Those are words I never thought I’d write. For one, I just didn’t think I would ever be a person who would be asked. I’m not someone who writes lots of journal articles. I’m not an SAA Fellow. I don’t work at a large or elite institution. I’m not a department/unit head or in a formal position of authority at my own workplace. In fact, I work my full-time job and a part-time job just to get my student loans and everything else paid. I’ve got lots of reasons and lots of doubt.
But also, after my SAA Council stint (2016-2019), I was just tired. I went through a lot of personal loss during the last year of my term on Council, and I was clinically depressed and mentally and physically exhausted. I made a purposeful decision to step away from any service roles in SAA for at least a year. I kept up with the excellent work Council was doing during my year away. But it wasn’t until October 2020 that I dipped my toe back into the SAA service pond and volunteered to edit the blog for the Accessibility and Disability Section.
My first response when asked to run was “I think there are many people who would be better than me for the position.” I still think that’s true. Especially when I think of some of the amazing BIPOC leaders I’ve had the pleasure to work with or to learn from. And the person I’m running against is a wonderful person (one of my favorite people in the profession!) who would do an excellent job. But I do have held many different roles within SAA since I first joined as a grad student at UT Austin in 2001 — on different committees, Sections, task forces, and Council. Everything from chairing the Awards Committee to different roles in four different Sections to serving on the Online Accessibility of the Annual Meeting Task Force. And I do think those perspectives would be useful for someone in an organizational leadership position.
Outside of SAA and here in North Carolina, I currently serve on the North Carolina Community College Archives Association executive board and on the North Carolina State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) — and in both cases, I work to help individuals at small, underfunded archives make their materials available through training and partnerships. I also work with a number of local organizations and community groups (here in NC and at home in SC) to provide advice on preservation, processing, digitization, grant writing, and other ways that they can manage their own records on their own terms with the resources they have available. It’s not part of my “job” as University Archivist, but it’s the work that reflects back to one of my all-time favorite pieces of professional literature — Howard Zinn’s “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest” (1977). In that piece, Zinn states “the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft. Scholarship in society is inescapably political. Our choice is not between being political or not. Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.”
So, in addition to my own background and experience, I do feel that I would bring some ideas to SAA leadership that would help the organization grow and thrive. I’ll share a few of those here.
As I’ve shared on Twitter, I have some strong opinions about the membership dues categories. I think that any organization that locks out its youngest/newest members with an unbalanced dues structure is an organization with a troubled future. Even for those of us who are not new or young and who are gainfully employed face challenges with dues. As I mention in that Twitter thread, I pay for my dues out of the “end of semester” pay check I receive from my second job as a lecturer. I’m lucky to have this second stream of income that allows me to do this — I know that many others aren’t so lucky. I think that those making over $90K should pay more to help subsidize costs for those making under $40K. As it stands with the current graduated dues structure, the percentage of your total annual salary that goes to SAA for dues drops as you move up in membership category. To me, that seems like the opposite of what it should be. As an easy first step, I would like to see more tiers above the $90K income level (this is the only membership income tier aside from part-timers that grew in 2020 according to the Membership report from August 2020), with the income percentage on par (if not higher) than it is for those at lower tiers. Additionally, I would like to see SAA offer a lifetime membership option for those able to pay a substantial sum right now — something similar to what ALA offers where the cost of a lifetime membership is adjusted based on age. This would allow us to discount the lower income tiers, and perhaps (as ALA does) offer a discount for those in their first two years of membership. SAA is currently hemorrhaging members in income tiers under $60K. That simply can’t continue if SAA hopes to continue. My understanding is that the current discussion of member dues will take place before August 2021 (when the new batch of elected leaders take office), but that doesn’t mean that incoming leaders shouldn’t continually push for greater equity.
I also have strong opinions about salary transparency — mainly that it should exist (for an example from a related professional organization, see the National Council on Public History and for an excellent run down of the many reasons why salary transparency is needed, see this blog post by nonprofit leader Vu Le). When I was on Council, I proposed banning unpaid internships from the SAA Jobs Board. When there was a delay in making that change happened, I pushed until it was done and announced publicly. I also drafted the statement about this action, including writing the final paragraph which states that “archival labor is valuable, and individuals performing this work should be compensated accordingly.” I genuinely could not have attended graduate school if I had not had paid jobs. I didn’t have parents or a spouse or partner helping with expenses. And even with multiple part-time jobs and a small scholarship (and in-state tuition), I still had to take on student loans — loans that hopefully will be paid off in November 2023 (20+ years after finishing grad school). Our profession cannot continue asking and expecting people to work for pennies or for nothing at all. It’s that simple. You can’t have an inclusive profession if you’re limiting it only to people with the financial means to work for nothing (or next to nothing). And I believe that SAA has a role to play in promoting fair wages for fair work – and that starts with making the SAA Job Board a place where archivists can be fully informed before applying for positions AND where employers can be fully informed about how their salary range compares to others. That said, Career Services is an area of revenue for SAA, netting about $30K-$40K per year. There is hesitancy about putting limitations on job postings because of this. But I believe that there are other areas where processes could be streamlined in order to increase revenue (or decrease costs). I also believe that there are many employers who don’t post a salary range simply because they don’t have to; if they had to, they would (because they certainly already have one in mind!). Ultimately, increasing salary transparency will help increase salaries, as archivists will be better equipped for salary negotiation and employers will be forced to pay an equitable wage if they wish to advertise their posts through SAA. And increasing salaries would help increase member retention and the salary-based dues. It’s all connected.
I have strong opinions about organizational transparency as well. SAA does a good job of making documentation of Council meetings, financial disclosures, and other actions available on their website. BUT you have to know this information is on the site, and you have to know where to find it. In my Barkivist on Council blog (which I’ve migrated here), I tried to talk more about how members can find and use this information. I also tried to talk more about the details of Council work that doesn’t make it into formal meeting minutes or annual reports — details like the real financial costs of being a Council member. I love that SAA held a live forum about budgeting this past summer. I think more of that needs to happen, both with the membership at large and with component group leaders within the organization. We have members who want to see SAA grow. They just don’t have all of the information they need in order to make their ideas an action within the organization. Council does an annual Leadership Forum, but that is primarily focused on how to be a leader of a component group (how to work with other Sections, how to get support from SAA for Section work, etc.). I actually proposed and moderated the first brown bag conversation with the incoming president at the 2014 annual meeting in an effort to lift the curtain on the inner workings of SAA (thanks, Kathleen Roe!). Moving forward, I would love to see a formal program for individuals interested in executive leadership within the organization — service on Council or as VP, Treasurer, President — focused simply on discussing what these roles actually do, how much time they take, what support exists for people in these roles, etc. I’ve chaired a Section and a Committee. Those roles are really different from service on Council. They take time and they take money, BUT there are also avenues to support your participation — you just have to know they’re there. If we open the doors a bit wider and take the time to openly discuss the day-to-day realities of executive leadership in SAA, I think we’ll find a broader array of volunteers who feel prepared to tackle these types of roles. We’ll bring in fresh ideas from members who are actually dealing with many of the critical issues I’ve mentioned already — student loans, inability to afford membership, stagnant and pathetically-low salaries, etc.
In tandem with greater transparency, I believe that SAA needs to develop a specific and measurable action plan focused on the legacy and impact of white supremacy within the organization — a plan that is focused on anti-racist and anti-oppressive action and that comes with a clearly defined commitment of time and funding (and accountability!). This is what my official “candidate statement” on the SAA election site will focus on, so stay tuned for that. And I’m probably going to write a longer blog post about this later, since my official statement has a limited word count and I’m terrible at concise writing/conveying complex ideas in 500 words or less. But the general idea — the current SAA Strategic Plan lists a series of core organizational values that include commitments to “ensuring the diversity of its membership and leaders, the profession, and the archival record” and “fostering an open and inclusive culture of creativity, collaboration,o and experimentation across the association.” But we also have a definition of “diversity” that is very broad — encompassing “socio-cultural factors related to individual and community identity, including the attributes mentioned in SAA’s Equal Opportunity/Nondiscrimination Policy” AND “professional and geographic factors, reflecting the Society’s desire for broad participation from archivists working in various locations, repository types and sizes, employment classifications and rank, and professional specializations.” In my experience, this broad definition of “diversity” too often allows us to skirt around candid discussions about white supremacy that need to take place. Basically, what I think we need is for SAA to engage in a sort of truth and reconciliation process.** We need to clearly identify and give language to the root evil of systemic racism and white supremacy and confront and reckon with our role in sustaining that evil. We need to go beyond a statement of values to a reflective examination, deep engagement, and a plan for action (perhaps guided by the tools produced by Dismantling Racism Works as well as the workshops/teaching of the Racial Equity Institute). As Bergis Jules wrote in 2016, “feel good slogans and professionalism are easier than deep cultural and social engagement with the communities we’ve abandoned.” Taking the time and effort to develop this type of plan would allow us to more readily and clearly center questions of accessibility, equity, and inclusion in all Council meetings and all other organizational decisions now and in the future (just as the Strategic Plan is currently placed in the forefront and reviewed at the start of every Council meeting).
I mentioned that my final year on Council was rough. But there were things that happened during those three years that I’m proud of (at least personally). I’ve already mentioned the banning of unpaid internships from the SAA Job Board. I also remain proud to this day of my vote to move the 2019 annual meeting out of Austin because of Texas’s discrimination against the trans* community (even though ultimately that overall vote went the other way). I wrote or helped write Exemplary Service Award statements for many people and projects that I believe exemplify what we can and should be as archivists (including Project STAND, Universities Studying Slavery, and Ben Goldman and Eira Tansey’s work around mapping archives and climate change). I’m proud that we (finally) endorsed the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials AND released a statement (written by the awesome Courtney Chartier) clearly stating that “many of the original criticisms of the Protocols were based in the language of cultural insensitivity and white supremacy.” We started a program that gives Section leaders direct access to a small amount of funds that they can use in the ways they see fit (a program I wish more Sections took advantage of!).
Council work is never an “I did this by myself” situation, and I was extremely lucky to be on Council with some amazing people. Could we have done more? Of course. There are things that weren’t done/completed for various reasons that still bother me to this day. There are things that I think I dropped the ball on, especially in my final year when I had so many other (personal) things happening and when I was really battling myself. But on the whole, I’m proud of many of the changes that took place while I was part of Council.
So, as any of you who know me know, I have strong opinions about lots of things — SAA, archival practice, corgis, Duke basketball, the need to let people enjoy their pumpkin spice stuff without being mocked. But these are some of the opinions that would be actionable as SAA’s VP/President Elect. I still don’t feel I’m the best person for this job, but I can guarantee that, if I get it, I will listen (yes, even to “those people on Twitter”) and work hard to make this organization better. And if I’m not elected, I hope that those in leadership will push forward on some of these ideas.
For those who’ve read to the end, here’s a corgi picture. Thank you!
** FYI: Greensboro, NC was the home of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed to investigate the 1979 Greensboro massacre. This commission conducted historic research and interviews, reported findings, and provided recommendations. The city initially failed to act on this, and it was only in 2020 that the City of Greensboro finally admitted that the police were complicit in allowing the massacre to happen and allowing the murders to go free. If you want to support the continued work in Greensboro to fight for a more just and equitable community, please consider contributing to the Beloved Community Center, a local organization founded by Rev. Nelson Johnson (the organizer of the 1979 march).