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Community Collaboration with the Reckonings Project

Image of the community care and preservation zine co-designed with the Reckonings Project.

In October 2023, I attended the Fall semester SOURCE event with NULab assistant director, Sean Rogers. The NULab and DITI’s booth at the event was next to the Reckonings Project’s booth, and we met Dzidzor Azaglo, a staff member of the Project. Dzidzor, Sean, and I chatted with each other and with students about our work in digital humanities and interests in community-engaged research. Dzidzor shared with us that the Reckonings Project had been using NULab and DITI resources to support their oral history work, and I became interested in how digital tools could further support the Project’s work to preserve collective memory and cultural heritage. 

The Reckonings Project has completed different projects around the Boston area to archive community histories (Reckonings Project, 2024), and is currently working with Freedom House, a non-profit located between Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. Freedom House aims to support Black and Brown students in reaching and graduating from college, and historically has shaped Black education and civil rights in Boston (Freedom House, 2024). Through its 75 years as a neighborhood institution, Freedom House has implemented programs such as Project PUSH, Project Reach, and the Goldenaires program to provide a range of social and educational services to community members. Despite Freedom House’s longstanding presence in the Dorchester and Roxbury communities, and its significance to Boston’s history, Freedom House’s own stories and memories were almost lost when it was facing demolition in 2022 (Kindy, 2022). 

To celebrate its 75th anniversary and preserve its history, Freedom House is working with the Reckonings Project to record oral histories and living artifacts of community members and alumni of Freedom House’s past programs. I collaborated with Dzidzor, Dr. Uta Poiger, one of the principal investigators of the Reckonings Project, Halima Haruna, a graduate assistant of the Project, and Greg Lord, the Project’s web administrator, to identify the best, free, digital tool for recording and saving audio in a format compatible with the Project’s existing digital archive site on Omeka. We also wanted to use a recording tool that we could teach to Freedom House’s Junior and College Success Coaches, post-secondary students who help facilitate Freedom House’s current programming as well as support high school students’ transition to college in the Boston area. I built upon existing teaching resources provided by the DITI to create training materials for the Reckonings Project, which demonstrate how to use the free audio recording and editing tool, Audacity, to record oral histories, and use the online transcription program, Otter AI, to transcribe the recorded audio. I collaborated with Freedom House’s Junior Coaches, Alex Mella and Kevin Williams, Freedom House’s PUSH College Success Coach, Iverson Mella, and the Reckonings Project undergraduate staff, Jeta Perjuci, to test the recording and transcription process in real-time with interviews recorded at Freedom House. Alex, Kevin, Iverson, and Jeta have now successfully used Audacity and Otter AI tools to record and transcribe several interviews of Freedom House’s program alumni and local community members. 

Through these interviews, the Reckonings Project can get direct accounts of Freedom House’s history of community involvement in Dorchester and Roxbury, and get a view of what Boston was like in decades past. One interviewee recounted how Dr. Melnea Cass and other civil rights leaders regularly visited Freedom House to organize civil rights actions with the leadership and adults of Boston’s Black community, as well as to support Freedom House’s youth programs. The interviewee went on to share how Freedom House provided a space for Black arts and cultural programs and uplifted community events for Black Bostonians, such as jazz concerts at Franklin Park’s White Stadium. These memories are important to remembering and reconstructing Boston’s Black history and Freedom House’s pivotal role in it. With the training materials, use of free tools, and now established experience of the undergraduate junior coaches and project staff, the Reckonings Project and Freedom House can ensure sustainable cultural preservation and continue celebrating Freedom House’s history.

Alongside providing technical support, I collaborated with Dzidzor to plan for future workshops aimed at establishing a broader community research agreement. I began with a literature review of best practices for ethical, community-based participatory oral history research, particularly in historically-marginalized communities (Goddard et al., 2021; Michell, 2009; Riccio et al., 2022; Tuck, 2009; Tuck and Yang, 2014). One of the most important practices before beginning research is considering the researchers’ position, background, and perspectives relative to the community, and how these factors may bias or shape research (Muhammed et al., 2014; Ross et al., 2010). The step to reflect on researcher positionality facilitates intentional relationship building with community partners, a key part of establishing ethical, community-based, participatory research collaborations (Cornell University, 2021; National Equity Project, 2023). Within the relationship-building process are several major considerations that researchers need to resolve with community partners, including setting expectations about the research process, timeline, and goals; establishing logistics about communication, documentation, analysis, and other aspects of co-creating research; outlining provisions for equitable research participation of community partners and ensuring mutually-beneficial work; considering data ownership, access, storage, and use after the research collaboration; and sharing and co-authoring research findings (Burns and Randles, 2016; Dekker et al., 2021; Valk et al., 2011). Oral history research can be stored in archives outside of the communities whose memories and data are preserved in recorded histories. It is important to design research protocols and provisions with community partners to ensure their recorded information is not taken out of context or used in ways that go against community wishes, particularly as different audiences interact with the co-produced research with permission. Potential questions to consider with community partners include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • What does the community need? What do community partnering organizations need and how do our project goals align?
  • What tangible benefits can this research provide the community?
  • How can this research support community recovery after research?
  • How can the initial research questions and methods be improved for the community context?
  • What information should be kept private and/or highlighted in the research?
  • What provisions are needed to ensure ethical data collection, management, storage, and access? Who owns, maintains, and can access community-created data over time?
  • How to make the final research products or other outcomes physically and digitally accessible?
  • What are other questions this research should prioritize?

One way of beginning these conversations is to host community events and workshops where partners can openly discuss and resolve questions about the research co-production. While these kinds of events set a clear purpose for establishing research agreements with community collaborators, they also assume collaborators have time and resources necessary to attend events. 

Dzidzor and I discussed how we could move the nature of community agreement workshops from inviting collaborators, to meeting community partners where they are at, both literally and figuratively. One method to accomplish this is to attend community partner events in Dorchester and Roxbury and make use of existing community conversations. Within situated conversations, the Project can ask intentional questions to connect their oral history work to community needs—such as “What does repair look like?”—questions to understand how trust-building and reparations can occur through community preservation work. The Reckonings Project staff have plans to attend community events over Summer 2024, and with permission, collect written, photographed, audio, and/or video forms of these answers. The collected answers can then be used to inform community agreements in collaboration with local partners and residents. 

Another method to meet communities where they are is by directly providing access to training materials and tools for digital cultural preservation. Dzidzor and I are using another free, digital tool called Canva to co-produce a zine with links to oral history projects, blogs, podcasts, tools, and educational resources to support community members in archiving their personal and community memory and cultures. 

To encourage multi-modal engagement, there is a space for zine readers to draw or write what they would like to preserve about their communities, and get them thinking about what community care and repair looks like to them. Another section covers the physical and digital resources for zine readers to use when recording their stories, such as the Boston Public Libraries Oral History Backpacks and the DITI’s module on using Audacity to record oral histories. We are also linking to playlists and podcasts to provide more information on collecting and preserving community histories, and allow zine readers to explore oral history work at their own pace. 

Finally, we are including QR codes for example oral history projects, such as the DITI’s Meet the Method blog for recording family traditions with Audacity and the digital archive of the Harriet Tubman House Memory Project. Dzidzor and I envision the zine will take on different iterations in the future, eventually with links to the Reckonings Project’s recorded interviews of Freedom House program alumni. Physical copies of the zine can be shared by the Reckonings Project with community members and research partners to enable community-led conversations on preserving local collective memory and heritage. 

Shows the process of co-designing a zine about community care and preservation using Canva. The pages of the zine prompt readers to write or draw what community care looks like to them, listen to local oral histories, explore resources on how to create their own oral history records, and enjoy community art and history as forms of sustenance.

Figure 1: Co-designing a zine about community care and preservation using Canva. The pages of the zine prompt readers to write or draw what community care looks like to them, listen to local oral histories, explore resources on how to create personal oral history records, and enjoy community art and history as forms of sustenance.

I enjoyed working with the Reckonings Project and Freedom House team and supporting their work to encourage community care and preservation. Looking to the future, I’m excited to see the work of Freedom House junior coaches, staff, and Reckonings Project contributors. Their efforts to co-create a participatory oral history project opened my eyes to how community-led research can uplift the important stories of the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods and reckon with Boston’s history.

References and resources for community collaboration:

  • Burns, K., & Randles, E. (2016). Community-based learning and research agreements: An introductory guide for higher education teaching staff. University College Cork, Ireland.
  • Cornell University. (2021). IDP Resources: An Introduction to Community Agreements. Intergroup Dialogue Project. 
  • Dekker, J., Klein, D., & Rose, D. (2021). Oral History Toolkit. 
  • Freedom House. (2024). Freedom House- Inspiring Black, Brown, and Immigrant Students. Freedom House. 
  • Goddard-Durant, S., Sieunarine, J. A., & Doucet, A. (2021). Decolonising research with black communities: Developing equitable and ethical relationships between academic and community stakeholders. Families, Relationships and Societies, 10(1), 189-196.
  • Michell, H. J. (2009). Gathering berries in northern contexts: a Woodlands Cree metaphor for community-based research. Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal & Indigenous Community Health, 7(1).
  • Muhammed, M., Wallerstein, N., & Duran, B. (2014). Reflections on Researcher Identity and Power: The Impact of Positionality on Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) Processes and Outcomes. Critical Sociology.
  • National Equity Project. (2023). Developing Community Agreements. National Equity Project. 
  • Reckonings Project. (2024). Reckonings – A local history platform for the community-archivist. 
  • Riccio, R., Berkey, B., & Mecagni, G. (2022). Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers. 
  • Ross, L. F., Loup, A., Nelson, R. M., Botkin, J. R., Kost, R., Smith Jr, G. R., & Gehlert, S. (2010). Human subjects protections in community-engaged research: a research ethics framework. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 5(1), 5-17.
  • Kindy, D. (2022, February). Freedom House, an Iconic Civil Rights Hub in Boston, Is Set for Demolition. Smithsonian Magazine. 
  • Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard educational review, 79(3), 409-428.
  • Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). R-words: Refusing research. Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities, 223, 248.
  • Valk, A., Atticks, A., Binning, R., Manekin, E., Schiff, A., Shibata, R., & Townes, M. (2011). Engaging Communities and Classrooms: Lessons from the Fox Point Oral History Project. The Oral History Review, 38(1), 136–157.

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