ARA Conference 2019 – Lucy Brownson

This blog draws on a previous Off the Record post by Jasspreet Thethi, a GLAM professional, training facilitator and advocate for intersectionality in the cultural sector at large. The reflections presented herein are based on Jass’ principles of empowered collaboration, explored in a paper session at the ARA Conference 2019. Any views expressed are my own, as this year’s ARA New Professionals bursary recipient. I’d like to thank Jass for her time and oversight regarding this post.

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As she commences her Friday morning session in a packed-out conference suite at ARA 2019, Jass Thethi urges everyone present to stop and consider who’s afforded representation in this room, at this conference, and in our sector more widely. Today, Jass will share her ongoing research on diversifying the archives through Empowered Collaboration, which she defines thusly:

‘Empowered collaboration seeks to create archival labels and exhibition content with an intersectional group made up of individuals from under-represented groups (an advisory board) with sensitivity to privilege and emotional labour.’

Why – if we need to ask this question – is empowered collaboration important? Jass lays it out simply: if you can see it, you can be it. Our lived experiences, memories, and social and cultural backgrounds all form the bedrock of who we are, individually and collectively; seeing ourselves represented in history is integral to our sense of identity, along with our physical and psychological wellbeing and development.

Our commonalities are the threads that bind us, and the act of sharing them – in this context, by preserving our stories and voices within archival collections – is an act of community-building in the present and envisioning our future(s), just as much as it is one of history-making. Jass emphasises that who tells these stories inevitably shapes how they’re told, and that this has historically led to the privileging of certain social groups and narratives and the mis-/non-/under-representation of many others. Here, she unpacks her first point of discussion: understanding privilege, and how it impacts our work as record-keepers.

It’s undeniable that our profession is overwhelmingly white and highly educated, with class, ability, and heteronormative & cisgender privilege also embedded in the sector on a structural level. A 2015 study of the UK information workforce commissioned by CILIP and the ARA found that of those surveyed, under 4% of workers identify as BAME, a figure significantly lower than the national average; moreover, 61.4% of our workforce hold a postgraduate qualification or equivalent, while 81.4% of workers don’t experience long-term health issues. To date, very little consistent data exists regarding heteronormativity and gender identity in the heritage sector, which arguably speaks volumes about how (indeed, whether) we are critically considering how these forms of privilege impact our work. Many readers of this blog will have heard these statistics countless times, but what’s important here – and what Jass’ session highlights – is how we can better acknowledge and understand our own privileges individually in order to collectively change the cultures of privilege and erasure that run through our collections and our workforce. Building on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s White Privilege Test, Peggy McIntosh’s research on white privilege, and Michelle Caswell and Gracen Brilmyer’s Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives resource, Jass presents the Privilege Quiz, an exercise designed to make participants reflect on their privileges and use them to empower overlooked and erased groups.

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Some questions from Jass Thethi’s Privilege Quiz.

So, we’re acknowledging our privileges – what comes next? If we want to build meaningful and lasting collaboration with under-represented groups, we need to understand the emotional labour that sharing one’s lived experience often entails, particularly when the individual sharing that experience belongs to a marginalised group. Jass, as a queer, neurodivergent woman of colour, brilliantly articulates this by drawing our attention to the fact that she’s not actually being paid to present at ARA 2019 – and if this reads like a criticism, so it should. The ARA Conference is a valuable forum for innovation and new perspectives in our sector, that’s undeniable, but – as events following it clearly illustrate – structural oppression (particularly white supremacy) still runs deep, and rolling out bursary schemes in the name of diversity doesn’t make the Conference infallible to critique. Far from it: as conference fees remain high, expecting speakers to present their work for free is (in my personal opinion) exploitative to say the least. This feels especially pertinent when that work is so personally taxing for a marginalised speaker and adversely, incredibly beneficial for those in attendance (the vast majority of whom are in a position of great privilege) – it’s not just an oversight, but a neglect of care and duty as to the emotional labour therein involved.

How can organisations enact collaboration and diversification that doesn’t feel exploitative, tokenistic or inconsiderate, but rather empowers those who have been marginalised or erased? There’s no definitive answer to this question, but Jass offers several suggestions for moving in the right direction:

  • Consider descriptive language practices and knowledge frameworks when processing archival collections: how are the collections in our care presented to our users? Are they catalogued in a way that evidences cultural sensitivity, or are they described using offensive or incorrect terms of reference? There are, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, countless instances of the latter – which is why it’s so important to engage with those whose experiences and histories are actually represented in our collections, and to adequately remunerate them for their time and knowledge.
  • Build an ARA intersectional advisory board: there’s a vital need for ARA and other professional organisations in the cultural sector to do this. Initiatives like the Professional Development Programme clearly show ARA’s commitment to breaking down access barriers to the profession – but an advisory board, and other forms of affirmative action, are long overdue if change is to be enacted at anything more than an incremental level.
  • Deliver workplace sensitivity training: many organisations implement implicit bias tests as part and parcel of their personnel training, but these are often broad and not specific to the record-keeping profession. Fortunately, several tools already exist for examining the biases that shape our work – these include the aforementioned resources developed by Adichie, McIntosh, and Caswell, as well as the cultural sensitivity training that Jass facilitates – to learn more about her work, and to obtain a quote, click here or email

Jass’ session isn’t intended as an all-out criticism of the ARA Conference, or of the sector itself. It’s honest, unapologetic, and eye-opening; it forces me, and many others in the room, to confront our own positionalities, to own any discomfort, and to consider how to move forward constructively. I leave the room feeling galvanised into action, which only increases in the days that follow.

Understandably, the discussions after the conference sadly overshadow the conference itself somewhat, and they further highlight the urgency to enact changes in our sector with regards to diversity and inclusion – but this shouldn’t detract from the positive outcomes of ARA 2019, and of this session in particular. Looking ahead, I intend to use my ARA membership (and my privilege) as a conduit for change in the sector. I’m under no illusions as to the scale of structural exclusion and bias in our profession, but supporting and working with ARA’s regions and sections (in my case, ARA North West) is one way to enact the changes that so many of us wish to see in our profession and our collections.

To find out more about Jass’ work and research, you can follow her on Twitter or check out her website, Intersectional GLAM.

Other useful links – by no means an exhaustive list:
Archival Decolonist
Archivists Against History Repeating Itself
Decolonising The Archive
Designing for Diversity Learning Toolkit
Implicit Association Test
Knowledge Industries Need Queering (KINQ)
Museum Detox

Lucy Brownson, recent graduate of Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies

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