THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Archiving Activism

Creating a collective memory of radicalism in Providence

by Kion You

published November 22, 2019


On the afternoon of Saturday, October 26, a group of educators, students, activists, and community members gathered in a basement room of the Blessed Sacrament Church, a towering red brick structure situated between the Mt. Pleasant and Olneyville neighborhoods. The occasion was celebratory, and the gathering honored two lifelong community organizers: Father Raymond Tetrault, a pastor working with Providence’s Latinx parishes for over 50 years, and Juan Garcia, who had been organizing the immigrant population for around 25.

The event was put together by the George Wiley Center (GWC), a community organization fighting for utility rights, and its Popular Praxis arm, which archives the stories of people like Juan and Father Ray. Longtime parishioners spoke about their appreciation for Father Ray’s and Juan’s work fighting for immigrant rights, community organizing, and economic justice. 

The GWC played documentary footage of, in part, Juan Garcia's life: Onscreen, Garcia talked about growing up in Guatemala City in the 1950s, and as an inconspicuous fourth grader, helping run messages for university students demonstrating against the United Fruit Company. He came to Texas in 1977, and eventually made his way to Providence. Garcia mentioned in the video that his phone, to this day, constantly rings with people asking, “Don Juan, look, I'm locked up,” or “Don Juan, I need help,” which eventually led him to quit his day job as a welder and become a full-time activist and social worker. Garcia's life story not only details an individual’s dedication to community engagement, but also paints a larger picture of resilience exemplified by Latin American immigrants who have made their way to Providence.

During the gathering, Father Ray constantly emphasized that these oral histories could both teach and equip Providence's younger generation in their present struggle for social justice. Brad Duncan, an archivist who runs the extensive radical_archive, an Instagram account documenting printed materials of the radical Left, echoed Father Ray’s sentiments and emphasized their urgency: “There are so many people in their twenties and teens who are thinking about socialism, protest politics, white supremacy right now,” he said. “There is such a hunger for information to organize and know what people fought for in the ’60s and ’70s.”

In both a local and national climate of public charge, cuts to immigrant welfare, and constant threats of ICE raids, it almost seems antithetical to slow down and parse through archives, to engage in quiet reflection. However, the wisdom of local activists like Father Ray and Juan, as well as others throughout Providence, proves to be necessary because it helps us reckon with not only how much it takes to enact social change, but also that it is a tenable, worthwhile enterprise.

 

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“How do we get ahead of the funeral and create a culture of resistance and solidarity?” Camilo Viveiros asked the College Hill Independent, explaining why the GWC decided to devote time and resources to recording the stories of Garcia and Tetrault. In 35 years of activism, Viveiros had seen enough elegiac praise and reflection after activists had passed away. He wanted to encourage mutual reflection between generations and strengthen the “movement muscles” needed in the intergenerational fight for social justice.

“There isn't a network of grassroots organizations that have the resources to preserve stories,” said Viveiros, and as a result, the GWC launched their own efforts to establish a “horizontal model” of community archiving in Providence around five years ago, in which stories are recorded by community members, for community members. For example, the idea to archive the lives of Father Ray and Juan arose organically from Viveiros’s past organizing with the two. The GWC then consulted them to determine what they wanted to speak on, as well as how they would engage their stories with the context of the Olneyville community. Today, the GWC is working on around a dozen oral histories of activists around Providence.


Communities have been building “horizontal,” collective memories since the beginning of time, but with the dizzying pace and proliferation of contemporary social movements, especially on social media platforms, archiving efforts must not only take advantage of new recording technologies, but also slow down the pace of online information flow by tapping into historical precedents. Brad Duncan, with his 2,000 photos and 6,500 Instagram followers, can be seen as retrofitting the endlessness of social media into a new, online horizontal model of archiving. Moreover, Duncan has also created public-facing projects in community centers, bookstores, and art spaces that “bring new life to the material.” His ultimate goal is to resuscitate and resituate the radicalness of the 1960s into the contemporary landscape of activism, and has created an egalitarian community that can now access these previously unavailable forms of knowledge.


The term “radical archives,” both as the username of Duncan's Instagram account and as an academic field, seems ironic, given that the basic job of an archive is to preserve, and “radicalism” connotes a sense of drastic or violent change. But “radical,” in its Latin roots, also means fundamental, and thus encompasses a sense of fixedness and singular devotion in addition to one of forceful action. Duncan’s steadfast commitment to displaying revolutionary material, and the GWC’s capturing of community memories through oral history, can thus be seen as radical in this sense of fixedness, and may even empower community members to fight against narratives that have falsely represented or erased them.

 

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Viveiros pointed out to the Independent the Providence activists whose lifelong labor has been forgotten and erased by dominant discourse and whose lives the GWC has been striving to archive. He praised Paul McNeil (about whom I could find absolutely nothing online) saying that McNeil had been known as the “mayor of Thayer Street” and spent his life advocating for LGBTQ issues, founding a movement called “Pride at Work.”

Viveiros also highlighted the GWC’s oral history of Annette Gagne, the only time Gagne, who passed away last year, shared her story of activism to be recorded. Gagne, who worked as a postal worker and joined the Socialist Workers Party in the ’70s, was a crucial member of Providence's first Pride March in 1976.
Viveiros also praised Pauline Perkins-Moye, who is currently the director of Resident Services for the Newport Housing Authority, and a longtime advocate for Newport food security. Without archiving and talking about the work of Perkins-Moye, who offers a counterpoint to the popular portrait of Newport as home to only jazz, mansions, and Gilded Age affluence, Perkins-Moye’s activism—her lawsuits against public housing discrimination and her advocacy for food stamp programs—would be much more obscured. And contemporary movements like the local Black Lives Matter movement, Viveiros explains, could be better contextualized within the lineage of activism of Black activism in Rhode Island and people like Perkins-Moye.

The documentary of Juan Garcia also offered insights into not just about activists across generations, but also across nationalities, specifically around anti-colonial and Third World liberation. Duncan continually emphasized the importance of international solidarity, and said, “one of the biggest throughlines in the archive is the way in which class struggle and national liberation bled together.” Because this is not the way that social movements are taught in public education, Duncan said, the work of the archive becomes that much more critical in providing counternarratives and points of comparison, and Garcia’s life thus offers crucial teaching points.

 

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The greatest hindrance to the GWC’s archiving efforts is a lack of manpower and funding, as organizations like the GWC have more urgent services to provide, such as helping low income families maintain access to indoor heating throughout the winter. Presumably, the arduous task of archiving could be alleviated by Providence’s wealthy, prestigious institutions like Brown and RISD, which are uniquely slated to build archival knowledge with their extensive library systems. Brown University’s special collections alone contains 250 discrete collections of archival material. Within the university, the question of institutional involvement in local city needs is one constantly asked, especially due to their tax exempt, nonprofit status. So what, if anything, are Providence’s universities to do in regards to radical archival practice?

Both Duncan and Viveiros are hesitant to employ, or recommend, institutions in aiding such work. “Obviously we don’t expect institutions to push back against the interests that they serve,” Duncan said, in regards to the pushback universities have expressed against radical student movements and demands. Viveiros said that the GWC welcomes interns and help from college students, specifically in doing this work around oral history, but states that “We specifically put our energy into folks outside the ivory tower.” This is in part why Popular Praxis was founded, he said, to take radical academic theory out of elite circles and utilize it to benefit the lives of the community members through “popular education,” in which knowledge is shared among the community.

Historian Howard Zinn, in his “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest,” writes “that the existence, preservation, and availability of archives, documents, records in our society are very much determined by the distribution of wealth and power.” Should institutions do anything at all, if their subsuming of community archives constitutes a form of Marxist class dissolution, a superstructure absorbing the radical base into itself and sanitizing it?


Yet, there have always been radical archival efforts within institutions, such as the University of California Berkeley’s Emma Goldman Papers Project, after the anarchist political activist Emma Goldman, and Duncan states that university libraries have recently been creating special collections to include more radical materials. Nevertheless, “They remain institutions that do not share the politics of radical activists," Duncan said. “None of them have shown a long term commitment to it.”

 

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Putting aside the role of institutions, both Duncan and Viveiros hope to use their archives to empower newer activists. Viveiros’ long-term vision for the GWC's storytelling project is expanding into working class neighborhoods throughout Providence to give young people the tools and the resources to interview the activists around them. He hopes these developments will help local students glean what it takes to successfully agitate for social change.

This is why recording the lives of organizers like Juan Garcia is so important. Garcia, in his oral history, continually pointed back to watershed years in Providence's own history of activism: 1986, when the federal government granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants; 2000, when they did it again; 2006, when Garcia helped get 30,000 allies marching on the streets; 2008, when he mobilized the Providence immigrant community against then-Governor Don Carcieri’s anti-immigrant executive order; today, when he is still advocating for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Proper archival work thus can help encourage, sustain, and historicize today's social movements, such as the current sustained protests against the Wyatt Detention Center and its holding of ICE detainees.
Garcia, while talking about the current, hard-fought campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, said, “If one day we accomplish getting the license for immigrants, it's because we fought for it, not because they gave it to us… It's because of us.” Archives, thus, concretize our recognition of the fact that our contemporary struggle is one that reaches back, that activism has been alive, is currently alive, and will stay alive.

KION YOU B’20 wants you to get involved with the George Wiley Center's archiving efforts!