SAA elections and why they matter

Images from top of e-ballot form and SAA website (https://www2.archivists.org/governance/election/2021)

Originally published on LinkedIn on April 18, 2021.

Once again, the SAA (Society of American Archivists) is holding elections, like they did last March, but this time for Vice President/President-Elect, Treasurer, Council, and Nominating Committee positions. In this post, I’d like to go through each of these decisions and explain my rationale for voting for each one of these candidates as an SAA member.

There are two candidates for the next Vice President of SAA, a person who sits on the SAA’s governing council, which I’ll talk about more later in this post. One is Terry Baxter. He notes that he worked ten years at the state archives, then at Pacificorp for two years, and worked at Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon as an archivist for 22 years, and then at the Oregon Country Fair as an archivist, joining the SAA 21 years ago. Apart from this, he argued that while white supremacy in the archives world of the US is not openly shown, its “persistent embrace of neutrality and its ambivalence toward direct action is just as corrosive and dangerous,” citing the example of the SAA leaders rejecting endorsing the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials in 2008 and taking ten years for that to happen. He also made the point that White supremacy within the SAA has obstructed “full participation of members, especially BIPOC members,” and says that SAA will never be fully inclusive until “we burn down” white supremacy. He argues that remote access to the annual meeting should be allowed, says that SAA should commit to “providing equitable connection through both organizational change and through member support,” and said that there are opportunities for SAA to use Zoom to break down “barriers among members, other archivists, and archival organizations.” Powerfully, he said that the SAA should work with other organizations, openly advocating for cancellation of all student debt and to support a restructuring of dues which “reduces or eliminates dues for some of the lower tiers and increases dues for upper tiers,” along with continuing the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, trying to expand it whenever possible.

The second candidate is Erin Lawrimore. She works as a university archivist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, joining the SAA in 2001, and is currently the blog editor for the Accessibility and Disability Section (ADS), even serving as a member of the SAA Council from 2016 to 2019. During her time on the council, they eliminated unpaid internships from the Job Board, gave section leaders direct access to a small pool of funds, endorsed the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, and stated that many of the initial criticisms were rooted in White supremacy while shining a “spotlight on archivists and archival projects that challenge traditional historical narratives and use archival resources to support justice initiatives.” She also says that she has various roles where she uses her role as a university archivist to “support the work of small, underfunded archives,” adding that an organization is inclusive when it uses an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework to acknowledge its “current and past wrongs and to actively ensure historically marginalized communities have the power to make and influence decisions,” not hiding past harms, and to do reparative work, fighting against systems that perpetuate oppression, as she describes it. Lawrimore goes further in saying that archival work and archives are never, and are not, neutral, saying there is value in learning a fuller history, “acknowledging how and why these histories were hidden,” which includes the role of archivists in “contributing to historical marginalization and erasure.” In response to the nominating committee, saying the current broad SAA Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion defines often allows us to “skirt around candid, necessary discussions” about White supremacy and says the SAA’s current Strategic Plan can be improved through the development of an action plan “focused specifically on anti-racist and anti-oppressive action” with specific and measurable actions the SAA can take toward dismantling White supremacy. After explaining her work on the SAA Council, she said that an actionable plan focused on dismantling the legacy and impact of White supremacy on SAA and profession “would serve as a clear message to guide us across all decisions,” and said that committing to the development of this plan would allow the SAA to readily and center “questions of accessibility and inclusivity” in organizational decisions and in Council meetings. She concluded by saying that archivists should reckon with the role in sustaining White supremacy, identifying and giving language to that White supremacy, and then the SAA can, in her words, “attempt true reparative action and move toward becoming a genuinely inclusive organization.”

 

This was a hard decision to choose between Baxter and Lawrimore. Baxter mentioned abolishing student debt, restructuring dues that would reduce dues for those earning less and increase dues for those earning more, keeping the Archival Workers Emergency Fund (AWEF), using Zoom to break down barriers. While Lawrimore doesn’t mention this, she makes a strong statement against racism, White supremacy, and in favor of inclusion. As the editor of the ADS blog, she is undoubtedly aware of the value of Zoom, and AWEF. While student debt is not mentioned, addressing it would fit within the ADS’s Community Values. So, I’d have to say that Lawrimore is a better person for the position of Vice-President/President-Elect than Baxter and I voted for her, as a result. If elected, she will “serve a one-year term beginning in August 2021 and then will become SAA’s 78th President in 2022–2023.”

There are three candidates for Treasurer (an officer on the SAA Council along with the President, Vice-President, along with nine other non-officer council members) who, if elected, “will serve a three-year term beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting,” specifically Sharmila Bhatia of the National Archives, Audra Eagle Yun of University of California, Irvine, and Todd Welch of Utah State University. Bhatia, an electronic records format specialist, described herself as a “minority among minorities” as an Indian American, and said there should be an exploration of increased diversity, encouraging college and high school students to be archivists. She said that the lack of representation of diverse communities within archival repositories is a big barrier to diversity in the archival profession, with repositories having “extensive holdings of white communities,” but not as many with racial/ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ communities. She then says that some archival sources are “inaccessible due to poor descriptive practices in the past” and that while there has been action to “discuss and take action to revise and update our appraisal or collecting practices,” language to describe holdings, and how access is provided, adding there are “gaps in our knowledge and practice” in a profession that isn’t diverse. Bhatia adds that another barrier is that hiring managers don’t “recognize their own biases when it comes to hiring and promoting non-white candidates,” saying managers should be looking for “people who are able to bring a different perspective or approach to the position,” rather than looking for someone who fits into the organization. She further argued that the SAA should, like it did last year, hold an online forum, “SAA Financial Outlook,” every year, and said that they should be “leveraging online platforms for more frequent short meetings such as committee business meetings and forums on targeted topics including SAA’s finances,” issuing short articles on topics about SAA finances on various sites and exploring new methods for membership engagement.

Yun has some similar ideas to Bhatia, whose work focuses on “community-centered archives partnerships, archival collection management, and feminist leadership.” She has, in the past, authored various publications, presented at various conferences, and served on the SAA Council from 2017 to 2020. She noted that while she is “part of a disproportionately well-represented group in librarianship and in the archival profession” (a cisgender White woman), she has been elevating “perspectives and expertise of those who have been marginalized in historical documents and narratives,” while aware of her own implicit bias, the existence of inequity, the “imperceptible pervasiveness of whiteness” in the archival profession, and says she recognizes her “positionality and power both as a manager and as part of a highly represented racial/ethnic group,” and says she would, as an SAA treasurer, apply an inclusive approach. She notes that the SAA is at a point of “necessary self-reflection and change following the appointment of a new executive director,” says that she would expand existing work, look to the SAA Foundation, continue the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, and learning from peer associations.

Then there’s Welch. He says he is dedicated to improving his “understanding and appreciation for diversity through outreach and engagement with diverse user groups,” with various professional commitments over the years, notes that he views his “personal and professional DEI experiences as a lifelong, evolutionary journey,” including working with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, the Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff, and the Hopi Placename Project. He further said that he would use his experience as a past treasurer for the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA), using various graphics which would be posted on “the website, publications, and promotional materials sent to graduate school programs,” working with others to develop a “series of reporting platforms” that showed the links between “key expenditure lines and specific examples of activities, actions, or products that the funding made possible.”

Choosing which treasurer would be best for the position is even harder than the choice for Vice-President/President-Elect. Bhatia, Yun, and Welch are all strong candidates. However, I have to go with Bhatia, as a vote for her would make the organization more diverse, as she is Indian-American and mentions the predominance of White records in archives, something else that none of the other candidates mentioned. As such, she is best positioned to be the next treasurer of the SAA, so I have her my vote. If she is elected, she will serve a “three-year term beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.”

Just as difficult is choosing the three people who will sit on the SAA Council, the governing body of the SAA. If elected, those three people “will serve three-year terms beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.” The current candidates are Michelle Ganz of the History Factory, Jasmine Jones of the University of California, Los Angeles, Dominique Luster of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Teresa Mora of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tonia Sutherland of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and Kelly Wooten of Duke University. Ganz says that she will “ensure that any conversations, forums, or educational sessions include implementable solutions” to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) problems and that her entire career has been focused on making “the archival profession and archival collections more diverse, inclusive, honest, and accessible,” including acknowledging the mistakes of the past. She also says there should be “multiple pathways to SAA membership and participation,” promising to make the Council workings as transparent as possible, and notes that while SAA has “always made room at the table for everyone,” more can be done. She further says that she wants the “public to be just as excited about archives” as she is, saying she will also help propose new programs to “help archivists and potential archivists learn to advocate for the profession.” That is something I fully, and completely, support.

What about Jones, Luster, Mora, Sutherland, and Wooten? Jones says she will push an “anti-oppressive, equity-centered approach,” to tackling DEI, including centering marginalized people, recognizing our biases, and engaging with membership on “impacts of systemic oppression or exclusion” that are carried out whether explicitly or implicitly in the SAA and the profession as a whole. She additionally says that “retaining, valuing, and advocating for our diverse membership and their responsibilities” is vital, as well as is “embedding equity and inclusion” within the SAA’s framework, identifying places SAA leadership can be more “open and communicative” on how policies and decisions are made. She even says she would be proud to work with SAA groups and members to “ensure a collective effort in continued growth and sustained improvement of the organization.” Luster says something similar. She calls the profession to be “resolutely anti-racist and anti-oppressive,” to believe in inclusion, equity, and diversity, including “reimagining new systems,” and believes the future of the SAA Council can bring forward must be “specifically anti-racist and anti-oppressive.” She goes onto say that she understands the role of the Council, says that the Council should be “more intentional about embracing and celebrating diverse individuals who come into this work and the various forms of knowledge they bring across society,” and says she looks forward to working with fellow SAA members in “advocating for fair and forthright acknowledgment and compensation to the contributions we make in a complex social network” across society as a whole.

Then we get to Mora and Sutherland. For Mora, she said that DEI means “empathy, ethics, and respect,” that she has experienced biases in her professional career as a Latina woman, and recognizes that archivists “hold significant power when it comes to what histories are told,” and said that SAA needs to examine and critique its past practices and understand how it has “wittingly or not, established barriers to participation.” She later said that it is important for the SAA to “educate the public as to the nature and significance of our labor and, in turn, to advocate for archivists as workers.” This means, she argued, that the SAA should be “at the forefront of lobbying for federal funding, ethical hiring practices, and a living wage for all archivists,” working with existing groups, regional organizations, and increasing the “public standing of archivists,” along with promoting “ethical (and equitable) hiring practices,” like a living wage, “recruitment and retention within BIPOC communities.” Sutherland, on the other hand, said that changing organizational and institutional cultures must have support from leadership while saying she believes in the power of collective action and community, even as she recognizes her biases. She also argued that the archival profession is undergoing a change from those newest to the profession, which includes engaging collectives and communities, “a willingness to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable and those who live in the margins of American society, and a fierce defense of memory work in all its forms,” arguing she wants to bring these perspectives to the SAA membership as a whole.

The final candidate for the SAA council is Wooten. She co-edited a book titled, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century (Litwin Books, 2012), and writes about zines as a “source for learning about people’s lived experiences and as a mode of expression for anyone to tell their own stories.” She specifically says she wants to dismantle “white supremacy that historically and presently benefits” people like her “at the expense of others.” She defined words like diversity, equity, and inclusion, saying she bases her approach on a “feminist ethics of care, which values the feelings, experiences, and knowledge of others.” Later she says that statements in response to anti-Black violence by GLAM organizations “must be supported by meaningful actions, sustained work, and significant changes that demonstrate ongoing commitment by leadership to dismantling white supremacy.” She added that she wants to continue exploring the ways that “online technologies can support this kind of interpersonal engagement in our programs,” and work to incorporate creativity, social responsibility, and inclusion into “our work at every level as integral and essential, not as irrelevant, frivolity, or afterthought.”

That leads me to my recommendations. It is tough! Since I only have three people to choose from, I’d have to choose Jones, Luster, and Sutherland, because of their ideas and better able to move the organization forward in a positive direction. After all, Jones calls for an “anti-oppressive, equity-centered approach” which centers marginalized people, while Luster argues that the profession should be “resolutely anti-racist and anti-oppressive.” Sutherland talks about a change in the archival profession from those new to the profession (people like me) and says she wants to bring the perspective of those advocating “on behalf of the most vulnerable and those who live in the margins of American society, and a fierce defense of memory work” to the SAA membership. However, if Ganz, Mora, and Wooten end up becoming members of the council, then that would still be a win for those who wish to fight oppression and racism, although Jones, Luster, and Sutherland winning would be more of a positive in fighting those evils. If they are elected, they will “serve three-year terms beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.”

Last but not least are those running for the nominating committee of the SAA. This is the committee that is “responsible for creating the slate of candidates from which SAA’s elected leadership will be determined.” They are, specifically, April K. Anderson-Zorn, Alison Clemens, Angel Diaz, Greg McCoy, Dave J. Moore, and Jamie Seemiller. Anderson-Zorn is a university archivist who co-wrote, received, and recently concluded “an SAA Foundation grant to create Wikipedia pages for underrepresented archivists,” creating forty new pages in all, while publishing archives, volunteering, and serving on SAA committees. She said that she knows the archival profession “can be a powerful force for change when everyone is included,” the importance of growing LGBTQI+ collections, and helping “all underrepresented students and colleagues” while recognizing her privilege, seeking “archivists working to document underrepresented communities in unique and unconventional ways,” as part of the committee. She also says that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) members, need to lead SAA, and says that she will “support my BIPOC colleagues and those working to bring EDI to our repositories, our profession, and our communities.” Compare this to Clemens, who argues that her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion “pertains to how SAA can support archives workers,” arguing that the SAA itself has “an obligation to build and support a more racially and ethnically diverse profession” and notes that she is troubled by transphobia and ableism she has witnessed in the profession, with some people saying the profession has not been inclusive or welcoming for them. She adds that she hopes she can select “anti-racist candidates who will take an intersectional approach to lead SAA in this important work.” Apart from this, she argues that she takes “mentorship and leadership responsibilities seriously,” setting people up for success and be honored to use her “perspectives and experiences” on this committee. She goes onto say she wants to build a “diverse slate of candidates” on the committee, but that these candidates cannot do this work without “the support and labor of white archivists.” She further says she wants to “consider queer, trans, or disabled candidates, specifically,” and notes that there are inevitably going to be some changes in the future due to the retirement of the SAA’s Executive Director and hopes to serve a role in identifying leaders to meet current challenges in “service of our profession and its workers.”

Then we have Diaz. She argues that DEI is an archive process, and effort, that involves a “representation, acknowledgment and reparation of barriers, and an expectation of support and valuing of experiences and backgrounds,” recognizing we all have implicit biases and the value of having a “diverse slate of leadership that is reflective and responsive to the needs of our membership and the communities that archivists serve.” She goes onto say that the nominating committee should look for candidates who have a “demonstrated commitment to decreasing structural racism and making a more equitable workplace” and that we need to look critically at structures that have “allowed racism and inequity to thrive,” seeking candidates who are “willing to challenge norms.”

There are three more candidates. One of those is McCoy. He says that diversity in all its forms is the “most powerful way to unlock an organization’s capabilities and potential for greatness” and says that he is on a “constant journey to challenge my perceptions, to make myself uncomfortable, to realize my unconscious biases…to stand for what’s right and not simply expedient, to act positively to influence people around me and the organizations I’m a part of.” He says that every SAA member should see themselves reflected in the leadership, bringing their “fully authentic selves to their profession,” noting the role of the committee in “decreasing structural racism,” increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, encouraging them to “move from being passive supporters to active allies and advocates.” He closed by saying that while he is not the vision of diversity and inclusion, allies and advocates are incredibly important, and he “aspire[s] to make equality and inclusion a reality for all SAA members” as a committee member.

Like McCoy, there is Moore, another White man. He notes the value of archivists in society, the importance of confronting his privilege and implicit biases, the power of storytelling, and the value of always learning more, bringing in people to the SAA leadership who are “willing to lead the tough conversations we need to have in order to progress,” saying the SAA should be actively anti-racist. He does note that White archivists should identify these issues and put in work to remedy them, including involving BIPOC voices, because archival collections “represent many voices.” He goes onto say that nothing can be achieved by “maintaining the status quo” and that the profession cannot progress forward “unless we seek out diverse leaders who will help us do it.”

The final person for the committee is Seemiller. She says that she is aware of her “own implicit biases and…recognize[s] that [she]…cannot make collection decisions in isolation,” talking about her work as an archivist for the Denver Public Library. She adds that the first step toward having a diverse set of candidates is creating an “equitable environment where BIPOC archivists feel valued and welcome,” bringing in candidates who have ideas on how to “tackle structural racism within our profession and how to come together to make SAA a stronger, more inclusive organization” that can push for change and take risks, even arguing that most White archivists are “ready to dedicate themselves to doing the work to help make our workplaces and collections more equitable and look to SAA leadership for guidance.” She ends by saying she would like “guidelines for conducting a diversity audit, more DEI resource lists, and courses on community outreach and developing a collection management policy with a DEI lens.”

This was a hard choice in part because I was disappointed that the group of people for the nominating committee was not as diverse as those running for the position of treasurer and the seats on the SAA Council. Having said that, I believe that Anderson-Zorn, who believes that BIPOC members should lead the SAA in the future, Clemens, since she is the only candidate to talk about transphobia and ableism, and Diaz, due to her argument that DEI is an active process, are the best choices for the Nominating Committee. While I like McCoy’s argument for increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, and Moore arguing that people should be brought into the SAA leadership who are “willing to lead the tough conversations we need to have in order to progress,” I do not believe that McCoy can be fully believed as someone who will fulfill their own commitments, while Anderson-Zorn is a better candidate, to say the least. Furthermore, I like that Seemiller says there should be an “equitable environment where BIPOC archivists feel valued and welcome,” but I think her claim that most White archivists are “ready to dedicate themselves to doing the work to help make our workplaces and collections more equitable and look to SAA leadership for guidance,” is extremely naive and short-sighted, not remembering how damn White the archivist profession currently is! Who is to say that all White archivists will automatically become anti-racist? That seems an absurd proposition. Being anti-racist takes work.

In closing, if Lawrimore wins her candidacy for Vice-President, Jones, Luster, and Sutherland win their seats on the SAA council, Anderson-Zorn, Clemens, Diaz win their seats for the nominating committee, then it would show that the SAA is moving in a positive direction. If instead, the White men, especially, like Baxter, Welch, McCoy, and Moore, win instead of better-qualified candidates, and candidates who are people of color do not win in these races, it will show that the SAA has a lot of work ahead of it, putting into question how committed the organization’s members are to diversity, inclusion, equity, and addressing inequities in our society and in the organization itself.

Addendum:

After finishing this, I finally submitted my ballot and voted. I encourage all SAA members, if they haven’t already, to do the same!

© 2021-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

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