Intersecting Identities: Power Dynamics in the Public Humanities

March 21, 2014
Attendees at Intersecting Identities: Power Dynamics in the Public Humanities

Claims of authenticity or ownership relate to power and impact all of the work we do in the public humanities. Who owns what? Who gets to speak for whom, and when? Commemoration and representation, the use of social media, heritage, sites of conscience, public art: all of these areas of work are classed, raced and gendered and they all rely on claims to power and the propagation of dominant stories. Yet it is important to understand that even working to tell the hidden, invisible or resistance narratives can be troubled. In a poignant critique in Marginality as a Site of Resistance, bell hooks facetiously takes on the voice of a historian or “expert,” talking to a marginalized person:

No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still colonizer the speaking subject and you are now at the center of my talk.

On Saturday, March 15, Public Humanities students and practitioners came together for a day-long workshop to critically examine power dynamics in our field, and consider what we might do to address them. Five graduate students – Kate Diedrick, Abigail Ettelman, Resi Polixa, Keila Davis, and Raina Fox –organized this as a first step in a conversation that is critical for us both as emerging professionals and also as agents of social change.

The United States is the most economically unequal country of all the “advanced economies” in the world. It is also becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Public humanities organizations can fit uncomfortably at the intersection of those trends, all too often spaces of extreme privilege and a general lack of diversity. The culture industry in its most conservative form is controlled by powerful institutions, states and individuals with great stakes in preserving, protecting and promulgating narratives that protect the status quo. The stories told in these institutions often serve the purpose of teaching conventional ideas about what it means to be good political, economic and social citizens. More often than not, they tell reactionary stories while resistance stories remain invisible.

It is of critical importance for those of us in this field to learn skills and tools that will help us to push these institutions to become more accessible, democratic and critical of the systems they rely on, the ideas they produce and re-produce, and all of those they leave out.

But standing alongside this critique, we are inspired by public humanities practitioners and organizations that subvert this order of things: resist over-simplification, work to uncover the hidden stories, and actively create alternative structures and ways of working and knowing.

Sometimes this is even done in the most conventional of spaces. The presenters we invited to this workshop are among those who do this important work.

Over the course of five workshops, these presenters shared their experiences and challenged us to think about the ways we might also be agents of change:

  • Em Levine of Lowell National Historical Park challenged us to think about whether (and how) “historic sites can be locations of meaningful anti-oppression work.”  She pointed out that “the interpretive strategies we use are inseparable from frameworks of power and identity that inform the stories we tell in exhibits and programs.” Questions like this serve as a starting point to encourage us to interrogate our own place in these frameworks and our own agency in telling (or obfuscating) certain stories.
  • Shane Lloyd of Brown's Third World Center led a morning workshop that challenged us to think critically about our identities, our fears and hopes in engaging with those whose identities differ from our own, and our personal styles of engaging in social change. He also asked us to look at the power of narrative in creating silences, shaping identity, and forging space for resistance. 
  • Catrina Hill of the Peabody Essex Museum asked us to reflect on the ways that historic structures of power continue to shape not only museums’ institutional relationships with “publics”, but internal power dynamics and representational omissions among staff. She put forward a vision for a new type of museum that embraces a diversity of experiences in its hiring practices and institutional culture. She encouraged us to be ambassadors for this vision, not only by working within museum institutions but by moving beyond their walls to speak with young people about museum work so they might imagine themselves in these spaces.
  • The director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, Gail Cohee, discussed the SDWC’s work to become a more inclusive space for students of all identities. She asked: What issues arise for administrators who bridge the gap between the upper administration and the student body? How do people in positions of power at progressive organizations create open spaces for dialogue around complicated issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc? How do you balance institutional stability with movements for social change? 
  • Aja Blanc of the RISD Museum raised critical questions about the relationship between shifting demographics and the changing museum landscape, encouraging us to imagine and establish a habit of curiosity that embraces a diverse public.   

These workshops were only the beginning of a longer and deeper conversation. Yet they afforded an opportunity to step outside of our own patterns, to critically examine and reimagine the potential role of humanities projects – and of ourselves as part of these initiatives – in subverting oppression and revealing silences.

As we imagine the future, it is important to recognize the good work that is underway. These are some of the projects that inspire us:

  • Civic education projects including Imagining America, the Howard Zinn Education Project, Daniel Kerr’s Oral History of Homelessness
  • Museums like the Jane Adams Hull House, The Tenement Museum, the Wing Luke Museum, and other Sites of Conscience,
  • Arts organizations like Bread and Puppet, Providence’s New Urban Arts, AS220, Youth Pride, RiverzEdge, and CityArts!.

And, of course, the community-based oral history work students in our program have done alongside Annie Valk in Providence’s Fox Point and with the community around Mashapaug Pond, and our efforts to bring local resonance to the Guantanamo Public Memory Project traveling exhibit, which will be opening in Providence in September. 

It is of critical importance that we acknowledge that these are difficult boundaries to negotiate and that “uncovering” and telling the resistance stories of others (especially as people with privilege) is not unproblematic and uncontested. Resisting the savior complex or a romanticizing, paternalistic approach is essential. During the workshop we talked about how we can work to diversify the field, create more equity and access and build tools to help accomplish these goals. But we also acknowledged that before we do any of this building, we must, as a profession, and as professionals, learn from and reflect upon the engaged theory not only from our fellow humanists, but also the communities from anthropology, critical studies, postcolonial studies, history and sociology; from the critics who have been outspoken about how power works and how we should (and should not) go about working to approach and address these issues, as they are complicated, nebulous and often shape shifting.

We planned this workshop because we believe that by sharing stories and experiences, engaging in dialogue and, becoming more comfortable with rigorous debate, we can begin to create new structures to challenge hegemony and oppression. Yet we are well aware that it will take much more than a day-long, introductory workshop to begin the process of creating individual, inter-personal, collective and institutional change. We will continue these conversations and commit to becoming a part of the critical mass of practitioners working to create spaces that are diverse, safe, critical and cross lines of race, class, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. Our long-term goal is to create a solidarity network of public humans to include the disenfranchised and marginalized—and the privileged—in a collective process of building shared understanding (and critique) and, eventually, a more humane world, without such severe injustices and divisions.  

Arundhati Roy offers a vision of how to use stories to oppose oppression and, instead, to raise up the humanities of everyday life, agency, creativity, resistance and wonder:

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe... Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. 


This post was written by Kate Diedrick, '15 and Raina Fox, '14, two of the graduate students who organized the March 15, 2014 colloquium.

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