Digital community engagement in a pandemic

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Editor’s Note: Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy won the 2021 NCPH award for best new book about or growing out of public history theory, study, or practice, for either 2020 or 2021.

Cover for Digitial Community Engagement, Partnering Communities With the Academy.

Cover of “Digitial Community Engagement, Partnering Communities with the Academy.”

When we submitted final page proofs for Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy in March 2020, we had no idea what was in store for the country. Digital Community Engagement (or DiCE as we fondly refer to the volume) is a series of nine case studies across the country that feature co-creative academic-community partnerships. While we eschew the idea of “best” practices, the chapters provide admirable models for forming partnerships with an ethical and thoughtful use of digital technology.

COVID-19 disrupted many of our usual mechanisms for community engagement, particularly our ability to do the in-person work of trust-building. Digital technologies seemed to promise a simple technocratic solution for stalled community projects and a growing sense of isolation. Yet our experiences in the pandemic reaffirmed the fundamentals of community work grounded in interpersonal collaboration, care, and an attention to place, and a long-term commitment to social change.

As the pandemic exacerbated existing inequities and ravaged our communities, we saw social issues that community groups in our volume have been engaging with for years, intensify. The majority of the volume’s projects were produced in conjunction with communities experiencing extreme inequities that worsened in 2020. Each chapter provides a window into understanding the history of our present.

For example, homelessness was on the rise even before the pandemic. The Invisible Project from Allison Schuette, Megan Telligman, and Liz Wuerffel (Valparaiso University and Indiana Humanities) demonstrates that the voices of the homeless often remain unheard or silenced. Their powerful interviews put a face to homelessness as they try to remove the stigma and shame. The impact of COVID-19 also fell unevenly on undocumented and migrant workers in agricultural and meatpacking industries, which adds a modern component to the chapter by Aubrey Thompson and Ildi Carlisle-Cummins (Cal Ag Roots) about Smashing Tomatoes and the role of agricultural automation in California.

The undeniable momentum of Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd also took on a new tenor during the pandemic. The first four chapters speak directly to BLM’s history and activism. Melissa Hubbard’s chapter on A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland developed by members of the Society of American Archivists in the wake of Tamir Rice’s murder is a resource with on-the-ground testimony about the nature of police violence and injustice. In another chapter by Marvin Anderson about the history of the Rondo neighborhood and its residents in St. Paul, there is a clear line from racist city plans for highway construction, to present-day efforts to reconstruct the highway and reconnect the bifurcated neighborhood.

Even the robust voter turnout in the 2020 presidential and senatorial election results in Georgia were tainted with redoubled efforts at Black voter suppression. The chapter about the Antioch A.M.E. Digital Archive, based on a historically Black church located in northeast Atlanta, provides a compelling glimpse into the long struggle for civil rights. Scholars and community partners (Julia Brock, Elayne Washington Hunter, Robin Morris, and Shaneé Murrain) chronicle the church’s long history of activism. Antioch A.M.E. hosted countless civil rights leaders, from Martin Luther King to Stacey Abrams, and they continue to serve their community and archive over 150 years of history with partners at West Georgia University and Agnes Scott.

Similarly, Karyln Forner’s discussion of the SNCC Digital Gateway partnership shows how modern activists changed the outcome of the project as they flooded the website to learn directly from veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s grassroots efforts in the 1960s to combat voter suppression are the building-blocks of Georgia’s historic and monumental election results. Their work isn’t complete. In late March 2021, the Republican-controlled legislature in Georgia passed a law overhauling their election system to recreate voter restrictions and expand state congressional powers. Georgia isn’t alone; it’s Iowa, Arizona, Florida, and Texas, too.

It’s not just Black history that made headlines in 2020 either. After decades of protest, the Washington, D.C. football team finally made the decision to change its mascot, formally retiring a racial slur derogatory to Indigenous peoples. While the Washington team is certainly one of the most egregious examples, the work to remove mascots depicting Native Americans is more often local. In her chapter, Ariel Beaujot lifts the lid on a public history project in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, called Hear, Here. What started as a way to tell place-based stories turned into activism to remove a gigantic, racially stereotyped statue of fictional Indian chief “Hiawatha” located on sacred Ho-Chunk lands. They were successful. Still, there is more work to do.

While digital technology has allowed us to work and connect to others across great distances and provide access to histories in new forms, the chapters of this volume reaffirm how important place and institutional commitments are to higher education and their locales. Institutions are grounded in place, from employment, to student enrollments, to investments, to research. The application of digital methods aren’t so much alternative forms of community work, but rather these methods build on place-based attachments and commitments. In many ways, our authors actively push back against technocratic solutions to deeply humanistic issues as they critically engage with their digital tools.

Two of the projects tap into a hybrid style of digital community engagement that gives more promise to remote engagement. Amy Sullivan’s chapter on harm reduction and trauma illustrates how people experiencing past events can instantiate or reconvene present-day communities in digital environments. In Jim Connolly and Patrick Collier’s work on Everyday Life in Middletown, anonymized individuals submit diary entries of their everyday lives that in turn provide a rich exploration of people’s experiences in Muncie, Indiana. Even as these communities formed digitally, they are simultaneously grounded in place.

Our chapters speak to many historic cultural, political, and social issues that have only intensified over the past year. Despite the promise of our book title, digital technology cannot fully substitute for otherwise interrupted community work. But it can be a powerful tool for partnership and social change when they build upon fundamental human values and long-term commitments.


~Rebecca S. Wingo is an assistant professor of history and director of public history at the University of Cincinnati. She tweets @rebeccawingo.

~Jason A. Heppler is the senior web developer at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and member of the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. He tweets @jaheppler.

~Paul Schadewald is the Senior Program Director for Community-Engaged Learning and Scholarship at Macalester College.  He tweets @PaulSchadewald1.

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