Marian R. Vasser, the Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers Diversity and Equity Consultant, facilitated two separate end-of-project dialogues in March 2021 to explore the challenges and successes of BKBB. One participant group was composed of 6 students; the other of 9 Community College of Philadelphia faculty, Presbyterian Historical Society staff, and Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers contract staff.
The student panelists first visited PHS with a CCP class. Most worked to create the BKBB student exhibit, though the BKBB student interns were also represented during the conversation. CCP faculty began working with PHS prior to their class visits to the archives, in most cases during 2018 or 2019.
Word Clouds were generated for each group using the following prompt: “What one word describes your experience with this project?”
Pulling words from each respective cloud, the facilitator and panelists explored experiences and trends from each group. Read them below, and learn at the bottom of the page about recommendations for future collaboration between PHS and CCP, and between other archives and schools looking to carry out similar programming.
Student Leader Responses
The student conversation provided overview context that is helpful to share before exploring the word cloud responses.
Students reported that at the outset of the project they did not have enough information about the work they would be doing as a part of the BKBB project (students joined the exhibit team based on a single-sheet application; interns were recommended by CCP professors). Another thing that students felt caught off-guard by during the project was when their creative work was shared with the public; sometimes this happened without the students’ knowledge or permission. The student exhibit group grew to its full 8-person size over two academic semesters and one summer. Some of the students who joined later in the process may have felt a stigma associated with being a “late participant.” The project included 3 student interns, between spring 2019 and spring 2020.
Students also agreed that being a student leader on the BKBB project was an overall great experience.
Exploration of the word “pushback” revealed that student exhibitors developed a community that supported one another. Students also consistently expressed increased interest in archives.
Some students experienced “significant pushback” and “discomfort” as it related to the exhibit process, especially regarding original student ideas and approaches. The students encountered privilege and classism as barriers in the exhibit creation process. Sometimes students felt “looked down on” or “misunderstood” and that “political pieces” were not supported.
While one white student spoke about fighting for herself, BIPOC students did not feel empowered to do so. Regarding the use of political imagery, patriarchy and sexism were barriers to student expression. Greater access to exhibit professional staff could have enhanced and eased the student work. The project “middle man” between the students and exhibit professionals was a white man who translated messages and ideas for women and BIPOC students, increasing chances of misunderstood and misperceived messaging.
Students generally felt this project was constructive and worthwhile. They acknowledged the great potential of this project and seemed really excited about the idea of them being at the forefront of change, recreating and reimagining history in a way that is accessible to/for all.
Students were able to tap into new passions and an increased interest in archives. The project point person at PHS was a good resource as circumstances changed during the coronavirus pandemic. It was clear students were not expecting the gracious treatment they experienced at PHS.
Strengths/Takeaways direct quotations from students:
“I really benefited from working in this professional environment…and working in a historical archive gave me a start to do that. [I] wasn’t sure before of the direction, but this project helped solidify that….This project challenged me to be outspoken, communicate, and advocate.”
“I really want to be an archivist in archives. I am super ready.”
“There was static [during the project], but it taught me to be braver and to interrogate archives in a different way. I learned new lessons through advocacy. I learned how to argue better. I hope they keep doing this project. I loved it.”
“My value in the archives has increased. I would not have had this experience without PHS. I realized my worth and skillset and creativity. I contributed to something bigger.”
“I was already on the history track, but I am now more devoted to African history and African people. I want to combine Africana studies with archives.”
“It was eye-opening as to how much information is in the world. It broadened my perspective. I am encouraged to continue learning and growing.”
Faculty and Staff Responses
Faculty observed that many CCP students are tightly constrained in terms of time. Although PHS did a great job overall, it definitely needed the additional skills and staff help provided by the grant to make the project work, and to supplement the work of its limited archive staff. The PHS staff observed that it sometimes found it difficult to identify and meet student needs, and to determine what approaches were most effective for student researchers.
Letting go of control as instructors was another commonality faculty pointed to, for example the putting together of a writing anthology by students in a creative writing class. Often students were even more creative than expected, so that history professors and archival staff needed to let go of their normal approaches.
PHS staff spoke about the challenges of the project that related to having a limited staff, but also of how gratifying it was to make changes that have positioned PHS to do similar educational programming better in the future—in a way that has a positive impact for more students and classes. As much as students may have benefited from the collaboration, it seems that PHS has benefited just as much.
As with some of the PHS staff, CCP faculty sometimes spoke on behalf of students, with varying degrees of self-reflection. Both stakeholder groups could benefit from antiracism and cultural humility training, which would help professional participants engage students more effectively in the archives and the classroom.
“ENLIGHTENING” (Lessons Learned)
PHS introduced extended visitor hours to make it easier for time-pressed students and faculty to have greater access to the archives. Another project innovation for the work of PHS was providing travel reimbursements to students. PHS staff, BKBB project staff, and CCP faculty hoped that both of those changes would remain in place in the future. Making primary sources available online, a pandemic necessity, was a change that staff and faculty also appreciated. “In some ways,” one panelist said, “it made [the history] more accessible.”
Other things project staff learned about were the need to more deliberately think through educational programming processes and lesson approaches. Without these steps, students can be overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the archives. Another boon to accessibility was utilizing the front courtyard of the building more for class visits and exhibit installations.
“REVEALING,” “FUN,” and “FREEING” (Liberating)
CCP faculty found it revealing how little students knew about world religion. (This is another area where cultural humility training would help prepare professional staff for future programming with students in the archive.) Faculty and project staff enjoyed seeing which primary sources and other project resources, including PHS building spaces, connected with students. Participants were excited about the liberation and freeness of the project. Not knowing what to expect and being pleasantly surprised was a common response, as was the appreciation of the project being “flexible” and therefore able to adjust to student needs.
The facilitator noted that it would be good to get a better read from faculty and project staff about system failures and what can be done moving forward to close educational gaps and limit institutional harm. The fact that project staff and CCP faculty felt liberated by the project reflects the oppressive nature of the usual structures. Oppressive structures ultimately hurt everyone.
“We have a long way to go to build more tools.”
“So, so much can be done when the goals are as positive and necessary as these goals were. I was impressed. People work hard and there was funding.”
“[The project] opened my eyes to not only what is possible to my students, but other institutions--all the opportunities out there that we can use to impact student learning.”
“We can have genuine institutional partnerships….Even with trips, there is usually no relationship (in other settings) building an understanding. How can this [project] be replicated?”
“How do we figure out what students really need? How do we assess how well we are doing this work? Figure out ways to identify our, and the students’, goals and see how well we are doing?"
Facilitator Recommendations for future collaboration
Implement permanently beneficial practices
--Flexible policies and practices
Institutionalize CCP partnership
--Leadership should be made aware and it should be highly publicized
--Secure travel reimbursement funds via CCP
Develop a consistent mechanism for obtaining anonymous feedback throughout the entire process
--Stop, start, pause, continue as needed
Give careful consideration to all who engage with participants
--Participants deserve the best and most qualified practitioners in their fields. All individuals should demonstrate a commitment to equity and antiracism
--Cultural Humility and Antiracist training should be mandatory for ALL who engage in this process
Implement more strategic and transparent recruiting strategies
--For students, faculty, and project staff
Strive for a more student-led model
--Include students on future planning panels, preferably a former participant in a paid capacity
--Have a paid student liaison position who will work closely with both PHS staff and student participants. Be careful not to create a hierarchy, but instead give voice and power to students. Level the playing field.