Monday, February 24, 2020
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The Importance Of UCI Special Collections And Archives In A Divided Political Climate

With growing tensions between political parties due to the upcoming election and impeachment inquiries, Americans are becoming increasingly divided by their values. This division inevitably results in a coagulation of people into irreconcilable groups of liberals and conservatives. One can see the brutal language being plummeted around with a quick Instagram search of #trump2020 or a visit to any candidate’s profile. However, this outcome is not surprising given that the current U.S. President’s diction promotes inflammatory and one-dimensional discussion. For example, President Trump has repeatedly characterized minorities, especially those of the Latinx community, as “enemies” and “terrorists.” As a result, many are resorting to name-calling as an easy way out of actively listening and understanding a different perspective. 

Now more than ever, people in this country need to step back and understand each other. Not as one set of characteristics, but as individuals built from wonderful stories and experiences. In order to combat narratives that are perpetuated by the leadership of this country to promote feelings of fear and hate against marginalized communities, one must take their own history, experiences and narratives into their own hands. 

All people, and especially students from marginalized communities, have stories that are often not seen because of stereotypes accumulated from poor renditions of them represented in the media and even in our very own institutions. However, our stories are important. Even more so in a climate that so often condenses the identity of minorities into one to serve a political or personal agenda. Deciding to preserve one’s history is an act of courage that pushes marginalized people to step beyond the boundaries that confine us to stereotypes that categorizes our communities. It is also a decision that forces one to reflect upon difficult narratives of trauma and silence. But, if we are not taught the language or given the resources to confront our history, where do we even start? 

Many students are not taught language of claiming one’s history or making sense of the institutional barriers that prevent us from creating these connections to our pasts. On top of not being given the tools to do so, the representation of communities of color are scarce in U.S. media and institutions. 

Luckily, UCI’s Special Collections and Archives have been striving to change that. In 2017, UCI Libraries was given an award to conduct a three year research project — known as “Transforming Knowledge/Transforming Libraries” or TKTL— that focused on teaching students about community archives through theory and hands-on experience. Each year, 15 students are selected through an application process to join the TKTL summer cohort as interns. Classes led by researchers Krystal Tribbett, Thuy Vo Dang, Audra Eagle Yun and Jimmy Zavala, encouraged students to discuss the theories and impacts of community archives. The students then gained hands-on experience working at their respective community partner sites. This project taught students to apply “what they learn in ethnic studies combined with lived experience in contributing to community archives.” 

Even beyond that, this experience of engaging with archives and underrepresented communities built confidence in the belief that everyone has the power to narrate and take control of their own history. 

This past summer marked the last year of this program. However, the practices of reclaiming history and understanding the needs of underrepresented communities in their own history-building can be and should be utilized by every student on UCI’s campus. 

During TKTL, students were assigned to different community partners and archives in order to help them preserve the histories of these communities. Some students volunteered at a local archive to help preserve and photocopy fragile documents for organizations such as The Cambodian Family and others conducted oral histories for youth with the LGBT Center OC. My partner Victoria Nguyen and I created lesson plans on archives and activism for youths at a local church, Christ Our Redeemer. These were only a few of the projects that our cohort worked tirelessly on throughout the summer, yet they all showed ways to reclaim our community’s histories or help underrepresented communities reclaim their histories. In engaging with archives, students became aware of new aspirations for their career and future.  

“TKTL gave me an open environment to understand how history is stored and selected, and as a Latinx woman with a disability, I did not see a lot of voices of minorities with disabilities in these spaces. This is why it is my new goal to attend library school and focus on un-ableizing history and become an educational activist for students with disabilities to change their own narratives with confidence,” said TKTL cohort member Chloe Davidson. 

Even if archives are not representative of one’s own community, the act of engaging with archival materials allows people to think about how history is collected and how they can fit this to their own community’s needs. That being said, there are many ways in which we can get back our narratives’ power and see the beauty in others people’s narratives as well using archives.

Interviewing a family member, friend or community member and including their story in an archive could be a wonderful place to start. Through online oral history archives like the Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP) or the Bracero History Archive, one can find a home for these narratives, as well as read the stories of others in that community. By educating youth about underrepresented histories and activism, one can place the tools of reclaiming history into the hands of the next generation. One can contribute to this process of protecting these precious narratives as well by volunteering at a local community center or archive that needs help housing and preserving pieces of history.

Even as we are inundated with simplistic narratives that operate on inflammatory or controversial language for personal gain, there are ways in which we can push against this. By sharing our own stories and listening to others, we can contribute to a richer dialogue that can promote more understanding and compassion rather than hate and fear. 

Vian Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2020 winter quarter. She can be reached at viantn@uci.edu.