Hey, internet! We’re Daniel Morales and Nick Juravich, a pair of grad students in history from Columbia University who have just landed in South El Monte and El Monte for two weeks, and while we’re happy to escape the freezing Northeast, that’s not why we’re here. We’ve come under the auspices of the South El Monte Arts Posse, an interdisciplinary arts collective founded by our friends. In their hometowns of South El Monte and El Monte, they’ve launched an award-winning community-based history and archiving project called “East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and ElMonte.”
Faithful readers of ToM will be familiar with East of East, but for those who aren’t, a brief intro: Over the past several years, the project has combined community-centered history, public archiving, and social arts practice to document and celebrate the history of these communities. East of East has brought together scholars, artists, writers, activists, and archivists from across the US and Mexico, and they’ve engaged and invigorated a long history of grassroots activism, local history, and community education in these two cities. With the assistance of ToM’s editors, they’ve created a reader of history and culture in South El Monte and El Monte that has become a regular column with KCET (we’ve had the privilege of contributing a pair of essays). SEMAP has hosted events ranging from walk-in oral history sessions to yarn bombings to family picnics, and they’ve built a transnational, digital, public archive of these communities that combines innovative archival practice with democratic commitments to access and knowledge production.
Our department at Columbia has launched an initiative called “History in Action” with the support of the American Historical Association and the Mellon Foundation, and as part of it, we won funding to come out to California for two weeks. Thanks also to the oral history centers at UCLA and Columbia who have also provided help in this effort. While we’re here, we’ll be conducting oral histories, sifting through archives, and taking part in public events at local high schools (in partnership with KCET’s Youth Voices program) and senior centers.
So, this is why we’re here, but why are we posting about it before we’ve actually done anything? We’re trying out an idea that sounds like an oxymoron: live-blogging public history (ToM has graciously agreed to humor us). By this we mean that we’re going to write about what we’re doing while we do it, posting short updates, reflections on interviews, archival materials, and conversations as we encounter them. If all goes as planned, this will hopefully help us do three things:
Publicize the project and generate further collaboration. The first part of this is obvious: blogging makes it easy to generate coverage. But we’re also hoping that through a combination of web and social media sites, we can catch the attention of people – particularly residents in the communities we’re working with – who might help us improve what we’re doing WHILE we’re doing it (if you’re reading this, we’re looking at you). This could mean all sorts of things: suggestions of someone to interview or events to investigate, links that relate to a particular post, or even an offer of assistance (or suggestion of where to look for collaborators).
Improve the output down the line. Everybody takes notes, but by using a live-blogging-process to do so, we’re hoping to take better notes. By writing with the knowledge that people will read them, we’ll hopefully make our notes and reflections stronger. The collaborations described above will also improve these notes by opening them to suggestion and critique. Scholars have, in recent years, been experimenting with this kind of writing – Claire Bond Potter’s work and the Writing History in the Digital Age project come to mind – and we’ll be looking to their work as we do this.
Leave a record of our paths. In addition to building a great project, SEMAP has kept good records of their own progress. This has included postings on ToM and KCET, and detailed updates on previous projects, including Activate Vacant, the residency the Black Arts Collective of Philadelphia, and last year’s inaugural six weeks of “East of East.” Recording the processes and paths of scholars and writers – or creating archives paths THROUGH archives – has captured the attention of archivists recently. Keeping records can help make our work more transparent, by revealing how we got where we did, and it can also suggest roads not taken to the next group of folks who come through East of East and SEMAP.
So that’s what we’re up to – stay tuned, and if you have any suggestions, comments, critiques, ideas, or other input, let us know!
Daniel Morales was born in South El Monte and grew up in nearby Azusa, California. He studies the economic and social history of the United States and Mexico, particularly the creation of migrant networks across Mexico and the US in the early 20th century. Nick Juravich studies the history of social movements, education, labor, and urban policy in the US in the twentieth century. He lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he worked in youth health and education programming before coming to Columbia, and where he still writes periodically on contemporary community issues.