Activism and Social Justice through the Archive

This post is contributed by Natalia Fernández, Curator and Archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives.  She was recently asked to speak at Emporia State University’s School of Library & Information Management (SLIM) graduation, which took place Sunday August 12, 2018 at the Oregon Health & Sciences University auditorium.


What was it like to be asked to be commencement speaker at Emporia’s School of Library & Information Management (SLIM) graduation ceremony?

It was such an honor to be asked to be a commencement speaker! I accepted the invitation almost immediately.

What inspired your message in the speech you gave?

My work and professional experiences inspired the message I gave in my speech. In preparation for writing the speech, I did my research of course. I listened to a number of commencement speeches and read articles regarding “what makes a good commencement speech.” The main themes that emerged were to be emotional/passionate, use humor if possible, and that personal stories make the best speeches. I also noticed that many speeches included some local references, and of course, a commencement speech typically has life advice and lessons learned. To include some local references, I asked the program director for some examples of the graduates’ accomplishments to share as part of the speech. In addition, I decided to focus the first part of my speech on the Emporia State professional values of service, leadership, integrity, and mentorship. I knew I wanted my ultimate message to be about activism and social justice within the profession, so to transition, I stated that the commonality between all of those professional values is action. I then shared my journey of activism and social justice throughout my career thus far, and reflected on words of wisdom expressed in a 2010 lecture by the archivist Randall Jimerson entitled “Archivists and the Call of Justice.” I wanted my speech to be a call to action to the new graduates; I concluded by stating, “I am archivist activist. When I look at you, I see fellow activists.”

What does social justice mean to you as an archivist?

In my speech I stated that in the journey toward social justice, as information professionals, we each have a role to play as part of the work that we do. One of the many beautiful aspects of our profession is that activism can take many forms. Through my work as an archivist, I collaborate with communities who have been traditionally marginalized, in both the historical record and in historiography. My contribution toward social justice is to assist communities in sharing their stories with the archive as a form of empowerment, a way in which community members can add their voice to the historical narrative. In addition, through my instruction, exhibit curation, and reference services, I have the power to highlight certain materials and assist patrons in discovering stories they might not otherwise have used. I am able to guide researchers, students, and community members to repurpose and reinterpret archival materials in new and interesting ways, and host community events to inform and share traditionally untold stories. I closed my speech by stating that it is incumbent upon all of us as information professionals to reflect upon our role and ask ourselves how we can be more pro-active to the cause of social justice as we serve, lead, and mentor others. When we fully commit ourselves to our professional values is when we can truly say that we are employing our power as information professionals, our expertise, and the love we have for our communities as we strive to promote a better society for all.

What role does mentorship play for you in your work as an archivist?

Mentorship is vital in our profession. I have been incredibly privileged to have an amazing support system of colleagues, both within the OSULP and beyond. In my speech I encouraged the graduates to open up as many opportunities as possible for others, and to build mentoring actions into their daily work. And, I reminded them that part of being an effective mentor is by they themselves having a network of mentors who can assist and guide them. Throughout all of our careers, we will always be both a mentor and a mentee. We will always have worthy experiences to share with others, and there will always be more to learn from others as well.

What do you remember about starting your career?  What do you think has had the greatest impact on your career?

When first starting my career (this job in fact), I remember feeling overwhelmed and having quite the case of imposter syndrome. For me, it was a combination of my amazing colleagues and the wonderful communities with whom I work that had the greatest impact on my career. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from colleagues who have been generous with their time and who are willing to share their professional experiences with me. In my commitment to serving the communities with which I work, I always have to remember it is not about my intentions, it is about the impact that I have. In order to most effectively center my services on the community’s needs, I strive to ensure that community members direct me in how to best serve them.

What words of advice do you have for new archivists and librarians?

I have so many words! But I’ll be brief. My words of advice are to remember that in our commitment to being leaders in our profession and our communities, our job is to use our positions of power to be advocates for those who lack power. As information professionals, we have a lot of power as stewards and providers of information. I want to assure new archivists and librarians that they are qualified, ready, and capable – they are leaders and activists. And, while there will always be unknowns as part of our jobs, and life in general, one thing for sure is when starting a career as a librarian or archivist, it just the beginning of many amazing journeys that are yet to come!

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