directly affect Black communities including athletic protests, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and LGBTQ rights protests. Through this virtual writing project, the museum is placing emphasis not only on the important role of sharing stories, but also on the need to critically reflect and contextualize personal narratives in relation to the struggle for Black civil rights and equality in Iowa and in our nation.

If you would like to contribute your writing to the African American Museum of Iowa’s archives, here is the link:
Virtual Writing Project: Unwavering

Last year in my doctoral studies, I became interested in critical archival research and using radical empathy to examine affective relationships in archival work. Caswell and Cifor (2016) identified the following four affective relationships in archives:

  1. affective relationships between the archivists [and others] and those who created the artifacts or records
  2. affective relationships between the archivists and the subjects of the records (who may or may not have given consent to be included and may not have participated willingly); 
  3. affective relationships between archivists and those who use archives; and 
  4. affective relationships between archivists and the greater community

As my internship is drawing to a close, I am left wondering. Who will take over the responsibility for this archival project?
How many people will contribute their writing over the next year? What subjects will appear in the writing that is generatated in the next 12 months? Will they give their consent? In the future, what members of the greater community might want to access the artifacts in this archive? What might they discover?

While the long term value of this project is unknown, the unexpected events that have been happening in the summer of 2020 give me faith that at least a handful of people will be inspired to contribute to the AAMI’s archive because writing offers us an opportunity to reflect on our lived experiences and share our stories. But archives don’t happen without investment by those who would like to shepherd a collection of artifacts into existence. Over the next year, I’m hopeful that the AAMI will continue to gather narratives from Iowans who represent a wide range of experiences from those who are members of our state’s African American and Black communities.

I will conclude this blog post by sharing the five writing theme prompts and a sneak preview of images to illustrate my proposed exhibition design ideas.

If you feel inspired to participate, we welcome you to contribute to the AAMI’s archive.
Also, please feel free to share this project with others who might be interested.

1) “Living In The Present” — Think about current events taking place in our nation and our state. What does present-day activism look like to you? What different types of activism have you seen and practiced in recent weeks?

2) “Honoring The Past” — Consider the roots of your activism. What is the deeper origin of your daily actions and your beliefs about activism? Do you follow in the footsteps of those who came before you? If so, how?

3) “Imagining The Future” — What types of activism would you like to see in the future? Can you imagine new forms of activism that will change your immediate community? Meditate on the future, what do you envision? New forms of activism could appear in all sectors, in the arts, sports, politics, fashion, schools, economics, urban planning, and so on. Feel free to share your dreams for the future of activism here.

4) “Blind Spots” — What blind spots have you noticed in yourself or in other people when it comes to activism? Have you been able to address some of your own blind spots? What forms of activism are the most powerful in addressing the blind spots of others?

5) “Comfort Zones” Certain situations or specific places often make us feel either comfortable or uncomfortable. What situations, practices, and places make you feel the most uncomfortable when it comes to activism? Do you believe activism should take people out of their comfort zones? Explain.