The Rockefeller Archive Center is taking steps to ensure that our actions align with the RAC statement in solidarity with the Black Community and our recent statement in solidarity with the Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Community. Amy Berish, Darren Young, and myself, on behalf of the Processing team, organized an education campaign to help us and our colleagues learn more about cultural competency concepts and ultimately create more inclusive and respectful archival description.

Phase One Planning and Launch

The first phase of the education campaign officially kicked off in December 2020 and consisted of a period of self-guided learning followed by discussion sessions. We encouraged all staff to participate in the education campaign because everyone, regardless of their position at the RAC, has a role to play in assisting researchers, providing access to materials in person and online, and ensuring our description follows RAC standards. Listening to and learning from each other’s experience across the organization will help us to create and share more culturally competent description. To provide adequate time to complete the learning modules, we scheduled three sessions for late January. Three sessions allowed for a smaller number of participants in each session and increased the likelihood that more staff could attend. We selected the following learning modules as a starting point:

We chose the Confronting Racism and Cultural Diversity Competency courses to provide shared terminology, examples, and greater awareness to frame discussions of racism and culture. The SAA session, Implementing Inclusive (Re)Description at Predominantly White Institutions, was chosen to provide more concrete examples of what redescription work might look like at the RAC.

Early in the planning process, we acknowledged that the nature of these discussions would sometimes be sensitive, challenging, and require personal reflection. To make the sessions more transparent, we supplied the agenda and our slides beforehand. We also sent out an anonymous pre-discussion survey to provide more avenues for participation outside the sessions. The survey helped us determine how to structure the sessions and gauge reactions to the learning modules and the education campaign itself.

Pre-Discussion Survey Questions:

  • For many, race and racism are uncomfortable topics to discuss. What makes these topics uncomfortable for you, personally? How have these learning modules impacted your ability to engage with conversations around race and racism?
  • The SAA Cultural Diversity Competency Course shared a definition of culture from the Institute of Medicine that describes culture as “The accumulated store of shared values, ideas (attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms), understandings, symbols, material products, and practices of a group of people”. How would you describe the culture at the RAC?
  • Did any of these courses make you think differently about an experience at the RAC? In the reading room? Reading through or writing archival description? Interacting with donors?
  • What activities, discussion questions, and/or exercises presented within the learning modules did you find the most engaging and/or challenging?

Discussion Sessions

While Amy, Darren, and I organized and facilitated this phase of the education campaign, it is important to note that we were also learning. We took the courses, answered the pre-survey questions, and shared our thoughts as part of the sessions. Our experience with the learning modules guided the way we structured the sessions in ways that encouraged an inclusive and open dialogue. At the start of each session, we provided ground rules based on guidance from the University of Minnesota, for example: seek first to understand, not to be understood, and criticize the discussion, not the person. Prior to the session, we asked that everyone prepare an answer to an icebreaker question: “What was your biggest takeaway from the learning modules?” We wanted to provide everyone the opportunity to express their views on the modules and ensure that all voices were heard.

After the initial icebreaker, we moved into breakout rooms for a larger conversation about the Rockefeller Archive Center itself. Because we encouraged all staff to participate, we understood that there might be discomfort expressing certain views in front of managers and teammates. To encourage more free discussion, we created breakout rooms groups that varied across the hierarchy of the organization and across departments. The main discussion consisted of three broad topics.

Topics for Discussion

  • Workplace Culture at the RAC - reactions to answers from the pre-survey
  • RAC as an Institution - How can we take first impressions into account when greeting researchers? How we might contribute to gatekeeping?
  • Whiteness at the Rockefeller Archive Center - How might the demographic makeup of our records’ creators impact the way researchers, staff members, and others perceive the RAC? How may the ways in which the creators perceive and describe the subjects differ from the ways in which the subjects perceive and describe themselves?

In total, the discussion sessions were scheduled for an hour and a half each. To manage time, we tried to keep the icebreaker around 20 minutes with 45 minutes left for the three discussion sections and 10 minutes at the end to report back from breakout rooms.

Some takeaways from our conversations include:

  • Cultural competency is an iterative process, and it will make us uncomfortable. There is always room for improvement, personally and professionally.
  • The LinkedIn Learning Confronting Racism course clearly articulated the need to get past white defensiveness and guilt. We must confront personal biases and the biases that exist within the collections to undertake this work.
  • The SAA Cultural Competency course raised awareness about the multiple dimensions of culture and how that impacts interactions with users and colleagues.
  • The SAA Archives*Records 2020 session highlighted that redescription work is going to be a balancing act between contextualizing existing legacy description and changing certain aspects of description entirely.
  • Power imbalances are an inherent part of philanthropy due to the nature of grantmaking. Our archival description should acknowledge and contextualize these relationships.

Following the sessions, we sent out an anonymous post-survey to inform how we move forward into a monthly reading group for phase two of the education campaign. Based on the feedback, we will continue to use breakout rooms for smaller groups, start sessions with ground rules, and have facilitators start off the discussions by responding to the questions first. To improve the sessions, we will make sure we have volunteers in place to report back from breakout rooms to alleviate that pressure at the end. Stay tuned for updates regarding the reading group and redescription work going forward.

Overall, we want to thank everyone at the RAC for learning alongside us and for taking the time to complete the modules and participate in the discussion.