NARA Task Force on Racism Releases Report and Recommendations

On January 20, his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had already begun its own process in September 2020, when it established an Internal Task Force on Racism following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent increased focus on issues of racial injustice.

NARA Rotunda with murals showing founding fathers
National Archives and Records Administration Rotunda with murals of Founding Fathers

On January 20, his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order (E.O.) 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The order announced the administration’s intent to address the widespread inequities exacerbated by the current economic, health, and climate crises, starting with the federal government. Federal agencies were called on to establish an Equity Team, complete an equity assessment of three agency programs by August, and create an Equity Action Plan by January 2022.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had already begun its own process in September 2020, when it established an Internal Task Force on Racism following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent increased focus on issues of racial injustice.

“Talking and listening can be cathartic, but if conversation is unaccompanied by action and concrete steps for improvement, the catharsis will ultimately be short-lived,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero told staff. “We will treat this as a moment in history to reflect on who we are and how we can become a better agency.”

The Task Force, formed to identify issues of racial inequity both in the agency’s customer-facing operations and internally, began by convening conversations throughout the agency. It issued its Report to the Archivist in April, and on 14 June released a publicly accessible version of the report and its final recommendations, which included both outward-facing and internal practices and a reevaluation of recruitment, hiring, and retention practices.

 

INTERNAL AND OUTSIDE INPUT

Staff members were overwhelmingly supportive of the work, Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall told LJ, and more than 500 of NARA's 2,600 employees attended the initial internal convenings voluntarily. Diversity and inclusion sessions were offered by NARA’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office, and more than 1,675 employees attended a voluntary awareness session on systemic racism presented by Dr. Benjamin D. Reese Jr., former Vice President for Institutional Equity at Duke University and Duke University Health System.

The Task Force, made up of 35 staff members, was broken out into three groups. The primary Task Force on Racism focused on the employee experience, looking at issues that included recruitment, advancement, retention, assignment of work, and access to opportunities; diversity and inclusion, both among staff and with customers; and race-based harassment and discrimination. The Subgroup on Archival Description examined anachronistic or offensive terminology that has been used by NARA to describe historical records, and the Subgroup on Museums addressed how NARA can ensure a diversity of representation, viewpoints, access, and outreach in its exhibits, education, and public programs.

Nearly 100 employees applied to take part. A team of management and union leaders reviewed their applications, rating them in four areas: experience or potential for working with a group to support a change initiative; evidence of commitment/experience in one of the focus areas; motivation; and written communication. Using those criteria, the selection panel populated each of the three groups, striving for diversity of experience and background, job function, grade level, geographic location, and bargaining unit status. Selectees were announced in October 2020 and began work immediately; members were relieved of up to one-third of their regular assignments to allow them to fully engage in the effort.

To help identify concerns and recommendations, all staff were offered the opportunity to provide input through multiple solicitation tools, including an online form where they could post questions, concerns, and suggestions, and engage with each other in an online forum space on NARA’s intranet. Employees participated in focus groups, were encouraged to participate in a town hall meeting about the work, and could submit their thoughts directly via email. NARA experts were invited to speak to Task Force subgroups about issues such as archival description standards.

In addition to getting feedback from colleagues, the groups identified peer institutions and professional groups from which they could learn best practices and understand more about how to better work with traditionally underserved people and communities.

The collected input helped guide conversations at Task Force deliberation meetings, where group members discussed the ways that structural racism informs NARA employees’ interactions with both coworkers and customers.

“It became clear to us through the work of the Task Force that it is critically important to engage with underrepresented and underserved communities in order to ensure that our efforts align with their actual needs,” said Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright. “Progress cannot be achieved by well-meaning people working in a vacuum. It requires collaboration by all stakeholders, particularly those who have traditionally been marginalized and have gone unheard, in order to begin making progress and address these deep-seated issues.”

Task Force groups met with subject matter experts within the agency and called on experts from other institutions to discuss next steps, making note of themes throughout. Action items were developed from those themes, and a draft report was developed and presented across the agency for feedback from staff.

That feedback was considered and discussed in a series of meetings in preparation for the final version of the report, released to staff in April, which identifies “both explicit and implicit” issues stemming from structural racism. The Task Force recommended a series of actions to move NARA forward toward diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, which were accepted in full by Ferriero.

 

ACTION PLAN

The final report led off with a quote from Harold T. Pinkett—NARA’s first Black archivist, who worked at the agency from 1942 to 1979—in a 1985 oral history. It read, in part, “[W]hile I did not attain heights administratively, perhaps, that I would have desired and I think I might have attained had I not been black, I am not bitter about that fact because I think it’s simply another indication of the status of blacks in American society that while they have progressed considerably, there are still frontiers for them to enter and they still simply have to work harder, perhaps, to attain the same levels that others might attain with less effort.”

Structural racism at NARA is not new, the Executive Summary noted, and the agency continues to battle many of the same issues that Pinkett experienced.

Among other findings in the report, examples of structural racism at NARA were found to include—but not be limited to—a majority of BIPOC staff in lower paying, lower-status jobs; legacy descriptions of archived material that use racial slurs and harmful language; and a permanent display in the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, DC, celebrating wealthy white men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC participants, women, and other communities.

“We are not waiting to complete the E.O. 13985 assessment to begin implementing Task Force recommendations,” said Wall. “We understand the urgent need for action to advance equity across all underserved communities of NARA customers and employees. It will take time to develop full implementation plans and integrate our planned actions into the Administration’s government-wide equity agenda. However, there are several actions we have already initiated to begin implementation of the Task Force recommendations.”

One of these is NARA’s 2022–26 Strategic Plan. As part of that process, the agency is analyzing its mission and goals to identify opportunities to advance equity internally and externally. “We are using the findings and recommendations of the Task Force to assess our current status and to ensure that our future plans are inclusive and impactful to all communities, while supporting and repairing relationships with underserved communities,” said Wall.

NARA has also identified three program areas to elaborate on for E.O. 13985 equity assessments: archival description, digitization of records, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grants program.

In its FY22 Congressional budget request, NARA asked for $20 million to digitize, describe, and provide free online access to records documenting the history of underserved and underrepresented American communities. This will provide for 144 new full-time hires, with funds included for the recruitment of candidates from minority and underrepresented communities for permanent positions and both paid and unpaid internships. This will diversify the workforce and put NARA in a leadership role as far as increasing the diversity of the archival profession. (E.O. 14035, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce, encourages government agencies to reduce their reliance on unpaid internships, and the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget are working on guidance for agencies, including NARA, to increase the availability of paid internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships.) Training and development programs will be developed to help promote an equitable environment for new hires and existing employees.

The budget also includes $3 million for a new NHPRC grants program to preserve and digitize creation records of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), an initiative that will also provide support for archival and research positions at HBCUs across the country.

As recommended by the Archival Description Subgroup, Ferriero chartered a Reparative Description and Digitization Working Group to develop guidance, standards, and processes relating to archival description and equity, as well as transcription efforts for records relevant to underserved and underrepresented communities. A statement on potentially harmful content has been added to NARA’s catalog, which reads, in part, “NARA’s records span the history of the United States, and it is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records. As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance.”

The Museum Subgroup recommended reimagining the Rotunda to create a more inclusive, historically accurate permanent exhibit, adding temporary installations or sculptures where space allows. NARA requested funding from the National Archives Foundation for a new exhibit “that embraces the complexity of the nation’s founding, encourages discussion of our difficult and divided history, and acknowledges, welcomes, and includes the entirety of ‘We the People,’” said Wall. “We have also requested funding from the Foundation to plan a public sculpture program to inspire dialog around issues of diversity and inclusion related to historical narratives of the founding of the United States.”

 

ONWARD FROM THE REPORT

Upon the report’s release, several Republican legislators—including House Oversight Committee ranking member James Comer (R-KY)—denounced its call to revamp the Rotunda, terming it “radical” and telling Fox News that it is “nothing more than progressive propaganda seeking to erase our nation’s history.” Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), a member of the House Oversight Committee, referred to the report’s suggestions as “cancel culture,” stating that the “National Archives is charged with preserving history, not rewriting it.”

For the most part, however, both staff and public response to NARA’s report and its recommendations has been largely supportive.

“We are striving to be open with this effort, and our first step was to publish the report. We will continue to work to be transparent as we follow through on the actions recommended in the report,” Wright noted, adding, “As with any of the other work we do, we expect there to be a variety of responses to our efforts and we will be listening.”

As the agency continues to address the assessments and action plan called for by E.O. 13985, said Tasha Ford, director of the NARA Executive Secretariat, “NARA’s Equity Team will apply government-wide equity guidance and resources from the Administration to the findings and recommendations of the Task Force to achieve the goals in a long-lasting, sustainable manner.”

While NARA has not outlined any partnerships for its equity work yet, Wright said, “As we proceed, we will look for ways to share our successes, mistakes, and lessons learned with other institutions.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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