Project STAND Highlights Student Activism Archives

Fifty years after the campus uprisings of 1968, college students are again raising their voices in activism—although as Project STAND, the online student dissent archive portal, demonstrates, those voices never went away.

Cox Hall Protest, 1969
Courtesy of Emory University

Fifty years after the campus uprisings of 1968, college students are again raising their voices in activism—although as Project STAND, the online student dissent archive portal, demonstrates, those voices never went away. Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented), launched in June 2017 by a coalition of Ohio academic archivists, offers researchers centralized access to historical and archival documentation of student protests spanning more than 175 years. Its collections highlight digital and analog primary sources documenting the actions of student groups who have gathered, marched, protested, sat, occupied, leafleted, and stood up for the concerns of marginalized communities across the country and in Canada—as well as the faculty, staff, and administrators who support them.

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, university archivist and assistant professor at Kent State University (KSU), OH, oversees the University Archives program and manages the Kent State Shootings May 4 Collection and Oral History project, which documents the shootings of 13 student activists on the campus in 1970 by members of the Ohio National Guard. When Hughes-Watkins began working with the KSU archives in 2013, one of the queries she received most often was: Where were the black students in the existing documentation?

"I was asked that question so many times,” she recalled, realizing that “in the photographs that I had seen as a grad student, and then again as a university archivist, there was an absence as far as students of color in most of the images gathered and published at that time. So I decided to dig deeper, and realized that there was this movement taking place in parallel to the anti-war movement—which was primarily a white movement at Kent State.”

KSU’s Black United Students movement, founded in 1968, had counterparts on campuses nationwide as the Black Campus Movement, which helped spur the shift toward more equity for students of color, culturally sensitive programming, and Black Studies departments and programs. In the archives, Hughes-Watkins discovered documentation from Black United Students leadership advising students of color not to attend the May 4 rally because they felt black students would be targeted, in light of events such as the 1968 Orangeburg massacre at South Carolina State University (SCSU), where three African American protesters demonstrating against segregation were killed and 27 others injured. The message from Black United Students leaders, said Hughes-Watkins, was essentially: “[The anti-war movement] isn't our fight. Our fight is the other issues of injustice that are taking place on our campus."

But where were the records of those fights, she wondered, and how could she help other researchers find them? Student activism across the country was growing in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mainstream media outlets like the Atlantic and the New Yorker were taking notice. The 2016 presidential election further galvanized students around political issues.

"With…my interest growing about student activism in academia, specifically traditionally marginalized student populations, I wanted to know what those narratives looked like across regions, geographically—what were those stories at other institutions?” What was missing, she realized, was a centralized location where those narratives could be easily found.

BUILDING BRIDGES

In fall 2016 Hughes-Watkins reached out to Tamar Chute, university archivist and head of archives at Ohio State University (OSU), with an idea. She was considering creating a centralized hub for academic archives that focused on activist student voices at the margins.

Aggregating these resources could be a valuable resource for researchers, scholars, and historians, drive more traffic to underutilized digital and analog collections, and help point up where gaps in the record lay, Hughes-Watkins explained—and she wondered whether

Chute thought it was viable. Chute thought it was a great idea, adding that such an archival “clearing house” could help build bridges to student organizations, specifically those for underrepresented groups, that might have records of their own, and to help position archivists as allies.

OSU has a large number of student organizations, Chute noted, many of which fall through the cracks when it comes to collecting for the school’s archives. “Particularly for students that are on the activism side, they may not look at the university as a place to deposit their material—we're sort of the Big Brother,” she told LJ. “Looking at some of our collections from the 1960s and 1970s, we're missing pieces. And I thought this could be a great opportunity to bring those [organizations] in Ohio together as a resource, but…also then give us an opportunity to share that with other people and [show] we really are serious about collecting these voices."

The two decided to initially contact schools in Ohio, and the reception was enthusiastic from the beginning. The first conference call meeting in December 2016 drew archivists from the University of Cincinnati, Oberlin College, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), and Bowling Green State University (BGSU), and participants discussed everything from their own best practices to guidelines for the new portal to outreach.

Together, they circulated an Excel spreadsheet listing collections to be included from their institutions, agreed on a template for the site—inspired loosely by the University of Chicago’s Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC), according to Hughes-Watkins—and  decided early on that institutions wishing to be included would first fill out an on-site assessment survey on their holdings: collection size and its state of digitization, as well as any copyright or privacy concerns. Standards for social media archives, which come with their own set of privacy concerns, would be based on those used by Documenting the Now, which collects Twitter feeds around social justice issues.

The project officially kicked off on June 16, 2017, with a face-to-face meeting at OSU. An advisory board of archivists was established that fall, which currently includes Hughes-Watkins, Chute, Anna Trammell (University of Illinois), Jarrett Drake (Harvard), Andrea Jackson (BMRC), Helen Conger (CWRU) Elizabeth Smith-Pryor (KSU), Ken Grossi (Oberlin), and Michelle Sweetser (BGSU). Eira Tansey, digital archivist/records manager at the University of Cincinnati, built the bones of the site, which is financially supported by CWRU.

STAND BRANCHES OUT

As word about Project STAND spread, the list of potential partners grew. Since the site’s launch nearly 200 surveys have been completed, and the more than 40 participating institutions have spread far beyond Ohio, including Arizona State University (ASU); Atlanta University Center’s (AUC) Woodruff Library; Chicago State University; Jackson State University, MS; ; Miami University, OH; Michigan State University; Purdue University, IN; the University of Iowa; South Carolina State University; Wright State University, OH; the University of Akron; the University of California San Diego (UCSD); and the University of Rhode Island. Collection materials include primary manuscripts, publications, photographs, and born digital content.

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, 1987
Courtesy of University of Illinois

The WordPress site serves as a portal, linking out to various collections, although the team would like someday to include infrastructure such as an internal database. Much of the material is centered around African American movements, followed by global movements, women’s rights, Latinx rights, environmental activism, LGBTQ rights, religious minorities, disabled rights, and Native American rights.

The 1970s are the best represented decade, with the 1960s close behind. More contemporary collections, from 2000 to the present, are growing rapidly, noted Hughes-Watkins. The oldest material, documenting the anti-slavery movement at Oberlin, dates to the 1840s. Among the many collections featured are the Chicano Research Center at ASU, Stanford University’s Stories from the Archives, and the Orangeburg collection at SCSU, as well as KSU’s efforts to archive its black student movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Partners continue to reach out to other institutions, encouraging them to connect with current students and organizations as well as alumni who may be holding onto artifacts. Chute recalled her own days as the president of a student group, having inherited a box of memorabilia from the previous president: “I threw it under my bed, and gave it to the next woman who was president and I'm sure she threw it under her bed. It didn't occur to us at the time that maybe the archives might be a place for this. Part of the challenge is connecting with those students, making them understand that we really do value what they have."

"I feel like this project has hit the pulse of what people, and archivists, are wanting to do right now,” Hughes-Watkins told LJ. “I think that's why it's been able to grow so quickly because this was on the minds of so many—wanting to have a place to create a network of other colleagues in the profession who are thinking along the same lines, documenting the voices that have been on the margins, and looking for ways to do this work well."

THE CONVERSATION CONTINUES

#BeingBlackatIllinois Protest 2014
Courtesy of University of Illinois

Project STAND has applied for funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Service (IMLS) to conduct four symposia in 2019 that will help further publicize the project; AUC Woodruff, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Chicago, and Arizona State have offered to host, and Bergis Jules, one of the founding partners of Documenting the Now, will participate as well.

Among the many topics the STAND team hopes to see covered at the forums, the challenges of documenting student activism in the age of social media and the ethical issues involved are on everyone’s mind.

Privacy is an ongoing concern, particularly for students of color. Archiving protest work means that the actions of those documented—from student leaders to participants—may follow them throughout their college career and after graduation. At the same time that archivists are trying to build bonds and community with student activists, noted Hughes-Watkins, “We don't want…that content to be weaponized against them when they're looking for a job, or to get their lives started after they graduate. So we have to be very careful how we build this project. We have to keep those ideas and those concerns at the forefront of our work."

One solution, noted Chute, is to offer an embargo on sensitive content. "We don't close material,” she told LJ. “We'll restrict it for a certain amount of time but we won't restrict it forever, because otherwise what's the point of having it in an archive? But if [institutions] feel more comfortable giving it to us and restricting it for ten years, I would rather do that than not have it at all."

But concerns and challenges aside, Project STAND’s partners are excited to be part of a greater conversation.

"We are in the midst of such a polarizing moment in history—politically and socially—whether it's stories of police brutality, violence against members of the transgender community, discrimination against immigrant populations, state violence on campuses,” said Hughes-Watkins. “I feel Project STAND allows for setting a different tone and placing value on the very communities, the oppressed student populations, that have a long history of being silenced and are being impacted by the acts previously mentioned. STAND will help elevate their voices by bringing together archivists, technologists, historians, activists, and others willing to create a network of shared interest [in] doing social justice through archives.”

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