Eira Tansey

PASIG 2016 talk: “The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene”

This is the lectern copy of the talk I gave at PASIG on October 28.  These were my slides (with apologies for how PDF conversion garbled the fonts). Thank you to the program committee for inviting me, and for the feedback and affirmation from the audience. I will be engaging with these ideas a lot over the coming months as I revise this talk for later publication.

Thank you to Hillel Arnold, Stephanie Bennett, Libby Coyner, Ben Goldman, and Erik Moore for their thoughtful remarks and editorial suggestions on the early drafts of this talk. I feel so fortunate and blessed to work in a profession with such generous colleagues.

Title: The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene

Eira Tansey



In less than 100 years, the raw materials of growth have transitioned from an economy based on natural resources to a knowledge-based economy.[1] Historically, economic growth was driven by the natural resources of seemingly abundant and untamed wilderness. Today, the knowledge economy is fed by the digital resources of seemingly abundant and untamed electronic records.

As our language of economic value shifts from natural resources to digital resources, as we talk more often about mining data stored in clouds instead of mining coal from a mountain, I suggest that we stop and ask the following question: what can our history with the ideas of wilderness teach us about managing a flood of digital information?[2] This deep reflection is critical to our survival as we enter the anthropocene,[3] a period in which human traces can now be found in the Earth’s geologic record, a period in which wilderness is perceived as scarce, and a period where an unceasing volume of electronic records have assumed the wild abundance once associated with unmapped frontiers.[4]

Abundance and Scarcity

America’s founding mythologies revolve around making the land bend to the will of the powerful. This process was sustained by the creation of records and archives that asserted that the land was a wild place: whether wild with humans to be killed or removed through treaties that would inevitably be broken, or wild with trees and rivers to be surveyed and divided up through land claims.[5]

Indeed, archives are so strongly identified with the land in which records are created and maintained that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence listed among the “facts submitted to the world,” they found King George had:

“[…]called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”[6]

The implication is clear, that records not only accorded legal rights, but that those records had a particular spatial significance as well. To be alienated from access to one’s records is to not just have one’s rights in question, but to be divorced from the land of legal rights. However, time and again throughout history, those who create and control records effectively control the land, and records articulate who is allowed to have a legal relationship with the land — and who can exploit the land for economic gain. I can think of no better current example than what is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

America secured its nation-state status through conquering that which the colonists defined as wilderness. This process could not have been accomplished without the copious creation and use of records through maps, surveys, land grants, government reports, diaries, and letters that told us who or what was at the edge of civilization, and what value could be obtained by destroying indigenous people[7] and altering the landscape into profitable use.[8]

As the seemingly abundant wilderness became scarce, an influential group of white Americans began to rethink wilderness. Influenced by Romantic notions of beauty, and led by philosophers like John Muir, wilderness was re-imagined not as something to be exploited, conquered or feared, but as a precarious and precious resource deserving of protection.[9] However, there were vigorous disagreements about how this would be carried out. A group known as preservationists wanted to protect land for a panoply of aesthetic and moral reasons, with the implicit assumption that the main benefits would be realized by white nature enthusiasts. In contrast, conservationists argued that protection could be realized through the highly-regulated management of natural resources for economic growth, however this approach to management rarely, if ever, drew on indigenous land management knowledge and practices.[10] Once again, records were created to advance the arguments of both sides.

In the midst of the Great Depression, American wilderness and American archives rounded a similar bend. In August 1933, a major executive branch reorganization resulted in a major expansion of the National Parks Service, and less than a year later, FDR signed legislation creating the National Archives. In both cases, New Deal-era management brought together fragmented and endangered pieces of natural and cultural heritage under centralized control.[11]

As we transformed land into raw material for economic growth, and as we produced increasing numbers of records for the expansion of markets and the state, we have arrived at the point where we designate wilderness as a scarcity requiring legal management, and struggle to control an abundance of fragile information.[12] A common thread unites those charged with environmental preservation and those charged with digital preservation: the idea that their work is the “last line of defense” between continued existence – of land or of records – and of destruction.[13] A mountain that is strip mined can be filled in with grassland but the stratigraphy is effectively gone. A digital dark age looms over websites not yet crawled and files not yet checksummed, as archivists race to fill the holes and gaps of our digital cultural heritage.[14]

Three Questions

So what can we learn from our relationship with wilderness as we attempt to control a deluge of digital information? I propose the following questions:

  1. Who do we preserve for?
  2. What should we preserve?
  3. Are we preserving for today or for tomorrow?

Over time, land and records preservation benefitted very narrow populations. The earliest national parks were set aside not for ecology or to benefit the majority of Americans, but for the recreational enjoyment of primarily white, usually wealthy, nature enthusiasts, sportsmen, and tourists.[15] Likewise, the earliest American archives were established not to preserve documentation for all people, but of privileged government interests and the transmission of elite memory.[16] Over the last several decades, an increasing awareness of ecology and the erasure of indigenous populations and people of color has led to new approaches to federal and state land protection.[17] Likewise, the expansion of the “archival multiverse” recognizes the need to represent those who had been historically excluded from archival memory, whether by new appraisal or collection strategies, or by the establishment of community archives outside of oppressive institutions.[18]

What we preserve reflects societal values of collectively-shared resources. Protected land frequently takes different forms; National Parks with varying levels of tourist development, national and state forests with large areas dedicated to logging and mineral extraction, and historic neighborhoods with residents and protected buildings. Land often passes through different types of protection designations over time depending on a variety of legal, cultural, and environmental factors. Likewise, archivists have based decisions on what should be preserved – a function we refer to as appraisal – on a variety of values and frameworks. Records are sometimes appraised based on their inherent value, or their usefulness to others, including scholars, institutional users, or society at large.[19]

Finally, is our drive to preserve motivated by today’s needs or tomorrow’s? By designating something for preservation – land, records –  we imply that it has some form of inherent value that outweighs the costs. And it is here that preservation of land and preservation of digital information face their greatest challenges: the tendency of American culture to value immediate profit or realize short-term gains with the assumption that “tomorrow” is something we will never have to deal with. Otherwise, how do we explain why we even entertain the idea of oil pipelines despite every scientific recommendation urging us move to non-fossil fuel power as soon as possible? Why do we continue to buy more storage to attempt to save everything digital, ensuring the digital replication of the massive paper archives backlogs archivists a generation ago worked so hard to eliminate? In both cases, we have constructed the risks to be something that won’t actually catch up to us in immediate ways, and therefore we ignore  the real impact.

However, the anthropocene demonstrates that  the chronological window between “today’s needs” and “tomorrow’s needs” is rapidly collapsing.[20] Scientific observations demonstrating how much faster the Earth is hitting climate records than originally anticipated shows us that what we thought of as “tomorrow” is arriving on the edges of “today.”[21] Choosing to preserve for tomorrow’s needs is preserving for today’s. As yesterday’s mines become today’s servers, and as data becomes the coal of the 21st century, abundance and scarcity alone cannot guide our preservation decisions. Friends: we must also consider for whom and why we preserve in the first place.


[1] Powell, W. W., & Snellman, K. (2004). The knowledge economy. Annual review of sociology, 199-220.

[2] Throughout this paper I deliberately choose qualifying words around wilderness such as “seeming”, “perceived”, and “ideas” to reflect the position of many environmental historians that almost no landscape has been free from human manipulation.

[3] It has become very hip in environmental and futurist discourse to cite the anthropocene, and I am aware of my reinforcement of this in doing the same. However, there is an emerging scientific consensus on an actual geological epoch called the anthropocene, with actual geologists coming to a commonly-agreed upon point at which human influence can began to be seen in the geological record. For more information, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth and http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/the-anthropocene-as-environmental-meme-andor-geological-epoch/?_r=0 . The official scientific working group dedicated to this work can be found at http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

[4] A small but persuasive group of archivists have previously made strong arguments for conceptualizing archival theory through philosophical frameworks of ecological health and sustainability. I owe a great deal of intellectual debt to those who’ve navigated this land before me: Abbey, Heidi N. “The green archivist: A primer for adopting affordable, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible archival management practices.” Archival Issues (2012): 91-115, Loewen, Candace. “From human neglect to planetary survival: new approaches to the appraisal of environmental records.” Archivaria 1, no. 33 (1991), Moore, Erik A. “Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives-Ecology Paradigm.” Archivaria 63, no. 63 (2007), Taylor, Hugh A. “Recycling the Past: the Archivist in the Age of Ecology.” Archivaria 1, no. 35 (1992), and Wolfe, Mark. “Beyond “green buildings:” exploring the effects of Jevons’ Paradox on the sustainability of archival practices.” Archival Science 12, no. 1 (2012): 35-50.

[5] Two of the seminal works on American wilderness theory are Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Bill Cronin’s responding criticism, The Trouble with Wilderness. Suffice to say that wilderness, at least in its American construction, is regarded by many environmental historians as an artificial construct. Early histories of wilderness are imbued with a historical outlook that at best, downplays or misrepresents the relationship that indigenous people had with the land at the time of European contact, and at worst, actively erases them from the narrative.

[6] Declaration of Independence, 1776 July 4, National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[7] These destructive actions also affected indigenous knowledge systems. An excellent account of recent efforts to establish tribal archives and decolonize American archival practice can be found in O’Neal, Jennifer R. “” The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.” Journal of Western Archives 6 (2015).

[8] There is an interesting strain in environmental history that cautions against declensionist thinking (see: http://niche-canada.org/2016/02/03/counterbalancing-declensionist-narratives-in-environmental-history/) but my archival training and outlook requires me to consider why records are created and for what function, and it would seem that early records created by colonists were primarily to function as introducing a legal function of control over the land.

[9] Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, Chapters 8-10. Bill Cronin, The Trouble with Wilderness. : Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28. Finney, Carolyn. “Black faces, white spaces.” (2014), pp. 28-29.

[10] The main figures often identified with each movement’s early period are John Muir (preservation) and Gifford Pinchot (conservation). Muir’s early writings disparaged blacks and Native Americans he encountered during his travels, and Pinchot was an advocate of eugenics.

[11] https://www.archives.gov/about/history/building.html and http://npshistory.com/publications/timeline/index.htm When the National Archives opened in 1934, it started with a massive abundance of records – 1 million meters, with a growth rate that increased during WWII. See Cook, Terry. “What is past is prologue: a history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997). The most famous residing documents of the National Archives were not all present after its opening – the Constitution and Declaration of Independence did not come into the National Archives possession until 1952, following negotiations with the Library of Congress.

[12] Wolfe’s “”Beyond Green Buildings” is an excellent examination of how Jevon’s Paradox intersects with the archival “age of abundance”

[13] Ericson, Timothy L. “At the” rim of creative dissatisfaction”: Archivists and Acquisition Development.” Archivaria 33 (1991).

[14] While it is beyond the scope of this talk, both environmental historians and archivists have an evolving relationship with the concept of authenticity. Many environmental historians have shown that humans have a long history of manipulating and altering landscapes, and archivists since Jenkinson have questioned the idea of archives as infallible sources of truth.

[15] Many National Parks were created by actively removing indigenous residents, or forbidding tribal access to lands for sustenance and sacred purposes. See Merchant, Carolyn. “Shades of darkness: Race and environmental history.” Environmental History 8, no. 3 (2003): 380-394, and Spence, Mark David. 1999. Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. New York: Oxford University Press.

[16] A particularly interesting case study of early American institutional archives concerns the first formally-organized state archives. These were established in the South, and very explicitly reinforced a Lost Cause white supremacist version of history. See Jimerson, Randall C. 2009. Archives power: memory, accountability, and social justice. Chicago: Society of American Archivists (pp. 94-97) and Galloway, Patricia. “Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State Archives of Mississippi (1902-1936).” The American Archivist 69, no. 1 (2006): 79-116.

[17] Everglades National Park was arguably the first NPS unit established with ecological concerns as the primary factor (as opposed to scenic landscapes), https://home.nps.gov/ever/learn/management/upload/2008%20DRTO%20EVER%20Final%20Supt%20Annual%20Report.pdf . For more on the relationship between the NPS and tribal nations, see King, Mary Ann. “Co-management or Contracting-Agreements Between Native American Tribes and the US National Park Service Pursuant to the 1994 Tribal Self-Governance Act.” Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 31 (2007): 475, and for federal/state land management and tribal nations: Wood, Mary C., and Zach Welcker. “Tribes as trustees again (Part I): the emerging tribal role in the conservation trust movement.” Harvard Environmental Law Review 32 (2008).

[18] McKemmish, Sue, and Michael Piggott. “Toward the archival multiverse: Challenging the binary opposition of the personal and corporate archive in modern archival theory and practice.” Archivaria 76 (2013).

[19]  Within the realm of archival theory and environmental history, American perspectives on appraisal and wilderness have respectively occupied notably controversial niches that have produced enormous quantities of arguments within the two bodies of literature. For this reason as well, considering them in parallel makes for an intriguing comparative analysis.

[20] My colleague Hillel Arnold also noted that there is a similar parallel of a collapsing window in the archives profession, with the increasingly short period of time in which to preserve the highly ephemeral records generated by historical events (e.g., social media archives of activist movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter).

[21] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-ipcc-underestimated-climate-change/

PASIG 2016 talk

This serves as a placeholder for the talk I will be giving at PASIG later this week. The talk will be posted after I deliver it, since I have a tendency to revise all the way up to walking to the lectern.


Swing state voter report: Voting for herd immunity

As America’s longest presidential election finally gets underway (particularly in the 34 states that have early voting), and as a voter in the great swing state of Ohio, I have started to think that the best metaphor for voting in this election is that of the social responsibility of mass vaccination. In order to be clear about my personal views, I believe this election is between an experienced politician with profound shortcomings [1], but who fundamentally understands the three branches of government, the interrelationships between local, state, and federal governance, and what the Constitution does and does not allow a President to do. In contrast, her opponent is a man who has never been elected to public office before, or ever served in any civilian or military public service, who exploits frightening bigotry, and who has shown very little understanding of the functions of governance or the Constitution.[2]

During this election cycle, and particularly in Ohio, there has been a lot of grumbling along the lines of “Both candidates are terrible, so I am going to stay home or vote third-party, because neither one reflects my views.” I am distressed by this idea, because it suggests that voting is a personal act, or a personal expression of one’s views. From where I stand, we need to think of voting as a collective action, because it is not an individual act for which one reaps individually allocated benefits or drawbacks (note: this may have been different during Gilded Age machine politics when you could literally get paid for voting for a particular candidate or party). And like any collective action, whether it’s union membership approving a new contract, or an activist group deciding strategies for protest, there is inevitably an evaluation that comes down to: “this contract or action is not going to meet the needs of everyone, but do we think the larger gains that could be realized outweigh the parts that we have discomfort with?”

In the 2016 general election, a terrifying amount is on the line.[3] We have now gone over 8 months without any visible movement towards confirming a new Supreme Court justice, leaving the court with only 8 members. Of the current membership, three of the members are currently over the age of 75 (Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg), which means that the chances are pretty good that a second, or even third court vacancy will occur during the next presidential term. Few decisions at the federal level have the potential to shape the American experience more than what comes out of the Supreme Court – Plessy v. Ferguson, which institutionalized racial discrimination, was the law of the land for 58 years before being overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. And this is precisely why the top brass of the GOP keeps gritting their teeth and has taken only the feeblest steps to publicly disavow Trump – because they know that if they are able to control the Supreme Court membership, this is likely their last chance to embed right-wing values into the country’s long-term legal infrastructure, even as the rest of the country is in the midst of a massive political realignment.

To return to my original metaphor – voting is best thought of as not a personal expression of your values, but as a collective action you take on behalf of a larger group. And I think an apt comparison is that of mass vaccination.[4]

Mass vaccination has been one of the most breathtakingly successful ways in which we’ve reduced devastating disease and illnesses that used to routinely strike fear into populations – even within well-developed countries like the US (if you’re young and have never asked an older person what it was like before the polio vaccine – ask. You’ll probably hear some heartbreaking stories about kids they knew who were paralyzed or died). Mass vaccination works because of what is known as herd immunity. In any given population, there are members of the population who cannot receive vaccines, because they may be immunocompromised, or have a potentially deadly allergic reaction to the vaccine ingredients. Therefore, they rely on the rest of us to close off potential entry points for the disease to get into the population. When diseases that were long-thought eradicated pop back up, it’s often because vaccination levels have dropped below a certain threshold. This is dangerous not only for those who could be vaccinated but were not, but especially for those who cannot get vaccinated at all.

Part of the problem with those who decide not to vaccinate against all the advice of the medical and public health communities is that they view this as a personal choice, and not a critical thing they must do for the benefit and health of all. Those who choose not to vaccinate for personal reasons (anti-vaxxers) because of a perceived risk of vaccination are not entirely wrong – any vaccination does have a non-zero risk of side effects. However, the benefits (individually and collectively) of participating in mass vaccination is so overwhelming compared to the risks, that when an increasing number of people prioritize the infinitesimal unlikely personal risk over the overwhelmingly certain public benefit, everyone suffers.

As long as herd immunity thresholds are high enough, anti-vaxxers effectively become free riders. They get to have their cake (benefit from herd immunity) and eat it too (continue to indulge their personal beliefs about vaccination risks). It’s here that I see the most parallels to those who would rather sit this election out, or cast a vote for a third-party candidate, than to grit their teeth and vote for Hillary Clinton.

Like a single vote, a single vaccination is not sufficient to protect one against illness – a disease may mutate and still infect you, or the vaccine may only cover the most common strains of a disease, or you may experience side effects of immunization. However, you incur a major risk by choosing not to vaccinate: you’re rolling the dice that your participation is so marginal that it won’t affect herd immunity, and that the risks of your actions won’t bring about something far worse than you could have imagined, particularly for those who cannot receive a vaccination because of medical reasons.

Let’s look first at the effects of individual actions on a collective decision, because that’s effectively what both vaccination and voting are. If a certain number of people don’t get vaccinated, the herd immunity drops below a certain threshold, and a disease can re-enter the population. Likewise, if enough people don’t vote for a candidate, another candidate will win. And unless you live somewhere with instant runoff voting or alternative voting mechanisms, it’s generally going to be the candidate who is “first past the post.”

Now let’s take a look at some of Ohio’s recent 4-way polls:

Ohio 2016 GE polling

According to my back of the envelope calculations, the combined Johnson and Stein margins are anywhere from 1.4 times (the Baldwin Wallace poll) to 13 times (the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll) the margin of difference between Trump and Clinton. This means that if even a small number of third-party voters switched their allegiance to Clinton, it would make her election far more of a sure thing than the extremely tight race depicted above. By choosing to stick with third-party candidates, these voters are effectively withholding a contribution to the only collective action that can prevent a Donald Trump presidency – a vote for Hillary Clinton. Until we have an alternative voting method like instant-runoff voting or proportional voting, a third-party vote, especially in an extremely competitive state like Ohio, is an individual contribution to a collective action that signals “I am OK with the possibility of a Trump presidency.”

Let’s return to the second set of risks when you choose to sit out voting for president, or voting third-party: that the risks of your actions won’t bring about something far worse than you could have imagined. As outlined above, I assume that those voting third-party or sitting this out are indicating by their actions that “both sides are as bad as the other” and that therefore, they truly believe the actual presidencies of each candidate would be indistinguishable. Going back to the vaccination metaphor and herd immunity (which protects those who cannot be immunized), what does this mean for those who cannot vote?

In the American electorate, there are three large populations that are disenfranchised from voting in federal elections. These include children, non-US citizens, and depending on the state, those currently incarcerated or with a felony conviction. Since childhood is a much more straightforward trajectory than citizenship or carceral status, this is why some political scientists distinguish between voting-age population and voting-eligible population.

Many voters in the 2016 general election appear to have become so disgusted by the idea of “voting for two terrible candidates” or “always having to vote for the lesser of two evils” that they plan to vote third-party, or forego voting altogether to register their dissatisfaction. But if we accept the reality that only one of two candidates (Clinton or Trump) will win the election on November 8, we have a moral imperative to select for the least amount of harm for the greatest number of people. I firmly believe that a Trump presidency would be far more devastating for those who are shut out of voting, and therefore the only moral choice is to set aside my political differences with Clinton and vote for her.

Let’s look at this through the lens of climate change. Children have no voice in this election, and yet the actions that the United States takes – or doesn’t take – on climate change in the next few years could make the difference between a grim but adaptable future, and complete horror. These changes are already taking place, and will only accelerate by the time today’s children become part of the voting-eligible population and can legally vote their intent. Until then, we have a moral obligation to ensure that one of only two possible scenarios (Clinton or Trump) is the one that will inflict less damage than the other alternative. Clinton is nowhere near as visionary as she should be on climate change, however she accepts that it is a reality the US must address in cooperation with the rest of the world. Trump, on the other hand, believes that it is a fiction. Which viewpoint has the greater danger of harm for those who cannot currently cast their own vote?

If you truly cannot abide the idea of a Trump presidency, if the idea of Trump governing the United States fills you with horror, then there is only one rational choice you can make if you have voting rights: to vote for Hillary Clinton. Because if you can’t countenance a Trump presidency but you rely on other people to cast the ballot for Clinton you somehow aren’t willing to commit yourself to, you are contributing to a free rider problem: you want to vote your conscience, and let other people do the work of making sure Trump gets nowhere near the levers of power. Which then begs the question: how can you be sure that there aren’t too many others operating on the same mindset as yourself, which could then give Trump the number of votes he needs to be first past the post? Like anti-vaxxers who suddenly find their own children getting measles because too many other parents made the choice not to contribute to herd immunity, those who sit out or cast a third-party vote while fearing a Trump presidency are putting their own interests over the collective good of all.

Perhaps as a voter, you truly believe both a Clinton and Trump presidency would be equally reprehensible. You’re OK with either outcome. You’re willing to roll those dice. In that case, let me reframe the moral question as, “Who would you rather have as your political enemy?” In one of the smartest political commentaries I’ve yet seen on this totally appalling election, British writer Laurie Penny explored this exact question:

I do not expect a president of the United States —or any government leader, for that matter — to be radical. It is not capitulation to be realistic about what can be achieved at the ballot box in a modern democracy, particularly in a presidential election. It is not defeatist to understand that the very most you can hope for is to stop things getting worse as fast as they might otherwise have done. […]

A general election is about nothing more or less than choosing your enemy. Any government leader must be considered an enemy to those who believe in radical change. Hillary Clinton is not yet that enemy but by damn. I hope she gets to be. Hillary Clinton is the sort of enemy I’ve been dreaming of over ten years of political work. She’s the kind of enemy you can respect. I look forward to fighting her on her commitment to climate protection, on workers’ rights, on welfare, on foreign policy. Bring that shit on. That’s the sort of fight I relish. I want to argue over how the state can best serve the interests of women and minorities, not whether it should. That’s the sort of fight that makes me better. Four more years of fighting Donald Trump and his foaming acolytes would demean everyone involved.

My values are such that even though I disagree with Clinton on much, as a politician she is still playing by the same basic principles I expect from a President of the United States: to seek specialist knowledge from diverse experts, to wholly reject exploitation of racial, ethnic, and religious grievances for political gain, and to have previous experience on which to draw. On all of those counts, Donald Trump is an utter and spectacular failure. He routinely rejects the advice of specialists on domestic and foreign affairs. He exploits racial, ethnic, and religious grievances to an alarming degree. Finally, a person who has never served a day in public service, whether political, civil or military, is unfit to become a head of state, which requires an entirely different set of skills from running a for-profit entity.

Every day, normal people suck it up, grit their teeth, and roll up their sleeves for a vaccine. They might not like it, it might hurt for a while, but in the grand scheme of things, they are contributing to collective action that ensures the general well-being of those around us. If you are undecided, thinking about staying home, voting third-party, or a Republican who is leaning towards Trump even if he makes you sick to your stomach, on the eve of this election, I implore you to contribute to our electoral herd immunity. Suck it up, grit your teeth, and vote for Clinton for the general well-being of those around us.

[1] To me, these drawbacks are the standard left-wing criticisms of Clinton. She is too cozy with the wealthy, her climate change proposals are not nearly aggressive enough for what we should have started doing 20 years ago, her record on fracking is not good, and as someone whose job involves public records issues, the private server email business is totally appalling. Finally, my baptism into leftist politics was through protesting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, before I could even vote. If I knew Colin Powell was lying to the UN as a teenager, if I managed to get my slightly conservative Episcopalian church to help fund me to go protest in DC, there is still a part of me that can never quite move on from the fact that Clinton authorized the use of military force in one of the worst follies that has ever taken the lives of thousands of American servicemen and women, and countless lives of Iraqis. All this said, and despite my misgivings, I am early-voting for Clinton soon and even volunteering here and there for her campaign when I have a free hour in my schedule. The alternative of a Trump presidency is simply too horrifying to contemplate.

[2] And it goes without saying, but whose encouragement of his supporters to express and act on similarly bigoted views is beyond the pale.

[3] To be clear, every election is important, and local and state elections often affect your daily life as much, or if not more, than presidential elections. Failure to recognize this on the broad part of the electorate (and the get out the vote efforts of liberal/left political infrastructure) is how we have ended up with Republican-dominated governorships and state legislatures across the United States.

[4] To give credit where it’s due, the herd immunity parallel has popped up a couple times in the epic MetaFilter election threads. I think this might have been the comment that originally lit up this light bulb for me.

Catch me on WMKV talking about hiking

I’m super excited that I am going to be a guest on WMKV (89.3 FM in Cincinnati, and 89.9 FM in Warren/Butler counties), a local Cincinnati community radio station, this Friday, September 23 from 1-1:30pm Eastern. Good news out of town friends — you can stream WMKV through the website. Scroll down on the homepage or this link will hopefully work.

I will be interviewed by Carol Mundy, who is an amazing local naturalist (and full disclosure, my bff’s mom). We’re going to talk about hiking, getting outdoors, and about my section hike of the Sheltowee Trace. But I’ve also been told that Carol’s hosting style can be full of surprises, so you’ll just have to tune in to listen!

A human impulse

Tonight I went to see Emily St. John Mandel speak at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library. Mandel is the author of Station Eleven, a novel I have been so wholly obsessed with since reading it last year that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve recommended it. It’s the only post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read that has filled me with awe and hope for our beautiful world, instead of wanting to crawl into bed and hide. The novel imagines a massive pandemic that kills the majority of the world’s population, and follows several characters back and forth through time. One of the main narrative threads involves a Shakespearean troupe (that has a caravan with a quote from Star Trek on the side) that travels around northern Michigan and Canada. In fact, Mandel said that this traveling Shakespeare troupe was the initial seed of the idea for the novel. She noted that when she began writing this part, she originally had the troupe performing a variety of plays and even television shows from the late 20th century, but realized that in a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, the idea of performing “New York real estate situation comedy” (I hope I got the quote right) rang hollow. As she researched both Shakespeare and pandemics, she realized that having a troupe performing exclusively Shakespeare held a particular resonance for the post-pandemic world in Station Eleven; Shakespeare was born during the bubonic plagues that were devastating England, and there was a certain transcendence in the idea of returning to a canon of work that pre-dated electricity in a post-electricity world.

Mandel has wonderfully dry Canadian wit, and talked at length about her research process (my favorite was when she discussed going down Google rabbit holes and reading “unsettling” survivalist message boards – having been down those same rabbit holes myself, “unsettling” is a very charitable way to put it!) as well as why she thinks post-apocalyptic stories are such a frequent part of contemporary culture. Towards the end of her lecture, she ended with a brief anecdote about visiting an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Mandel recalled seeing a book over 400 years old, noting that that book comes from a world that has effectively ended, even though human existence has continued – and so the world as we conceive it is continually ending over and over, but we don’t quite realize it because of scale.

There was a brief Q&A at the end, and I attempted to get my fan girl nervous shaky vapors under control (seriously y’all, the only other time I have ever been so overpowered by awe to be in another writer’s presence that I had to take a deep breath and remember to BE COOL was the time I briefly met my archivist writer hero Rand Jimerson) so that I could ask a question about the role of memory in Station Eleven. I managed to snag the last question-asker spot. Here’s a far (FAR!) more eloquent version of what I asked Mandel:

“Hi, I’m an archivist, and I want you to know that a lot of archivists really love your book. Archives often pop up in novels, and when we’ve talked about your book, we’ve talked about the Museum of Civilization, or the historical newspapers that pop up in it. Can you tell us a little bit about how you saw the role of artifacts or written traces of the past in your book’s apocalyptic future?”

She talked a little bit about how the Museum of Civilization came about in the story – she figured that at the end of the world, some folks would probably be stuck in an airport. And while today a 5″ stiletto or an iPad may not seem fascinating, in a world where life changes so dramatically, you could at least show a non-glowing iPad to your child and say “we used to be able to see someone on the other side of the world and talk to them through this.” But then Mandel said something that is very familiar to archivists working in fragile and vulnerable spaces: that after the dust begins to settle from a chaotic and devastating event, people have a “human impulse” to recall the past and to tell their stories.

Archivists who’ve worked around traumatic events know this well – that chaos is often a turning point in human history, but that in the midst of the chaos, preservation of our stories, records, and traces are generally the furthest things from the minds of those who are just trying to hold it together to survive another day. In addition, archivists must be extraordinarily sensitive to how memory can function as a prolonging of trauma. I lived and worked in New Orleans from 2008-2013 (in other words, 3 years after Katrina), and the trauma of the hurricane and federal levee failure was visible on a daily basis. I moved down just in time to evacuate for Hurricane Gustav, the first mandatory evacuation since Katrina. My roommate at the time had survived Katrina as a freshman college student, and her PTSD became fully evident as she got the hell out of town almost a whole day before I managed to evacuate. Towards the end of my time living there, many archivists I knew who had survived Katrina were quite resentful of others who did not experience the same trauma demanding them to tell their stories over, and over, and over to fit a particular narrative of resilience. More recently, my friend and fellow archivist Jarrett Drake, who helped create A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, has noted that creating documentation around traumatic events has the very real potential to effect significant harm:

To that end, it matters how we create more archives for black lives, and it’s important that we don’t re-traumatize communities or expose them for more white gaze, exploitation, and plunder.

We archivists have an understandable tendency to panic that if we don’t do something RIGHT! THIS! MINUTE! about archiving contemporary events or dealing with the unceasing volumes of records growing daily, that we may lose everything that matters to the world we live in now, and the world we hope will survive in the future. This was particularly evident to me today, since I spent the whole day in a workshop on managing digital archives. Archivists who care for what we call “born-digital” materials are prone to a weird combination of rampant anxiety and cautious optimism. I would call for another strong measure of something else – humility and grace. We need to recognize that the continuance of culture and memory does not depend on us alone. Even if every professional archivist on the planet disappeared tomorrow (and what a sad and sorry state of affairs this would be), I trust that our fellow human beings would find a way to create archives to continue the memory and the culture we champion as our daily reason for going to work, even if we might not recognize them as archives according to the practices and standards we’ve spent centuries formulating. As Mandel made clear, it is the human impulse to remember. When we archivists are doing our jobs right, we cannot and should not claim that we have the one true answer on what it means to remember. Rather, I hope we add to the multitude of ways in which memory persists through a world that ends over and over again, even as we humans somehow seem to keep muddling through it all.

Hot IRB news!

So today a story caught on fire around archivist and historian social media that the Department of Health and Human Services is now officially excluding oral histories from what’s known as the Common Rule, a shorthand for the federal regulations that govern Institutional Review Boards, which are found in hospitals and universities that conduct research with human subjects. I got as excited as anyone else and retweeted the story as well without looking too deeply into it. However, when I started looking into the story posted by Oxford University Press, I couldn’t find any reliable non-historian sources backing the story up, particularly the claim that HHS approved the exclusion on September 8.


Before I go on, here’s my disclaimer: I am not a federal employee, nor an IRB expert. I have read up on some IRB rules in the past for my records management work, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. So if you have information which refutes my understanding below, by all means, please share it.


It turns out that what actually happened on September 8 is that HHS posted to the Federal Register what’s known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) — you can read it in all of its dense glory here. The proposal creates a new elevated category called “exclusions” which are a step liberated from “exemptions.” With the latter, you typically submit your research proposal to an IRB, and then the IRB approves the proposal as exempt from further IRB monitoring and oversight. If my understanding is correct, research now falling into the “exclusions” category would be totally free from even a preliminary IRB administrative review.


There is an excellent official HHS webinar which explains the difference between exclusions and exemptions. And here is what I gleaned from the NPRM page on the new exclusions category:
These activities will therefore not have to satisfy any regulatory requirements, nor is it expected (unlike exempt research) that they will undergo any type of review process to determine this status. (https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/09/08/2015-21756/federal-policy-for-the-protection-of-human-subjects#p-404)


From my perspective as an archivist, this is a REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY good thing to have “Oral history, journalism, biography, and historical scholarship activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected” under the exclusions category. I have gone through the IRB process before, and let me tell you, it is a real pain in the ass that you do not want to go through unless you absolutely have to and the ethics of your discipline require it. In addition, many IRB applications are wholly unsuitable for describing any type of archival/oral history activities or research.


Here’s the takeaway: This is still in proposal status, and we are in a 90 day comment period that ends December 7. Most of the comments thus far appear to be from medical schools asking that the comment period be extended. If you want to contribute your own comments, you should definitely do so!


Also, a very hearty thank you to Maarja Krusten who found an IMMENSELY helpful link for me when I started raising my eyebrow on Twitter. She noted the Federal Register had an announcement re: an open hearing that is coming up in Washington DC on October 20. Unfortunately it appears that the deadline to register has passed, but according to the announcement, the session should be live streamed.


What is still mysterious to me is what the timeline would be following the comment period — I’m not sure if there is one. If you know, please leave a comment!


Here’s the tl;dr: There is a proposal to exclude oral histories from IRB oversight. This is not official yet. The comment period is ongoing until December 7.



Concerns about SAA’s FY17-19 proposed dues increase

I just got back from an incredible week in Cleveland — I have begun thinking of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) annual meeting as my archivist booster shot, and lord did I need it by the time I drove up I-71. So great to see old friends and make new ones, listen to others discuss their work, and share some of my own. SAA’s staff, the Program committee, and the Local Arrangements committee did a marvelous job of bringing so many of us to one of the Midwest’s crown jewels for fellowship and learning.

If anyone was at the business meeting yesterday, you may have heard me raise concerns about the SAA dues structure, and what appears to be a flat increase on arguably an already regressive* structure of membership dues. The business meeting had a discussion period regarding the proposed dues increase for FY (fiscal year) 2017-2019. The dues increase will be voted on by the membership later this year.

The problems with distribution of dues is obscured at first glance because SAA commendably breaks out dues into categories by income, something that I hope they will continue to do. My concern is that as a percentage of income, those on the lower-income bands pay a higher rate proportional to their income compared to those who are on the higher-income bands. The proposed increases appear to entrench the existing regressive structure, rather than shifting it to a progressive structure.

If you look at the lower bands of each income bracket, here’s what you see (e.g., if you fall within the 30-39k income membership level, this example assumes you make $30,000):

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 10.15.03 AM

So in the example shown above, if you currently make $20,000, you pay 0.53% of your gross income for SAA dues. If you make $40,000, you pay 0.4%. If you make $60,000 you pay 0.38%, and if you make over $75,000, you pay 0.33%.

If the proposal is approved by the membership, by FY19, those making $20,000 pay 0.58%, those making $40,000 pay 0.44%, those making $60,000 pay 0.41%, and those making over $75,000 pay 0.37%.

All my figures, including what the same numbers look like from the top and mid-point of each income range, can be found in this spreadsheet. It’s an Excel spreadsheet so you are welcome to plug in your own numbers and play around with it.

A few points I want to make:

  1. I believe it is inherently unfair to make our lower-income members of the profession pay a larger proportion of their income for membership dues. These are already the members less likely to afford attendance at SAA’s annual meeting and workshops due to the costs. In addition, because workshop and annual meeting registrations make no allowance for income-based registrations, they arguably pay a greater share of their incomes to be professionally involved at an active level than those making higher incomes.
  2. I believe that SAA’s elected leaders and staff should immediately consider how to shift the dues structure to a progressive structure, in which the proportion of dues you pay relative to your gross income increases as your income increases. Currently it appears that in all hypothetical membership scenarios (based on lower, mid, and high ranges of each band), lower-income members pay a larger share of their income as compared to those with higher-incomes. The current dues increase appears to entrench the currently regressive* structure.
  3. Although I am generally supportive of a dues increase and believe SAA is a good steward of our membership dues, I would like to see SAA address these points before I make my final decision on how to vote. I stated yesterday I would vote for this, but after running the numbers I really need to hear SAA’s position on this before I make my final decision. In my ideal world, the proposed schedule of increases would be re-structured to be more progressive over the next three years. Current dues for those at the lower-income bands would be frozen, while those with higher-incomes would pay a higher share than they currently do. According to the brief (distributed at yesterday’s meeting), there may be time to revise the current proposed schedule of increases (see bottom of page 2).
  4. I plan to write a letter to SAA’s leadership in a few weeks to obtain more information and more formally express my concerns stated above. I really want other archivists, from all ends of the income spectrum, to co-sign the letter with me as a statement of solidarity on behalf of our lower-income colleagues. If you would like to co-sign it with me, please send me an email to eira.tansey@uc.edu so I can include you on a draft. You may also leave any questions or comments on this page about things I should include in the letter.

*I am not an economist (though if time and money were no object, I’d probably go back and get my degree in it), so please forgive me if I’m not using some of this language the way economists would.

My talk at Personal Digital Archiving 2015

I’ve been meaning to put the text of this up since I spoke at Personal Digital Archiving back in the spring on the ethics of web archiving. A 5-minute talk was probably not the best vehicle to knit together both the ethics of web archiving and the huge-o topic of the right to be forgotten, but I gave it my best shot. You can see me blast through it somewhere in one of the Friday lightning talk videos. There is also an annotated bibliography I released shortly before the talk.

Side note: The work Ed Summers and Bergis Jules have done on web archiving with Ferguson and the terrorism in Charleston has made me massively re-assess my thoughts on the balance issue when it comes to work in the public interest and elevating voices too often missing from the archival landscape. With that in mind, I still think as a profession we need an ethical framework for determining what’s okay for us to accession into our repositories when we are working with materials for which we have no donor agreement.

The text below is what I prepared for my talk in New York, though I tend to ad-lib quite a bit once I’m at the lectern.


Large-scale archiving and the right to be forgotten

Public is not universal

People often say, “Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want to be seen or shared by the whole world,” which I suspect is an easy thing to say if your personal online content has never been used in ways you didn’t anticipate. Last year, news spread that a team of university researchers at the University of Southern California were studying the phenomenon of black Twitter. Many users initial reaction to the research study likened it to forms of historical surveillance activity against black Americans, and questioned the research ethics since there was no informed consent from those being studied {Kim, 2014, Kim, 2014, Newitz, 2014}.

The idea that if self-published personal content is publicly findable on the web, it’s fair game for journalistic, academic, or archival re-use is so common that few question it or consider the downstream effects. This deeply concerns me, particularly with large-scale archiving of personal content when we have not worked to secure permission from individual users. I realize this provocative position flies in the face of how archivists must race to save the ephemeral digital record before it’s lost.

I am not advocating to stop archiving others’ self-published personal content. Indeed, as many have pointed out, harvesting and archiving online content before it disappears is critical to preserving the voices that are often missing from traditional archival custody. However, I am asking us archivists to consider how we balance openness and privacy from the point of accession to access. For example, consider if we archive and publish content around a political disruption that has long-term ramifications. How should we respond if authorities subpoena the archives? Would our response be different if we learn that the subpoena came after activists removed their content offline, fearing for their safety? What are our responsibilities to either party?

Public vs. Private

While US courts have generally assumed that if you put something on the web, you’ve surrendered your right to privacy, user’s online privacy expectations are dramatically different from the court’s usual treatment of the public/private dichotomy.

Few users who engage in social media or other forms of online self-publishing view their output as fitting a definition of public consistent with the courts’ interpretation. Researchers have shown that users have different degrees of privacy expectations depending on their intended audience for disclosure {McNealy, 2011-2012}, and that they often rely on obscurity to stand in for privacy {Hartzog and Stutzman, 2013}.

If you sit outside and have a conversation with your friend about your horrible sister, it’s understood that the context, not the setting, means that it’s a private conversation. Saying public things online are fair use misunderstands that our understandings of privacy are not easily muted in an online environment.

Right to be Forgotten

Many research communities are beginning to formulate ethical best practices when working with self-published online content. It’s time for archivists to work through ensuring privacy in an environment where large-scale archiving of online user-content does not include a donor agreement, and where archivists don’t always seek user consent. We need to have this conversation now, because if the right to be forgotten gains traction, the legal landscape may force our hand before archival ethics have caught up.

The right to be forgotten is an idea gaining ground and is intended to give users the right to request removal of their content in many situations. The right to be forgotten was recently tested in court, when a Spanish citizen unsuccessfully attempted to get a newspaper to remove digitized back issues documenting his previously foreclosed home. The man felt that the Google search results linking to the digitized back issue arguably damaged his reputation, despite having cleared his debts. The European Court of Justice ultimately ruled against Google, requiring it to remove search result links to the Spanish newspaper story.

Even in the current EU proposal, a significant revision recently watered down the right to be forgotten to a right to erasure, and explicitly allows archives to process personal data in the public interest with a recommendation for further work on issues of archival confidentiality {European Parliament, 2014}.

Archivists are very familiar with how records over history have been abused to hurt those not cognizant of how their public statements could be captured and used out of context against them. It is imperative upon us to ensure that however we archive other people’s online public lives, we do it in a way that protects their right to privacy.



European Parliament. “European Parliament Legislative Resolution of 12 March 2014 on the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of Such Data (General Data Protection Regulation),” October 14, 2014. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P7-TA-2014-0212&language=EN.

Hartzog, Woodrow, and Frederic Stutzman. “The Case for Online Obscurity.” California Law Review 101 (2013): 1.

Kim, Dorothy. “Social Media and Academic Surveillance: The Ethics of Digital Bodies.” Model View Culture, October 7, 2014. https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/social-media-and-academic-surveillance-the-ethics-of-digital-bodies.

Kim, Dorothy. “The Rules of Twitter.” Hybrid Pedagogy, December 4, 2014. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/rules-twitter/.

McNealy, Jasmine. “Privacy Implications of Digital Preservation: Social Media Archives and the Social Networks Theory of Privacy, The.” Elon Law Review 3 (2012 2011): 133.

Newitz, Annalee. “What Happens When Scientists Study ‘Black Twitter’?.” io9. Accessed April 21, 2015. http://io9.com/what-happens-when-scientists-study-black-twitter-1630540515.



Lord make me an instrument of thy peace

Before going to bed last night I hopped on Twitter, and Twitter was doing what it does best: providing breaking news and commentary about a heart-rending story hours before mainstream news outlet picked it up. It was the mass shooting (which, I hope and pray will be investigated and classed as an act of domestic terrorism) at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The suspect is a young white man, and 9 people have died as I write this.

This story is gutting on many levels. It breaks my heart to see a house of worship, often safe harbors for people sheltering from many of life’s storms, to be the site of such tragedy.

Many people on Twitter were saying many of the hard truths that this country — and specifically white Americans — need to wrap our heads around.

And here we are, repeating everything that much of America would like to think it solved decades ago. In particular, that an attack on a black church is terrifying precisely because it cannot be alienated from its historical context; black churches were routinely targeted during the civil rights movement, with the most horrifying act of white violence against black church-goers culminating in the deaths of four little girls.

It’s worth remembering that what’s happened since Trayvon Martin was killed is a sliver of the staggering amount of contemporary state-sanctioned and societal violence against black Americans since the passage of federal civil rights legislation. In my hometown of Cincinnati, you might know that fatal shootings by police officers happened a lot in the 1990s/early 2000s. But what’s happened in the past year is, without a doubt, a magnifying glass on how insidious and well-established structural and cultural racism continues to embed itself within America, and how saying Black Lives Matter is still heard by many white Americans as a statement, as opposed to a truth.

I think what marks the terrorism in Charleston as a particular zenith of horror is for many people, houses of worship are a bedrock of one’s community and an avenue for renewal. It’s bad enough that black Americans cannot walk down the street, spend time in their community, or be at home without being harassed, abused, and targeted by white and state-sanctioned violence. Targeting a church, a space that people rightfully expect to be safe in, and an important place in the history of black America’s struggle for justice, takes it to a whole new level of evil.


And yet, as many people point out, if you know your history, a shooting attack on a house of worship is par for the course when hate-fueled people are looking for convenient scapegoats. This is not new, and indeed it’s happened several times in the last 10 years alone.

To recap:

In 2008, a Unitarian Universalist congregation was targeted during a children’s musical performance by a white man with “hatred of Democrats, liberals, African Americans and homosexuals.” Two people died, including “an usher who deliberately stood in front of the gunman to protect others.”

In 2010, abortion provider George Tiller was killed while he was ushering at his church, by a white man who had harassed and intimidated abortion providers since the 1990s. The gunman threatened “two others who tried to prevent his departure.”

In 2012, a Sikh gurdwara was targeted during services, by a noted white supremacist. Six people died, and the government treated the attack as an act of domestic terrorism. The president of the congregation died while trying to prevent the attacker from inflicting any further harm, and his actions helped many of the children get out of harm’s way.

In 2015, as the news develops about the Emanuel AME massacre in Charleston, we are seeing indications that the young man who perpetrated this act of terrorism also identified with white supremacy.

…and this short list doesn’t even begin to include the many acts of vandalism and intimidation against houses of worship, in particular black churches, mosques and synagogues, that are fueled by racism and bigotry.

We know in this country that one of the largest threats of domestic terrorism comes from right-wing extremists. These extremists are overwhelmingly disaffected white men who direct their anger at people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and non-Christian faiths. But what we talk about when we talk about terrorism and community violence does not seem to indicate that we take threats of domestic terrorism carried out by white men seriously. We perpetuate white privilege by treating white gunmen as lone wolves, or people who had “mental issues,” while we hold entire communities responsible to higher standards. The point is, white privilege gives white people the permission to be judged as individuals while it does not afford the same to others:


I did not quite appreciate the reality of violence at houses of worship until I began dating my now-fiance, who is Jewish. The first time I attended services with his family was during Rosh Hashanah, and law enforcement was very visible walking up to the synagogue. Having grown up attending suburban Episcopal churches, this sight was pretty jarring the first time I saw it (and if I’m being honest, I still haven’t gotten used to it). I have a pretty small sample size, but visible security measures and/or armed law enforcement have appeared at every Jewish congregation I’ve had the privilege to visit so far.

What does it do to people’s spiritual health to have to contemplate their own physical safety while spending time at their congregation?


I drifted away from any semblance of spiritual practice for most of my late teens and twenties. My parents  married in a UU church, and I grew up Episcopalian. My father  attends a notably progressive Presbyterian church. For years he has been involved with  anti-death penalty activism as an expression of his faith in action. I was involved with anti-war activism when the US invaded Iraq, and many of those I worked with came from a Catholic and mainline Christian social justice background.

For much of my adult life I’ve been a “devout agnostic” — contemplating the existence of God and spiritual matters seemed like a luxury, an unknowable question that distracted from working towards the “real” questions of poverty, war, bigotry, and environmental destruction. Even as I didn’t attend church or cultivate a sense of spirituality, I still silently prayed when ambulances went by, on behalf of whoever they were heading to. I’m guessing that when an ambulance is heading your way, it might be one of the worst days of your life. I have no clue if anyone’s listening, but doing it felt like the right thing to do.

I’m not sure what flipped to inspire a search for spiritual nourishment, but it happened at some point last fall. I think it was in the aftermath of Ferguson and a feeling of growing helpless rage at the trajectory of our country. I was angry so many friends of color were terrified for their own and their children’s futures. I was angry that my fundamental human right to control my own reproductive decisions remain under serious threat. I was angry that the rich were getting richer, that destruction of the planet was a key indicator of economic growth, and how very helpless I felt.

I’m still angry about these things. I show up and do the work of activism when I can, but it still doesn’t address my inner fatigue. I knew I needed to find a way to channel my anger constructively, or else it would consume me and prevent me from being the advocate and compassionate human being I want to be. I knew I needed a community, and something led me to a Quaker meeting. The Quakers were always on my radar because of my college-era anti-war activism. I’ve been attending a meeting for several months now. While I’m not sure yet if it’s a way station or a permanent home, I  recognize it’s filling a vital spiritual need for me, in a way that I never would have anticipated had fury and rage not flung me towards something bigger than my own helplessness.


So where does this leave us? For those of us who incorporate aspects of faith in our lives, it seems that a universal value is challenging ourselves to bear witness to the suffering of others. The golden rule doesn’t mean shit if you’re willfully blind to the pain and agony of people who don’t look like you or live your life’s circumstances.

One of the most insidious responses you see whenever a national tragedy occurs is a rush to tell people not to politicize it. The problem is that bearing witness — acknowledging other people’s pain and agony — cannot be separated from “politics.” If a central article of faith is to do unto others, you have to square that with recognizing how privilege, systemic bigotry, and structural violence is used over and over to hurt communities who have asked you to recognize injustice time and time again. You cannot do unto others unless you recognize what is being done to others. You cannot bear witness until you learn how to listen as much as you learn how to speak.