Please note: throughout this blog we use Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) when talking about the wider communities we work with. We know these terms can be problematic and we don’t always feel comfortable using language that some contest. For now, we continue to use varying terminology depending on the context and we welcome the ongoing debate and discussion about how we describe ourselves.
As the country is retreating into a second lockdown, we invite readers to revisit the significance of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. This blog shares the development of the AIU RACE Centre’s COVID-19 Collecting project and our recent grant from the Resourcing Racial Justice Network.
How it started…
Following the first nationwide lockdown in March 2020, many archives and cultural organisations set out to document the experiences of Greater Manchester residents as the pandemic played out. A report on ‘Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups’ was conducted by Public Health England in June, 4 months after the start of the initial lockdown1. And whilst it evidences that these groups are more likely to test positive for and die from COVID-19 than White British groups, there is a lack of organisations actively exploring and documenting the disproportionate impact of this on those communities. There is a danger that the experiences of our BAME, refugee and migrant communities go unrecorded.
It is vital for the AIU Centre to provide a platform for these narratives and to explore the interconnection between COVID-19’s impact on BAME groups and other race-related issues of housing, healthcare and workforce diversity. Our role, as a community archive, is to document racist systems and structures, especially during a time when these voices have been alarmingly absent from mainstream archives. Our COVID-19 Collecting project was sparked spontaneously from various parts of the team with the aim of collecting and documenting these unheard narratives to emphasise that #AllStoriesAreImportant.
The project developed organically and our call-out invited the donation of materials that told the story of ‘BAME’ people and communities during the COVID-19 lockdown.
As the project evolved, working remotely threw up many challenges and new issues. Through weekly team meetings and working with existing resources, we began to (and continue to) rethink the way we work. For example, how would we invite people to tell us about their experiences of the pandemic without creating or reawakening trauma?
It is vital to work responsibly and to consider each part of the project’s process carefully, so we can approach these histories in a personal and sensitive manner.
The Centre has always favoured being clear with donors about the way we work, and this transparent archiving practice allows them to feel safe sharing their personal stories. For example, normally we would sit down with donors to discuss their stories, talk through important documentation and involve them directly in the archive cataloguing process. However, we realised early on that this would be impossible during lockdown. The questions arose: How could we make the donation process work for donors during lockdown? How do we make an online permissions form accessible, when donors and staff would normally talk through documentation in person? Other questions included: Will we only collect material through online email submissions? After accessioning donations that are digitally born and digital versions of items, is it important for the original physical copies to be donated at a later date? What safety measures do we have in place to check the security of the digital files that are to be stored?
Another issue we faced was how to encourage people to donate. Much of our collecting is done collaboratively with community organisations but this wasn’t possible. Many of our former partners were either working out how to operate in a new and difficult environment or finding their energies were drawn by fighting COVID and its impact within their communities. We realised we would have to be creative and seek out opportunities, working with people who were interested in supporting our collecting.
For example, our work with ESOL learners began from a discussion around the struggles of isolation many non-English speakers are faced with during lockdown. Language barriers make lockdown guidelines and health measures harder to understand. Migrant communities often find themselves isolated from family and friends from outside the country, and so face-to-face relationships are essential in creating a sense of community. Under the lockdown, these things have made significant changes to their daily lives. Our work in creating ESOL lesson plans provides these ESOL learners with a platform to express their experiences of the pandemic-lockdown and to document them when they may encounter language barriers at other archives.
Resourcing Racial Justice Funding
We knew we faced an uphill struggle to adequately document the impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities within our existing resources. In July 2020, an exciting new fund was launched: the Resourcing Racial Justice Fund. Grants were available to organisations whose aim was to redress the impact of COVID-19 and challenge structural and other forms of racism.
We believe that experiences and history need to be not only recorded but also put to work. Our COVID-19 collection would never be purely about documenting experiences; we would hope that the collection could be put to use, and would be used to challenge racism and inequality. The AIU Centre’s COVID-19 project therefore aligns strongly with the objective of the Resourcing Racial Justice fund. We were delighted when we heard that we had been awarded a grant from this programme.
The Resourcing Racial Justice funding will allow us to strengthen relationships with individual and group activists to explore their anti-racist activism and how our COVID-19 Collecting can support them. It will also fund the appointment of a Project Manager to build on existing foundations and drive the work forward. We can now advance our work with translated and Easy Read materials, increasing accessibility. Importantly, we now have a small but significant pot of funding to use with our community partners, so they can participate actively.
We look forward to using this funding opportunity to document an accurate and equally represented context to COVID-19 stories.
As an Archivist Trainee, I have been learning about standard archival processes and how to make archives accessible to our audience. Alongside the team, I found myself adapting to the challenges presented by the project. It is interesting to see how my own learning has evolved to fit our organisation’s mission of working inclusively and still maintain this during the lockdown. Thus far, it has been exciting to see the development of our usual interactions with activist groups and BAME communities, and I anticipate the ways in which we will further strengthen these relationships. I’ve learnt that it is important for us to set an example of inclusive archiving so that we can influence other archives and organisations to do the same.
For more information about the Project Manager role: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/were-hiring-2/
If you would like to donate your own materials to our collecting campaign, please look at our COVID-19 Collecting website page for details on how to donate: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/covid-19/