Monday, June 27, 2016

Tell me about grassroots history-from-below projects in Canada!

Perhaps the most obvious way to summarize a great deal of the work that I've done over the last two decades -- including the books and radio show of the Talking Radical project, but also a lot of things that haven't happened under that banner -- is the tag-line that I put in the header of the Talking Radical website: "historical & contemporary voices from social movements in Canada."

That's accurate and important, but it's equally true to describe all of that work (and perhaps even more of what I've done than that phrase captures) as being about trying to intervene in what ever small critical ways I can in our dominant stories of here and we -- sometimes meaning the dominant stories of "Canada" and "Canadians," but leaving it open to mean a lot of other things as well. For instance, I began the two oral history-based books that I published with the idea that I was mainly contributing to histories of movements, but over the many years of working with the material it became clear that it was at least as important for me to think about movements and communities-in-struggle as an entry point for history-from-below that that was trying to disrupt dominant narratives of this country and those of us who live here.

Recently, I've been thinking more about that, for a bunch of reasons. Partly, it's because a particular tangent within the Talking Radical project that I put a lot of energy into earlier in the year is probably not going to happen after all, so I've reverted my attention to some work that I suspended late last year that is focused on drawing from the interviews of Talking Radical Radio to do precisely this sort of intervention into dominant stories of here and we. Partly, though, it's because I recently went to the 18th annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, and found that a significant proportion of the workshops I attended either directly or indirectly got me thinking about related questions -- the most exciting of these was, perhaps, the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective, but there were lots of others. As well, as I approach the one-year mark in my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, I still have not found a satsifactory way to regularly engage politically in the community, but I'm becoming increasingly excited about the possibility of doing that via a specific local history-from-below project that a friend is trying to get going, that fits very well with these overall priorities. And then, finally, there is just the whole state of the world right now, where in so many contexts we seem to be constrained to a soul-wrenching binary for understanding here and we -- the empty and oppressive neoliberal imaginary of Trudeau/Clinton/the mainstream Remain campaign in the recent EU referendum, or the terrifying xenophobic right-nationalism of the Canadian Conservatives of the 'barbaric cultural practices' tip line/Trump/the mainstream Leave campaign. We absolutely need to be working on narratives of here and we that challenge that horrid binary and open space for more radical and liberatory re-imaginings of our world.

For all of those reasons, and to better think through my own future work, I've decided that I want to put together a list of existing projects in the Canadian context that are doing this kind of work. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with this listing...maybe just learn for my own use from the various projects I discover, though I may also end up writing something about engaged, extra-academic history-from-below in the Canadian context.

Specifically, I'm looking for projects that are:

  • historical;
  • focused on movements, communities-in-struggle, or places;
  • organized around some kind of critical politics and a from-below orientation;
  • actively engaged with communities and/or movements in how they are done, whether or not they are also connected with a university context;
  • working to catalyze those active practices that are part of generating critical historical memory (and therefore critical understandings of the current world) among non-scholars, whether or not the project is also engaging in original research -- in other words, movement-based events and conversations focused on history that do not themselves produce new research are also part of what I want to hear about.
I am definitely not looking for:
  • local history that lacks critical politics -- and to be clear, I would categorize projects that go as far as liberal state multi-culturalism and no farther as lacking critical politics;
  • academic projects that are about all of the things that I mention above but that do not engage beyond the academy.
I'm aware of a handful of projects that seem to meet these criteria, though I'm sure there are many more. Here's what I know of so far:
  • the AIDS Activist Oral History Project;
  • the work of the Graphic History Collective;
  • the collaboration between the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre and Local 832 of the United Food and Commerical Workers (though this may have ended)(UPDATE: Apparently it's still happening.);
  • the No One Is Illegal - Coast Salish Territories Inhereting Resistance Project (though I think this too has ended);
  • the BC Labour Heritage Centre;
  • the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton, Ontario;
  • some of the work of McGill University-based activist scholar Aziz Choudry (though I'm not sure how much of his current historical work is focused on Canadian movements -- at least some is focused on South Africa);
  • a place-based one in Kingston, Ontario, that I heard about recently and think might fit these criteria but that I don't recall clearly enough to find;
  • something called the Toronto Worker History Project, that I believe is still in the discussion phase;
  • the website (though with all due respect to the great people who publish great work there, I'm not sure how far its readership extends beyond other academic historians...I'm keen to be proven wrong, though); and,
  • the OPIRG McMaster History project.

I'm sure there must be others, so send me an email to scottneigh[AT], leave a comment, be in touch via social media, or send me a carrier pigeon with your suggestions!

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