Sharing Movement History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we, as activists and organizers, can better work to recover, preserve, and share movement history. This concern partly comes out of my longtime interest in learning about stories of struggle left out of dominant history-telling in the U.S. and Canada. I’m fascinated by how activists in previous eras reckoned with their circumstances and tried to push beyond them, and how their efforts shaped the present in which we currently live.

Mostly, though, I’m committed to movement history because I think it’s so valuable for helping us to struggle more effectively right now. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and debates over and over again. Coming to know our history, I’m convinced, can help us to learn from our mistakes, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

I don’t have any ready-made formulas to offer here. My sense is that building a significantly greater understanding of history – even history from the previous few decades – into our movements today is going to require a lot of work and a lot of experimentation. Some very good work along these lines happens in classrooms and through books and journals. In recent years, though, I’ve developed a particular appreciation for other kinds of movement history initiatives that, it seems to me, indicate useful directions for broadening this work.

For one, I have a special place in my heart for movement archives – physical spaces that collect activist materials and make them available for others to access. In the U.S. and Canada, the more long-lived movement archives tend to be housed in university libraries. Three good examples are the Anarchist Archive at the University of Victoria, the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, and the Tamiment Library at New York University. In the last several years, I have been heartened to encounter lively non-university-based movement archives, such as the Freedom Archives in San Francisco and Interference Archive in Brooklyn. In addition to making available a wealth of materials, both of those institutions run amazing community programming which is well worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Internet has enabled a proliferation of digital movement archives. Those that I have encountered include the ACT UP Oral History Project, African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project, AIDS Activist History Project, Farm Workers in Washington State History Project, Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project, SLAM! Herstory Project, Socialist History Project, Sojourner Truth Organization Digital Archive, and WTO History Project. I especially appreciate how many of these online archives produce oral histories – in-depth interviews with activists – and make them widely accessible. There is so much to gain from reading and listening to people as they recount their organizing experiences in their own words.

In the last few years, I’ve also been heartened to see more experimental movement history projects with a strong orientation toward sharing knowledge across generations. Members of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories have been conducting video interviews with movement elders in their city as part of a series called Inheriting Resistance: A Community History Project. Last fall, Solidarity Halifax held a community conference called A People’s History of Nova Scotia featuring stories of struggle from their region. And Aid & Abet has been running the San Francisco Bay Area Radical History Project, a series of public talks in radical spaces about local activist history from the 1980s to the present. Some of my favorite high-quality left radio programs and podcasts – such as Against the Grain, Black Sheep Radio, and Talking Radical Radio – also regularly feature people discussing movement history.

What kinds of institutions and projects for recovering, preserving, and sharing movement history have you encountered? How do you think we can build deeper knowledge of history into our movements today?