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The Reparative Work of Radical Collaboration: Project Planning to Enhance Outcomes and Long-term Sustainability of Community Partnerships

Published onMar 30, 2023
The Reparative Work of Radical Collaboration: Project Planning to Enhance Outcomes and Long-term Sustainability of Community Partnerships

Manifestations of community-based work in public digital humanities are numerous and varied. They may include research involving individuals and their personal histories, community archives, as well as the analysis, visualization, and dissemination of community data. However, pervasive histories of institutional exploitation, exertions of power and authority, and continued extractive research relationships have led to distrust and hesitancy amongst many community groups regarding partnerships with large institutions, particularly academic institutions, where we are physically, socially, economically, and culturally immersed in structures of white supremacy and colonialism. The academy has long profited from the suffering of others, from the labour of the enslaved in the financing and building of some of our most prestigious universities to land-grant institutions expropriating Indigenous lands. Academic research practices have and, in many ways, continue to be extractive and as memory institutions have continuously ignored and misrepresented the histories of our most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

However, with respect, care, and intentionality in how we approach community partnerships, these relationships may perhaps be built or repaired. This reparative work must thoroughly and consistently emphasize collaborations that are fair and equitable, that are not extractive, and where benefit to the community is central. To form meaningful and mutually beneficial collaborations, those of us working in academia and other large, well-funded cultural heritage organizations must be rigorously self-reflective and self-critical, we must work to mitigate existing power structures, we must place community at the core, and we must honestly and transparently address stewardship and sustainability.

In Digital Humanities Project Management as Scholarly Exchange, Jason Boyd argues that project management is devalued as a service-oriented task, when in fact it is a crucial component of scholarly exchange. I will go further to say that project management is integral in determining a project’s long-term impact on future research possibilities through establishing and nurturing relationships between project participants across knowledge domains and groups. In the context of community-based initiatives, the project manager takes on a role of even greater significance and consequence. Their sphere of influence reaches beyond the academy to impact individuals and groups to whom the collaborative work carries personal significance. Failures in consideration of community in project planning and management can lead to discord, lack of confidence, decreased morale, and distrust that can have lasting ramifications. Without transparent and ongoing negotiations of project processes and outcomes the potential for harm is vast, while the merit of this work to the communities we work with may be limited or non-existent.

This paper treats the principles of radical collaboration as a foundation from which to build out methods for real-world application in project management. Operationalized and specific actionable suggestions to shape high-trust relationships will help in the development of a project management community of praxis. Here, I offer a case study in project management, which applies concepts of radical collaboration and socially just archival practices, working towards repairing and sustaining community/academy relationships. This initiative was selected because it provides a broad range of scenarios for community work, illustrating the array of points at which the community driven project management methodologies are applied. My involvement in this multi-year initiative has been in initial planning and ongoing service as technical lead for library digital collections. This case study is not meant to be a perfect model, but rather a demonstration of community-centred approaches as we continue to develop a shift in practice towards better and more equitable relationships with community partners. The methodologies applied in these cases draw on multidisciplinary approaches in librarianship, history, and social sciences for engagement in social justice and reparative work. Project managers for these initiatives guide project activities in partnership with community archives as well as community scholars to ensure better approaches to collaboration with empathy, humility, and respect. It is through these practices that we are able to work towards more fair and equitable partnerships.

To set the tone for building a culture of trust, the language in this document will avoid terms such as “empower” and “grant” when referring to the academy’s role in community collaboration because these terms carry the presupposition of institutional authority. Similarly, recommendations will also exclude extractive terms and practices such as “harvest,” “mine,” and “collect” when referring to community histories and culture. It is also important to note that the recommendations outlined below are derived from the experiences and perspective of someone employed at an academic library, situated within a R1 classified Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), which is not exempt from histories of institutional abuse. The paper is an attempt at a path towards reparative work, and so it is necessary to acknowledge collective and individual shortcomings.

A Study in Radical Collaboration

Radical collaboration is an approach based on the fundamental concepts of design thinking and radical candour, where inclusivity of diverse perspectives and expertise are embraced in all phases of solution development. Nancy McGovern's application of the radical collaboration concept to the realm of academic research data management has also led to its popularity in digital humanities as well as other public history and community based digital projects. According to McGovern, “radical collaboration means coming together across disparate, but engaged, domains in ways that are often unfamiliar or possibly uncomfortable to member organizations and individuals in order to identify and solve problems together, to achieve more together than we could separately” (“Radical Collaboration and Research Data Management” 6). McGovern stresses the importance of both interactive engagement and communal commitment to avoid the all-too-common occurrences of authoritarian practices, exclusion, and inconsistent and/or infrequent sharing amongst collaborators. McGovern also emphasizes the importance of establishing an inclusion framework that ensures no one is omitted based on social or demographic characteristics, their professional domain or classification, or their level of technical experience or expertise. This type of project planning centres inclusivity, privileging discussion with an emphasis on listening and a recognition of the strength in diverse skills and the knowledge others bring. Gathering input broadly not only helps to avoid gaps in resource planning but also ensures there are no unintentional misrepresentations or erasures.

Community Data Curation: Preserving, Creating, and Narrating Everyday Stories

Community archives, museums, historical societies, and other community-based cultural organizations have long been working to combat archival erasures, misrepresentations, and denigrations of their community histories due to negligence on the part of large cultural heritage institutions. “Come Correct or Don’t Come at All:” Building More Equitable Relationships Between Archival Studies Scholars and Community Archives emphasizes the value of these spaces as conduits for the communities they serve to actively participate in the preservation of their histories. The authors outline issues resulting from extractive academic/community relationships as well as suggested protocols for building more equitable relationships (Caswell et al.).

Community Data Curation: Preserving, Creating, and Narrating Everyday Stories was developed from this understanding and represents a shift in the dynamic of community/academy collaboration to champion community organizations and designate the academy as a resource in support of the organizations’ activities. Eight community groups, including local museums, public libraries, and a neighbourhood support centre are partnered with the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab (WPHL), the Wolfsonian Museum, and the Libraries at Florida International University (FIU) through this initiative. The project partners include Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center; the Historic Hampton House; the Museum of Graffiti; Broward County Library’s African American Research Library and Cultural Center; the Jewish Museum of Florida–FIU; Vizcaya Museum and Gardens; the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center; and the Stonewall National Museum and Archives. Community Data Curation was designed to support these local organizations in their efforts to share the histories and amplify the voices of their often marginalized and minoritized communities. In doing so, the project partners are working towards dismantling long-standing archival practices of omission and misrepresentation rooted in oppression and histories of anti-blackness, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQIA, and ongoing anti-Indigenous colonial legacies. Each of the partner organizations have curated materials from their collections of cultural and historical materials to be digitized and made available online. Additionally, a set of ten to twelve oral histories will be produced by each organization. These oral histories are opportunities for counternarratives that correct omissions and/or misrepresentations and denigrations from the dominant cultural narrative (Dunbar 115). This project, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2021, aims to support infrastructure and capacity building for the project partners to expand the reach of their community histories, build a network amongst the organizations, and put their community histories in conversation with each other, drawing out the nuances of intersection.

In the context of this initiative, community stakeholders can be defined in intersectional layers within the project partners and their patron communities, students and scholars, and the communities represented in the partner collections. This stakeholder community is large and heterogeneous. Including diverse and representative perspectives throughout the planning and implementation phases of this project has fostered an environment where these perspectives are encouraged and valued.

Repositioning for Collaborative Praxis

Centring community in collaborative projects establishes a framework that ensures the community is taken into consideration in all aspects of planning, decision making, compensation, and intellectual control/ownership of their histories and culture as well as that which is produced from their histories and culture. This includes assessment of the nature, value, and equity of benefit a project may have to the community in comparison to the benefit for our institutions and ourselves as academics. It is important to note where the community and our institution's goals align and where they may diverge. Having separate and distinct goals is not a problem and may in fact be expected. For instance, community organizations participating in Community Data Curation may aspire to reach new audiences through virtual exhibits of their collections, develop long-term capacity for recording oral histories and audio/video records of their public events, or increase their community presence with public programming. Simultaneously, the university and its students may benefit from the increased accessibility of primary resources created through digitization and oral history recordings in addition to the prestige this type of collaboration may generate for the institution. At an individual level, project participants from both the community organizations and academy may have wholly different goals that may be focused on activism, personal and cultural associations, or research interests. None of these goals preclude any of the others. The key is to engage in open, honest, and transparent conversations about our goals, expectations, roles, and outcomes. These discussions can help establish a system of reciprocity to help each group achieve their goals in a fair and equitable manner.

The Community Data Curation team structure is based on a joint leadership model with the director and deputy director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab as principal and co-principal investigators respectively. The team also includes a project manager, a digital archivist, and technical leads from both the Wolfsonian Museum and FIU Libraries, as well as digital archives librarians, web designers, web developers, and project interns. While many of the community-centred project protocols were established during the planning phase in conjunction with project partners, each subsequent interaction during the life of the project is an opportunity to reinforce these protocols and make community-focused decisions. The principal investigators, leadership and implementation team, interns, and project partners meet regularly in cross-functional teams to discuss overarching project goals, share information about collection and community histories, discuss partner needs, and offer training, as well as to discuss technical issues and deliverables. In this way, application of McGovern’s inclusion framework strengthens communication and knowledge transfer. Problems are not addressed within a single domain; rather, they are collectively examined. This sometimes requires extended project meetings where needs, concepts, and technical processes are discussed across disciplines. While project participants are not expected to become experts in multiple domains, there is significant upskilling and capacity building with this type of work. This includes the knowledge community partners may share regarding the histories of their collections as well as their collection needs and organizational priorities. To form healthy community partnerships, we must adjust our institutional and internal narratives away from the false role of providers of agency and pivot to recognize the agency and expertise that exists within communities themselves: “The move from a needs-based to an asset-based approach will help challenge the perception of […] communities as victims dependent on outside saviours and foster collaborative design approaches instead” (Schiffer 425). Humility in approaching community partnerships means recognizing and valuing the knowledge and expertise they possess, which may not exist in our academic institutions (Caswell et al.).

Positionality and Power

It is not enough to strive towards cultural competence. Community work takes an ongoing commitment to cultural humility and the ability to be rigorously self-critical and self-reflective at both the individual and institutional level (Tai). We are all subject to implicit bias, therefore we must work to identify and recognize the influence our biases have in our individual decisions as well as the structures and systems we work within. Contemplating our positionality within the context of the proposed area of research, our intentions, as well as existing or non-existing community connections are vital aspects of self-reflection that will help assess potential impact, intended and unintended, to the communities we work with (England).

There are multiple layers of positionality to navigate, the first and foremost being the power and privilege that comes with working in a large established institution. As individuals, we inherit the position of privilege of our organizations, as well as our organizations’ histories within communities. The Community Data Curation project planners established a practice of self-reflection early on as this work was envisioned. This has been carried forward and implemented by the project manager and project team, continuously operating with positionality in mind while reflecting on how it informs our perception, methodology, and reception in our partnerships. Putting this into practice involves reflection in every interaction we have with community partners, from the language we use in meetings and project promotion to decisions about website branding and access to backend digital repository systems.

In addition to our institutional affiliation, we carry a complex set of personal experiences that come together to inform our positionality. The Community Data Curation project team members’ positionalities may intersect with one or more of the communities we are working with. These intersections may foster a sense of belonging, mutual understanding, trust, and accountability to the communities we work with. Further contributing to the complexity of positionality is “(1) the fluidity of our ever-changing social identities; (2) the abstract, intangible nature of our social identities; (3) the difficulty of knowing which facets of our social identity are more influential over time and place; and (4) how our social identities impact the research process” (Jacobson and Mustafa 2).

Examining positionality through exercises, such as Jacobson's and Mustafa's Social Identity Map offers researchers a useful tool to think deeply about the layers and complexities of identity. The Social Identity Map is a three-tier system that starts with determining the elements that are most significant to an individual's identity. These elements may include citizenship, religion, ability, political affiliation, age, race, sexual orientation, etc. The second tier provides space to consider how these characteristics impact an individual's life. Do they contribute to experiences of oppression or perhaps experiences of privilege? The third tier prompts additional reflection into the emotions tied to these aspects of our social identity as well as how they may impact our interactions with others. While our examination in the form of practices such as social identity mapping is a starting point, we must keep in mind that others’ perceptions of our identities are “continuously negotiated, unfinalized, and open-ended,” and our status of acceptance and affiliation is repeatedly appraised (Blix 179).

However, our identities can only guide us so far in how we operate within these partnerships. Building a culture of equity also means recognizing that this reflexivity alone does not eliminate the imbalance of power (England). This being so, we must move forward with iterative and reflexive processes of community engagement to become true co-creators (Schiffer). Our sustained commitment to community involvement is the true driving force of our relationships with community partners. Again, referencing the discussions from “Come Correct or Don’t Come at All,” “For many participants, it was a researcher’s long-term investment in the community, rather than membership in the identities being represented or served, that was most salient” (Caswell et al. 14). The Community Data Curation project team has actively and sincerely embraced community involvement in practice through advocating for, participating in, facilitating, co-planning, and funding public programming with the project partners. The team has even helped negotiate on behalf of a project partner to expand their archive collection.

This mode of high-touch engagement and investment in community organizations is not without challenges for academics. The physical, mental, and emotional labour required on the part of academics to build and sustain community relationships does not always fit neatly within the scope of grant funded initiatives or within academic job responsibilities. While fulfilling the needs of community partners and possibly providing personal fulfilment for project team members, this work may require extended hours during the evenings and on weekends that are generally uncompensated and unrecognized. Engaging with communities in ways that are mutually beneficial calls for flexibility from both academic institutions and funding agencies to expand the types of activities undertaken by academics that are both valued and rewarded. It requires acknowledgment of ongoing effort, adaptable timelines, and an understanding that not all outcomes are quantifiable. Project managers not only need to have the freedom to guide initiatives under these parameters, but they also need to ensure their team’s efforts will be recognized.

Authority, Stewardship, and Sustainability

Community Data Curation is based on a shared stewardship model, which encompasses acknowledging the expertise and experience of all project partners. Part of this is understanding that knowledge and expertise come in many forms. Positions within the academy, or any other demographic, do not equate to consummate expertise. Such preconceived notions only work to further replicate and entrench systems of oppression. It is through relinquishing exclusive authority that we can form meaningful community partnerships (Tai). In Community Data Curation there is joint responsibility for the care, attribution, description, and public access of the digitized archive materials and oral histories. The university is not exerting archival dominance nor ownership over the digital artifacts. The goal is to facilitate partners in developing and maintaining digital collections with their own infrastructure. To assist in capacity building, the university is providing training for digitization, metadata creation, and conducting oral histories. Community partners maintain control over how information is gathered, held, interpreted, and retrieved. In this way, community history remains with each community partner. They retain their physical archives, manage the description of their materials, and decide how and where their digital archives will be accessed. This includes ensuring content is geographically, technically, and linguistically accessible in ways that are also culturally appropriate. For example, this has been implemented in Community Data Curation through hiring interns who speak French and/or Haitian Kreyòl for the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center as well as ensuring project deliverables from Sant La will be available in Haitian Kreyòl to meet the needs of their community.

Referring to best practices in reparative relationships with historically marginalized and minoritized groups, both Lae’l Hughes-Watkins and Livia Iacovino emphasize the importance of community ownership in initiatives involving community members and their histories (Hughes-Watkins; Iacovino). Stewardship is tied directly to perceptions of rights, agency, and control over one’s own history and identity. Within the shared stewardship model, other potential considerations include options for restricting access to content when requested and providing provisions where content may be restricted or withdrawn from a repository in the future. New uses, modes of access, and display all require renegotiation of terms between the individuals or community organization and academic institution. Agreements must be flexible enough to accommodate these types of changes. This is illustrated in the Feminist Data Manifest-No as well as “Come Correct or Don’t Come at All,” both of which specify that individual and community rights to their information are perpetual, and permissions to gather, hold, as well as to display this information should be continuously negotiable and reversable (Cifor et al.; Caswell et al.).

Developing inclusive outcomes that centre community benefit also requires direct, realistic, and transparent conversations amongst collaborators about expectations regarding stewardship as well as resources required for sustainability. The eight project partners in Community Data Curation have vastly different needs and digital collections experience. However, this project has already proven effective in building capacity by providing a technical foundation and support for each partner to carry forward beyond the funding period in ways that meet their organizations’ needs. In some circumstances, the long-term costs for digital collections hosting may not be a strategic priority or possibility for all organizations. The ongoing capacity to continue work beyond a project period often becomes a pain point in grant-funded initiatives where support for personnel and services is term limited. Mitigating resource fall off means planning for long-term institutional and/or community organization commitment in terms of permanent budgets lines for personnel as well as technical services and equipment maintenance.

Instances within Community Data Curation where the community organizations are unable to or do not wish to manage their own digital repositories, the university has accepted the responsibility of digital stewardship with careful attention to attribution, branding, and the flexibility to renegotiate terms as necessary. Memorandums of understanding were drafted in collaboration with each of the project partners, detailing the partners’ retention of intellectual and material property. The agreements also stipulate the partners’ rights to withdraw from the agreement at any time as well as their authority to withdraw their collections from the project site at any time.

Community Data Curation also shifts financial resources to the community organizations through purchases of digitization and oral history recording equipment that will remain with each organization. It is also important to note that each partner will be funded for public programming related to their collections, receive three years of intern assistance, and annual stipends as compensation for their own personnel labour on the project. The often undervalued and uncompensated time and expertise provided by community partners can take many forms, including intellectual, emotional, and physical labour (Caswell et al.). Compensation for community input is one of the unequivocally crucial aspects of reciprocity that needs to be built into collaborative projects. In addition to financial compensation, establishing plans for imparting equitable public recognition, professionally and otherwise, is another important method of sharing in the rewards of project successes. This holds true at all levels, organizational and individual, with community partners and within academic project teams.

Fair compensation also includes efforts often seen as volunteered. There are opportunities here to make community work, including conducting oral histories, less extractive by providing compensation for time and effort in currency or nonmonetary exchange. Examples of nonmonetary exchange may include offering digital copies of an oral history to interviewees, providing a professional photograph of the interviewee taken at the time of the recording, or providing community workshops for the care and handling of personal and family artifacts such as photographs, correspondence, and postcards.

Although the focus of this paper is reparative work within community/academy relationships, it is important to acknowledge the power dynamics and inequities that can exist within academia and that play out within projects. Frameworks that support inclusion, compensation, and recognition within academic teams are just as important as healthy external interactions. It is worth recognizing that there are many aspects to the invisible labour performed by staff in academic institutions that are crucial to a project’s success yet are seldom recognized and are many times undercompensated. This may include, but certainly is not limited to, the research support contributed by librarians and archivists as well as technical consultation offered by IT specialists. The same respect, care, and acknowledgement should be extended to both internal and external collaborators. Solidifying this work as integral co-creation is key to developing an inclusion framework and strong collaborative culture.


Developing and nurturing equitable community engagement in digital humanities will take dedication to cultural humility, iterative change, flexibility, and our capacity to evolve. It will also take time. The processes outlined above require concerted efforts on the part of project managers and their teams. These practices necessitate resource commitments from institutions, individuals, and funding agencies. Project managers at academic institutions need to have the flexibility to work with community partners in ways that are useful and beneficial to partners as well as the institutions. We must continue transparent and honest conversations with our community partners to push the boundaries of academic structures and further reimagine our roles in community partnerships. To truly engage in reparative work, we must challenge academic concepts of knowledge creation and legitimacy. J.J. Ghaddar and Michelle Caswell write of an “urgency of challenging western imperial, colonial and racial oppression within our educational, academic and professional institutions and spaces; and the need to reflect on the structure and content of the records, collections and archives we steward, the principles we espouse, and our intellectual and professional identities” (4). It is only through this self-reflection and commitment to the communities we work with that we can truly enact a radical shift in praxis.

Works Cited

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Jacobson, Danielle, and Nida Mustafa. “Social Identity Map: A Reflexivity Tool for Practicing Explicit Positionality in Critical Qualitative Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, vol. 18, Jan. 2019. SAGE Journals,

McGovern, Nancy Y. “Radical Collaboration: An Archival View.” Research Library Issues, no. 296, 2018, pp. 53–68. Association of Research Libraries,

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Schiffer, Anne. “Issues of Power and Representation: Adapting Positionality and Reflexivity in Community-Based Design.” International Journal of Art & Design Education, vol. 39, no. 2, 2020, pp. 418–429. Wiley Online Library,

Tai, Jessica. “Cultural Humility as a Framework for Anti-Oppressive Archival Description.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020, Litwin Books,

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