Looking back at the Architecting Sustainable Futures symposium

On 21-22 September 2018, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Shift’s US team hosted a new symposium, ‘Architecting Sustainable Futures: Exploring Funding Models in Community-Based Archives in New Orleans, LA.

To mark the publication of our full report on the symposium, which includes a collection of practitioner essays, we’re looking back at how it went and what we learnt.

Our aims and approach

The symposium was an opportunity to help equip community-based archives with tools to address one of their most pressing needs for self-sufficiency: sustainable funding.

The symposium was highly useful to me as a funder. It provided much food for thought that I’ve shared with my colleagues and will likely inform the guidelines for our current and future grant programs.

Grant Program Officer, ASF attendee

The Shift team used Storybox and a design thinking approach to plan and implement the two-day symposium, collaboratively mapping the story of community-based archives in the past, present, and future. The origin stories of community-based archives and the work that takes place within and around them are vital to understanding the building blocks, pain points, innovations, and values that are foundational to the development of these unique cultural heritage spaces.

What we learnt

Throughout the two days of conversations with community-based archives practitioners, cultural heritage funders, and scholars, we developed three key findings to represent areas where community-based archives see the most need for measurable change.

1. Community-based archives want to remain independent despite significant funding and resource hurdles

In all of these cases shared by community-based archives practitioners, the most prevalent and threatening underlying assumption was the idea that the archive was not a legitimate or adequate site for housing historical materials compared to the ways that more traditional academic or well funded federal archives operated. These assumptions can lead to damaging effects for the existence of community-based archives that are founded on deeply rooted community values and grow out of marginalized people’s desire to see themselves represented in the historical record.

2. Collaborative work with academic partners must be founded on equity and recognition of the legitimacy of the archive

I came away from the symposium with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence for the work we do… I made invaluable connections and heard so many similar stories of push-back, misunderstanding and straight-up prejudice, as well as the standard frustrations of funding and legitimacy in the field.

Community Archivist, ASF attendee

While community-based archives see value in academic partners, there is an inherent power imbalance that favors the large institutions, and can often put the community-based archive at a disadvantage. There can be attempts for academic partners to co-opt collections, and ignoring the central role that the local community plays in the mission and existence of the archive. Collaborations must first be based on principles that uphold equitable practices, encourage transparency, and the recognition that community-based archives are legitimate sites for preserving their historical content.

3. Community-based archives need substantial and long-term sustainable funding opportunities

While community support in the form of small monetary donations exists, as well as one-time and often restricted funding through grants, supporters, or government entities, community-based archives still do not benefit from unrestricted funding opportunities. Intentional, unrestricted opportunities could significantly boost their efforts to grow their capacity in key areas of their operations or to establish or support existing programs that can enhance their sustainability strategies around staffing, revenue generation, or administration.

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