DPLA’s Digital Equity Project: An update from Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Living Archives project

By Shaneé Yvette Willis, December 12, 2022.
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This is the second blog in a series from DPLA’s Digital Equity Project: Advancing Racial Justice in American Libraries. (You can find the first here.) This month, I am pleased to share with you an update from Teresa Cain, Sarah Gherghel, and Debbie Rubenstein at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library on the library’s Living Archives, one of the first areas of work to be supported by the Digital Equity Project. Their experiences with this work–building trust and ensuring participants feel safe and respected and creating innovative and community-led solutions to challenges–is inspiring to all of us dedicated to the work of advancing racial justice in American archives.

To learn more about the Digital Equity Project visit: 

DPLA receives $850,000 in new funding from the Mellon Foundation to support the advancement of racial equity in American archives

Kicking off the Digital Equity Project

DPLA announces creation of Digital Equity Project Community of Practice

 Have you ever been able to track your family’s lineage? Do you have letters and photos of your ancestors? Can you find your people when you go to an existing archive? For many Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous people the answer to this question is the silence of no. But the Living Archives project is working to rectify this imbalance. In 2020, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library began a collaboration with Johnson C. Smith University, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Levine Museum of the New South to create an archive preserving the stories of Mecklenburg County residents through the COVID-19 pandemic. The archives will include recorded stories, creative pieces, written work, visual imagery, and memories of those who were most impacted by the virus and their response to it. 

Living Archives project staff members are working hand in hand with community leaders and coalitions to co-create the archive as a resource and driver of innovative solutions for a more equitable future. Long-term, the living archives of stories and materials will be open-sourced and will be shared through exhibits, digital interactive experiences, performances, and more. In addition to the priceless stories gathered, the project is nurturing grassroots leadership across ethnic, age, and geographic boundaries. These leaders will be instrumental in shaping an inclusive vision for the future of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.  

The initiative began slowly in 2020. COVID and misinformation were spreading quickly, restrictions were tight, and fear ruled the day. Zoom interviews were difficult to navigate and COVID crippled the story collection process as much as it had crippled the communities the Living Archives team was serving. The initial project manager left and the project entered dormancy as new staff was hired. As COVID rates slowly dropped, so did restrictions and, finally, much of the fear. It was clear that the story collection process needed to change as well. The pause required by the intensity of COVID and by the loss of staff allowed the new team to reevaluate the project and refocus their efforts on a trauma-informed redesign and relaunch. A new project manager, Sarah Gherghel, took the helm bringing her extensive background in Social Work and trauma-informed therapy to the work. She was joined by consultant Debbie Rubenstein, a community organizer and documentary consultant with over twenty years of using story to implement change. The Living Archives project underwent a re-launch in the Spring of 2022 with a renewed understanding that the COVID-19 experience was going to be ongoing and complex. The Archives renewed its focus on equity, refining its target demographic. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous stories remain the heart of the archives and the focus was further refined to focus on those most affected over the past two years: teens and students, the elderly, families with children, immigrants, veterans, the housing insecure, formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, small business owners, and essential workers. Over 200 stories will be collected in all from these underrepresented groups.  

No one’s story should be lost, misrepresented, or ignored. Sarah and Debbie both understand the importance of creating a safe environment where trust and active listening are at the forefront. Building that trust takes time so Sarah and Debbie are turning to the organizations and organizers who have built that trust over years. They are partnering with organizations like Children of the World Learning Center, Lionel Lee Jr. Wellness Center, Queen City Family Tree, Queen’s Knight School of Communication, International House and so many more.  Each group and leader works to identify the ways in which the project can serve their constituents and then a custom partnership is created. Some organizations conduct the interviews themselves or ask that their staff be trained. Some ask that their leaders act as “testers” being the first to be interviewed so they can report on the experience to their more vulnerable neighbors. Each of the more than 100 groups reached so far is creating a relationship customized to the archiving project to ensure that their communities are respected and served by the process. Using this model, the project has already gathered more than 84 stories of joy, trauma, hope, and change and that number grows daily. 

Many people have heard the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same can be said about this equity-building archival initiative. It takes a village of community leaders, Founding Partners, Contributing Partners, Funding Partners, and organizations to connect, build trust, and invite community members to share one of the most valuable possessions one has—their story.  

Please visit our website for more information, updates, and to view the stories we have collected. 

Teresa Cain, Sarah Gherghel, and Debbie Rubenstein

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library