For the 10th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Social Justice, Sustainability and Activism in Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of Social Justice, Sustainability or Activism in Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 9 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus – click here.
As a preface to this post, I would like to acknowledge my belief that history is the most subversive academic discipline because of the opportunities offered by its previous (and continued) utilization as a tool of hegemony. In my opinion, as a minimum threshold, good history is necessarily concerned with social justice because it sheds light on the lives of people who have been marginalized in life and in history. Good public history, likewise, is oriented toward social justice with the added responsibility of engaging the wider public in every step of the historical process. Such activism encourages public participation in the production and consumption of history which expands our understanding of the complexity of society in the past and the present.
The Public History Lab is a recently-created and rapidly-evolving graduate student project in collaboration with the Rogers Park / West Ridge Historical Society. The major goal of the project is to apply the collective professional experience and academic talent of Loyola’s public history students to the historical society of our university’s home neighborhood. The potential benefits of the collaboration seem almost endless. The historical society receives free professional support and additional historical resources to support their existing projects, programs and goals. Students receive additional hands-on experience with a real institution and the opportunity to create new projects and programs that reach a broader audience. Particularly exciting is the chance to collaborate with the society’s membership as well as a large base of public historians to experiment with new things – a decidedly rare opportunity in the professional world, where the public historian is either the lone paid staffer or institutional priorities hamstring creativity.
Established in 1975, the society is dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods. In the recent past, the Society has been in a transitional period. For most of its history the Society had functioned under the leadership of Mary Jo Doyle – who oversaw and organized everything from collections to volunteering and events. Since Doyle’s passing in 2009, the Society has adopted a board structure to sustain its activities and bring more Far North Siders into the organizational fold.
At this early stage, the Public History Lab is focused on working with the Society’s collection chair to organize and process its existing materials. Up until 2009, the materials were mostly collected by Doyle and reflect her interests in history as well as her extensive participation in the Rogers Park community and many of its organizations. The great difficulty is that with such a strong personality at the center of the Society, the materials were organized in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner, making research in the collection a challenge. The Public History Lab’s aim is to help the Society to reorganize the collection based on current archival best practices and to seek grant opportunities to help fund the purchase of archival materials needed for the project.
From this beginning, we hope to expand the Public History Lab’s wider involvement with the Society using the collection as well as the institutional memory of the organization as a springboard. At the heart of our interest is working with the society to build new experimental projects and programs that reach a wider cross-section of the Rogers Park community in creative and thought-provoking ways. Rogers Park is one of the most diverse and culturally rich neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, and as such presents a real opportunity for meaningful public history work.