Out of Silence, Toward Solidarity

The following is the text of a keynote given by Sandy Rodriguez and Ruth Kitchin Tillman at the 2020 New York Archives Week Symposium, October 22, 2020. Other than the paragraphs in which we each describe our own positionality, we share joint authorship of the talk.

Shaping Context

Good morning, I'm Sandy Rodriguez. My pronouns are she/her. I work and live on the unceded ancestral lands of the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Osage, Kaw (Kansa), and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux). I'm Ruth Kitchin Tillman. My pronouns are she/her. I work and live on ancestral lands of the Susquehannock and Haundenosaunee.

We'd like to thank the organizers of this symposium for their invitation to speak and the Center for Jewish History for support of this virtual program. We'd also like to give a shout-out to the Archives RoundTable of Metropolitan New York for improving the visibility and language around salaries in the job postings they share. We aren't going to read through all of the names of people we'd like to acknowledge, but want to point out that it's taken the participation and efforts of so many people, working together, to make the outcomes of Collective Responsibility possible and to keep it going.

Co-conspirators, enablers, and inspirations: Amy Wickner, Stacie Williams, Emily Drabinski, Dorothy Berry, Paul Kelly, Mark Matienzo, Rachel Mattson, Becca Quon, Cory Lampert, Cate Putirskis, Anna Neatrour, Erin Hurley, Elizabeth Carignola, Aliya Reich, Bethany Nowviskie, Karly Wildenhaus, Courtney Dean, Angel Diaz, Fobazi Ettarh, Scarlet Galvan, Rebecca Goldman, Hillel Arnold, Eira Tansey

Specifically, we'd like to thank Amy Wickner, co-facilitator of the DLF Labor Working Group and co-investigator on the Collective Responsibility project. She has been our closest collaborator for the past four years, substantially contributing to or improving everything we publish (including this talk), while leading additional work on valuing labor. We'd also like to thank co-investigators, Stacie Williams who inspired the formation of the DLF Labor Working Group, and Emily Drabinski whose work on power and organizing has provided clarity on successful resistance work. Our deepest gratitude to the many participants of the labor forums—contingent workers, LAM administrators, funders, hotel staff, and particularly Aliya Reich who took on much of the administrative and coordination work for our second event, which followed the DLF Forum. Thank you to the Institute of Museum and Library Services which funded the forums, and to our Advisory Board who provided critical insights toward their design and execution. We also want to thank the Collective Responsibility Steering Committee, made up of forum participants who lead the ongoing extension of the Labor Advocacy Toolkit. And finally, thank you to Eira Tansey who generously agreed to review this talk and provided insight into the union perspective.

Labor is a concern we all share, but is also intensely personal, shaped by our experiences and identities. So before we start, we'd each like to share a bit about our positionality. First, neither of us has experience in a unionized workplace. This has placed certain limitations on our perspective although we have pursued other means of organizing including governance and affinity groups.

Ruth: I just marked 3 years in a tenure-track position at a public R1 university, which puts me in a place of privilege and also gives me the mental space to work on these issues. My experience of precarity included graduating into a recession and spending over a year trying to find full-time work, working in a contracted position, and 8 years supporting an adjunct spouse. I approach these experiences as a disabled cisgender white woman who grew up in the middle class, who writes and quilts as ways of sharing her experience of the world. I also bring the lens of my Mennonite faith, where I first encountered such concepts as mutual aid and community care.

Sandy: I've been working in a variety of roles at the same mid-sized, public research university in Kansas City for the past 12 years. I'm currently approaching two years in an administrative role which grants me quite a bit of positional power, but as a woman of color, my lack of cultural capital has surfaced distinct tensions between identity and positional authority. I came to this work on precarity, like many others, through experience and trauma related to contingency. My first positions at UMKC were as a contingent project manager supervising other contingent workers in consecutive grant-funded projects over a period of almost 5 years. I approach these experiences as a cishet Asian Latina, first-generation college graduate, and daughter of a Korean immigrant. My mother's experiences, in particular, as a forced child laborer and a contracted custodial worker who was laid off, have greatly influenced my understanding of labor exploitation.

We are all precarious... but we are all precarious differently

For nearly 4 years, we've been working together to study and act on the state of contingent labor in the field of libraries, archives, and, to some extent, museums. In 2018, our project Collective Responsibility received funding from the IMLS to hold two forum meetings in 2019 that concretized information about contingent labor in grant-funded projects. Setting a standard for the labor conditions of grant-funded workers would mean incorporating labor-focused prompts into grant applications, guidance for reviewers, and post-award reports for institutional accountability. Today we're going to speak more broadly about some of the challenges we've recognized and how we might move toward building transformative solidarity.

Just as the aspects of our lives that we shared shape how we approach questions of labor, labor issues are deeply interlinked with the social and political conditions of this country. To name a few:

In the past year, the global pandemic has revealed just how precarious our intersecting structures are—government, health care, education—and how the uneven distribution of power between them has increased precarity for the working class while further consolidating the power of the owning class. The Neoliberal project decimates programs and institutions aimed more at the public good than turning profit, even if we try to play by its rules. That includes libraries and archives, the post office, SNAP, and WIC. Its power brokers recast institutions and individuals as “ris[ing] and fall[ing] on our own merit,” “each… responsible for all aspects of our own” being (Brown). This framing rejects any benefit which cannot be quantified. It ignores the complex, intersecting systems of power under which we live, including white supremacy, ableism, and heteropatriarchy. It treats precarity as the cost of doing business and leaves the precarious to shoulder that cost.

It's hard to ignore precarity right now. It's everywhere. The pandemic has shaken many who had previously felt secure. The catastrophic impact of its gross mishandling has resulted in massive layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of us have experienced or are anticipating some form of these “institutional cost-saving” measures. Due to the pervasiveness of low wages and student loans in our field, many workers don't have savings, let alone family wealth, to fall back on. The Archival Workers Emergency Fund, one of the many aid projects formed to meet this need, has distributed nearly $140,000 to support almost 160 archival workers.

Essential workers outside our profession face hazardous conditions while largely not receiving adequate pay. Administrators and boards deem frontline staff in our institutions to be “essential,” forcing them to carry the greatest risk for the least pay. Others are laid off entirely. Many of these workers are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who face higher risk of death from the virus while also continuing to experience police brutality and increased violence from racist and xenophobic rhetoric, giving rise to protests by library workers from Philadelphia to St. Louis and calls to fundamentally transform our systems.

Precarious workers who are caregivers can't afford the hourly pay lost when they miss work due to a child or family member's illness. Dependence on receiving employer-provided insurance in the United States, a life and death matter even before the pandemic, particularly harms those with long-term conditions or disabilities. For BIPOC, precarity is compounded by the life-threatening discrepancies of healthcare received, the chronic psychological stress of our mostly-white workplaces, and state-sanctioned acts of violence which affect all areas of life.

Seeking to change the systems that cause or heighten precarity is complex, lifelong work, extending far beyond addressing precarity in our field or precarity caused by the pandemic. It must be done in solidarity with other workers, not just those in our particular job classification or field. It must be done with openness to hearing each other's testimonies of the different ways precarity is experienced. It will come with challenges. Our wide range of experiences and perspectives mean that, at times, we will disagree on the best course of action and become frustrated with each other.

But what if the friction natural to our multifaceted existences provides us with a better grounding for solidarity? Self-described Black feminist lesbian mother poet Audre Lorde calls us to work through and across our differences, to “recognize difference as a crucial strength” in order to broaden our possibilities. If we are to succeed, she says “divide and conquer must become define and empower.” In this talk, we take inspiration from José Medina's Epistemology of Resistance. Medina offers a resistance model that encourages embracing dissent and radical contestation as necessary for the pursuit of justice— a model which provides space for alternative ways of knowing, being, and doing. Like Lorde, he sees our heterogeneity as strength, as critical in developing what he calls “collaborative and cooperative models of radical solidarity.”

We have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to come together—to collectively imagine the world we want to live in and build the power to make it a reality. Our collective survival and liberation depends upon us struggling and resisting together.

Naming the Problem

How do workers build the necessary momentum to contend with the multi-faceted precarity of archival labor? That's a tough question with no single answer. We need healthy unions. We need to end the rampant white supremacy in this field, country, and world. We need collective organizing to mitigate harms experienced right now. We're going to spend the rest of our talk highlighting the specific approaches we might take in overcoming precarity together.

Lauren Berlant: Why is it so hard to leave those forms of life that don't work? Why is it that, when precariousness is spread throughout the world, people fear giving up on the institutions that have worn out their confidence in living?

If we agree that the vision of an equitable and sustainable labor framework is critical to the future of archives, we must examine the attitudes, practices, and habits that get in the way of this vision. In our attempts to make change, we often find ourselves trapped in what Lauren Berlant names “Cruel Optimism”: attachments to the very thing that keeps us from thriving. Berlant attributes our reproduction of neoliberal systems, even when we see their harm, to the complication of these attachments. We become convinced that we must solve these problems as individuals or small groups or by becoming “the good” administrators. For those of us in LAM, there is an additional factor at play. How do you feel when I ask:

“Why, as a profession, do we continue to reproduce the systems which have harmed us and continue to harm others? What would cease to exist if we didn't?”

Perhaps your work feels so perilously close to not existing that the question fills you with dread. Perhaps you immediately think of the enduring value of records with which you've worked. If we didn't think this work mattered, we wouldn't be fighting to stay in this profession or to improve it. But we are too prone to think of ourselves as charged with a kind of sacred responsibility. Fobazi Ettarh, who will be giving the closing keynote, has named this “vocational awe.” This mindset leads us to maintain harmful practices if the alternative is leaving something undone. It tempts us to devalue our experiences and those of others in the name of The Work.

If we want to change things in archives, we must begin by naming them. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes that the acts of naming and renaming change how humans exist within the world. Naming is how we acknowledge what's there and opens up the potential for acts of reclamation and transformation. Once we have named the problem, we see ourselves as no longer alone. We are able to invest and redirect our time and efforts to understand and identify our shared concerns, so that we may envision a shared future of archival work to then transform and rename it.

So, what do we name in archival work? We frequently speak in neoliberal frameworks of productivity, outcomes, and assessments. We record how many collections were processed or how many finding aids created. We share that we used the most up-to-date content and descriptive standards in those finding aids, the leading system for creating that description, and that they received a particular number of pageviews over the month. We keep statistics tracking how many patrons we served and how many requests for materials were put into our system.

What often doesn't get named about our systems, methods, and standards is the labor—how the conditions under which that labor takes place is directly connected to and therefore impacts our ability to process, preserve, or provide access to anything. In audiovisual archives, positioning the obsolescence and degradation of fragile media against a short time window, in other words, naming the precarity of formats led to the declaration of archival emergency. Rather than create permanent jobs to meet this long-term concern, institutions created and funded short-term projects with short-term labor. Like the misnamed “diversity work,” we've relegated our labor to outside of rather than within the work that we produce.

Why don't we name labor? Systems under which we operate: capitalism, neoliberalism, white supremacy, and ableism, benefit from silence and from individualizing structural problems. Neoliberal managerial culture prizes cost-cutting for “efficiency” as an apolitical action which inherently improves a workplace. Workers, as individuals or unions, get labeled as troublemakers for raising the subject. In his keynote for the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy symposium 4 years ago, David James Hudson named a complicating factor, the “individualist myth of exhaustiveness” as a cause of silence and silencing. We are expected, if we bring up problems, to understand the whole problem and offer solutions as well.

Workers who experience the greatest harms also keep silent because of social positioning and power differentials, such as that with a person who might offer them advancement in the field. In “Implications of Archival Labor,” Stacie Williams illustrates this challenge by noting that “people without job protections or benefits are unlikely to discuss anything about the work that is problematic, such as the transient nature of grant-funded archives projects or the fact that some PIs don't include relocation expenses or even a living wage.” Workers don't want to be seen as complainers or troublemakers by those who might hire us, particularly when we're seeking to escape a harmful situation.

And workers keep silent because we fear the pain that may come with our speaking. We fear damaging relationships, even with those with whom we no longer have a power differential. We all know that it hurts to be told that choices you made in creating a position caused another person to suffer. We fear telling middle managers and those with limited power the extent of the pain they caused us… and if we're in those roles we fear admitting our own failures in creating better labor conditions for our colleagues.

But we are beginning to break the silence.

An increasing number of archivists have provided critical insight into how the invisibility and devaluation of archival labor has normalized our precarity, offering powerful testimonies in presentations, articles, and Twitter chats. Part of the work of the labor forum and other recent projects throughout LAM has been to gather the experiences of workers, both quantitative and testimonial, in a way that becomes too visible to ignore. For the first meeting of the labor forum, we worked to create spaces where currently and recently contingent workers could share their experiences, from anonymous surveys to breakout discussions to presentations for the entire group. Groups focusing on labor issues have formed within almost every professional association in our field, bringing people together to conduct research that surfaces this issue as endemic. Angel Diaz & Courtney Dean's Issues & Advocacy survey and the salary transparency spreadsheet started at SAA 2019 are two recent examples. These are the aerial maps that make visible the topography of our experience.

Reckoning with Who We Really Are

As we become more familiar with the landscape of contingency, how do we determine what will move us forward? We have all seen more than our share of statements, motivating talks, ideals, and the like, without real change. As we work to make collective imaginings a reality, we must determine which actions move us toward a better future while also reducing the immediate harms experienced by the precarious. We can do both.

Acting from the assumption that injustices in our workplaces are abnormal and not 'who we really are' because of our presumed commitment to ideals enables those of us not affected by those injustices to ignore them and minimize the suffering they cause.

Medina promotes non-ideal theory, a transitional approach with a “commitment to the priority of real in-justices over ideal justice.” Acting from the assumption that injustices in our workplaces are abnormal and not “who we really are” because of our presumed commitment to ideals enables those of us not affected by those injustices to ignore them and to, therefore, minimize the suffering they cause. He recommends that we begin our work by examining the concrete realities of our daily lives rather than these abstract and distant ideals.

In the wake of the June uprisings, most, if not all, of our institutions made renewed statements of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some have actually started to use terminology like systemic racism, institutional racism, and anti-racism; and fewer still, have used white supremacy, anti-Blackness or anti-Black racism. While this shift in language is important, the BIPOC who work within these institutions are well familiar with this cycle. It devotes more time to making statements and hosting listening sessions than changing actual conditions. A non-ideal approach would shift our starting place to stating that our institutions are racist and uphold white supremacy, embracing the friction that could lead to new and more just norms and conditions.

We should acknowledge that there is risk in this approach, only increased by such recent actions as the Executive Order against anti-racist and anti-sexist training. Following Princeton's statement about systemic racism and white supremacy, the Trump Administration launched an investigation into these claims. They seek to either “prove” that systemic racism doesn't really exist or penalize Princeton as though this is somehow a unique condition at that institution. By making an example of Princeton, they indicate to institutions that such statements will be used as grounds for harassment.

But while it carries risks, we see great potential for a non-ideal shift to move us past acknowledging the specific harms of precarity toward taking responsibility and actions that focus our time and energy on investigating and ameliorating these harms. What would it mean for the largest influential LAM organizations to take this approach— to position their pervasive reliance upon contingent labor in the field as a problem and prioritize a solution? To understand that we are not a diverse profession because we uphold white supremacy? To recognize that collections’ preservation and access are inherently connected to the conditions of workers? How do we get “power” (in its various forms) to talk about contingency and precarity and take responsibility?

In our newest tool, “Talking About Contingency At Work,” we offer scripts and scenarios that move discussions of contingency and precarity into our actual workplaces. We ask that you honestly evaluate the power you hold and that you understand the labor landscape of your organization. We offer role-based responsibilities and tactics in relation to your positionality, preparing you to anticipate disagreements. Working from the non-ideal and engaging the conflicts that arise from our heterogeneity, archival workers can locate ourselves within the dominating structures that divide us and work to identify with those who are experiencing precarity in its many forms. A radical solidarity requires those with relative power to engage epistemic friction with humility, curiosity, diligence, and open-mindedness, and to have conversations that question widely accepted practices that tend to benefit them, such as:

These are questions that are specifically challenging to “power”— primarily those who hold positional authority within organizational hierarchy but also those who benefit from their social standing within dominant systems.

Overcoming Active Ignorance

Ferretti: It is easy to say a librarian who commits to critical librarianship is a critical librarian. However, the commitment to its definition is not the work.

As Jennifer Ferretti demonstrates in her recent article, “Building a Critical Culture,” naming does not necessarily lead to transformative action. Here, we find Medina's concept of epistemic humility helpful. To do this work better, we must identify what ways of knowing and what aspects of ourselves are prioritized by dominating systems. Under these systems, a cisgender white woman and transgender Latinx femme making the same argument in the same words and tone will be heard differently. A pregnant person who argues for parental leave will be seen as self-interested in a way that an administrator using numbers, charts, and projections to argue against parental leave won't. For those who are white, male, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, or in positions of power, the cumulative effect of receiving presumed credibility and authority under these systems produces what Medina describes as “an active ignorance.”

What if those prioritized under current systems could admit our areas of ignorance of the experiences of those who are not? What if we approach this work with humility, curiosity, diligence, and open-mindedness that centers the experiences of those most affected by harmful labor conditions? Administrators must recognize that there are times when their power requires them to leave the room so others may talk safely. Identity-based caucusing provides workers from marginalized identities a space to disagree, without the pressure to center the dominant perspective. Though practicing solidarity across our differences will be challenging, we see it as a critical step between naming our many presents and developing a collective imagination of our future.

Toward Solidarity and Collective Action

The problem of labor in our field is not one that can be fixed quickly by a few projects like Collective Responsibility. However, individuals and groups engaged in “interconnected and mutually influencing actions that become chained in social networks,” what Medina calls “chained actions,” are one path toward the change we seek. It will take time, coordination, and an intentional mental shift to change the attitudes, habits, and conditions that reproduce the harmful effects of precarity.

This is going to be a slow-moving and challenging process that involves trust-building across differences. We can anticipate clashes with administrators, but we must continue to build momentum. Collective Responsibility was designed as an intervention originating out of a group of current- and formerly-contingent workers who connected through the Digital Library Federation's Labor Working Group; the formation of the working group was inspired by Stacie Williams’ 2016 DLF keynote talk, “All Labor is Local,” an invitation she received shortly after her powerful act of naming the devaluation of archival labor in her article, “Implications of Archival Labor.” We've seen this in other places, such as the salary transparency spreadsheet concept, which archivists started after a museum worker salary spreadsheet was published. The inspiration for the museum workers? Kimberly Drew's keynote address for American Alliance of Museums Conference which referenced the Professional Organization for Women in the Arts spreadsheet[survey].

These echoable, imitable acts of resistance are an answer to the individualist myth of exhaustiveness. Taken together, they can coalesce into collective action: deliberate and organized.

These echoable, imitable acts of resistance are an answer to the individualist myth of exhaustiveness. None of us need to arrive knowing all the answers, or even all the questions. Instead, our chains of action and response move us forward as a whole. As these chains grow and extend, they can coalesce into collective action: deliberate and organized.

Even for those of us not in unions, organizing is a source of power for change. What would happen, for example, if we organized to end the requirement that field study projects in a particular LIS program be unpaid? To make such a change, current students, alumni, and those at the institutions which take field study workers would need to organize together. Current students are the most affected but have the least individual power, although they might collectively refuse to complete the field study requirement. Alumni could act together in support of current students, sharing their own experiences and withholding financial support from the program. Those at institutions which provide field study experience would need to secure funding to pay the students and refuse to offer unpaid work.

Making that happen? It's more complex than those few sentences and it wouldn't be easy work for many participants. Students would carry the greatest risk, as it might prevent their graduation or they might get a reputation which interferes with later job hunts. That is why such work must be done collectively, with everyone bringing their experience, their ideas, their support, and their power.

To change things in our field, we will also need to organize with those outside of it. For example, in some states, the state archives and libraries are required by law to employ incarcerated workers for certain tasks. They are not allowed to hire other contractors instead or to raise the obscenely low hourly wages. It's easy to be horrified, but as a colleague at such an institution challenged me[Ruth]—if the practice is legally mandated, my horror doesn't do anything to fix the situation. The law needs to change. Fortunately, this is not work that we must do alone. In fact, archivists and librarians should come from a place of epistemic humility, rather than seek to direct the work. We must join with and learn from the prison abolition movement, whose members and leaders have been working to end this practice for years.

And, of course, one of the most long-running movements from which we can learn is the labor movement itself. Despite decades of government, corporate, and academic institutions collaborating to erode union power, in the last few years we've seen new unions formed by adjuncts, by graduate students, and by LAM workers. Forming or joining a union brings us into connection with other workers with whom we can organize for change. At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, library workers voted to unionize with United Steelworkers. The MIT library unionization drive collaborated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The University of Washington librarians and professional staff are organizing with the help of Service Employees International Union—the same organization to which the paraprofessional staff belong. These connections expand our ideas of what's possible and how we see ourselves in relationship with other workers.

Sarah Nelson: People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power.

With all the recent changes in how and whether we work, we are in a time of great uncertainty and possibility. Let us act in ways that move us forward, so that the important work that has been done in naming our problems of precarity does not stagnate. We need more than statements. We need to attend to harms in the present even as we collectively imagine a better future. Organizing in solidarity with others means that we don't have to be exhaustive or exhausted. Let's move beyond our silence, push past our resistance to discomfort, and build power together.

Supplemental Material

The following section includes a reading list we shared via our final slide, our relevant publications, and the biographies used to introduce us.

Readings That Informed “Out of Silence, Toward Solidarity”

These essays, interviews, and videos informed this talk even if we did not cite them directly:

Our Relevant Publications

The following resources were developed by the DLF Labor Working Group and/or the Collective Responsibility project, 2017-2020.

For more resources, see the Collective Responsibility Labor Advocacy Toolkit.

For more readings, see our Zotero: https://www.zotero.org/groups/1235192/dlf-labor-wg/library

Biographical Statements

The following biographical summaries were used as introductions during the forum and provide context not included in our positionality statements:

Sandy Rodriguez: Sandy is a co-facilitator of the Digital Library Federation's Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums, and works as the Associate Dean for Special Collections and Archives at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. She has held consecutive grant-funded positions for almost 5 years, as a contingent project manager supervising other contingent workers. Her experiences have led her to speak on the challenges of managing grant-funded projects, particularly focused on labor concerns with position design and the role of identity in these contexts. She imagines a world where we create and sustain anti-oppressive spaces, find connections that build empathy, and shape perspectives that work toward collective justice.

Ruth Kitchin Tillman: Ruth is the founder and a co-facilitator of the Digital Library Federation's Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums and works as the Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist at the Penn State University Libraries. She has held precarious positions and supported a precarious, academic spouse. Her research and service agendas focus on improving the working experiences of new professionals, from technical onboarding to labor conditions. She envisions a world where human flourishing always comes before the bottom line.